Chapter 2: An Easter Sermon by G. W. H. Lampe
Preached in St Martin’s, Birmingham Parish Church, at a televised Communion Service on Easter Day, April 18th, 1965, this sermon formed the basis of the discussion which was to follow that evening in the programme Meeting Point on B.B.C. 1. All those who were to discuss it then were present among the large congregation. Professor Lampe began his sermon with a text from I Corinthians 15. 17.
‘If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith. . . . But the truth is, Christ was raised to life.’ When Paul wrote these words he was face to face with a crisis of belief: the crisis of belief in which we also stand. One thing there was that he held on to: a fixed conviction that a man who had been executed, who was dead and buried, was alive now, a living person: that, so far from that man’s death being the end of him, he was Paul’s own Lord and Master, the one whom he must follow, trust in, and obey if his life was to have any meaning. How could Paul believe anything so fantastic? Because he was absolutely convinced that Jesus, who had been sentenced to death at the instigation of Paul’s own friends for reasons of which he thoroughly approved, had encountered him personally with shattering effect. For that experience had turned his whole life and all its values upside down. It had made him devote the rest of his life, at the cost of immense risk and suffering, to the one task of spreading the good news: that God had said ‘Yes’ to Jesus; that his way of life had been vindicated; that what he did and said had been true after all; that love, understanding, forgiveness, self-sacrifice are the real things that matter in the end.
And Paul believed that many others before him had been encountered by the living Jesus. He can give names; most of those people were still alive when he was writing. For them, too, Jesus had come alive. He had gripped them. Their lives had been turned upside down, too. They hadn’t dreamed it up for themselves. It had come to them out of the blue, when they were least expecting it. And they had become Jesus Christ’s men: Christians.
Paul himself was actually on his way to round up some Christians and take them to jail when a flood of light dawned on him and he heard a voice saying, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’. Not a voice you could record on a tape. No-one else heard it.(Acts 9:7 and 22:9 are contradictory about the hearing of a voice.) The only words Paul could find to describe what happened are, ‘He was seen by me also’. He doesn’t mean ‘seen’ as you see me now with your two eyes. He means that a revelation came to him: in the way that one might see God. And there are moments in life when one does see God. For Paul and all those others before him Jesus became a living reality, and, for ever after, that was the one thing that really mattered for them.
That is the Easter story. Forget, if you will, the picture, beloved of the old artists, of a body, holding a flag of triumph, stepping out of a grave. That suggests a corpse come back to life on this physical plane. If that were what the idea of Christ’s resurrection means, then it were better forgotten. Such a Christ is dead. He remains buried. The real Christ is not a revived corpse. He lives in the fullness of God’s life. He is the life, the truth, the way, for us. He lives for us and in us. For the experience of Easter didn’t stop with Peter, Paul and the rest. The living Christ may encounter us too, very often in our relationships with other people. And, for what it may be worth, I know that he has gripped me: in so far as his love compels me to try to follow him, inspires me, encourages me, and forgives me for what I am. How this can be is mystery. But I am sure, as Paul was, that if all this is a delusion then one might as well be dead. If it can’t be true in the real world, then the real world is no place to live in. ‘At its heart the world is not mad but sane. That is the bare minimum of faith for man. Without it we cannot live, but only take a long time to die.’
But is the world mad or sane? On one dark day it seemed mad indeed: that day we call Good Friday. Here was one whose whole life was grounded in trust in God: in the certainty that God is good; that he can be called ‘Father’ -- and not only by Jesus himself but also by all those who learn from him to say ‘Our Father’. Here was one who was ready to accept people as they were, with all their unlovableness, understand them, and make them his friends; one who met hatred with love and forgiveness; one who showed up the selfishness of complacent people, condemned it and made them begin to hate it too; one who so moved people that they changed their whole outlook and became his followers. His love and forgiveness extended to everyone except those who were willfully blind to it. It included even those who murdered him. And he believed that in all this he was speaking and acting with the authority of God; that this was the real truth about the way things are.
But it wasn’t. That Friday was the end. God, if there was a God, had turned away. The life of Jesus had proved to be a catastrophic mockery: one of those great ironical jokes that history sometimes plays with the best of men. Jesus died with the cry ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me ?’ -- the only time that Jesus did not call God ‘Father’. God had let him down. The real world belonged to Caiaphas and his power-politics, to the religious institution with its privilege and its jealousy, to Pilate with his anxiety about his career, to the mob who yelled for Barabbas because Barabbas was all that they could understand. Faith in a God like the God of Jesus didn’t work out in the end: and Jesus was dead. ‘There came a darkness over the whole land’: for the light of the world was quenched.
Until Easter morning. And then suddenly and against all possible expectation some of his friends, those who had all deserted him, had that same experience that later came to Paul. He encountered them. The light shone for them in a new way, to lead them on: as it shines through all history in those who follow him. Jesus now was not just a remembered figure of the past, but their living Lord. God who had seemed, if he cared at all, or if he existed at all, to have said so decisive a ‘No’ that Jesus was dead and buried, had said ‘Yes’ to Jesus: to his faith, his love, his forgiveness.
For Easter speaks about God. It is not a story of a return of a dead person to this life. It has nothing in common with what a surgeon might do if he got a heart moving again after it had stopped. It has nothing to do, either, with the idea that there is some part of our being that is inherently immortal: some entity that we might call a soul. No. As far as our human nature is concerned, when you’re dead you’re dead; and so was Jesus. Still less does Easter say that death is unreal. It’s brute fact, all right. The Easter experience tells us that God is; that faith in God won’t let us down; that Jesus’ way of life, his trust in a God of love, was justified; that a life of faith in God and so of love and acceptance of other people, was vindicated for him and can be vindicated for us too. God has said the last word about it; and that word is ‘Yes’. God’s affirmation of Jesus is stronger than what we foolishly call the real world; it is stronger than death itself. God is the God whom Jesus taught us to call ‘Our Father’. He is the God of love: love which will not let us go, even through death. Here, if we follow Jesus, the living Lord, lies our hope of reaching that perfect relationship with God which, because God is unchanging, we call eternal life. Not this kind of existence going on and on, but life transformed by faith and love so as to become life of a different quality.
The Easter experience, that Jesus is the living Lord who claims us as his followers, cannot be demonstrated to be true like a scientific proposition. The Lord encounters us in a personal relationship, and personal relationship is not susceptible of objective proof. There was no objective demonstration at Easter that Jesus had won the victory. He was never seen by Caiaphas or Pilate or the Jerusalem mob. It would be childish to think that there could be some dramatic confrontation between the risen Lord and his enemies. For God says ‘Yes’ to the man who is willing to trust him. He cannot speak to those whose hatred and complacency makes faith and trust impossible. Such people had mocked Jesus, saying, ‘Let the king of Israel now come down from the cross and we will believe him’. He never did come down for them, not even by a resurrection. For them he was still dead.
There is no proof of that kind. Only the assurance of experience. The experience of those whose eyes were opened to know Jesus as their Lord at Easter; the experience of those who wrote the New Testament; for those books were written because Jesus was known to be the living Lord, and otherwise no Christian would have put pen to paper; indeed, there would be no Christians. And the experience of ourselves, which we are going to renew today as we meet at the Lord’s Table, to take bread and wine in remembrance of him and find that he comes alive again for us and in us. This is assurance enough.
And if this is true, then the world is not mad. It is sane: because it is God’s world. Our pessimistic assumptions that the real world is a world of selfish rat races, that real people must be hard-faced, are profoundly unrealistic. In the last resort things work out in the way of the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’.
This doesn’t mean that the world of inhumanity is all an illusion. It’s there all right. And so it must be at the cost of carrying his cross that Christ’s men have to follow in the way of love and acceptance and forgiveness. Easter does not guarantee an easy comfortable time all round. On the contrary, the unquenched light of the world shines most brightly in the long line of the martyrs, from Peter and Paul at Rome in the year 65 or thereabouts to James Reeb in Selma, Alabama, in the year 1965. The good news of Easter is that the last word doesn’t lie with Emperor Nero or Governor Wallace any more than it did with Pilate and Caiaphas. Nor does it lie with our own worse selves. Our worse selves may raise a clamour about nigger neighbors; our worse selves may be occupied more quietly in just keeping up with the Joneses until the only competition left is who can afford the costlier funeral; in either case if that were the last word how right Paul was: our gospel is indeed null and void. ‘But the truth is, Christ was raised to life.’ The last word is with those who, like Peter and Paul, asked for prayers for Nero; with those demonstrators who prayed that they might love Wallace; with all of us who want to follow Jesus. For the first and last word is God’s Word, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, our risen Lord.