Our Easter celebrations begin as we watch with Mary Magdalene the risen Christ walking in the garden. But for me this year I've begun to wonder just how far out the ripples of the resurrection go...
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Resurrecting all life?
The resurrection of Christ changed how we relate to God forever. No longer do we have to live with the idea of a distant, transcendent sky-God, but through Jesus, God, the Almighty Power, is revealed as an intimate parent, present in every part of life. It means that we are able to be in an everlasting relationship which begins in this life, on this planet, but which will find it’s true and full expression on the other side of death’s veil. Or to put it another way, the closeness to God which we are able to grow into in this life is an echo of what is to come. This is just the beginning. But the writings of St. Paul in this part of his letter to the church in Rome tell us that something even greater than we had imagined is in the process of taking place, that the effects of the death and resurrection of Jesus are rippling out to have an effect on all life on this planet.
In order to try and explain what I mean I’m going to show you a painting that a friend of mine, Ruth Calder-Murphy, has done. This is called Resurrection, and I have put a link to her web page if you want to obtain a copy, and indeed to look at some more of her work.
Have a good look at this first in the context of that reading from Romans. See what you see in it before you continue.....
Now let me tell you something about the universe. It’s not good news I’m afraid, but it’s this: the universe is running down. Slowly but surely it is becoming more disordered. It will last for a good long while, and we certainly don’t need to worry in our lifetimes, but the universe, just like us, is subject to aging. And as it gets older so it becomes more uniformly cold. Stars burn their nuclear fuels, fusing hydrogen and helium into ever heavier atoms until they can fuse no more, at which point the star runs out of power and dies in a cataclysmic explosion. There is only a finite amount of nuclear fuel in the universe. And just as we can only burn fossil fuels for a finite time, and eventually all the planet’s reserves will be used up, so it is with the universe; there is only so much fuel. Eventually it will all be used up and it will cool down to a black absolute zero. If we were to use St. Paul’s language, we might call this the ‘bondage to decay’. We feel this bondage to decay in our own bones as we get older. I ache now in places that never used to ache, and where I used to be able to run for three quarters of an hour, now I feel lucky if I can manage twenty five minutes. But that’s only my body, where as St. Paul might have put it, I groan inwardly awaiting its redemption.
In my spirit, though, I feel a rising hope, a sense of joy and expectation for what is not yet seen. I believe in the resurrection! And that means that heaven is not for me an image of fluffy white clouds and soft focus imagery, but instead of being more alive than I am now. The pictures the Gospel writers paint of Jesus after the resurrection are of a man who is more alive and more vital than he was before his death. And that is what I believe is offered to us. He is referred to by St. Paul as the first fruits of the resurrection which he offers to us all. Of course I can’t see this yet, and St. Paul says exactly that, ‘Who hopes for what is seen?’ But he also talks about the redemption of our bodies, that this ageing physicality which I struggle with will find a new beginning. Come the resurrection I will be young again, for all time. That’s what Jesus was like, and that’s what he promises us. But St. Paul makes it clear in this passage that it’s not just us that this resurrection applies to.
This is what St Paul was getting at, and we feel it in ourselves. The world, in all its glorious beauty, also has a cruelty about it and sometimes we feel a deep sadness when we watch one animal prey on another, or the death and destruction that follows an earthquake and tsunami. Those of us with a scientific background know that this is how life has to be for there to be growth and evolution, but as I’ve already said, that will only go so far, because ultimately all life ceases. But St. Paul believes that the spirit of creation (however you wish to understand that) looks at us, at humanity, in eager longing for our resurrection; that creation knows that what we have inherited in Christ, a promise of a resurrection like his, is the first-fruit of what all life on earth can expect, and that in Christ it is not just us who are able to be set free to an eternal hope of resurrection, but that all of creation can look forward to this too.
Now I’m not going to get into the mind-bending philosophies of whether what Christ did on the earth applies to the whole universe or whether the Lord has a greater plan than that, and that the incarnation of the Son of God on earth has been just one of many visits God’s Son has made to his creation. St Paul’s understanding of the universe was much smaller than ours with no concept of other stars and planets, and the possibilities of a universe teeming with life. But what I do believe is being said in this passage is that the beauty of this planet is also caught up in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that just as we put our hope in the redemption of our bodies at the resurrection, that hope is played out across the whole of life on earth, that all things can hope for resurrection in the new creation, and that through the work of Christ we can look forward to a life the other side of death in which not just we and our loved ones will dwell in God’s presence, but also all of life on this earth will be resurrected.
However, this has implications for us in the here and now. There is a phrase in Christian theology which is this, ‘Already but not yet.’ Our eternal life has already started. In Christ we are already saved, here in this life, although we look forward to the new life we have on the other side of the veil. And so we treat the people that we already are with respect because we are already in the image of God and we are already being changed. That change will find its completion at our resurrection, but it is already taking place. So what effect does it have on the way we live if I tell you that it’s not just us but the whole of this planet which will be resurrected through Christ? How does it affect our theology and the way we live if God values all of creation so much that it will all be resurrected through his Son? Surely that should raise the value of creation in our own eyes? Surely that should have an effect on how we nurture the other lives with which we share this space? Surely it should make us think hard about our consumer habits?
When we make our consumer purchases, is it because we need something or is it for the social status it conveys? Ultimately if it’s the latter it will always be more costly for the planet, and if God values it so much that he is planning on resurrecting it through Christ as well as us, then shouldn’t that make us stop and think about what we’re buying?
So look again at the picture.
The joy of art like this is that there is so much to see in it. In fact it feels to me like a prophetic painting, revealing hope in a multitude of ways. For me I see the resurrected Christ, vital, dynamic, more full of life than our normal pre-resurrection human bodies can cope with. From his face shines a warming glow as he stands with his arms outstretched across the day and the night, drawing all things together into his resurrection. There is almost a sense of life looking in eager and unexpected hope at the resurrected Lord and saying, ‘For me? I can come too?’
When I look at this picture I see it as full of hope that the resurrection for which we yearn is also yearned for by all life, and the resurrection which we are offered in Christ is also offered to all life. The events of the death and resurrection of Christ are more far reaching and glorious than perhaps we had ever considered.
In the midst of a spring which seems locked into the sleep of winter, this painting and the truth it contains is a cause of celebration. The weather conditions that we share at the moment speak straight into this theology. We hope and yearn for the rising sun to bring warmth and spring flowers to the earth. We yearn for the resurrection of spring in a frozen landscape. And that echoes St Paul's belief that all creation yearns to follow us into the risen life of Christ. That is a hope which God promises to fulfil.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
For more or Ruth Calder Murphy's work, have a look at her pages,