Third Sunday of Easter 2018
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This has been one of those weeks in which it has genuinely been quite difficult to know when or how to start this sermon because it has felt as though we have been standing on the brink of conflict all week. Serious journalists have been using the phrase ‘mini-world war’ in relation to the situation in Syria and the exchange of threats between America and Russia have been increasing the tension. My children have both studied the causes of the First World War at school, as they do, and they have both said that what is happening now seems so much worse than the situation which existed then, and it is hard to disagree with them. Now I am not going to preach on that situation today, or start unpacking St Augustine’s ‘just war’ theory, although that may be called for in the future, but I would simply say this: as the drums of war beat louder it is essential for us all to interpret and react to events not just as citizens of this country but also as followers of Christ. We should always be prepared to challenge ourselves and our thinking – is this the way, the truth and the life of Jesus or are we following a different way, strewn with fake news and death? I shall say no more today, other than to appeal for everyone to pray for wise heads to prevail.
In this season of Easter 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 10 May. On this coming Ascension Day we shall also be hosting a confirmation service in St Mary’s in which 5 of our people are being confirmed and I urge you to come and support them on that joyous occasion.
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.
Last Sunday we heard how Jesus appeared to the apostle Thomas and in order to help him believe Jesus said, ‘reach out your hand and put it into my side’ where the spear pierced him. Actually, as I said at compline last week, I think that poor old Thomas has been given a bit of a rough deal by history. Firstly, he was not really a doubter – on the contrary he was quite clear that unless he could see and touch the wounds of Jesus that he would not believe. That is not doubt. And, when he does see and touch the wounds of Christ he immediately proclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” That is not doubt. In my mind the story of Thomas has more in common with the transformation of the pilgrims on the Road to Emmaus or even the conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus. It is an encounter with the risen Christ which is completely transformative. And on each occasion Jesus met with each person differently, and as they needed, in order to be changed.
In today’s reading from Luke we have a very similar scene, although on this occasion poor 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. 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. Actually this is not the first time that the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost. In Matthew 14:26, when Jesus was walking on the lake during a storm the disciples thought he was a ghost and Jesus had to reassure them that it was him, as he does again today.
But you can’t really blame the disciples for being scared. 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 flesh and bones. His resurrected body may be different from the body that was buried, after all he can appear in a locked room at will, but both we and the disciples are being shown in visceral terms that the resurrection is as much a physical as a spiritual event. 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. Through his words and 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 is 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 physical 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;
It devalues the sacraments – we aren’t called to remember and to be indwelled with Jesus on a purely mental or spiritual level, but to encounter him in the physical bread and wine;
Lastly, but by no means leastly, a total separation between body and spirit devalues the biblical picture of the general resurrection and 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.
Jesus was determined to prove to the disciples that he was really, physically, alive, transformed yet still bearing the wounds of a sinful world. It is worth dwelling on the fact that God loves us as part of his physical creation but also that Jesus exists, right now, as alive and as physical as the day he appeared to the disciples – that is the whole point of Easter – that Jesus is Alive!
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.”