Easter comes upon us this year in most extraordinary and difficult times.
We have been taken unawares by the suddenness with which COVID-19 has spread throughout the world, and we do not know when we shall see an end of it or what to expect in the meantime. Already there have been many, many deaths and, in response, whole societies have more or less shut down, travel has ceased, and daily work has been put on hold. We do not touch each other, we speak at a distance, and we do not know for how long life will be like this.
Into this fearful, apprehensive world comes the story of Easter. For many, of course, it is just that, a story. In a time of great scepticism about religions, indeed, it can be represented as a story that churches have told to keep their people in a state of dependence and conformity, a false hope that keeps people coming back to the church for the lifeline to God and heaven that the world cannot provide. Many will read my remarks today in exactly that sense.
For believers, however, the death and rising of Jesus are not a story, but a memory. That memory was first spoken of by people who had been broken by loss and grief and fear. That had just seen how all that was dark and unpredictable in the world had put an end to a man and his movement that had been all about love and goodness. They were shattered and hopeless when, all unexpectedly, Jesus rose from the dead. What happens to us in this world then took on an entirely different meaning. His suffering and dying had been very real. Yes, life and the world can be full of awful things and the cost of goodness and hope can be very high. But ultimately life is not a series of meaningless tragedies. Ultimately the universe is not indifferent to our living and dying. Ultimately God is a Father who cares and who, having loved us into existence in the first place, will love us through all the ups and downs, and will love us to the end and, indeed, beyond the end.
Easter faith is a finely balanced thing. It takes Good Friday with full seriousness. Actually, it was one of the first recognised heresies to suggest that Jesus’s suffering and death weren’t real and terrible. Hence all the hospitals and leprosaria, the charities and social reformers of Christian history. We are to take the human suffering of others very seriously and to fight it resolutely. But we also look to how Jesus bore his own suffering and to see how that transformed a meaningless evil into an act of love. Hence, we accept that we must go on doing good and thinking of others’ needs before our own, even when that costs us dearly. So, in the midst of difficulties such as we have today, we are to be there for one another and not let fear induce us to think only of number one. Finally, our faith takes Easter morning seriously. What we do in this life has meaning beyond the present. Christianity cannot be stripped of its belief in the promise of eternal life. That hope is the central message of Easter. Death is not meant to be, or going to be, the end of us.
Right now, the world needs hopeful people and, if they’ve really heard the good news of Easter, that is what Christians are. It is Easter hope that frees us up for service of others, even at cost to ourselves. It is that hope that separates reasonable caution from obsessive fear for myself. It is the confidence we have to face whatever comes. Yes, we may hope that science will overcome COVID-19. Yes, we may hope that economic measures will enable societies to recover. But above all, we have the hope that, if all else fails as it did in the life of Jesus Christ, we are yet in the hands of the God who raised Jesus even from death.