sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands
1 John 1:1-2:2
A friend used to tell a story about two monks who were very exercised about the question of life after death, but could come to no conclusions. So they came to an agreement: the one who died first would appear to the other the next night and would tell him whether their ideas about life after death were right or not. They agreed that if their ideas proved right, the dead monk should say “taliter – it is so.“ If their ideas had proved wrong, he would say “aliter – it is different.”
One of the monks died. And the next night, he did indeed appear to his friend. But what did he say? “Nec taliter, nec aliter, sed totaliter aliter – not so, not different, but totally different.”
Easter confronts us not with stories of death, but of resurrection. The Easter message is not strictly about life after death, but about life that overcomes death, of new life despite death. And yet this story speaks to me about the in some ways incomprehensible nature of the Easter message, because Easter is precisely about taking something – a situation the outcome of which you may be really struggling with, but which you understand – and finding that it is turning into something else entirely. This is not about – or not only about – life after death, but also about the perspective of new life, about new beginnings after an abrupt change to an old life, about something new that can indeed seem not the same, not different, but totally different – totaliter aliter. Easter offers a response to a series of very questions which can confront us at any time. What does new life mean in the midst of death? What does resurrection mean when a beloved friend or relation has been torn out of our life, or a relationship has come to an end, or we have lost our job? What does resurrection mean when all that was secure has fallen apart? What does it mean then to begin again, to accept the gift of new life?
The account of Thomas indicates just how incomprehensible a challenge this was to Jesus’s followers. Jesus was dead and Thomas and the other disciples are mourning – and all of a sudden the other disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus. It must have seemed to Thomas a very unkind story. It is bad enough to lose someone about whom you care very much without having your friends telling you impossible stories about having met him. And yet: they had. And Thomas does not, cannot believe it.
Perhaps the story of Christ’s resurrection is almost so familiar that we don’t notice what a strange thing is happening here. What an extraordinary story – set of stories – we are offered in this period of Easter encounters. They remind us that resurrection is indeed something totally different. Resurrection is not about going back to how things were before, but about a new beginning, a beginning which springs out of the situation in which we find ourselves, but which is able, somehow, to allow that situation to be utterly transformed. Thomas des see Christ, and the Christ whom he encounters is not the pre-resurrection, pre-crucifixion Christ. Christ is the same but different – so different that in some of the resurrection stories Mary, the women, Peter, the disciples do not recognise him until he points out who he is. Thomas is shown Christ’s hands and his feet, his side, all of which bear the wounds of the crucifixion. The resurrected Christ is marked by his terrible experiences, he brings a new life that has been through death.
Laurence Moore, a URC theologian, says of the resurrection: “It is something so totally, shatteringly new and unexpected that it tears the fabric of [the] universe to shreds and reduces [the women, the disciples] to terrified silence.” Moore suggests that the women, the disciples could deal with the death of Jesus: they were sad, grieving, but death was something they knew about. The resurrection is something quite different. It is something that shatters their world, their expectations. And it shatters our world, our expectations too. As Moore puts it:
There are no compass bearings. There is nothing certain. Part of our Easter “task” as disciples is to confront again the extraordinary sense of crisis that resurrection occasions. This is not just a piece of biographical information about Jesus: it is about changing the rules of the universe. We cannot remain the same. We cannot live in the same way, or share the old priorities. The old norms no longer work. The hard truth is that it is easier to live among the tombs than to step into the new dawn of resurrection. Losing one’s life is easier than finding it again in the risen Christ.
Resurrection: that is something totally different. Moore suggests that we need to undergo a process of “learning to live with resurrection – learning to live and find our bearings in a radically different universe.” He goes on:
There is nothing “obvious” or comfortable about resurrection or about Christian faith. To “understand” resurrection is to realise just how terrifying it is, because it is about leaving the old behind and stepping into a future where the only thing that is assured is that “Jesus has gone ahead, and we will see him” (Mark 16:7).
We are given a sense of the radical nature of this new life by today’s reading from 1 John. The author of this letter tells us that we are called to life in light. Again, this is a life that is quite new. It is a light which overcomes a darkness which we may not even have noticed. Paul speaks in similar vein of the Christiaan life as a new creation, into which we are baptized. Baptism for Paul is into both the death and resurrection of Jesus – into an ending and a new beginning, a completely new life.
1 John gives a sense of the enormity of this calling to a new life, of the radical nature of the path to which we are called. “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” We are called to be made anew, and we are given the strength to be made anew. Perhaps Thomas grasped something of this too when he responded to Christ with the acclamation, “My Lord and my God”.
What Thomas experiences here is the personal nature of resurrection. The resurrection is not a theoretical doctrine, not a philosophical principle: it is a promise to us, a message for us – for you for me, for each of us individually. This is the point of resurrection, as Karoline Lewis writes:
Resurrection is personal. It makes a difference. It has to. … Because it matters when resurrection really matters. When [people] attend a funeral. When they wonder about their own. Generic claims about the resurrection will not make a difference. At all. Because they see a husband in a casket. A friend in a grave. And imagine their own death, all too real and imminent. And no general churchy promise quoted by scripture, creeds, or confessions will suffice.
These are the situations when we most need to hear resurrection preached, and to understand what it means, and yet they are the situations when we can least conceive of how we can break through into something new, in a new way, bring us into a life that is totally different. When we are in the midst of it, the resurrection can indeed seem quite impossible. And then all we can do is to hold fast to the faith that God will do this for us. As David Lose puts it:
We worship the God who meets us precisely at the point where things seem the worst, not merely to fix things, but to redeem them – and us! – turning what looks like an ending into a new beginning and taking what looks like a failure and offering it back to us an opportunity.
God will meet us at the point of brokenness and not just be with us but also do something amazing.
This is when we may begin, perhaps not to understand, but to comprehend resurrection. To comprehend the way in which our broken lives, our grief, our stuck-ness can become something totally different.
Resurrection is something personal, but it is also more. Through these personal new beginnings we may also understand that it can be possible to break through cycles of illness, poverty, oppression, cruelty, despair and death and find new beginnings. We see in our reading from Acts today the way that the early Christian commubity lived in such a way that the Christin community could support and look after all it members. None were deprived, or ppoor. The resurrection points us, not just as individuals, but collectively, to light, to hope, to new beginnings. As Paul writes (Romans 8: 38-39):
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Resurrection is not comfortable, although it can be comforting – a giver of strength, in the old sense of comfort. Resurrection is radical new beginning, but a radical new beginning that begins exactly where we are and transforms us in our own context. It is not a magic wand restoring all things to how they were, but a way forward, a way forward that allows the old to be transformed. And that is scary and we may not altogether want it, especially if the old life was familiar, was special to us, full of people we loved, something we did not at all want to give up. And yet – at the point when resurrection begins, that old life is already over. And the question is: will we allow ourselves to be drawn into a new life, even when we have no idea what it will look like? Even when all we can know is that it will be totally different, quite new? Are we open to meeting the living Christ? For I think – I believe – we can be sure that he will be there. Welcoming us, drawing us into a new life, a life which is, indeed, is completely different.
 Zitiert nach Friedrich Weber, Predigt zu Ostern 2014, http://www.landeskirche-braunschweig.de/uploads/tx_mitdownload/Predigt_Dom_Ostern_2014.pdf.