Living good news v fake news

IMG_2327‘Fake news’ and ‘false news’ has itself been a news item recently. Donald Trump hit on this as a way of arguing that photographs that clearly showed a sparse crowd at his inauguration back in January had been doctored and anything which casts him in a poor light he has dismissed as being fake. It is the tool of someone in denial and wanting to either live a fantasy or mislead. Behind his claims there is just enough reality of there being news stories that are plain wrong and some of the national newspapers specialize in this. I frequently find that when I know something about a story the news reports often have key elements missing or the slant given creates a false or misleading impression. So he is tapping into a sense that we have, even if he is distorting it. There is a sliding scale from absolute lies to the spin that so many PR gurus put on stories to give an emphasis they want to dominate, not necessarily false but one that creates a different impression. And all of us do it to some extent. Memory is after all recreated each time we recall it and it is not just the replay of a cerebral recording.

Facebook have been so worried by the prevalence of ‘false news’, and how it is leading people astray, that they issued 10 things to look out for. When I looked through this list I thought, surely this is just critical evaluation: assessing the evidence, checking the trustworthiness of the source, looking for other reports that back it up. None of this is particularly dramatic, but when you remember the utter nonsense that was spouted around the EU vote last summer and believed, then may be it is. Lots of students have been taken in by false news and one of the jobs of education is to give critical tools to evaluate, check and back up. I remember having “source” written on my essays, drumming into me the importance of citing my references. That said some things are really hard to check when we just don’t have access to the primary sources. Why would this person lie, and then you find out they have. What does this person gain from this story, and then you find a link you hadn’t known about. And what is very interesting is that people who are sceptical about one area swallow without blinking another. Emotional trust can out weight intellectual evidence.

Which brings us to Easter Day. That Jesus lived and died is not really disputed by serious study. There is more evidence for Jesus than Julius Caesar. The harder question is whether Jesus really died and lived, and that is of course what this principle feast day of the Christian year is all about. Jesus, who had really died on a cross, been buried in a tomb with a large rock placed in front of it to prevent grave robbers, was reported to have risen, to be alive in a completely different way. This is not the resuscitation of a corpse. The life of the risen Jesus is a very different form. It is next to impossible for us to know and assess the truth of these claims for certain. So is this false news or real news? We can apply my summary of the Facebook tests: assessing the evidence, looking for the trustworthiness of the reports and asking if it is backed up by others.

The primary evidence comes from the gospels and the other writings in the New Testament, all of which assume the resurrection was a real event. There is more than one of these writings, so we have multiple sources, which is a good start. The difficulty with the gospels, though, is that they are not news reports. They are an ancient form of writing, put together some 20 or 30 years later, and they include story and symbolic elements to make their deeper points. So they are second level accounts, where interpretation is mixed in with reporting and that skews how we see them. Some of the detail is fanciful. Our gospel reading today gave us angels appearing, moving stones and then sitting on them before giving direct instructions (Matthew 28:1-10). I’ve never seen an angel. I don’t know anyone who has. That is a difficult element to back up. What is more, angels are often a literary device in the Bible to give stage directions and narrator’s comments about what an event means. They are shorthand for ‘this is about God so pay attention’. So we have a complex narrative with an event being portrayed symbolically and figuratively. That makes the history of it difficult to assess.

The key piece of evidence for me, which we can assess, is what happened as a result of these events. The result was that shattered, broken, despondent men and women changed. They were not like the soldiers in our gospel reading (v4), who froze and became like dead men, rather they became animated and fired up by the deep conviction that Jesus who had been dead was now raised. It is an astounding claim and one that makes them either utterly deluded or something really happened which had a profound affect on them. And I can’t prove to you which that is, except to ask what these men and women did. Does their behaviour sound like that of the deluded and the deceitful? I don’t think it does. In fact, I think the change in them was so significant that we have to take what they say very seriously and cut through the fanciful, symbolic detail to the reality that lies behind it and within it. The man who was dead was experienced as being alive and this new life changed them.

The behaviour that followed was not what we associate with fake news. It was gracious, hospitable, sharing goods in common so that there was a spirit of cooperation, not selfish gain. They were so convinced that they were prepared to die for their new faith. They talked of love and hope, of thanksgiving, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of equality and openness beyond boundaries. The risen Jesus tells them that he will meet them in Galilee, where it all began, and if you recall Galilee is the gateway to the rest of the world and also Herod’s back door. This gospel, this good news, brings transformation of lives, of how to live, and how to treat our neighbours whoever they are. It brings life in abundance, not necessarily material riches, but deep spiritual riches that mean people are blessed – given life. The qualities that the disciples displayed are that they lived Jesus’ teaching and embodied it. And they did these with a conviction that went beyond a vague notion of his teaching was a bit wise, so it’s worth following all the same. Rather it was a conviction that living this, doing this, was the way, the truth and the life because it sprang from the life and love of God, supremely revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

So when we want to look at the evidence for the resurrection we look not just to what the accounts say, but to what the impact of those events was, the impact of the life of the risen Christ on his disciples. That impact continues in the church today. as the risen Christ continues to enliven and inspire. Whenever Christians live in the Spirit and the hope of Jesus – gracious, hospitable, sharing, loving, thankful, forgiving and reconciling, with openness and equality, moving beyond boundaries – whenever we live like that, we affirm the resurrection life, we live the resurrection life. We are not to live like dead men, weighed down by false or fake news, but as those animated with good news and hope, the good news and hope of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Alleluia!


Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter Day, Sunday 16th April 2017


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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