“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
In a world where we have so much of everything and where communication buzzes around the world in milliseconds, it is worth this Easter week reflecting on what an immense achievement it was two thousand years ago to change the lives of billions of people right through to the present day. Even just a fortnight ago, we had the witness of Pope Francis standing in the ruins of Mosul in Iraq, bringing the unconditional love of the Christian faith.
So in this commentary we turn to matters spiritual, remembering how Jesus followed the quote above with “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”.
The first Easter week started with a bang: a procession into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. The crowd going wild with hosannas - everyone had heard of his reputation. Straight to the temple, throwing out the moneychangers and castigating the priests who had allowed the desecration of such a holy place. I welcome anyone to listen to this short video of Bishop Alan of Buckingham, talking about this extraordinary event.
In a sense, the raising of Lazarus from the dead a few days earlier, the entry to Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the temple were a calculated process of raising the profile of what was to happen during that week, as Archbishop Rowan Williams explained some years ago. It certainly worked.
There was much teaching to come that week, but the dramatic events starting on the Thursday evening brought everything to a climax. That was the Last Supper, recorded in detail in St. John’s gospel; and the most important thing that happened then - for us - was the example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. This was a deliberate example of how we should ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’ - the second great commandment, through which we learn how to love God.
The hours that followed were dramatic in the extreme, and culminated in the crucifixion: which is what is meant by ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’. The symbolism of this bridging of the gulf between the human and the divine cannot be overstated - hence we read that the curtain in the temple which separated the two was torn from top to bottom.
For those who struggle with the existence of evil and suffering, and who long to find reconciliation, you might like to try listening to ‘Love at the Cutting Edge’, a personal reflection which concludes with the reality of Good Friday.
In those days, the holy day of the week was Saturday: so Jesus’s body was laid to rest on Friday evening, and the tomb was guarded by soldiers posted on a 24 hour watch.
However that didn't hold back the resurrection: on Easter Sunday we read of the amazed followers discussing how the tomb was found empty - Jesus had risen, and he was there talking with them in large numbers. The account of this amazing story simply couldn't be made up - it wholly transformed a bunch of dejected and frightened followers into a world-changing team of evangelists. And it's still happening today.
So, for anyone who feels, particularly during this dreadful pandemic which has taken the lives of so many, that death is the end of it - think again! Try reading the New Testament during what's left of lockdown - it's mind-blowing stuff. And in case you're looking for some further logic to support this message of unconditional love, here's another personal reflection, ‘Love in Creation’.
This is a message of hope that has cascaded through the generations and is vibrant today, notwithstanding our closed churches. It was indeed eight days that changed the world.
And there’s much that we can do to follow through. One of the stories from Jesus’s ministry is the ‘Feeding of the 5,000’: when a tiny contribution of five small loaves and two fish is fed a huge multitude on the hillsides around. What this showed was the immense catalytic effect that a small contribution can make - how a small bit of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ can be transformed into a movement.
There are lots of opportunities for catalytic action today, from food banks to messages of support to lonely and depressed people; and, in business terms, it is from small acorns that big businesses grow, as explained in this week’s Financial Outlook.
Change-makers succeed because they think first of the world around them, and don't focus on their own woes. That's what generosity in spirit is all about.
Gavin Oldham OBE