I caught up with the foreman amongst the tea and scones at the back of the church. He introduced me to his workforce: a brother, a nephew, two or three sons, a friend. I thought of what people normally say about builders, and of the fact that the re-ordering of this church had taken exactly three months.
Three months. Hardly time to put in the new sound system, you might think, let alone take the whole church apart, more or less, and put it back together again, still looking like a church but now ready for the new century. A glance at the before-and-after pictures showed that the job badly needed doing: a sad late Victorian building, dying on its feet, now suddenly come to life again and ready to serve the whole community. Best job we ever did, said the foreman, passing on the credit to the vicar and his people for their vision and determination.
A fitting symbol, of course, for Easter. But also, I reflected on the way home, of the Easter message the Western church needs to grasp, and live by, right now.
We have connived at our own belittling. It’s a natural reaction. The big dogs in the street have barked at us and we have shrunk back into our safe little worlds. The big boys in the playground have sneered at us and we have become embarrassed about our faith and hope, as if they were a sordid little secret. The god of money gets cross with us if we propose remitting Third World debt. The god of war is furious if we challenge the Iraq war. (An unknown e-mail correspondent from Alabama called me anti-American the other day, and when, perhaps foolishly, I challenged this trivialisation she snapped back that I was obviously not self-aware. Nice to be psychoanalysed from thousands of miles away on the basis of a newspaper report.) The god of sex has some interesting names to call us if we insist on maintaining the morality common to millennia of Jews, Christians, Muslims and many others.
The self-appointed cultural guardians of late modernity mock us if we challenge all three of these false gods, since to question the first two makes us look “radical” and to challenge the third today seems “conservative” – and everybody knows that our current left-right spectrum is a Law of the Medes and Persians, written in the stars, fixed and unalterable. Meanwhile the Church, like so many of its older buildings, seems to be saying to the passer-by: “Not much happening here. Just a quiet, sad little place for quiet, sad little people.” A bit like the women at the tomb on the evening of Good Friday. A bit like the silent, waiting garden on Holy Saturday.
But what the sniggering Sadducees never bargained for, what the viciously efficient pagan soldiers never anticipated, what never entered the head of our barking, sneering late-modern culture, was that the God of life and love and new possibilities might do a new thing. The interpretation of Easter itself has been scrunched into the trap laid by modernity, and the Church has gone along with it. Either Easter becomes a happy little ending for an otherwise sad story, or it’s about bunnies and daffodils, or it’s the bald affirmation that there is after all a life after death. Modernity can cope with all those (hardly surprising, since it generated them in the first place). None of them would have made any sense to the first Christians, least of all the last: almost everyone believed in life after death, but Easter meant life after “life after death” – a new bodily existence after a period of being bodily dead.
What neither modernity nor cynical postmodernity can cope with – and hence what they, like the cultural thought police of the first century, stamp on whenever they see it – is the suggestion that the gloom of Good Friday and the lull of Holy Saturday are the prelude to a new kind of life. This sort of life bursts out and challenges all our power systems (in an electronically manipulated democracy, power follows money and the media), and declares once more the shockingly unfashionable truth that Jesus is Lord.
Easter is about the beginning of God’s new world. John’s Gospel stresses that Easter Day is the first day of the new week: not so much the end of the old story as the launch of the new one. The gospel resurrection stories end, not with “well, that’s all right then”, nor with “Jesus is risen, therefore we will rise too”, but with “God’s new world has begun, therefore we’ve got a job to do, and God’s Spirit to help us do it”. That job is to plant the flags of resurrection – new life, new communities, new churches, new faith, new hope, new practical love – in amongst the tired slogans of idolatrous modernity and destructive postmodernity.
It can happen. By God’s grace it will happen. The fact that today we may not see it happening is neither here nor there. Sometimes it only takes three days. Three days? Best job I ever did, said the foreman.
Tom Wright is Bishop of Durham.