And No Religion Too
Easter Sunday. Fr Euan Marley wonders why the Resurrection seems to have nothing to do with religion.
Here’s something odd about the Resurrection scenes in the Gospels: in all the scenes where the disciples encounter the Risen Christ, there is no religious activities whatsoever.
The women who come to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus are engaging in a religious act, but when they meet him and he is alive, there is no need for that. The activities described in the Resurrection scene are rather ordinary acts. The disciples are fishing, Jesus cooks for them, or eats with them. Perhaps when he rose again, he spent his time doing some gardening. Why else did Mary Magdalene think he was the gardener? Yet they don’t pray, or sing psalms. They don’t go to the temple together. It’s only, in fact, when Jesus ascends into heaven, that the disciples go to the temple again, and Luke’s Gospel ends there with them continually praising God.
What is happening here? Why are the Resurrection scenes so secular? One solution is to see the Resurrection scenes as taking place between the death of an old religion and the beginning of a new. That’s possible, but isn’t it strange that there should be no religious activity in the presence of the founder of a new religion?
To understand what is happening, a distinction made by St Thomas Aquinas could help. Thomas separates Religion, by which he means religious activity of any kind, from Faith. Both are virtues, which means that both would be present in any properly functioning human being. Yet Thomas does not see Religion as part of faith. Instead he sees it as part of justice. We owe religious practices of some sort to God, because it is human to do things, and God wishes us to worship him in a human way. Because Religion is to do with justice, it has God as its end but not its object. It is faith that touches God, not Religion (Summa Theologica IIaIIae 81.5).
That sounds strange but the distinction between end and object is important. A woman could be cooking a meal for many reasons, the end might be to feed her family, to impress her husbands boss, or to win a cookery competition. The object remains the same, the food.
So the risen Christ is the presence of God: not the divine vision, but a God who is revealing himself and his purpose for all humanity. Religion doesn’t really fit here, not when Jesus who is God with us, Emmanuel, is with them. It’s a time to eat and drink with him, a time to live in joy. Afterwards, the work of religion – and we shouldn’t delude ourselves that it involves work – begins again.
What about heaven then? Is there no Religion there? Obviously there is. The book of Revelation and the visions of Angels in the infancy narratives of Luke show that there is continual praise of God in heaven. The difference is that in heaven it is easy and natural to worship God. In heaven, it’s as if all those teenagers who play their air guitars along to the latest music suddenly find they can play real instruments just as easily. So prayer, songs to God, the whole ordering of humanity to God, which requires so much effort on earth, so much expenditure of time and resources, has now become the stuff of our life.
In heaven, everyone sings, everyone is a poet, and everyone has a tune to play, and the theme is always God, but worshipped in as many ways as there are people.
That’s the answer to the song ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, which provides the title of this homily. Everything that the song aspires to is to be found in heaven. There is no heaven in heaven, because heaven is what we are always looking for, and there it won’t be above us, but within us.
What the disciples experienced in living with the risen Christ isn’t lost in religious practice, because he is still with us. But because religion’s is not an end in itself, it is always going somewhere, and that somewhere is heaven, and we are not there yet. So, back to work.