‘A lot cleverer people than us embrace religion so I can be as dismissive of it as I like but we have to acknowledge that’. Paul Whitehouse.
These were the words that comedian Paul Whitehouse shared with his good friend Bob Mortimer in the BBC Television Series Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing (Series 1: Episode 2), where having recovered from heart problems, they each mused about the future and chatted to a local Vicar about death, and their own funerals. Because neither were religious, they captured quite nicely the views and perspective of so many in our largely secular society. In some ways, each wistfully wished that there was more to life than this but couldn’t quite embrace the apparent foolishness of a religion they had no real experience or sensible knowledge of. Their musings echoed the apparent disconnect that exists between believing individuals and the rest of society – a disconnect which is made worse by opinion polls that suggest that Christianity in the UK is in a rapid state of decline. Although there is a decline, it has now been recognised that many of these polls don’t make sufficient distinction between active Christians who attend church regularly, and those ‘non-active’ Christians who are people who simply view themselves as Christian because they happen to live in a ‘Christian country’. If there was a clearer distinction between the former and the latter, then statistics about matters of faith and belief wouldn’t be quite so stark as are sometimes portrayed.
Last month my sister-in-law died, and I attended her funeral not as a clergyman but simply as my brother’s brother. Of course, the whole thing was immensely sad and hugely painful, and seeing my brother (who is still a relatively young man) who I love, without his wife, and his daughters without their mother – greatly hurt. But it didn’t hurt as much as I’m sure it would have done, had I had no hope! As Christians, a very real comfort and consolation can be found in the fact that we believe not just in life and death – but in life, death and resurrection. For as Bishop Tom Wright puts it, we have a sense of saying ‘Good night and see you in the morning’, for Heaven isn’t simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – a land of make believe, somewhere over the rainbow. It’s the promise of a new real existence as demonstrated in the person of Jesus himself, whose life, death and resurrection were witnessed by so many; people who saw him, touched him and ate with him. These are events which are not simply made up but recorded by many faithful men and women in the Scriptures and other historical documents, many of whom were prepared to die themselves on the basis of what they had seen and heard. So why are we so blind, ignorant and unwilling to believe their testimony in this modern age?
Bishop Tom Wright (a greatly respected Christian theologian and commentator) explains it like this.
‘The great turning point in human history, the moment when everything changed was when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning. We live in a world which fools itself that the great turning point in history came in Europe and America in the 18th Century, when we had what was called ‘The Enlightenment’ and with our new ideas, and our new science and our new democracies etc we were actually going to solve the problems of the world. If you look back at the last couple of hundred years, you say, ‘Well give me a break! If that’s called solving the problems of the world then we are going to have to think a bit better in the future.’ But actually, that’s because ‘The Enlightenment’ has offered a parody of Christianity. The Enlightenment therefore wants to rubbish the resurrection because if the resurrection happened it means that THAT was the great turning point in history and not Europe in the 18th Century and so the agenda for Christians today … is to go back and re-inhabit the truth that God’s new world was born, not when certain European thinkers had some bright ideas 200 years ago, but when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and as we learn to live ‘out’ of that belief, ‘out’ of that event, then that is the way that God’s kingdom is going to come on earth as in heaven.’
If each of us can get a small glimpse of this, and hold it thoughtfully, intelligently and respectfully in our hearts, we can properly celebrate and wish each other a very Happy Easter.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Matthew 28.7