Usually the meaning of Easter is couched in language that suggests that a dead man (Jesus) came literally back to life again. The important question that gives rise from such literalism is, ‘So what?’ What difference does it make? Of course there are many Christians who don’t believe in Jesus literally coming back to life again, including me. But the question of ‘So what?’ remains. What is the meaning of the resurrection?
I’ve heard it explained as Jesus conquering death – namely that before his demise in 33 CE people didn’t go to heaven. This is, if you base your faith on the Bible, plain wrong – think Moses, Elijah, and Enoch. Nor is the resurrection, as one letter-writer purported this week, a free pass for believers to enter heaven.
Rather conquering death needs to be understood not in an individual ‘I’m saved’ sense, but in the sense of a universal transformation – the transformation of everything that demeans and destroys human beings, other creatures, and the whole natural environment. So resurrection is a process of life conquering death, in which we are invited to participate and commit to.
Another way to approach this is to ask what really matters. In the 1980s I met Ched Myers. He was an evangelical Christian who lived at that time in a community of political activists in Berkeley called the Bartimaeus Community. They took seriously the pacifism of Jesus and the early Christians. So, like the Berrigan brothers who poured napalm onto draft cards during the Vietnam War and literally hammered the nose cone of a nuclear missile, and consequently were imprisoned for their efforts, Ched and his community did likewise. At the time I remember they were lying down on train tracks stopping the transportation of nuclear missiles to submarine bases.
A decade later I met him again in Los Angeles. He was then part of a group photographing abusive behaviour by American guards on the border of Mexico and California. He was also trying to stay clear of the Federal authorities – like other pacifists he refused to pay taxes that would be spent on armaments. Interestingly he was receiving support from a large Episcopalian church, though Ched was not Episcopalian himself. For their efforts the Feds were threatening to remove that church’s tax exemption status.
I’m telling you about Ched for two reasons. Firstly, whether you like his politics or not he was/is impressive in his commitment to Christianity and his understanding of God’s justice. Secondly, he believed – and probably still does – in the literal resurrection of Jesus, namely that a dead body came back to life in 33 CE.
My point is that the literalism or otherwise around Easter beliefs don’t matter an awful lot. It’s what we do that matters. If we use our beliefs to say that we are better than our neighbour [“we are of the true faith”], or condemn our neighbour [“you are going to hell”], then we reap the consequences. If however our beliefs lead us, in humility, to saying most things about God are very subjective, so we might be right or not, and what matters is how we treat people, then we will reap different consequences.
Pete Rollins makes a similar point when he says that to believe in the resurrection is to participate in an insurrection. Or more simply he says, “We are the resurrection.” Resurrection/insurrection is something we do. Rollins says, “I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have been silenced, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
And resurrection is something we do not alone but by joining with others. It’s always been about community, communities of the weak finding strength and resolve in togetherness. This is the context of our reading from Isaiah this morning – it’s a vision of individual and community wellness, including animals you’ll note. The new creation is something we participate in creating.
In response to the Christchurch massacre, where some 99 Muslim worshippers were killed or wounded and their families devastated, the artist Sharon Murdoch offered a cartoon. Using the metaphor of knitting, it shows Kiwis of different ethnicities, ages, and genders working together to unravel the threads of hate in our communities and nation, and instead knit a new garment of love.
Easter has historically been a time of change – from the barrenness of winter to the fecundity of spring. In this context of new life Christians have understood their founder, Jesus, living on. Some have understood that literally, and others like me metaphorically. Yet, regardless of beliefs about what happened in 33 CE, it is the responsibility of each follower to make Jesus’ ‘living on’ real by building communities of love, compassion, and justice.
So this year I chose this cartoon as our Easter Billboard to point to the ways of making our faith real – namely joining with others to knit a new vision for Aotearoa New Zealand and to commit to making it happen. For us to believe in the resurrection is to unravel the threads of hatred and despair and knit with others, of various faiths or none, a tapestry of love and hope.
How do we do that? Well, it’s simple and it’s complicated. A good place to start is to use the simple and well-known biblical symbol of a dining table, and think of all New Zealanders around the one table, dining, talking, sharing food, and ideas. It’s a great symbol of inclusiveness. It is here at the heart of our worship this morning: an open table, where all are welcome. Around this table all have rights, belonging rights, and with those rights come responsibilities.
This is where it gets more complicated. For every table, even the most inclusive, has rules. Violent actions and speech need to be tempered. As does what we might call rudeness. Though someone[s] have to decide what is ‘violent’ or ‘rude’. Then we have to design ways to help people temper their behaviour – probably by first helping us all be more mindful of how we are affecting others.
We also, more positively, need to model and extol behaviour that honours and respects others’ dignity, uniqueness, and needs, and have leaders skilled in helping disparate people listen, learn from, and appreciate each other. Knitting a community, a society, together in a tapestry of love and hope is a skilled task.
Telling someone they don’t belong I don’t think is helpful. Creating legislation that gags the free-flow of ideas and opinions, especially those we don’t like, is fraught. It is better to put our energy into creating safe environments where people of different ideas and opinions can interact and learn about each other’s fears and hopes. And that takes long, careful, and hard work.
I wrote a blessing for today based around the resurrection/insurrection tasks of unpicking or unravelling the destructive and demeaning threads of the past – those that no longer serve us well – and knitting new ideas with old ones, new people with old, faiths, ages, gender, races, together into a new garment, a new creation of hope and love.
Bless all those who knit,
who sit and click the needles,
bringing the threads together
into a new creation.
Bless all those who unpick
the holey ideas of yesterday
that no longer serve us well,
Bless all those who then re-weave
the residue of the past with
the dreams of today into
a new garment of hope.
May we be knitters and un-pickers,
weavers and dreamers,
fools and lovers and conspirators
in Jesus’ glorious insurrection.