19 April 2015
Third Sunday in Easter
10.00 Communion Hadlow
Readings Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:36-48
Heavenly Father, as we come to look at your written word this morning may the indwelling Holy Spirit open the eyes of our hearts to meet with your living Word, who is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen
Two weeks ago today, straight after the Easter Sunday service, the family and I hot-footed it to my car and we set off for an event called Spring Harvest. For those of you who don’t know Spring Harvest is an annual gathering of Christians from all over the country that takes place at two Butlins sites, at Minehead and Skegness. We went to the Minehead site, where we normally go, and stayed in some new chalets which were seriously impressive. We did go to Skegness once. Just once.
About 7000 people go to each week at each site and it runs for three weeks at Minehead and one at Skegness – for those who are good at maths you have probably already worked out that this means that about 28,000 people attend this event each year.
They go there to experience loud and lively worship, they go there to learn more about their faith as there are a huge range of seminars catering for all tastes, they go there to have a lot of fun, believe me there was a lot of laughter, but most importantly many go there to experience being in a huge community of Christians. For me, simply to walk around the site and to know that virtually everyone else there would describe themselves as Christian makes a big change from the experience of everyday life and it gives one a huge boost to be reminded that we as a local church are not doing this on our own but we are still part of something much bigger than ourselves. Whatever the media says, and whatever Stephen Fry would like, the fact is that the church is alive and well and to be surrounded by literally thousands of other people singing “Hosanna” at the top of your voice is a great reminder of that.
As we are among friends I don’t mind telling you that by Easter Sunday I was seriously tired and I was a little worried that Spring Harvest would be a bit of a busman’s holiday. However God knew what I needed and after two days of mostly sitting during worship and soaking up the atmosphere and prayers by the third day I was refreshed and on my feet. Actually, put like that, it sounds like a bit of a resurrection story and in a way it was.
And, in addition to the thousands of adults on site there were many hundreds of children and each age group, from toddlers to teens, had their own teaching and worship sessions. My two thoroughly enjoyed it and got loads out of it and there were even tears when we had to come away. And that was just from me.
Apart from the wonderful experience of huge collective worship and the experience of living amongst so many fellow Christians, the thing that most impressed me this year was the honesty of preaching and teaching that took place. In the past I have sometimes been put off by the preaching at large, more evangelical, gatherings because it can gloss over the hard challenges both of life and of faith. Some preachers can give the impression that if you are going through hard times such as illness or depression or if you are struggling in your relationship with God then the fault lies squarely with you and your prayer life. However this year there was an excellent preacher each morning called Krish Kandiah who has written a book called Paradoxology. Rather than seeking to ignore or draw a veil over the paradoxes or logical tensions that lie at the heart of our faith – such as why a loving God would ask Abraham to very-nearly sacrifice his son Isaac – he has written and he spoke about many of them head-on in a refreshing way.
It may be superficially attractive to ignore the hard stuff in scripture but that doesn’t actually get you very far in the journey of faith, especially when hard times strike. I believe that by looking at the hard stuff, and even by wrestling with it, we should find that our appreciation of God, and hopefully our relationship with God is deepened. So I not only commend this book to you but I would also commend Spring Harvest to you. The booking lines for next Easter open at the end of June and I shall circulate further information in due course.
So, we are now in the season of Easter – although that is to give it its pagan name, the true Christian name for this season is Pascha, which is were we get Paschal Candle – and in this season we inhabit that space between two miraculous events – the resurrection that we celebrated with joy two weeks ago, and the Ascension of Jesus which we celebrate on the 14 May. Between the resurrection and the ascension Jesus appeared to his disciples and he taught them further about the meaning of what had taken place and what was still to come.
But one of the things that strikes me most forcefully about the appearances of the resurrected Jesus is his sheer physicality and his apparent desire to emphasise to his followers the fact of his having a real physical body. Last Sunday you heard how Jesus appeared to the apostle Thomas and in order to help Thomas stop doubting Jesus said, ‘reach out your hand and put it into my side’ where the spear pierced him. You can’t get much more physical than that. Jesus was demonstrating forcefully that he was no mere apparition, or spirit or ghost.
In todays reading from Luke we have a very similar scene, although on this occasion poor doubting Thomas is not singled out.
It is after the resurrection and just after Jesus had appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples who had recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread hurried back to Jerusalem to share the news with the rest of Jesus’ followers. They found the Eleven – the twelve disciples minus Judas, and some others who were with them and while they were gathered together talking about what had happened on the road to Emmaus Jesus seemed to appear from nowhere and stood among them. His opening words were “Peace be with you” but despite this the disciples were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost.
And you can’t really blame them. The Romans were very good at killing people, because they had a lot of practice at it. When someone had been hung upon a cross, been stabbed by a spear so that blood gushed out, been pronounced dead and buried for three days they did not generally come back. If any of us came face to face with someone we had just seen be killed and buried we may well be startled and think we had seen a ghost.
But Jesus says – “Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones.”
The resurrected Jesus is not a ghost or a spirit but is flesh and bones. And, apparently to test this even further, the disciples gave him a piece of cooked fish and he ate it in their presence. Ghosts aren’t solid creatures that can eat things.
This may not be something that we talk about very frequently but I believe that there is actually a great importance in the fact that the resurrected Jesus was solid flesh and bones and was not a disembodied spirit.
The Holy Trinity, of course, already contains a Holy Spirit and part of Jesus’ message today is that the disciples should wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes and clothes them with power – and of course we look forward to that event at Pentecost that comes after Ascension.
So both through his words and through his demonstrated physicality Jesus is telling the disciples that he is not a spirit, but that the Spirit of God is separate person from him and is still to come.
The solidity of Jesus’ resurrection also ought to make us think harder about our own view not only of the afterlife but of the separation between spirit and flesh that seems to inform much thinking on the subject.
It seems far too easy even for Christians to take on the dualistic view that our bodies and even the physical world that we inhabit are somehow of less value than our souls and that when we die we shall simply go to dwell in the heavenly realms as disembodied spirits.
There are a number of problems with this view:
It devalues creation. God made the world and said it was good;
It devalues our humanity; God made humanity in his image and breathed life into us;
It devalues the incarnation; when God came to dwell among his creation he came as a fully enfleshed human being and, as we have already seen, even following death and resurrection he remained fully enfleshed. If God values our humanity and our flesh so much that he both created it and took it upon himself how can we say that it is of no value;
Lastly, but by no means leastly, It devalues the biblical picture not only of the general resurrection but also of the new Jerusalem found in Revelation which is not a heavenly city floating in the sky but a physical city inhabited by resurrected people.
So, the physicality of the resurrected Jesus tells me that we need to cherish the world that we inhabit and the bodies that we have because they are all God-given and are not temporary until something better comes along.
Now, that would be a good place to end but I just wanted to mention one important word that features in both of our readings today. It is an old fashioned word in some Church circles but one we cannot actually live without.
In the gospel Jesus said to the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness will be preached in his name to all nations” and in the reading from Acts Peter says to the crowds: “Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.”
Whilst we have celebrated the fact that Jesus died to take away our sins and we have celebrated his physical resurrection in which he is the forerunner of us all we must also remember that we enter fully into the joy of forgiveness when we repent of our sins and consciously turn to Christ so that, as Peter also said, “times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”