Taking the Christ out of Easter

Every Easter the news carries stories of complaints about the religious significance of Easter being pushed out by chocolate, bunnies, and flowers.  This year the issue seems to have gained particular momentum, helped by the alleged omission of the word “Easter” from advertising for a National Trust egg hunt, and the decision of the Prime Minister to speak out in response.

I’ll be honest, I’ve read few of the stories about this, but the ones I have followed predictable lines.  Well meaning Christian voices protesting that Jesus is the real meaning of Easter, being driven out by a secular agenda.

I would, of course, affirm completely that the central meaning of Easter is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But I disagree that this is being pushed out by other celebrations.  Jesus has long since been pushed out, past tense.  Easter for the vast majority of people is a secular holiday involving time with the family and lots of chocolate, on which these Christians do keep trying to impose a religious story.

As just one example of this, I occasionally complete online surveys, and four times this year I have been asked how I will celebrate Easter.  Of the tick-box options given, not one of those surveys included an option for attending church.

So how do we respond?  I would suggest that the answer is to stop trying to pretend that our religious remembrance and the secular chocolate-fest are one and the same.  They are two distinct events that happen to share a common date.  (Incidentally, I would suggest a similar approach for Christmas, but that’s another blog post).

What does that look like?  Well it doesn’t look like retreating into our church buildings to hold our religious observance hidden from the world.  But it does look like making our faith in the events of Easter known in a way that recognises that the Jesus story of Easter is completely alien to most people, and completely ‘other’ to everything they associate with the word Easter.  It looks like letting people celebrate Easter according to their understanding of what it means, without moaning that they haven’t recognised our understanding.  It looks like telling our own story, and celebrating our own events in a way which doesn’t try to pretend they are the same thing.  And it is important that we do tell our story, and continue to celebrate our faith in a public way, as the Christian story of Easter still has the power to transform lives.

Tomorrow I, along with others from my church and other churches in our town, will stand in the main shopping street and hand out free Easter eggs.  Each of these has a sticker saying, “Easter shows that God loves you” with a picture of a cross.  At first glance this could seem to contradict some of what I am saying here.  But for me it is important that this isn’t an attempt to browbeat others into seeing Easter our way, or to claim that they have got it wrong.  Rather, it is a means for us to communicate what for us as Christian people is central to our understanding of Easter, and the fact that we can do so in a way that recognises the other meaning of Easter simply makes it all the more powerful.

Living Book

This afternoon I was a living book.  East Riding College held a “Living Faith Library” where representatives of different faiths were available to talk about their faith and to answer questions on beliefs and practices.

In reality I asked as many questions as I answered, finding out about people’s previous experiences of the church and ideas about God and Jesus.  I found myself comparing these students to my peers at the same age, and the difference was noticeable.  The majority of those with whom I attended sixth form knew why they didn’t believe.  They might not have cared enough to express it at such an event, but if you asked them about it they could tell you why they had rejected God.  Be it the church’s teaching on issues such as abortion or homosexuality, being unable to reconcile a loving God with a suffering world, or having tried it and found the experience lacking in some way.

But today’s students were different.  It was obvious that for most of them their rejection of faith came simply from the fact they had never considered it.  They hadn’t engaged with ethical or religious questions and found Christianity (or indeed other faiths) unable to answer satisfactorily.  They had just never asked the questions.  God and faith were so far off their radar.

This wasn’t entirely surprising, all the surveys have shown this for a while, but it was the first time I’d experienced it so acutely.  It brought home the challenges we face.  Not just the challenge of a generation who know almost nothing about Christian teaching, but a generation for whom God and the church just don’t exist.  How do we begin to engage in a way which demonstrates Jesus has something to offer them?

There were exceptions.  I had a spirited discussion on the issue of suffering with one student, and an interesting conversation on the nature of the afterlife with a student whose hobby was paranormal investigation.  Both of them had been put off Christianity by being forced to attend church when they were younger because of connections with school or cubs.  Perhaps there too is a lesson…

What ministry is all about

I am convinced that ministry in the 21st Century has to be about more than just caring for those people who are already within the church, and keeping our current activities going.  We have to be reaching out, engaging with the local community, seeking to communicate the love of God in Jesus Christ in whatever ways we can.  And this week has been great as I have had many opportunities to get “outside the church building” (not that we have one!) and into the community.

Last weekend was the National Prayer Weekend, and our Sunday service included prayer stations to bring before God the needs of our community and the prayer requests which we had received from people living on the estate, local councillors, local businesses, and our MP.  A great opportunity to do something for our neighbours that has the power to change situations.

On Wednesday morning I was at the Primary School where our church meets, to give a 5 minute talk at their Key Stage 1 Harvest Assembly.  Different groups of the children sang for us, and I used the parable of the mustard seed to encourage them that however small they are they have the potential within them to do big things for the Kingdom of God.

On Thursday the “Beverley Guardian” came out, and I contributed this week’s “Views from the pews” column, writing about something that I really care about and I believe God cares about too, the refugee situation in Europe.  I used the Parable of the Good Samaritan to encourage people that we must help, even if we might differ on exactly what form that help may take.  I’ll publish the full text of my piece here in due course.

And tomorrow I will be conducting a funeral, for someone who I’ve never met but who used to be a member of another Baptist Church in the area.  A privilege to support a family through difficult times, and to speak of the assurance we can have that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In some ways it’s been a difficult week, as family illness has restricted the time I’ve been able to work.  But it’s weeks like this that I went into ministry for, as in all these varied ways I seek in God’s strength to enable his Kingdom to be extended and lives to be changed through encounter with him.