Easter Sunday. Fr Timothy Radcliffe preaches on the meaning of eternal life.
Tonight we celebrate the defeat of death. St Paul wrote to the Romans: ‘As Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.’ Death has no dominion over us.
This sounds wonderful but what does it mean? The one thing we know for certain is that we shall all die. What is completely unknown for most of us tonight is when and how. So what it is mean for us to celebrate the Resurrection? Does it mean that when this life is over we shall have another one, rather like retiring from work in, for example, Lancashire and then having the wonderful pleasure of going to live an easier life in Yorkshire? Is eternal life what comes after death?
That is not a helpful way of understanding Jesus’s victory over death. In the gospel reading from Matthew, the Resurrection is not described. It cannot be. But the women meet the risen Lord they are told that the promise that he made before his death is fulfilled. He will go before them to Galilee and there he will meet the disciples. One of the signs of his Resurrection is that the relationship between Jesus and his followers is renewed. The silence of the tomb is broken. Their love endures.
Eternal life is not another life that begins after one has died. It is our love of the Lord, which begins now and which death cannot destroy. Jesus said to Martha just before the calling of Lazarus from the tomb: ‘I am the Resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ (John 11.25). Death has no dominion over us because our life is this relationship with the one who has defeated death.
Death remains horrible because it is a form of extinction. Newman, in The Dream of Gerontius, describes it as ‘the masterful negation and collapse of all that makes me man’. Perhaps the most closely followed illness and death in the history of humanity was that of Pope John Paul II. He witnessed to his hope in the face of illness and death, and yet he too recognised that there is something terrible about death: ‘Death primarily involves the dissolution of the entire psychophysical personality of man…the evil which the human being experiences in death has a definitive and total character.’ But death does not destroy that loving relationship with the one whose name is I AM.
How does this belief in the Resurrection show itself now? First of all because we live as God’s friends. According to Matthew, we do this primarily by living the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst after justice, the pure in heart, the peace makers, and so on. We do not try to live these so as to merit life after death, as a reward. They are the beginning of eternal life now, eternal friendship.
Secondly, we can face our mortality without paralyzing dread. Saul Bellow, the American novelist, claimed that ‘ignorance of death is destroying us.’ It is the dark backing that a mirror needs before anything is seen. We are like the man who fell off the 50th floor of a skyscraper. As he passed the 15th floor, some friends shouted out, ‘How are things?’ ‘So far, all right!’
Paradoxically, we show we believe in Eternal life by living fully now, with joy and generosity. Our present life is to be valued and cherished because it is a gift from the one who already is beginning to give us everything. Faced with death we are free to love, to give our lives away, free to do what is right. In the film Of Gods and Men, about the murder of a community of Cistercian monks in Algeria, old Brother Luke says to the Prior: ‘I am not afraid of death. I am a free man.’ Happy Easter!