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27th March 2016 Easter Morning - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
24 March 2016

Readings

Isaiah 65: 17-25

As we move into the concluding passages from Isaiah, where everything is to be restored, the new thing in chapter 43 has now become much more specific.  There will be a new heavens and a new earth.  With our scientific world view we could imagine this as a cosmic event, the colliding of galaxies and the birth and death of stars.  However Maurice Andrew brings us to the text and suggests that what the poet is talking about is a shift from the focus on the immediate concerns relating to the return from exile to a vision of a triumph of good over evil and a vindication of the righteous that is brought about by divine intervention.[1]

There are many times in history and situations when it seems that the only way that justice will prevail and good people will be vindicated is through divine intervention. 

The idea of some cosmic intervention seems to be always popular but the truth is that justice is an ongoing struggle and righteousness is worked out by good people taking risks to bring about change.

It is passages like this one that Christians, and indeed the gospel writers, grounded the understanding of Jesus’ Kingdom of God and also found a scriptural insight to the meaning of Jesus.

Luke 24: 1 12

Chapter 23 of Luke’s Gospel concludes, ‘On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandments’. 

For the followers of Jesus that would have been a day of black emotions, a day of mourning and a day of fear.  Those who have lost someone close to them would know that strange feeling of detachment that grief brings when reality seems suspended.  But as life for everyone returns to normal the women face the practical aspects of mourning and respect for the dead and set out for the tomb.  In his commentary Justo González writes that the parallel story of the women disciples has remained mostly in the background since they were first introduced in the first three verses of chapter eight.  But here they come to the foreground.  In the narrative of the passion and the burial, even while others deny Jesus or flee, these women stand firm, although at a distance.  Along with the rest they believe that with the cross all has come to an end and it is time to return home to their traditional lives.  But before they do that, they must perform one last act of love for their dead leader and anoint his body. 

They do not see the resurrected Jesus and the two figures simply tell them that ‘he is risen’ as it has been foretold and they believe.[2]

Sermon

Lloyd Geering’s book Resurrection-a Symbol of Hope was first published in 1971.  His ideas were not new but they surprised a number of New Zealand Presbyterians and the controversy captured the imagination of the media.  Lloyd went on to establish Religious Studies at Victoria University, was given our highest award and subsequently knighted.  Furthermore he preached at St Andrews on the Terrace to celebrate his 95 birthday and is still writing books. 

Many contemporary biblical scholars have wrestled with the search for the historical Jesus.  Notably Albert Schweitzer with his defining work The Quest for the Historical Jesus and later the research and publications of the ‘Jesus Seminar,’ of which Geering is still a well thought of and contributing member. 

In many ways Sir Lloyd has himself become ‘a symbol of hope’ for all those Christians who want to connect their scientific world view with the basic principles of the Christian Faith. 

For those who still find it helpful to view the Jesus event as a once in history divine intervention the work of people like trauma specialist Dr Sam Parnia seem to be helpful.  In his book The Lazarus Effect Parnia gives a detailed outline of his ground breaking trauma management and multi-disciplined resuscitation procedure.  The book then moves on to speculation on the recollections of those who have been brought back from death.

However the gospel writers go to a lot of trouble to point out that Jesus’ crucifixion achieved its objective and Jesus was well and truly dead as a result  Certainly his body was taken down sooner than might have been normal, but there is no gospel record of it being packed in ice.  There was no mention of repairing the spear wound in his side or replacing the loss of body fluid the gospels describe.

What is far more important than any speculation about what actually happened in those closing sections of the gospels is the understanding that the climax of the total metaphorical gospel journey was resurrection not resuscitation. 

Furthermore if the church is going to have a future we have to move on from discussion about what might or might not have happened, what could or could not have happened, a little more than two thousand years ago.  We need to focus on what resurrection means for the church and for Christians now and in the future. 

In fact the title of Gerring’s 1971 book Resurrection-a Symbol of Hope helps us take hold of that first century excitement that was grasped by those first apostles. Resurrection was a hope first experienced by the women at the empty tomb, later passed on to the male disciples then enshrined in the gospels to be passed on to us. 

The empty tomb was itself a symbol of hope and a metaphor for a totally new relationship with God.  The new relationship with God is not enshrined in the tomb of a long dead Jesus.  The new relationship with God is experienced through the presence of Christ within each and every Christian. 

As Bill Wallace writes in our closing hymn ‘Christ is risen, Christ is risen, risen in our lives’.[3]

Judaism was centred on the Temple up until its destruction and Jews were expected to regularly attend temple festivals.  The apocryphal book of Tobit tells the story of Tobit, a Jew in exile in Babylon, and his family.  Part of Tobit’s difficulties arise because he continually brags about his faithfulness claiming that before he was taken into exile he always attended every festival at the Temple in Jerusalem.  His bragging is so over the top and offensive that God sends a sparrow to defecate in Tobit’s eyes and that is the start of the journey to new beginnings.

Like ancient Judaism Islam expects loyal Moslems to make pilgrimages to Mecca but in recognition of its status as a world religion the requirement has been reduced to at least one pilgrimage in a lifetime.

However the solid gospel message from this morning’s reading is that Jesus is not entombed and therefore not to be worshiped in some sacred shrine in some special place.  The empty tomb is significant in making that point.

The women in Luke’s account of the empty tomb were terrified but the two heavenly messengers addressed them and said:

‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’ (Luke 24:5)

Because our history informs our present it is very easy to find ourselves looking for the living among the dead.   In chapter 43 of Isaiah the poet invites the reader to avoid being bogged down in the past and to be open to the ‘new thing’ that God is doing.  That in essence is what the heavenly messengers were saying to the women at the tomb.  For the women, and the other disciples, the Jesus adventure was over and their future, and the future of the Jesus movement, was not buried in a cave in the ground.  The future was within their lives and the lives of the other disciples. 

The messengers go on to expound the scripture for the women, reminding them of what Jesus taught.  Fired up by that renewed understanding the women go and tell the other disciples, who Luke now calls apostles. 

This recognition through the interpretation of scripture is consistent with the following episode which is Luke’s first resurrection appearance on the Emmaus road.  It is also about finding ‘the new thing that God is doing’ in the tradition of the past.  

It is also significant that the women are not believed.  Much has been made of the male dominated culture of the time and verse 11 can certainly be read that way.  ‘But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’ (Luke 24: 11)  That is very much the sort of statement that men have been using to avoid being influenced by feminine wisdom since the beginning of time.

On another level however it reinforces the reality that an empty tomb is not testimony to the Resurrection.  Reasons for the tomb being empty range from the fact that the body was never placed there in the first place to the one mentioned in the gospels that the body had been removed so people could claim that Jesus had been raised. 

In our scientific world an empty tomb can point to resuscitation rather than resurrection.  Dan Brown in his book the ‎The Da Vinci Code created a whole secret dynasty based on a surviving Jesus and he is only one of the authors that have exploited that unlikely hypothesis. 

The real and only proof of the resurrection is the transformation in the disciples and the presence of the risen Christ in those first apostles.  There is also proof in the amazing growth of the church and the transformation it has brought in human history along with the work of committed Christians in our time and place. 

Even in the land of Luke’s Gospel the disciples struggle to understand Jesus and what his mission is about.  Yet those same people are empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and launch the church into history in Luke’s second book Acts.  Something miraculous happened that involved Jesus’ execution and the time immediately following Jesus’ death.  It involved both women and men, secret disciples and those who pretended not to have known Jesus.  It involved visits to Jesus’ tomb and discussion of their sacred texts as well as shared meals to remember Jesus.  Those are all very mundane and perfectly reasonable activities that were part of the miracle that gave the church its birth.  Part of the mystery we call resurrection, the mystery that confirms Jesus as the messiah or Christ, the Christ in whom the followers of Jesus live and breathe and have their being. 

We now live in Isaiah’s new heaven and a new earth but heaven and earth have not changed since the time of Isaiah.  But as probes head into darkest space and the Hubble Telescope can turn from looking towards the beginning of time and show our planet surrounded by swirling clouds it is obvious that our perception of heaven and earth has certainly been made new.

With a completely new understanding of our place in the universe the future of the church depends on leaving the tomb of past understandings behind.  We must roll away the stone of Jesus debates that have been helpful in the recent past and grab hold of the spiritual possibilities that resurrection means for each of us now.

In a world of science when television brings the wonders of the universe into our homes it is time to look inside ourselves and realise the spiritual potential for transformation in the Risen Christ, within and around us. 

The meaning of the Resurrection for those first Apostles, or representatives of Christ, was the same as it is for us.  Christ is risen, risen in our lives.

Reflective Music



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p.444.

[2] Justo L. González Luke (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 2010), pp.272,173.

[3] Rev Bill Wallace ‘We are an Easter people’ in Alleluia Aotearoa (Palmerston North:1994, New Zealand Hymnbook trust) No146

 

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