Scripture Readings: I John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48

‘You are witnesses’

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Something happened at Easter. Exactly what, it’s hard to get our minds around. For the Easter story is of man an innocent man condemned to death. He is executed- slowly, torturously- on a cross. He hangs there until he is dead, and then he is buried. There is no doubt that he was dead.

But then something happens. It is reported that he is alive again. In an early report of the story, St Paul writes:

I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures; that he appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterward to all the apostles.[1]

But the dead do not usually come back to life. Either something miraculous happened, or the stories of Christ’s resurrection are simply that- stories. St Paul was simply passing on gossip.

But something happened. Something happened to those men and women who had followed Jesus, and who saw their Teacher executed. Something happened to them to make them say that they believed he was alive again. Something happened to turn the mourning disciples of Good Friday into men and women who, a few days later, were prepared to go out and tell the world, ‘he was raised to life three days later’.

There are various stories of people meeting Jesus after his resurrection. Today we read one of them, from Luke’s Gospel (and a version of this story appears in all four Gospels, so it was clearly a story which was important and treasured by the first Christians).

Luke puts the story in an interesting context. He has already told what happened early in the morning. Some of the women followers of Jesus (Luke says they were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James) have gone to his tomb, and been puzzled to find it open. Angelic messengers tell them that ‘He is not here; he has been raised’[2]. The women leave the tomb and go to find the senior disciples, and tell them what has happened (it’s intriguing that it’s women who are the first to preach the Easter Gospel). But the male disciples aren’t impressed: ‘the apostles thought that what the women said was nonsense, and they did not believe them’[3] (except for Peter, who goes to investigate).

Luke then tells us of two followers of Jesus who are walking to the town of Emmaus, outside Jerusalem. They meet a stranger, whom they eventually realise is Jesus. They go to tell the senior disciples the good news, but the disciples by now have decided to believe (Peter seems to have persuaded them)- the two sets of stories confirm each other.

But in the middle of this conversation- where our reading takes up the tale- Jesus himself suddenly appears among them. Not surprisingly they’re all terrified at first- they wonder if they are seeing a ghost. But Jesus reassures them. He points to his hands and feet, injured by the nails of his execution, as if to say, ‘It’s me, the one who was executed. I’m not your memory of who I was before I died- look- here’s my wounds- flesh broken by nails’. He even goes on to eat with them, to further prove that it is him, flesh and blood risen from the dead. And he goes on to explain to them how what has happened now makes sense of everything that went before. This is what his life had been leading up to.

Luke the Gospel writer has given us a very striking story, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. For many Christians, it is enough to believe that these and other accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are simply what happened. He came back to life, he left the tomb empty, he appeared to his friends and commissioned them to go and tell others.

But an historian looking at these stories will be sceptical. This, an historian would tell us, is the stuff of pious legend, not of hard historical fact. For the dead do not come back to life. An academic historian is not going to put a story like that into one of her books.

So is Easter myth or history? I suspect it’s a bit of both. It’s something that happened in history, to someone we know actually lived. But we may find it hard to credit some of the details of these resurrection narrative. Yet, we are Christians, and so we want to believe- to know that, indeed, Christ is risen, with all the joyous implications of that message. Maybe no story, no image, no art, no philosophy or theology is able to entirely comprehend what happened at Easter. In the presence of the Resurrection of Christ, we are in the presence of mystery- something so deep, fundamental and beyond our usual experience that we cannot hope to completely understand it.

We will never fully understand Easter, but I myself simply cannot get round the fact that something happened at Easter. Something happened to turn to the shocked, mourning, disheartened friends of Jesus into men and women who would go out into the streets of Jerusalem and shout: ‘Jesus is risen! Our friend is alive!’ After all, by doing so they started a movement which spread out from Jerusalem across the world, which has come down through two thousand years of history, and is still affecting the world today. Easter is a mystery. I might not understand all the details, but this I do know: something happened at Easter.

And perhaps what is most important to us, as we think about the Resurrection, is not what happened at the time, but how whatever it was that happened continues to have power and significance. And so Luke’s account of Easter does not with an explanation of what has happened to Jesus- he doesn’t demystify the mystery. Instead, he tells us what Jesus had to say to those scared, confused disciples about what happens next.

Listen again to the words of the risen Christ at the end of our reading:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”[4]

‘Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’- he helped the disciples to understand all that had happened to them, ever since they had first met him, now made sense in terms of his death and resurrection.

The story of Jesus only makes sense in the light of his death and resurrection. But sometimes people want to reduce the Gospels to just the teaching of Jesus. They ignore the cross and the empty tomb, and try to understand Jesus just as a teacher of morality. They reduce faith to ethics.

Not to very long ago, churchgoing was a sign of respectability. We imagined that our society was governed by ‘Christian’ ethics, and the church was thought to be simply a way of making people be good. But the Gospels end with the respectable powers-that-be putting Jesus to death. His words and teachings are not respectable, but revolutionary. He is teaching us, not just how to live with one another, but how to live with God.

That’s why the life of Jesus only makes sense in the light of his death and resurrection. For he came, not to make us respectable or good, but to put us right with God. His is a message about ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’, as Luke has him tell the disciples in today’s reading. Jesus’ message is not about just about ethics. Jesus’ message is first and foremost about salvation.

Jesus spoke about the first being last and the last being first. He taught that being a servant is more important than status. In word and action, he spoke of God’s care of those who were marginalised in his society- women, children, the mentally ill, those suffering from diseases like leprosy which cut them off from others. He claims that even tax collectors and prostitutes have a share in God’s Kingdom. He begins as a teacher of the Jewish people, but already during his lifetime he begins to bring Israel’s God to the rest of humanity. Wherever he goes, whenever he speaks- barriers are broken down, prejudices are challenged, traditions are questioned, the sick are restored to health, sins are forgiven, guilt is destroyed, life replaces death, faith in his Father God replaces faith in lesser gods.

At the end, as he hangs on the cross, we might admire his idealism. As he hangs on the cross, we might admire his determination. As he hangs on his cross, we might think he is worth remembering.

But it does not end there. All his idealism, all his determination, all his memorable sayings and actions are vindicated by whatever it is that happened that first Easter Sunday. Because after his resurrection, his friends no longer just remembered a dead martyr- they rejoiced in the presence of a living Teacher. He’s not a dead leader, but a living inspiration. He’s not a dead hero, but a living presence- in bread and wine, in preaching and praise, in their everyday lives of serving others.

I mentioned earlier what the Church once was, in living memory- respectable, a guardian of morality, encouraging individuals to try to be good. But what of the Church of the future? People today look elsewhere for their morality. They have other stories to inspire them. They look askance at a Church which often seems to want to recreate a world that is gone. And we struggle to keep things on the road, with fewer and older members, in a society that is changing faster than we know.

But the Risen Christ says to his disciples and friends:

‘You are witnesses of these things’[5].

And he sends them with his blessing, and the promise of God’s Spirit, to take his message of the forgiveness of sins out into the world. It is a world-changing message. It is a message of revolutionary consequences. And if, in our own age, when the church seems to be struggling to reinvent itself, maybe that is what we need to hear after Easter. For if we think about what the Church is, what the Church is for, what is the responsibility of each who call themselves Christian, here it is in a few words: We are witnesses.

To be a witness is not simply to see that something has happened, but to speak about it. We know the stories, the teaching, the person of Jesus Christ. We have heard of what manner of man he was, of his compassion and love, of his faith and determination even unto death, of his mysterious resurrection and his continuing presence in our lives and in the world. We are witnesses of all that- but we are also, like witnesses in a court case, to speak of what we have seen and known. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

And there is the future- and the present, and the past- of the Church. We are to be witnesses of the love of God that we find in Jesus Christ. In the face of the images of death which we see on TV from Syria and elsewhere, we are witnesses that the Risen Christ conquers death. In the face of those who say that it’s too hard to heal the sick or care for the poor, we are witnesses that Jesus of Nazareth did just that. In the presence of those who are burdened with guilt, we can speak of Jesus who spoke of the forgiveness of God. This is our commission as Christians, this is what the church is about and for: we are witnesses.

The writer of the First Letter of John tells us that God’s is so great that we are called God’s children. The universe is no dark, soulless, fearful place, but the creation of a God who calls us his children. That is a message which the other stories, the other religions and pseudo religions, the other philosophies which people try to live by, cannot match. We are witnesses that in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, we can know the transforming love of the God of life!

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] 1 Corinthians 15.3-7

[2] Luke 24.6

[3] Luke 24.11

[4] Luke 24.45-48

[5] Luke 24.49