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  • Ross Moughtin

It didn't seem inevitable at the time

History matters. Just ask any supporter of Everton Football Club. How we see ourselves today depends to a large part on how we understand our past. In this we need to be realistic and above all, honest, not always an easy exercise. And looking back what now seems to have been inevitable was not inevitable at the time. Far from it. As I preached at my final service at Christ Church, I wonder how my life would have developed if on Saturday, 6 October 1962 Roger had not taken a deep breath and knocked on my door to invite me – out of the blue – to the Covenanter Group at Oxford Hall. I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s excellent book Six minutes in May. The subtitle tells it all: how Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister. We look back now and see his premiership as inevitable but it was not inevitable at the time. Few people expected Churchill to be offered the post by the King, least of all his Majesty himself. Today we all know the story of Dunkirk: it is very much part and parcel of our national character, how we see ourselves. But when it comes to the Norwegian campaign just days before, we have a collective amnesia. It was such a disaster that the Admiralty later mislaid crucial files so as to hide its mistakes from the historical record. Like Gallipoli of WW1, the invasion of Norway in April 1940, the first real military test of the war, was Churchill’s idea and its complete failure, as Shakespeare explains in considerable detail, was largely Churchill’s responsibility. The debacle that was Norway led to the climatic two-day debate in the House of Commons, which led to Chamberlain’s government’s majority being cut in the six minutes allowed for the vote from 213 votes to just 81. All this takes place as Hitler finally launches his invasion of the Low Countries and France. This makes Chamberlain hesitate to step down – “why change donkey midstream?” Moreover, the front-runner for his replacement, Lord Halifax, clearly doesn’t want the job. It is the Labour party meeting in Bournemouth who hammer the last nail in Chamberlain’s coffin – and Churchill gets the job. At the time it seemed a huge risk. Reflecting on these climatic events years later, Churchill conceded: “It was a miracle that I survived and maintained my position in public esteem.” Shakespeare in this remarkable book lives upto his name. Clearly he has done a huge amount of research going to the primary sources rather than relying on other historians’ accounts. In fact, he recounts how after submitting his first draft of the book he accidentally discovers a key document which was presumed lost. What I find fascinating is how the recollections of those involved actually differ not just in the order events happened but whether they happened at all. Labour leader Clement Attlee, for one, looking back could not recall a key conversation which must have taken place. This must have been a problem for Luke in his research for his gospel, his orderly account. He tells us: “Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honourable Theophilus.” (Luke 1:3 Message translation). It was not that Jesus’ teaching was timeless. In fact, the very opposite - it is rooted in history to the extent that if Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen, then it is totally worthless. As it happens we are privileged not just with one but with four gospels. However, what I find fascinating is how each gospel writer gives their own account of the resurrection of Jesus even when for most other episodes in Jesus’ ministry their accounts can be virtually identical. Those who would deny the resurrection of Jesus are not slow to point out the discrepancies between the gospel accounts. Who came to the tomb? When did they arrive? Were there one or two angels? However, what seems clear to me is that these differences between the resurrection narratives is what happens when you ask the different witnesses, as Shakespeare did, each of whom is sure of their remembered experience. The apostle Paul could see this only too clearly as he defends before his critics in Corinth the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:18) At the time the resurrection of Jesus did not seem inevitable. Far from it, as Jesus was buried, his disciples were totally disillusioned, their hopes dashed. No one was expecting to see Jesus again. And no one was more delighted than Peter to meet with his risen Lord. As he explains just weeks later to the bewildered crowd at Pentecost: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.: (Acts 2:31). Only in reflecting on the life of Jesus did his resurrection become inevitable. Inevitable because God himself was at work, such is his love for his people living in the shadow of death.

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