The great false conceit of the modern secular world is that we are guided by facts and numbers, science and cold rationality.
Our leaders would have us believe that is the case, and they rely upon this as the source of their authority. Whatever the policy, whatever the crisis, whatever the expenditure or tax or subsidy; they will marshal the facts and figures to argue why their decision is the wisest, and in some instances, only course of action to take. And that seems quite reasonable.
Of course, the underlying source of that authority is in deciding what the facts and the numbers will be, and who is qualified to analyse them.
However, the reality, well-documented in science, well understood within the mainstream of psychology and in the much longer traditions of religion and philosophy is that what guides us is stories. And for all the appeals to facts and figures that our authorities make for the rightness of their decisions, they really win our agreement by telling us all a convincing story. And the story authority usually tells is how they are our heroes, our rescuers, our defenders.
Stories, “narratives” I suppose is the more sophisticated term used today, these help us organize our lives, make sense of the world. Indeed, we hear a lot about “meta-narrative” among theorists, political and social commentators. And by that term they are referring to the big story of life into which all other stories must fit, or be excluded. All these stories, narratives, these take all the facts and figures, and also the rumours and suspicions, and makes sense of them. Very few people live by statistics, but rather by the story they make of them.
I’m sure you all are very aware of this after the past couple of years with the bewildering barrage of information, numbers and scientific analyses.
The interesting thing is that while you may point to a particular “study” on a specific question that would seem to put in doubt the agreed wisdom of the day about whatever issue, it is quickly lost in a sea of information if it does not fit into the big story we’ve agreed to.
There are times in human history when there is a broad consensus about what that big story is. That cohesion, if the story is fundamentally hopeful, usually leads to great achievement; when it is dark and pessimistic, you find a community in misery. I grew up in a Canada where the big hopeful story was beginning to be attacked and pulled apart and substituted by a new grand narrative that still hasn’t quite taken hold.
You may know the old story, and still believe in it: that we are part of Western civilization, the greatest civilization to ever arise; that we are great not because of the wealth and technology that we possess, but because we live by a set of principles that ensures that prosperity and technological achievement. Freedom is at the heart of this, a freedom guided by, well, what we’ve come to know as Judeo-Christian values; the gospel, and I would say without reservation, the singular idea of resurrection from the dead.
There’s a real revolution in the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, I won’t go into this in detail. It’s Easter, we all want to have this celebration, then get out into the spring air, hunt down those Easter eggs, enjoy the paschal meal with our family, relax tonight either in an evening stroll to walk off a bit of the feast, the chocolate, the wine, or perhaps to gather around the electronic hearth of the home, the television, to watch Ben Hur, or The Ten Commandments.
What I would say is that for all the scepticism about the claims of Mary Magdalene, of Peter and John and the other disciples, the resurrection is the only thing that makes sense of the events of that ancient Passover in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It’s the only thing that makes sense of a Church that survived more than three hundred years of often vicious violent persecution until Christianity was made legal in the Roman Empire. It’s the only thing that makes sense of a Church, as battered and bruised as it is, to be still here today. And it’s the only thing that makes sense of the civilization that grew up within the bosom of the Church. A civilization that has struggled with the idea of the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, and done this through great sacrifice and bloody conflict; through civil wars and world wars to affirm it; a civilization that is rooted in a fundamental hope that by pursuing the path of true virtue, the way of justice, courage, wisdom, moderation, faith and love, we will overcome the obstacle of sin, and by God’s grace be delivered even from death. That as many times as we die spiritually, there is a good God to raise us up; and as often as we fail each other, and sometimes grievously fail, we can always begin again on that path of righteousness that leads to eternal life. By making communion with God our highest goal, we make community here with charity and compassion happen.
We read about Mary Magdalene this morning; a woman beset by grief. Her grief comes of losing her friend and mentor, her teacher and pastor, Jesus. However, the greater, deeper loss is in what he meant to her and to many as a source of meaning and purpose. The story he told, the gospel, flew in the face of the grand story of her day: the story of empire, the story of power, the story of violent conquest.
That was a story that told her the world she knew was as good as it was going to get. There was nothing better than the pax Romana. And she would look around and see a lot of people who agreed with that, and told her and those like her to be sensible and accept that this is how things are. One big part of that story is that power conquers, and power is the power to kill. Rome, being very proficient in exercising that kind of power, was the natural ruler.
You can read a lot about the power of narrative, of grand stories that enthrall people. What usually occurs, outside those exceptional times of unity that I spoke of earlier, is that about a third of the people will believe the story told them by those in authority, disseminated through the media and the schools and universities and so on. Another third won’t really believe it, but they can’t be bothered to resist it, to question it; they go along to get along. And the final third will be those who don’t believe it at all, but they are splintered into all different kinds of groups and organizations, cults and societies, some offering coherent criticism, others descending into conspiracy theories. The one among these many that offers the better story, it will grown and become a threat to the powerful.
Christianity was one of these in ancient times. Mary Magdalene rejected the common sense of the day, the received wisdom as to how the world works. Yet, what made her different, and what made different men of Peter and John, different women of Veronica and Salome, was that, not only had they followed Jesus for as much as three years, and heard the wonderful story of God’s love for humanity in the gospel; but that they had it proven when they saw Jesus risen from the dead. It wasn’t just any story, it was something they lived and knew to be true – they learned in that lived encounter that truth cannot be defeated, love cannot die. You can crucify love, bury the truth, put a guard on them, scare people away from them; but the tomb will not hold them, and Christ will burst forth into the world and spread among the people as a welcome contagion that immunizes us against the unjust claims of the powerful, the overreach that seeks to take from us our dignity, our freedom.
That great revelation had to fight its way into the consciousness of humanity two thousand years ago; and the world pushes back against it. It is a struggle that continues in every generation as it does today in our communities, in our schools, our universities, our bureaucracies and our businesses. Many will believe a story that robs them of their dignity in exchange for fleeting pleasure or luxury or because they know no better; yet others will shrug and carry on. We have this resurrection story, the greatest story ever told, and it frees all who hear and believe, raises up all who come to its truth; comforts all who surrender to its love.
I pray all of you today, after the recent difficult time, in the face of current crises domestic and abroad, know that for all those stories, the wars and rumours of war that Jesus told us to expect, that the story of this resurrection is the story you share with others, and the story you tell yourself, this story that at last makes sense of our hope, faith and love in this world and in the world to come. Amen.