We are still reflecting and thinking about the resurrection this morning. It is after all, the most significant event of the Christian year and we believe that it is the pivotal point of history. Luke and John take time to underline the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, whilst Matthew is quite short and Mark peremptory. Luke records the Easter Sunday appearance to the women, the meeting of the two on the Emmaus Road, an appearance to Simon Peter and then meeting with the eleven in the room where they were gathered. He shows them his hands and feet and ate to show he was real because some still did not believe. He also took time to teach them about the Messiah from the Old Testament. John records the appearance to Mary Magdalene, the appearance to ten and then to the disciples plus Thomas, on both occasions showing his wounds. Then we have the account of meeting those who had gone fishing in Galilee. The message is clear: Jesus has risen physically from the dead.
There is a rawness about the resurrection accounts; no attempt is made to harmonise and each gospel writer tells it from their perspective and their sources. In fact any attempt to harmonise or put the recorded events in chronological order doesn’t really work. It is not about producing a seamless account but making the point that Jesus rose from the dead and real people met with him and knew him to be alive. It wasn’t a spiritual meeting or spiritual awakening, but there were real encounters that transformed this frightened and disorientated group of followers.
By the time of Acts 2 we see people who have been renewed and re-inspired in their desire to follow Jesus and share him with others. This is what Peter was telling the crowd:
Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders
and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Acts 2:22-25
Peter’s explanation for what the pilgrims of Jerusalem experienced is rooted in the direct action of God as explained in the prophet Joel. It was about the Kingdom of God breaking in and impacting the world. Everything is described as an action of God as God works out his purposes.
Today we are not going to be analysing or explaining this particular passage from John in detail, but considering what the resurrection meant and means. We are going to be considering three questions:
1. What did it mean for the disciples?
2. What does it mean for us?
3. What does it mean for the church?
What did it mean for the disciples?
The first thing it meant for the followers of Jesus – men and women – was that he had not been defeated by death. The events of the previous few days had not been expunged or forgotten, but they certainly took on a new light and were understood differently. They needed to know that he was physically alive and Jesus demonstrated that principally through eating, but also allowing Thomas to touch his wounds. The fact of his wounds underlines that the events of the previous days were not expunged but central, and that things would not be going back to the way they were.
The resurrection was not about going back to an itinerant ministry travelling around with Jesus, because the resurrection was the culmination of the fulfilment of Jesus’ mission. The resurrection was not and is not about looking back, but looking forward. It wasn’t and isn’t about restoring the past, but looking to a new future in the Kingdom of God – and that grounded in the world that God had brought into being. The resurrection was and isn’t even about conquering death and promising heaven. Look at Peter’s message: the resurrection was about the vindication of God’s servant – the servant of Isaiah 53 – bringing forgiveness and receiving the Holy Spirit, the seal on us that we belong to the Kingdom of God. The resurrection is all about the work of God in Jesus in bringing restoration and renewal to the creation and the people of the creation.
This is demonstrated in the story of the disciples fishing. First of all it is through the miracle that Jesus is revealed. The fishermen are a way from the shore and can’t really see who is there. It is when they catch the fish that they realise it is Jesus – after all he had done this before. Suddenly their purpose is restored. When they get to the beach, they find that actually Jesus has already got breakfast prepared, anticipating their needs after a night’s wasted fishing, and welcoming them to the meal. It was Jesus who had made the Passover arrangements and washed their feet, and here Jesus is again providing and serving. Jesus shows acceptance and the restoration of these fallible people in the services of the KIngdom.
Grace stands out to me here, because at no point in the resurrection accounts is it recorded that the disciples say they are sorry for the way in which they behaved around the crucifixion. There is no record of remorse, just that once they realised and believed Jesus was alive, they were overjoyed. Jesus doesn’t reprimand them in any way, but ensures that they know he is alive and shows acceptance and love. Grace is shown because these are the people entrusted with taking the Kingdom of God to Jerusalem, Samaria and beyond.
Ultimately for disciples, the resurrection is God overturning the verdict of the world on Jesus and his ministry. The world may say ‘No!’, but God says ‘Yes!’ and the followers of Jesus saw and believed.
What does the resurrection mean for us?
Dare I say that it means more than we will go to heaven. There is a song that used to be popular, but the chorus is not theologically true:
Crucified, laid behind a stone;
You lived to die, rejected and alone
Like a rose, trampled on the ground
You took the fall and thought of me above all.
Jesus didn’t live to die and he didn’t think of you or me above all. Let me explain. First of all, Jesus lived to bring in the Kingdom of God. This was his clear declaration at the beginning of Luke and shown throughout his earthly life. Central to that mission was going to involve the cross, but he wasn’t going to remain in the tomb. Without the resurrection Jesus was just another failed messiah, no matter how good he was and how extraordinary his teaching. The resurrection however, completely vindicated his work and ministry and opened up the way for the Kingdom to grow. Secondly, John 3:16 clearly tells us that God so loved the world and it is through faith in Christ and the work of Christ that the world will be reconciled and renewed. Yes Jesus comes to each one of us and forgives us, but he came and died for the whole world. He lived to bring in the Kingdom for the world.
So what does the resurrection mean for us?
First, it is foundational to our faith and how we understand God. Without it we are just an appreciation society or a charitable organisation. As Paul says, ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ 1 Corinthians 15:19 That is especially true for those times and places where to be a Christian had meant hardship and even death. It is because the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have eternal significance that people have been and are willing to commit everything to Christ.
Secondly, our understanding of God is defined in relation to Jesus. It is in Jesus Christ that we see God revealed. This is made clear in the opening chapter of John’s gospel when ‘the Word’ whom we understand to be Jesus, is identified as being the same as God. In verse 18 we are told that it is the one and only who was at the Father’s side who has made God known to us. In Colossians Paul makes the point that Jesus is the image of the invisible God and it was through him that God reconciled the world – the point he also makes in 2Corinthians 5:19. We cannot understand God without the risen Jesus.
Thirdly, in Jesus God and humanity are brought together. This is because ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ 2Cor5:19, to which I have already referred. However, in taking on human form, Jesus sanctified it. God did not and does not reject material creation or consider it unworthy – he brought us into being. God in Christ went through the pain of the cross to bring restoration and reconciliation to humankind. Central to the Christian belief in the sanctity of human life is the fact that God took on human form in Jesus and sanctified it.
Fourthly, the actions of the church make no sense without the resurrection.
• We read scripture to understand and follow Jesus, but what is the point if Jesus did not rise? We would not have the Holy Spirit to help us discern what is being said through the Word and it would be no different to reading about other prominent figures from history.
• There would be no point proclaiming the gospel. After all, what would we be proclaiming? That there was a good man called Jesus who called people to live a counter-cultural lifestyle and who misjudged the situation and was executed? Not much good news there.
• Baptism, communion, prayer and worship would just be rituals to see us through life – traditions or a comfort blanket. Without the resurrection they would have no meaning.
Fifthly, the body of the church only exists because of the resurrection. Think about the disciples even when they had met with Jesus – they weren’t exactly thinking about proclaiming that he was alive. However, as Jesus returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit, so the church was born.
Without the resurrection we are just another group following a popular figure and keeping his memory alive. However, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20-24
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have
fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
This passage also underlines the fact that Jesus came, lived, died and rose again to bring in the Kingdom of God.
What does the resurrection mean for the church?
Surely I have just answered that question. However, I want to go off in a different direction that is particularly relevant to today. Eventually we will emerge out of isolation and come together at Windmill Street and we will celebrate. It will be like a re-birth for us and for other churches – a resurrection experience. There is lots of talk about society not being the same when this crisis is eventually over, but what about the church? I am beginning a conversation with the Elders on Thursday about what church might look like and what we believe it should be like as we emerge from isolation. You can join in this conversation by emailing your thoughts and reflections, or giving me a call and having a chat.
I think there have already been some changes that we won’t want to let go.
• There is a large group who meet each morning to pray at 8:00am through Facebook Live. We have developed a rhythm of prayer and worship for the beginning of each day, drawing on the prayers of Christians from down through the centuries. This I think we would want to see continuing.
• We have more people attending the weekly church prayer meeting through Zoom, than we have had over the past few years on a Thursday at the church centre. I think we would want to continue that.
• The Zoom Bible study has been well attended and has potential to expand into different groups across the church.
• There has been a concerted effort by people to keep in touch and up to date with each other.
• We have been reaching far more people through Facebook Live than we usually do on a normal Sunday – something I want to see continue. Now that is progress for a social media dinosaur like me!
It is also an opportunity for us to grow deeper as disciples and to keep that going as we come back together, focussing on the real purpose of church. And that means we need to take a step back and look at our programmes and activities and ask where we should be concentrating our mission, and coming together as a church behind those things. We can’t do everything, so what does God want church to be at Emmanuel? How radical are we prepared to be? Join the conversation.
When Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t say, ‘Ok guys, business as usual,’ but led his followers into a new phase of the Kingdom. That meant radical change in their lives. The easy thing would be for us to go back to business as usual, because there is comfort and security in that. However, the resurrection amazed, shocked and disturbed people. Jesus through the Holy Spirit has not lost the power to do that, but we have possibly become too settled.
As we move towards Pentecost, let’s pray for the Holy Spirit to inspire and re-birth us as the church at Emmanuel.