(Song of Songs 3:2-5;8:6,7 John 20:11-18) A tiny bit of excitement broke out in the Press, in response to a BBC survey in which only 43% of respondents said that they believed in the resurrection. A survey like that always begs more questions than it asks. Who was surveyed? And what was really meant by the question: Do you believe in the resurrection? What do the words ‘believe’ and ‘resurrection’ mean in this context?
Actually 43% sounds quite a high figure to me. I didn’t think the Easter stories were that well known. Or that easy to understand. But the key question in all this, is not so much are the stories true, and did Jesus rise from the dead, but what difference does that make to me, here and now. Because we can’t really say we believe in the resurrection unless it has some cash-in value. Unless our belief makes a difference to the way we think, or feel, or behave, it’s not really worth anything.
Of all the Easter stories perhaps the easiest one to relate to - at a human level at least - is this one with Mary Madgalene in. We can imagine at least her lostness, her grief, her distress when she finds the body of Jesus gone. And we can sense the poignancy and passion of the moment when she sees Jesus again.
When she realises it is him. When she finds her tears of grief swept away in an unbelievable, almost unbelieving, joy.
This Easter story, of course, is all about relationship. A relationship that was formed, then was broken, and then was remade by Jesus’ reappearance to Mary. And for many Christians this is in essence what their faith is all about. It is the realisation that it is possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Because he is in some form, or in some sense, still alive. Or rather, he is alive again. He doesn’t live on just as a memory. Or an inspiring person from history – a man from Galilee who once said some worthy things. But someone who can be to us a living presence. Even to the extent that like
Mary we might hear him calling us by name. And know his love. I am the one you are searching for. I am the one who loves you. And I am the one, whether you know it or not, for whom your soul longs.
The resurrection means that the person of Jesus is no longer contained within a certain space and time. So anyone can come to know him and relate to him as a friend, a brother, a lover. And what a wonderful thing this is - to have the companionship, the guidance, the understanding, the help, the love of Jesus. Guaranteed, available, at hand, wherever, whenever. In fact St Paul talks about “the surpassing value of
knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.” By that he means not just that knowing Jesus is a good thing, but that it puts everything else in perspective (all our hopes, and our disappointments - the things with which we fill our lives, upon which we build our lives, that so often let us down and crumble away).
And for many believers this is the Christian faith. The supreme worth of knowing Jesus. The joy of knowing oneself loved by Jesus and loving him in return. No wonder Mary clung to him. But there is something more going on in the resurrection of Jesus than that. And it is suggested to us by
the very words Jesus says to Mary at this point, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ For that is what he is doing, he goes on to explain. He is in the process of ascending to God the Father. He is in transition from this world to the next. From earth to heaven. There is a process going on.
It’s a process that involves Jesus physical body ascending into heaven. But the other side is the coming down from heaven of the Spirit of Jesus. Symbolically Jesus is lifting the things of earth up to God.
Actually the life of Jesus is being released into the world.
The stories about the appearance of the risen Jesus are actually quite confusing. Partly because in them Jesus seems to exist in two spheres at once. But they are really quite clever. Or are trying to get at a profound truth, which is really hard to express, namely that the resurrection of Jesus causes there to be an overlap between this world and the next. And as the life of Jesus is made known, and the spirit of Jesus spreads, so this world is taken over by, and more and more infused with, the life of the world to come.
And therefore everything that in one way or another Jesus stands for, everything we associate with the kingdom of God - love, joy, peace, forgiveness, mercy, justice, reconciliation, healing, relationship and community – all these things are being released and realised into God’s garden, God’s creation, to make things new.
Therefore the death and resurrection of Jesus is not just for those who happen to believe in him, it is about the future of everything. It is not for the salvation of a few righteous souls. Or about where we go when we die, but about God’s loving purpose for all that exists.
So when we despair of a world afflicted by hatred, injustice, iniquity and division, we believe – in fact we know - that this is not how it has to be. Things can change. Things do change. Things will change. This is not how it will turn out. This is not how it shall be in the end.
So when I read about Jesus telling Mary not to hang on to him, maybe it’s his way of saying that there is so much more to come. He has already, as it were, answered her prayers. But he is telling her not to be satisfied with this. There is a whole world to reform, to renew, to remake. A work he has to do, and in which she has a share, as do we.
So what I’d like to know is not how many people believe in the resurrection, but how many people’s hopes and plans are resurrection shaped.