Father Iain McKillop
The Easter season is traditionally a time when we are re-excited by the hope and promise of eternal life which Jesus’ Resurrection promises. Yet this year it is accompanied by sadness, concern, fear and tragedy for many, perhaps all people in our vulnerable world. This is probably going to be the most insecure Easter season that most will have experienced, unless you have lived through war, life-threatening illness or another epidemic.
Considering the plight of the world and our own vulnerability has made me re-consider the foundations of my convictions about hope, trust and faith in God. The words ‘trust’ and ‘faith’ in the Gospels are used almost synonymously. Jesus said of the centurion who came asking him to cure his servant at a distance: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!” [Lk.7:9]. He was commending the soldier’s trust in God and in God’s power working through Jesus, not the extent of the man’s doctrinal beliefs. It is at a time like this that we realise that true Christian faith needs to be far less about ‘head-knowledge’ of scripture, doctrine and religious traditions, though those are important for strengthening us. Faith is primarily the practice of trusting our invisible God, even though circumstances may mean that we might struggle with how much we trust. “I believe; help my unbelief!” was a desperate man’s sincere prayer of trust in Christ, and Jesus answered it [Mk.9:24]. The Easter hope is rather like this sort of trust: We do not understand how Jesus was raised from death. We haven’t the proof of our eyes, which the first disciples experienced in meeting the risen Christ, yet the combined evidence is strong enough to convince even a natural sceptic like myself that Jesus was seen alive again many times. Encountering Christ’s risen life convinced St. Paul that God’s promises of life beyond death for us are true: ‘We believe; help our unbelief!’
What happened at Jesus’ Resurrection, and what sort of form he had after death remains as much a ‘mystery’ as how his death worked to achieve salvation and thus free us from fear of death. Yet scripture promises that both are true. Many Bible passages emphasise the ‘trustworthiness’ of faith in its pormises; that what is being recounted was truly witnessed. [Lk.1:1-4; Jn.21:24-25; 2Cor.7:14; 1Jn.1:1; Rev.21:5; 22:6, 8]. This encourages us to believe that the faith that scripture promotes is true. Scholars rightly question many details of scripture, (it was written in a different culture with different standards of recounting things that were known or felt to be true), but the overall trustworthiness of the foundational teaching of the Christian faith is reliable, as so many of us have experienced. One of the greatest assurances of the truth of faith is found in our combined experiences in life so far. Many members of our church will, like me, have experienced some very hard times, yet something spiritually true has brought us through them.
The Letter to the Ephesians contains a fascinating statement: that ‘the same power of God is at work in us as God used in raising Christ from the dead’ [Eph.1:19-20]. I’ve puzzled over the exact meaning of that for years and never fully fathomed its wonders! In essence it is saying that we can have confidence in God because the divine power, miracle-working energy and covenant promise of love and care that raised Christ from death are working on our behalf and able to live in us and enliven us by God’s Spirit. I’d recommend at this difficult time that you read Ephesians 1:15 to 2:10, perhaps the whole letter; they are wonderfully positive and uplifting verses! (Unless we are essential workers, many of us have plenty of time at present for reading our Bibles!)
Like most of us, I guess, I have been listening to news-bulletins daily, keeping in touch with what we are being told of the contemporary situation, and aware that quite a lot is also not being told. The message is
always, rightly, ‘do whatever you can to keep safe and keep others safe’. But the spiritual message of this time needs also to be ‘keep yourself spiritually and psychologically secure’; strengthen your trust and hope in God. Christianity uses the word ‘hope’ rather differently than in common usage. Christian ‘hope’ affirms that we can trust that God’s promises of eternal care for us are true. The God of love is not ‘wishful thinking’. Jesus never promised that life would be easy or always go as we wished; in fact he prophesied trials and difficulties for his followers. We are part of the world; Jesus didn’t want us to be escapist, because in difficult places we can bring his hope to others in practical and spiritual ways. Whatever happens in this life God is here with us and his power is at work for us now as well as for the life to come, whatever that future existence eventually turns out to be like. We can trust God.
I remember, before my first heart operation, 6 years ago, having the inner conviction that I would not survive it. Strangely, for someone who often worries, I felt a peace. My concern as I prepared for the operation was more for those I love than for myself. As I waited in the preparation room, I prayed for them and trusted them and myself into God’s care. A similar trust needs to become our attitude at this precarious time. We take many precautions – staying in, socially distancing, as little physical social interaction with those outside as possible, washing and disinfecting. But we need to find a peace and confidence in God, as we pray for others and ourselves, trusting us all into God’s care and security.
During this Holy Week I have been focusing my thoughts on what I believe about Salvation and Resurrection through contemplatively painting a small altarpiece of the Risen Christ. It is a special Holy Week discipline, to complement the series of images of the resurrection appearances of Jesus that I started painting in the first week of the lock-down. Good Friday will be different; as well as reading privately the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Passion, I will focus on painting the wonderful early mediaeval poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’, which explores both the tragedy and glory of the Cross. Both of these themes are at the heart of our Christian faith: Christ is with us in tragedy and in the trusting hope we place with him in the future.
I pray that we may all find the blessing of peace and trust that God can bring at this disquieting time. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things as yet unseen.” [Heb.11:1].