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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams reminds Christians that
belief in God is about living in the reality of faith and the unselfish
life, and not about opinions or philosophical proofs.

In his Easter sermon delivered at Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Williams
identifies St Paul as an early example of someone living the brave
reality of faith, putting his life at risk for the sake of his belief
and witness to the resurrection:

Do you know that God exists? the interviewers ask; or, How do you know
Christian faith is true? There are two tempting ways of responding, both
wrong. There is the apologetic shuffle of saying, ‘Of course, I don’t
really know; this is just the truth as it appears to me and I may be
wrong’. And there is the confident offer to prove it all to the hearer’s
satisfaction; here are the philosophical arguments, here is the
historical evidence, now what’s the problem?

Two kinds of mistake: the first because it reduces faith to opinion and
shrinks the scale of what you’re trying to talk about to the dimensions
of your own mind and preferences; the second because it keeps you at
arms’ length from the whole business by making it impersonal: here are
the proofs and it doesn’t much matter what I or anyone may be doing
about it. It’s just true in much the same way as it’s true that Ben
Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles. You may say, ‘Well,
there you go’ but are unlikely to fall to your knees.

St Paul in today’s epistle makes it clear that to speak of Jesus’
resurrection is also to say something crucial about who and where we
are, not just to make a claim about the past.. Now we should not doubt
for a moment that Paul means what he says and that he takes for granted
that the resurrection of Jesus is not a piece of fantasy or wishful
thinking but the actual emptying of a grave. However, the point of
Paul’s entire teaching on the resurrection is to take us much further
than that. This event, the emptying of the grave, has done something and
has brought the Christians of Colossae – like all Christians – into a
new universe. They are living in a new climate, with new ‘thoughts’ – a
climate in which the various ways in which we’ve put up barriers between
ourselves and God have been shattered and our old selves are dead. We
may still go on trying to put those barriers back up again, but
something has happened that opens up a new kind of future. Our selfish
and destructive acts and reactions can be dealt with, overwhelmed again
and again by the love shown in the cross of Jesus. Because of Jesus’
death and rising from the dead, our resurrection has started, and our
citizenship in heaven has begun. There is a hidden seed of glory within
us, gradually coming to its fullness.

Resurrection has started. How do we know? Not by working it out and
adopting it as well-founded opinion, not by deciding that this idea
suits us, not by getting all the arguments straight, but because we are
dimly aware of something having changed around us. For Paul’s converts
in Colossae, Corinth, or wherever, it’s about the impact on them of his
early visits: here was someone who although he wasn’t a good speaker or
a charismatic teacher (so he himself tells us) was so intensely aware
that the world had changed that he changed the world for those around
him. They trusted him; they were prepared to risk all the mockery and
harassment and worse that Christians had to put up with because they
were able to say, ‘It’s so real for him that we can sense the sort of
imperative urgency in what he says and what he sees; whatever he
believes, this is life at a new level’.

That’s why the two sorts of defence of faith I mentioned earlier aren’t
good enough. It’s not that this is an attractive theory that I’ve
decided to try out – but I may be wrong. Nor is it that I now have a
knock-down argument that will convince everyone. There is something
compelling here. I can’t help being drawn to this promise of life and
freedom, it isn’t about my opinions only; yet I know that I can’t put
this into neat words that will make everyone say, ‘Oh yes, it’s obvious
really’.

For a great many people, the burning question about faith is not just,
‘Can anyone believe this?’ but ‘Can anyone live like this?’ Is it
possible to live ‘in heaven’, in such a way that our selfishness is
eroded? To live on the basic assumption that people can be healed of
their miserable compulsions to fear and resent each other and to cling
to their grievances and injuries? Last weekend’s television drama, ‘Five
Minutes of Heaven’, was a painfully sensitive reflection on what it
takes to make reconciliation more than words alone, when a former
terrorist gunman meets the brother of the man he killed in cold blood.
Both, it turns out, are still locked into that past event: the gunman,
though he has now become a sought-after speaker on reconciliation, is
still trapped in self-loathing; the victim’s brother, who witnessed the
shooting as a boy of ten, is equally trapped, traumatised by what he saw
as a child, helpless with rage that his brother’s murderer has been
‘forgiven’ by a society with a short memory. When they meet at last, it
is in an explosion of near-murderous violence; yet something is
released, some future is opened.

‘Five Minutes of Heaven’: we’re left in no doubt that if real
reconciliation were possible, that would be what it was, five minutes of
something quite other than the expectations and routines of this tragic
world. And we’re left in no doubt that getting there might be the most
painful thing imaginable. The drama spared us nothing; but it did
-courageously – suggest that ‘heaven’ was not an illusion. Can anyone
live like that? Well, perhaps, perhaps just getting to the outer edge of
something ‘outside’ the endless weary exchange of retaliation. A
fleeting image of what Paul is talking about: another world that has
taken root in this one – only not just through the chance experiences of
a few individuals but because something has happened once and for all to
declare that sin has been dealt with, the prison of the self has been
broken open by God. The impossible is now possible. Your life is hidden
with Christ in God, and you live from a depth newly opened up in you.

And the only way of saying that, of course is for it to be lived out.
It’s no use talking endlessly – preaching endlessly – about
reconciliation and forgiveness and liberation. No argument can persuade
anyone about this, only the lived reality. It’s worth remembering that
Paul of Tarsus joined the Christian community not as a well-meaning
religious enquirer but as someone who had been the equivalent of a
terrorist gunman, someone who had supervised the activities of a private
militia devoted to abducting and imprisoning members of the Christian
sect. He is a perfectly intelligible figure in the back streets of
modern Beirut or Baghdad. And he has to find his ‘heaven’ by going,
undefended and unvouched for, to the people he has been trying to
silence and kill. Can anyone live like this? If the Colossians or
Corinthians or Philippians had asked this, at least Paul would have been
able to say yes: I have lived it, or, It has lived itself out in me and
in those who were my victims. No wonder that he goes back over this so
many times in his writings, and, in his second letter to Corinth,
angrily protests that, whatever else may be true, he is not doing this
for the sake of his comfort or power. Why should the Corinthians trust
him (especially when there are more attractive teachers around)? Well,
at least he has lived through the most appallingly painful realities of
the reconciliation that Jesus made possible; he has lost an entire
career, an entire identity, he has put his life at daily risk. The one
thing the Corinthians can be sure of is that this is not an opinion or
an argument.

And the moral of all this? It’s boringly familiar. If we want to commend
our faith, we have to show the difference. The new world has to be
visible. In the days of the early church, writers trying to defend the
faith naturally used all sorts of complex intellectual arguments; but
they also said, ‘Look at us. We try to live forgivingly with each other.
We don’t try to get revenge when we’re killed by the state authorities
or the lynch mobs. We treat every life as precious, including the lives
you don’t care about. We try to be peaceful and faithful, in private and
in public, and to live lives of sexual faithfulness and self-control [as
much of a challenge, we might add, in the late Roman Empire as it is
today]. Does all this suggest to you that there might be another way of
living that offers healing to the casualties of so-called ordinary human
behaviour?’

Early Christians could point to the martyrs – but also to those who
freely decide to live lives of continence and poverty in the first
monastic communities, the men and women who tried to live out the life
of heaven in the daily discipline of life together, giving themselves
time to discover their most deeply hidden failings and fears, their most
deep-seated difficulties with themselves and other people and not
running away but letting the action of God through the life of the
community heal them bit by bit. We’re still fascinated by this life – we
joke about it, yet have an uneasy respect for it, as a whole series of
television presentations will confirm. But there is a real question here
to the Church, not least to the Church of England. More people than
perhaps ever before want to have access to what the monastic life
promises, the wisdom of mutual patience, shared silence and prayer,
space to grow out of childish ways – yet the profile of monastic
communities and the recognition given to those who seek the path of
contemplation is pretty meagre. Is it time to pray for and work for a
radical new affirmation of this life and a proper valuation of its gift
to the Church and the world? To pray harder for vocations to this life
an to encourage people of all ages to explore it and to have the courage
to take those costly promises so as to begin to show the world what
difference the faith makes – what the resurrection looks like?

It could hardly be a more propitious time for this. The present
financial crisis has dealt a heavy blow to the idea that human
fulfilment can be thought about just in terms of material growth and
possession. Accepting voluntary limitation to your acquisitiveness, your
sexual appetite, your freedom of choice doesn’t look so absurd after all
as a path to some sort of stability and mutual care. We should be
challenging ourselves and our Church to a new willingness to help this
witness to flourish and develop.

But it is of course only one form of witness. When all’s said and done,
the call is to every one of us.  We need to hear what is so often the
question that’s really being asked when people say, ‘How do you know?’
And perhaps the only response that is fully adequate, fully in tune with
the biblical witness to the resurrection is to say simply, ‘Are you
hungry? Here is food.’
  

(c) Rowan Williams 2009

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