Connections March 23, 2008
Ken Russell's Easter Article looks critically at two traditional Easter assumptions
So it’s Easter again. Time for a glimpse later today of a gold-robed conservative Pope up on his balcony in the Vatican’s great square, waving his customary greeting to the faithful and the world. And of course, signing the Easter Cross as all his predecessors have done before him. That’s what the Pope does at Easter. It’s the reminder for many that there is, after all, a religious side to Easter, a fleeting moment to accompany consumption of the gold papered chocolate Easter bunnies I saw stacked in mammoth quantity in Albany’s New World last week. Yes, it’s Easter all right. The Pope will deliver his crosses on cue, preach a sermon reinforcing never changing dogmas, and bless a few carefully selected novices. The total package - everything that’s good (chocolate) and eternal (religion) is in its place at Easter.
You detect a note of cynicism. With good reason. I’m a bit steamed up about any thing that looks too slick and certain about Easter. Blame it on our trip to Auckland, from which we’ve just returned. We made a last minute decision to attend St Luke’s Presbyterian in Remuera just before we boarded the plane for home. Rev. David Clark is a minister I’ve always admired, a theologically honest gay man celebrating 20 years of preaching from one of the nation’s most liberal pulpits. Hardly a favourite son of the Pope for a hundred reasons. Anyway, for Easter this year David has preached a couple of sermons analysing the theology of one of your / my favorite Passion hymns “ when I survey the wondrous cross” WOV 258.
We’ve been in good company in cherishing the Isaac Watts hymn. Charles Wesley is reported to have said that he would give up all the hymns he had ever written just to have written this one. Frankly, I’m glad the Number One Methodist bard was never called upon to put his hymns where his mouth was! We assume Wesley knew a good hymn when he heard it, and millions and millions of folk over the last 300 years have sung those words at times of renewed commitment and devotion, and thanked God for them. But under the scrutiny of today’s theological searchlight, worship leaders with integrity are openly admitting to honest doubt, David Clark among them. He questions “whether the piety and theology behind the words express what (we) believe about, and experience in Christian faith (today)?”
Clark is not alone, and it’s time more of us were as honest. Jesus didn’t die for our sins in the way Isaac Watts and countless other hymn writers have taught us. He was killed judicially, brutally. Despite for most of our adult years, having “surveyed the wondrous cross” by which somehow the holy wrath of God was appeased by the death of his Son, today’s emerging picture affirms quite the opposite understanding of Jesus and the Cross..
There is a much clearer lens today to examine the Jesus of the gospels, and it is up to teachers and preachers to update their theology and be honest with their people. It is increasingly clear that for the Galilean teacher and prophet, death was never the purpose of his life. He certainly had no sense of dying for your sins or mine. He was killed for his convictions, his opposition to the prevailing systems that de-humanised and disenfranchised the outsiders of his community. Many other good men and women are suffering the same fate this Easter. There is nothing wondrous about it. So, to summarise - for us to slip into what Clark calls “hymn-singing autodrive,” churning out the old hymns that go on about “sacrifice to his blood” is no longer an option. And all the more reason to sing contemporary hymns that avoid such hypocrisy.
But my pre-Easter sojourning landed me a double whammy.
I remember in my more confident years thumping the pulpit in Invercargill propounding a poem I thought then was the best expression of Resurrection truth I had ever seen. It was “Seven Stanzas of Easter” by John Updike. The poem turned up on a borrowed lap-top last week, and hit me again. The reader can easily find it on Google. The first line reads
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall. ( 6 more verses in the same vein)
It’s a vigorous witness to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but these days there are many in our community who take issue with Updike. Like me. We have had our faith revitalized at the feet of Geering, Spong, Crossan, Borg and others, who just do not believe as once we all did that the Jesus Gospel stands or falls on the bodily resurrection.
Doubtless, we heard again today that joyous claim of Easter.
“Christ is risen!” And we responded “He is risen indeed!” But how have we conceptualised that risen faith? Are we still bound by those ghastly old Sunday School pictures of the white ethereal Jesus standing splendid outside an empty tomb, or have we moved on to a more credible, more biblically faithful understanding of a faith community that predates the resurrection myths of Matthew Luke and John. Spong puts it graphically. “It was not apparitions, empty tombs or resuscitated bodies. It was rather an ecstatic, eye-opening, mind-expanding experience - a pivotal moment when the cloud of unknowing parted and human beings were invited to see, to enter, and to participate in the ultimate reality of life.”
I don’t know how it is with you, but for me Easter has changed almost beyond recognition. That’s not a bad thing. The tragedy is when those who occupy the world stage, with a huge responsibility to showcase the liberating gospel of Jesus, convey dogmas that look backward and faith that defies modern scholarship. Ken Russell