(Easter Morning Sermon: Warblington)
I wonder how many of you have seen Mel Gibson’s horrific account of the Crucifixion - “The Passion of the Christ”. Quite a lot of people I know were put off it because they had heard just how truly bloody the whole film was. And I have to say they were not mistaken.
I went to see it, just after its release, with a group of fellow students on my theological training course. Being somewhat of a science fiction lover, I was not too shocked by all the blood. But I have to tell you that some of my fellow students were deeply upset by the whole event. Afterwards, we walked back to our college in total silence...each one trying to come to terms with what we had witnessed.
When that film was released, it was touted as “the greatest evangelistic opportunity in 2000 years”. Many no doubt well- meaning Christians thought that if they could just get their friends to come and see it, they would be instantly converted by seeing what Jesus went through for us on the cross. But...actually...given that it was supposed to be the “greatest evangelistic opportunity for 2000 years”...why haven’t we seen the churches exploding with new members? No doubt, many people who saw the film were not Christians...but very few of them seem to have come to faith as a result of it. I wonder why that is.
Crucifixion was a brutal business...without doubt. But by focusing too much on Jesus’ death, I think we are in danger of rather missing the point. After all, Jesus death was painful and awful...but we would be wrong to say that he has suffered more than any other human being. There are many people who go through years of agony and torment - mental as well as physical - through sickness, starvation, or holocaust. There have been many more even more painful ways to die that human beings have invented...hanging, drawing and quartering for a start!
Actually, the fact that Jesus was crucified at all is somewhat of a detail. If he had been a Roman citizen...he would have been beheaded. If he had lived in another time and place, he could well have been starved to death, hanged, stoned or shot. If he had lived today in the USA, he might have been given a lethal injection, or been strapped to an electric chair - probably after spending many years on death row.
My point is that the graphic details of crucifixion - whether through the Passion of the Christ, or through paintings, statues and dramatic readings, primarily seem to focus us on feeling sorry for Jesus. The underlying thought seems to be that we therefore that we sort of owe it to him to follow him, because of what he did for us.
There is, of course, a great deal that could be seen as remarkable about the Crucifixion...when seen through the eyes of faith. It is remarkable that the Son of God, the Lord of the Universe, should submit himself to the indignity of being murdered by his own creatures. It is remarkable that although he could have called down the hosts of heaven to defend him, he went meekly to the cross. It is remarkable that Jesus would willingly take our sins, and nail them to the cross along with his own body. It is remarkable that the Son of God would allow himself to be cut off from his Heavenly Father by our sins... severing, temporarily, a relationship he had been part of since eternity.
The fact that Jesus, the Son of God, died at all dramatically demonstrates the depth and meaning of his sacrifice. It does us no harm to remember who Jesus is. He is the Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. He is the one who, as Isaiah and Revelation tell us, has the power to make all things new...a new heaven and a new earth. C.S. Lewis spent some time in his book, Mere Christianity, thinking about what it meant for Jesus to come and live as a human being. He wrote: “The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug.”
But if it wasn’t for Easter...these remarkable actions on the part of God would quite probably have gone unknown, and un-remarked by the rest of humanity. Jesus wasn’t the first man to die in a horribly painful way...and he wasn’t the last. His disciples knew that, and the historical records of the time - the Gospels - tell us that after his death they thought that the whole thing was over. They hid in an upper room - terrified. Most of them stayed away from the crucifixion itself...afraid of being strung up themselves. If it wasn’t for Easter, they would probably have melted away from Jerusalem, and gone back to their nets and their other jobs...feeling rather foolish that they had followed this rather odd holy man around Israel for three years.
But the fact of the Resurrection...the fact that Jesus shrugged off death, and rose from the tomb, had an incredibly dramatic effect. It transformed the lives of his friends, and from there it transformed lives throughout the whole world.
It is sometimes said that it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe in the Resurrection. Some free-thinking liberals have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead...it was just that his presence with the disciples seemed to live on with them, after his death. Those liberal thinkers suggest that Jesus was only alive in the sense that any dead person is alive to us...in our memories. But I don’t think that interpretation matches the facts.
First of all, people don’t give up their own lives for a memory. Many of the disciples were persecuted, hated, tried and martyred for their assertion...their absolute certainty...that Jesus had got up from the grave. They could not deny what they had seen with their own eyes...no matter how much they were threatened and beaten.
Secondly, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities simply produce his body to disprove it? That would have quickly stopped the resurrection rumour in its tracks. But there was no body to produce.
Jesus calls us to follow him, not only because he died for our sins...not because we feel grateful to him (although of course we should). The message of Easter is that Jesus calls us to follow him because he lives! As one of us, Jesus not only died, but was raised from the dead and now lives with the Father. And he says that he wants to share his joy and his life with us. Jesus isn’t looking for our sympathy; he’s looking for us to come home to the love of our heavenly Father. That’s why he died...to give us life, and to call us home. Not to illicit our pity.
So it does matter what we believe. If we believe that Jesus only lived in his disciples’ memories...then he died there too - when they died. And our faith is based on nothing more than a vague wishfulness - a totally unproveable hypothesis that maybe God exists, and maybe we have somewhere to go after we die.
If, on the other hand - as all the evidence suggests - he really rose from the dead, still lives today, and calls us to life and to heaven...then that is worth something. That is a truth worth hanging on to. That is a fact worth telling our neighbours about. That is something worth celebrating.
Alleluiah...Christ is Risen!