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Easter is hard to grasp for many

Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001

I remember quite vividly when I was a teenager, the vicar of the church I attended preaching on the Sunday after Easter about Jesus’ resurrection.

You would expect sermons about resurrection at Easter – but this one was different.

He spoke about his brother being killed in India during the Second World War, and of his own mother’s death.

When his brother died, even though they were nearly 5,000 miles apart, he said he somehow knew what had happened, at the very moment his brother lost his life.

When his mother died, something similar happened – he knew she had died, even though he wasn’t with her.

Both of these instances were convincing experiences of Jesus’ resurrection for him, moments of truth. Somehow he knew that his brother and mother had not gone forever, but had moved into a life beyond death, because of Jesus’ resurrection.

Like most religious experiences, they were convincing and meaningful to the person having them.

But just as the vicar was completely persuaded of Jesus’ resurrection by these momentary experiences, so we, the congregation listening to his sermon, were drawn into this conviction, persuaded by his faith.

We were caught up in a cascade of conviction, which I presume is why he wanted to share these stories, and why I remember it so vividly nearly 50 years later.

A few years further on, when I was about 20, I was walking down St Andrew’s Street in Cambridge, and in an intense moment I suddenly realised, without warning, that Jesus, risen from the dead, was as physically real as the man who at that instant was walking towards me.

I was not aware that I had been thinking about what the resurrection was like, or in what sense I believed it, but from then on I knew – for me – it was real.

Religious experiences like these – I think of them as mystical moments – are not unusual, though it is unclear why some people seem to have them and others don’t.

They happen in various forms – relatively “mild” examples like these I have described here, to much more dramatic and overwhelming experiences. They are usually brief, and not repeated. They serve their purpose in the instant they happen.

They seem to come from outside the person – they cannot be traced to thought processes or experiences the person has been having – and so are experienced as a gift.

But they are also very powerful because nothing is quite the same again. They are moments that turn a person’s life around, turn it on its head. They determine how we live our lives.

Since that moment walking down the street over 40 years ago, I have never doubted that Jesus rose from the dead, and was experienced physically, not just spiritually or emotionally, by his followers.

Easter is hard to understand and hard to believe – clearly most people do not believe Jesus rose from the dead.

It is much harder to connect with than Christmas, which most of us can resonate with at some level – because it touches us through the most obvious expression of human vulnerability – being a baby. But Easter seems so remote from our experience, and indeed from our scientifically shaped view of the world.

Yet from the accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ rising from the dead, Jesus’ followers seem to have had that same remoteness, the same lack of connection and resonance with their experience.

Jesus’ disciples do not believe those who say they have seen him alive. Thomas famously refuses to believe the other disciples until he can actually touch Jesus. In most of the accounts Jesus simply is not recognised at first – and it does not seem to occur to them to think it might be him.

So it is little surprise that we struggle. Yet convincing experiences such as the ones I have described are not that unusual.

And there are many people for whom thoughtfulness, rather than mystical moments, is the route to belief. If Jesus had not risen, why would the disciples have embarked on the dangerous task of proclaiming what he had done?

But the most important reason for me that Easter resonates so deeply is the mirror of why Christmas connects with so many.

It is the other end of our human vulnerability at our birth – our vulnerability at our death. As I understand it, God shows the value of human life by taking its most vulnerable form as a baby, and then shows that death is not the end, by raising Jesus from the dead.

And whether we get to that conviction by the strange gift of an experience, or by trusting what others say, or thinking ourselves to this point – the result is the same.

The meaning of our life, its value, is not determined by what we can see in front of us, but by the reality of what lies beyond death.

To those who believe this, Jesus’ resurrection casts the meaning of this life – and how we live it - in a radically different light.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich


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