DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


The Gateway to Life

Christians celebrate Easter because Jesus is alive. But what do we mean when we say that Jesus is alive?

Quite often the clergy are asked to sign certificates for occupational pensioners, confirming that the person is still alive and entitled to draw their pension. Suppose I were asked to certify that Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth, is still alive and therefore entitled to draw his pension. Could I sign such a certificate?

I could not. Whatever we mean when we say that Jesus is alive, we are not using the words in the way that a pensions authority or insurance company uses them. When we say that Jesus is alive, we are also very clear that he died and was buried. He is not alive in the straightforward ordinary sense of the word.

Let's try another tack. Many Elvis Presley fans will tell you that "Elvis lives!". They may even give him a royal title and proclaim that "The King lives!". We may feel this language is extravagant, but we can make sense of it. It is a dramatic way of saying that the power of the
man and his music have not been extinguished by his death.

So is this what Christians mean when they sing that "Jesus lives!"?

Or when we proclaim that Jesus is "Lord", are we simply affirming the continuing power of his message and his example to inspire millions of people the world over? That is part of what we mean, certainly, but it falls a long way short of the full meaning.

The advantage of the pop-star example over the pension-company approach is that it affirms the "being alive" without in any way denying the reality of the "having died". It actually offers two ways into the meaning of our religious language.

First, it uses the terms "alive" and "he lives" in a metaphorical way rather than a literal one. In the literal sense used by pension authorities and insurance companies, being dead and being alive are mutually exclusive conditions. 

This is true even of those well-publicized cases where a person has been declared clinically dead and has subsequently recovered, cases that find a biblical parallel in the examples of Lazarus (John 11) or the widow of Nain's son (Luke 7.11-17). These people are temporarily dead, and then alive again for a shorter or longer time, before dying permanently.

By contrast, when Christians say that Jesus is alive, we do so in a way that affirms the permanence of his dying. It is because Jesus has already died "once for all" that his disciples can confidently proclaim that he will never die again, that "death has no more dominion over him" (Romans 6.9-10).

This brings us to the second way in which the Elvis phenomenon can be a pointer - albeit a very inadequate one - to a better understanding our religious language about Jesus and his resurrection.

Elvis lives on to the extent that his fans still respond to his music. And it is in the words and deeds of his disciples, and in the context of their changed lives, that the words "Jesus is alive" have their meaning. 

Whatever it was that the disciples experienced on the first Easter Day and the weeks immediately following, it enabled them - compelled them even - to say, "No longer does death make a mockery of life; no longer does it make life meaningless. Indeed, it has become the key to life's real meaning."

One common way of expressing this has been to speak of death as the gateway to new life. There has been envisaged a succession of events: earthly life, followed by death, followed by eternal life. This is the pattern set by Jesus and promised to all of us. But we have already seen that such language cannot be taken literally. Saint Paul underlined this when he said that for Christians eternal life begins at their baptism, their "dying to sin", and does not have to wait for literal death
(Romans 6.3-11).

So the Church has always taught that eternal life is a new quality of existence that begins here and now. It is the change that comes about when we hear the story of Jesus and see the limiting factors of life in a new light.

We are all tempted from time to time to be overwhelmed by the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". Pain, sickness, cruelty, above all death itself, seem to make a nonsense of life. The Christian claim that "Jesus lives" is an affirmation that, on the contrary, it is life's limitations that make sense of it, because they give it the boundaries, and therefore the shape, which are necessary to meaningful existence.

This is the thing to hang on to.

We know the experience of millions of Christians - that their lives on earth have been transformed by the story of Jesus' triumph over death. Never mind how far the details of the story can be understood as literally true. In whatever way we are able to hear it, that story surely has the power to bring a new quality of life to each of us here and now.

This is eternal life. This is what Easter is all about. This is what it means to proclaim that "Jesus lives!"

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