Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on Easter Sunday across the benefice.
Readings: John 20
The wintry earth is beginning to awaken, bringing us expectations of new life. We often associate Easter with this season of new life, which emerges from the ground and is in the nature all around us, that is both wondrous and, at the same time, predictable. It comes around every year. It is exactly what we expect to happen at this time of year, even if we have had to wait longer for it this year. But the resurrection of Eastertide, the physical appearance of Jesus to his friends, is a completely different matter. It goes against every empirical scientific evidence we possess. What a fantastical idea, especially in a secular age! The most problematic of paradoxes is surely at the heart of the Christian faith and, as such, these few words at the end of John’s Gospel, that Jesus is risen, are some of the most important in the whole of the scriptures. If they are true, then they are surely the most fundamentally significant words in any literature, of any time and in any language.
Indeed, how hard it was for the disciples to comprehend the fact of Jesus’ appearance to them. After his death, from which they feel lost and dejected, confused by Jesus’ apparent failure on the cross, there He is, in the midst of them. What are they supposed to think? They do not have a set of cultural, historical and theological references to make any sense of it. There is, as yet, no Pauline theology, no Church or Christian tradition, not even the second instalment of Luke’s narrative, the Acts of the Apostles, to offer any explanation, just a plain fact: the presence of Christ, in physical form, in front of them.
Not surprisingly they think he is a ghost, perhaps a figment of their imagination or wish-fulfilment, a vision of their beloved friend and leader to comfort them in their grief. Surely fear and doubt are the obvious reactions. Where is the evidence for such an occurrence? Why would they accept something which is clearly outside the realms of known reality? So the empirical evidence is offered, as Jesus stands before his disciples and he invites them to look at the wounds in his hands and feet and side, to touch them even, although, like the story of doubting Thomas, we are not told whether they do in fact place their hands on the wounds.
John is at pains to emphasise and re-emphasise that Jesus was really there, not metaphorically or in spirit, but physically present. Indeed, the beginning of the book of Acts relates that: ‘After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.’ For better or worse the disciples, especially doubting Thomas, are invited to accept what is in front of them.
His presence amongst his disciples in that upper room is the fulfilment of something that they should know about: their Jewish history. A history which includes the acts of love shown towards the people of Israel: an unfailing love that liberated them from Egypt, to lead them to a better future. Everything in the law, the prophets and the psalms culminates in this moment. So John explains that all that he has written is for the purpose of persuading us that Jesus is the Messiah and that those who believe in him might have life in his name.
Thus, John moves the story on from one of remarkable resurrection to future meaning and action: the whole incarnational process has a richer meaning, that forgiveness of sins has been achieved, that the relationship between humanity and God has been re-established, that eternal life with God is here.
Christian faith doesn’t depend for its existence on belief in the miracles that Jesus did during his ministry, or other supernatural events, such as whether or not Jonah literally spent three days in the belly of a giant fish. Christianity does rely, however, on a belief that the crucified Jesus rose from the dead by the act of God, attesting to the truth of his message and the meaning of his death as a sacrifice for human sin, and inaugurating an ultimate redemption of the world from sin and death.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the British journalist Frank Morison was convinced that supernatural religion was a myth, although like a good liberal he admired the historical teachings of Jesus. So he set out to write a book about the real human drama of Jesus’ last days, stripped of the superstitious legends. Morison wrote
‘I wanted to take this last phase of the life of Jesus, with all its quick and pulsating drama, its sharp, clear-cut background of antiquity, and its tremendous psychological and human interest-to strip it of its overgrowth of primitive beliefs and dogmatic suppositions, and to see this supremely great Person as He really was.’
The strangeness of the Resurrection story had captured his attention. His research, however, led him to discover the validity of the biblical record in a moving, personal way. The result was a book called: ‘Who Moved the Stone?’, which became a classic apologetic for the Resurrection.
Treating the Gospels as human documents subject to historical analysis and verification, Morison was forced to conclude that the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead was believable truth, which the Gospel writers correctly report and interpret. If Morison is right, then the consequences are astonishing, because it means that the life and teaching of Jesus has to become the central starting point for our understanding of ourselves and our world. It was just such an understanding that inspired the early deeds of the disciples, as Morison put it:
‘The facts were so well known that the campaign they undertook could positively be conducted with greater success in Jerusalem, where the abandoned tomb lay, than in any other place in the world. It was this that enabled them to concentrate (as Acts clearly shows that they did) on the two vital contentions that ultimately rent Judaism asunder, namely, that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that life had been raised by the direct hand of God. They could surely never have reached this advanced stage of the discussion so early, if the physical vacancy of the tomb had not been common ground.’
But so what? What if there is truth in the story, what does that have to do with us? If the reason we read history is to learn from the past to inform our future, then perhaps it is time, in this new season, to tackle the evidence of the scriptures and the early Church head on, and to ask what we learn from this story, and to ask ourselves honestly what was it that motivated the disciples in their mission which led to their suffering and martyrdom? Was it just about an assurance of the hereafter and a nice cosy forgiveness of sins in a future life or is it about the heralding of new life in the here and now? For as Tom Wright has written:
‘The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven …
it is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven … Our task in the present…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.’
So I urge you to consider the essence of the Gospel, to read it, study it and find it for yourself, in order to make up your own mind and, just maybe, to bring that resurrection reality of new life and the kingdom of God to this village, here and now. Amen.