One of the delights of being a dad is reading stories. Bedtime is one of my favourite times of the day, because it’s story time. Sometimes we manage to sneak in a quick time for a cuddle and a read first thing in the morning if I’m awake enough. Alicia and I are reading through the Chronicles of Narnia, and we’ve just one more book to go – the Last Battle. In our journey through the Chronicles we’ve encountered many interesting characters, perhaps none more curious than Puddleglum, whom we meet in the Silver Chair. He accompanies Eustace and Jill in the mission Aslan gave them to find the lost prince of Narnia, Rilian. Their quest takes them to a city deep underground, ruled by the Lady of the Green Kirtle, also known as the Witch. There they discover the lost prince who’d been bound by the Witch’s enchantments. They break the spell but soon afterwards she tries to bewitch them, putting green powder on a fire that lets off a sweet smell and plays music. She speaks in a sweet, quiet voice, casting doubt on all that they have seen and experienced – seeking to convince them that there is no Narnia, Overworld, sun, or even, Aslan – no other reality apart from the Underworld in which they’re trapped. “‘tis a pretty make-believe,” she says, “though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. … There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow. But, first, to bed; to sleep; deep sleep, soft pillows, sleep without foolish dreams.”
An article on the BBC this week had the rather discouraging headline, “Resurrection did not happen, say a quarter of Christians” citing a poll that said that exactly half of all people surveyed didn’t believe in the resurrection at all. Reverend Lorraine Cavanagh, speaking on behalf of Modern Church, says, “Science, but also intellectual and philosophical thought has progressed. … So to ask an adult to believe in the resurrection the way they did when they were at Sunday school simply won’t do and that’s true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith.”
I don’t know how you react to such headlines. They can be so discouraging can’t they. The implication is clear – only children believe that the resurrection really happened. Grown-up Christians have got over that. Thinking about it, it’s remarkable how much those words echo the words of the Witch. A belief in the resurrection she says, is pretty make believe – and would suit you all better if you were younger. The Christians from previous generations were more gullible than we are today. We’re more educated. We know better. And it has an impact. When these sorts of opinions are expressed possibly in our family circles, or among our friends or colleagues, perhaps we feel silly, perhaps we doubt ourselves. These events were so long ago, after all, weren’t they? Maybe they’re right, after all? And as for life after death, that’s just a nice belief isn’t it – comforting – a crutch, nothing more. We all know, grown up people do, anyway, that this life is all there is. After all, there’s no concrete proof – not in the way that we understand it, anyway. There aren’t many stories of people experiencing resurrection these days, are there, after all? Maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s just a story to make us feel better … And then we listen to the other voices that tell us we can’t really rely on the writers of the Bible anyway, these stories were edited much later …
And the sickly fumes of these voices, so soothing, so deceptive gradually wear us down. The seeds of doubt are sown. And then we begin to doubt our own experiences of God, when we’ve sensed God guiding and speaking to us, when we’ve sensed his presence. Perhaps they’re not real either? Just our imagination – as if wishing made it so.
These voices threaten to overwhelm us. And they sound logical don’t they, after all, we all know that dead men don’t rise from the dead. We fight to hold onto our faith in Jesus, while the voice speaks to us and says that he was a story too – or if he were real, he was no more than a man. It all seems so convincing, doesn’t it … and if a poll tells us that there are a significant proportion of Christians who don’t believe in the resurrection – well, maybe they’re right …
And we see those voices coming out in the Bible accounts themselves, don’t we? In Luke’s account of the resurrection, when Mary and her companions have met with the angel and been told that Jesus has risen, the disciples ridicule them – “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11) and later on, the air of disbelief continues as the two disciples trudge towards Emmaus – “some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.’ (vv.22-24). You’d expect there to be an air of faith and expectation, but there isn’t. Instead, there is simply an air of confusion, doubt, bewilderment. The women must be deluded. After all, dead men don’t rise.
And yet, and yet, and yet …
Deep in Underworld, it seems as if the witch has won. The four people have fallen under her spell. But then, Puddleglum shakes himself and stamps out the fire, breaking the spell. The smell went, which “instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.”
Then Puddleglum speaks …
One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.
(C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair)
I won’t go into details of what happens next, but suffice to say, the spell is broken and the four companions are able to see the Witch’s true nature – she transforms into a serpent – and they discover that her words are all lies. There is a world above, there is a Narnia, there is a sun, … there is Aslan.
I think there’s so much we can learn from Puddleglum. If the dominant voices in our increasingly secular, so-called more grown up society are right, there is no life beyond the one we see. There is no long-term hope, the most important thing I can do in life is look after those people close to me, everyone else can look after themselves.
Forgive me if I speak against a fellow vicar, but Ms Cavanagh of Modern Church, is speaking nonsense. If she’s right and that the resurrection didn’t really happen, Christianity is utterly, completely pointless, based on a lie that’s taken in millions of people. St Paul himself puts it in 1 Corinthians 15,
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
(1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
People like Lorraine Cavanagh speak as if people have only recently been questioning the reality of the resurrection. Actually, they were doing that when St Paul was writing, only 20 or so years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And Paul is clear. Without the resurrection, the Christian faith is a complete and utter waste of time.
Indulge me for a moment. What if the resurrection did happen? What if the tomb were empty on that third day? What if? What if?
Because Paul, although he is well aware of the claims that the resurrection didn’t happen, he continues …
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
(1 Corinthians 15:20-22)
If the resurrection happened, it changes everything. I mean, everything. It doesn’t just mean that we have hope that once we die there will be heaven waiting for us, whatever that may look like. But it means life today, here and now, takes on a completely different meaning and purpose. Puddleglum gets that. It impacts the way we live here and now. It means that we pray and live in such a way that God’s kingdom might come wherever we are, living in such a way to make our bit of a world a better place. Why? Because if Jesus’ resurrection really happened, then we can also trust Jesus’ words when he tells us that what matters most is that we love God and our neighbour, not that we love and care for ourselves. This is why his life led to the cross and ours should as well. Christ died to self and called us to go and do likewise because the new creation cannot dawn if we’re still focused on self. Rather than taking care of ourselves first and then going out into the world to do the work of the Kingdom, the work of the Kingdom begins by dying to self first and then continually putting the needs of others before our own.
The resurrection changes everything for today as well as tomorrow. It’s not an escape plan – a one way ticket to eternity. Instead, it’s a call to participate in the building of a new world, in the bringing of heaven to earth. This is the sort of faith that Puddleglum is professing. One which tries to live out the hope he believes in, rather than waiting for the day when it might come to pass.
Imagine what the Church and the world would be like if we had faith like Puddleglum.
Imagine what might happen if our faith wasn’t just about believing the right things so we can get out of here and on our way to heaven.
Imagine what would happen if, instead, our focus was on caring for others and transforming the here and now.
And as for those arguments with those who deny the reality of the resurrection, they also would become irrelevant if all Christians begin to start living like Jesus, whether or not God is real and whether or not that tomb is empty, because this world would be completely transformed. So if we struggle with doubts, let’s take a leaf out of Puddleglum’s book anyway.
Having said all this, I believe in the resurrection with every fibre of my being. I believe that when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that Sunday morning, she did find it empty and then met with the risen Lord Jesus face to face having previously mistaken him to be the gardener. I believe there is good evidence for it as a historical event. See the handout you received this morning. Actually, the BBC article was deceptive. The vast majority of practicing Christians – over 90% – believe in the resurrection – and they include grown-ups.
I believe I’ve experienced the power of the risen Jesus in my life and witnessed it in this church community, but I can’t prove any of this – and I don’t think I ever will. But I wonder whether it’s time to stop worrying about it, and live out the truth that I believe. Because, let’s face it, the reality in which there is a God who loved the world so much that he sent his Son to live and become the best possible role model, and then to die for it as the greatest imaginable act of self-sacrifice, and that through this very same man’s resurrection he gave the world the lifeline it so desperately needed, and in turn he encouraged all those who have faith in him to follow his example and to love each other and the world to the point of sacrifice – this reality far surpasses any other. It’s a reality I would die for – and in the meantime, want to live for with every part of my being. Are you with me? And when we live like this, then the risen Lord Jesus is present among us, and no one will be able to hide his reality.
Alleluia, the Lord is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.