Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 souvenir tradesmen exploited the situation. Visitors could buy cans of ‘genuine’ West Berlin air for the few East German visitors to breathe when they returned home, and for West Germans to relish as a sign of their freedom. But to enjoy a can of air you must open it and thus lose it.
Take that as a parable for Easter. The can was a futile attempt to imprison freedom. When the tourists left, the can of air served no purpose. Berlin was a tragically divided city but what the tourists could not take home in a can were hopes and prayers for a day when the wall would come down and the city would be reunited and the people would be free.
The same truth applies to the accounts of the first Easter. We get hints of the disciples trying the ‘let’s hold on to it’ tactic. Mary tries to hold Jesus in the garden but he says ‘Do not cling to me’. Thomas declares that he must touch before he can know. But ‘the Word of the Lord’ in the resurrection stories speaks more powerfully. The women only briefly share the garden experience and then they are sent out into God’s wider world to share the story. They learn the Easter lesson, that deep spiritual experiences are elusive. Treasure them then let them go. Don’t preserve them or put them in a can. Their value and effect lies in the sort of person such experiences make you, their ability to change you, and the inner strength they give you. The significance of the Easter story lies not in the garden, or on the beach, but in the opening chapters of the Book of Acts as frightened men and women find new strength, a group of people discover fresh resources, and a band of parochial Jews knowing only one faith and one country, get a worldwide vision of God’s reign and power.
Prove the Easter truth not from the stories at the end of gospels but from the life of the early church and from our own experience of an Easter faith. But has the church truly heard this Easter message for ourselves? I suspect we still have our Berlin tin cans.
First, our local churches can too easily become cans in which we try to preserve the Easter message with a fading experience of yesteryear. This occurs if ever we suggest that what happens within the church is the sole test of the value and purpose of the Christian faith, and fail to see that the risen Christ is thrusting us into the cut and thrust of politics, the hard economic decisions, the demands of schools and hospital, and the opportunities of family life.
Secondly, we can turn our own generation or Western civilisation into containers if we imagine that either holds the final word in gospel interpretation. Who knows what fresh gospel truth we will discover led by the Risen Christ who has gone before us and already lives in the century to come? It is already clear that Africa and Asia offer gospel insights to which the Western world is blind. We share the same faith and tread the same holy ground but no one generation and no one civilisation can hold the Lord of all time and every place.
You will read elsewhere in the magazine about the Elder’s Conference and our reflections on re-forming the church. This is all part of being Easter people, for Easter is the sign of the eternal Christ who meets us in those experiences that disturb, and heal, and form and re-form us. The Easter message is, ‘Move on! Re-form!
With love and prayers
Russell J Furley-Smith