Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 19th April
I love this Season of Easter: after the dark and gloom and cold – and even in the midst of it, it reminds us that “we are an Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song”. God be praised – and for good reason!
Last week (if you remember) we had John’s take on the resurrection – and the story of Thomas – and today we have part of the closing scene of Luke’s Gospel, which, true to form with this wonderful story- teller who doesn’t waste a word, is full of joy and excitement, but also brings into focus one of the abiding questions about what actually happened at Easter. For biblical scholars like Tom Wright - who is often one of my first ports of call when I start thinking about sermons - this is a cause of ‘utter fascination’ – and should be for us if we to think about it for a few moments – which is what we’re going to do this morning. So how’s about some questions to get our Easter thinking caps thinking going this morning?:
What sort of body did Jesus have after rising from the dead?
How could it - at the same time - be solid and real,- with flesh and bones, (able to eat baked fish...) and yet also appear and disappear apparently at will
Jesus certainly demonstrated that he couldn’t have been a ghost – and put paid to one of the Gnostic heresies at the time, and indeed since – that if Jesus walked by on the sand he wouldn’t leave footprints, that he’s just ‘risen in our hearts’ or in our imaginations, not in actuality’ – not really.... The Apostle Paul makes it very clear in his amazing Resurrection Chapter – 1 Corinthians 15 that (in the King James version):
“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable”
I have to admit, this has been a tough year or so for this ailing body of mine. It was a little over a year ago when I pretended that I remembered how to ski and fell heavily on my shoulder – and after doing some gardening yesterday, playing the odd game of squash and lumping poor Sue in and out of the car for her appointments - it takes way longer to recuperate these days. So I’m intrigued by this possibility of a getting a renewed body – and I’m sure I’m not on my own – am I? – anybody else out there creaking?!!
But it’s not easy to grasp this implication of the resurrection. As I said the Apostle Paul thrashes it out in a long chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians and even then it can be misunderstood. One of the problems is that people often think of resurrection as simply meaning ‘life after death’ or ‘going to heaven’ – but in the Jewish world of the first century it meant something really, really exciting: it meant a totally new embodied life in God’s newly created and renewed world; a life after ‘life after death’ - if you like.
It’s also clear that the new body that we will eventually be given is not identical to the previous one – (and for some of us that’s incredibly good news!)!
In an act of new creation (paralleling the original creation), it seems God is able to make a new type of material - no longer subject to death - out of the old one.
Now in Jesus’ case this happened right away – without his original body decaying – so that what the disciples were seeing was actually a transformation of the Jesus they knew.
For the rest of us, whose bodies will decay and whose bones will be buried or cremated (sorry to be so gruesome), it’s going to take a complete act of new creation – but this is what the resurrection promises us – and that’s why it’s such great news.
Now if I haven’t lost you already let’s think this through a bit to see how amazing it gets....
This new body – and Tom Wright actually sees this as the main point – will belong in both the dimensions of God’s world: in both heaven and earth. There are pictures of this in the book of Revelation where heaven and earth finally get joined together in one – so there’s no shuttling to and fro – because both dimensions are fused together at last.
At the moment our bodies are earthly only (& it can certainly feel like it most mornings!). Yet there are glimpses we get of something else – when we’re in those ‘thin places’ that the Celtic Christians used to talk about - where heaven seems to be breaking into the present. For those who came to our Holy Week services I think there was that sense of God being very near. ‘Nearer to us than we are to ourselves’ as St. Augustine put it in his Confessions.
What is so remarkable about Jesus’ resurrection body is that it is at home in both earth and heaven.
Now then (crucial point! – not as one old preacher used to write in his sermon notes, “shout loud here, argument weak”!) NOW THEN - if our mental pictures of heaven need adjusting to allow for this ’startling possibility’ – then (as Tom Wright and other commentators say) “so be it” – because this is the only way we can begin to understand otherwise very puzzling bits of Scripture in both Luke and John.
And please let’s not be afraid of the mystery of all this (Jesus would be – is - allaying our fears too, saying to us – ‘Peace be with you’). The resurrection and ascension stretch our minds and imaginations further than we’re comfortable with – and our materialistic social and cultural conditioning doesn’t exactly help – and neither do Hollywood images of people in white sitting on clouds playing harps!
Let’s not forget that, wonderful though our world is, it’s also a fallen world of sin and death; of cruelty and mess – and it’s a huge struggle to adjust to the idea of God’s new world where the rules we regard as normal won’t apply. But that is part of the challenge and brilliance of the gospel. Imagine what people’s experience of church and worship would look like (‘actually’) if we really lived in the light and truth of the resurrection – if Hallelujah really was our joyful song!
I think the reason why I found so many other things to do last Sunday evening before getting to this week’s lectionary readings (and at least make a start on the sermon, which is what I usually try to do) is because, like Jesus’ disciples at the time, I find this all so incredibly baffling.
(So despite theirs and our minds reeling!) Isn’t it interesting that what Jesus has to say to his followers and friends in his last days with them is all very practical - and points the way to the whole mission of the church - which as a body of believers here we’ll be trying to recommit to as we begin a new year with our Easter Vestry nest week and a newly elected PCC. But as our diocesan prayer reminds us each week – mission is the responsibility of all the members of the church, not just those who hold positions of office – it’s why we’re Christians – and why we’re here, where we’ve been placed, right now.
All this takes us to the heart of the Gospel message. What’s the point of Jesus dying and rising again? Yes it’s nice to have him alive again – but what does it mean for the rest of us? Well the answer is here: the church is to be rooted in Scripture and therefore always active in mission because it is the nature of a self-giving God to reach out to the world he made with his love – and he’s never changed: notice what Jesus says at the end of our reading: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations”.
The Bible always envisaged that when God finally acted to fulfil all the promises made throughout the generations to Abraham, Moses and all the prophets, then the whole world would be brought into the embrace of his saving and healing love – and boy does it need it!!
At the heart of being a Christian is the personal turning away from the obstacles we have in our lives that stop God working with us – the things that prevent us from enjoying his life – and so by faith we can receive and celebrate God’s mercy and forgiveness. But these two words –‘ repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ go much, much wider as well: they’re an agenda that can change the world – just think about the amazing work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa under Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s leadership; or the forgiveness shown by those who lost loved loves in the Northern Irish troubles – and the experience of the character Mack in ‘the Shack’ for those who’ve read it.
Jesus embodies and expresses the heart of the Father who is always looking for the returning child. And he promises his followers that they would be equipped with power from on high to engage in their task of making him known – their mission – or, more correctly God’s Mission – which we’re a part of.
So it’s got to be this resolute application of the gospel, under the Lordship of the Risen Jesus, that’s the only way forward towards the creation of new hope and new possibilities; the only way that the church will be relevant and contemporary as it seeks to go out rather than trying to dredge people in. We don’t need to agonize about being hip and trendy and relevant and accommodating – we have a wonderful gospel to proclaim.
Luke’s account ends as it began – in the Temple at Jerusalem – with worship of the living God – now fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – and it is Jesus who is at the heart of Luke’s vision of the Christian life; Jesus who needs to be at the centre of our lives – alive – more real than real!