It really is him
Based on Luke 24:1-12
When I was a child, I was allowed to walk to and from school on my own as soon as I could safely cross the road, and from quite an early age, I was pretty much allowed to disappear all afternoon during weekends, just so long as I was home by dinner time. Now I am not suggesting the world was a totally safe place back then. It wasn’t, and I can remember the police visiting my school and warning us about strangers.
We were never actually told why, but we clearly understood we should never ever go anywhere with anyone we did not know, and that we should not believe them if they tried to tell us our parents had sent them.
One day, when I was probably about seven or eight, a man approached me outside my school, and said my mother had sent him to meet me. I didn’t recognise him. What’s more, he had a beard, so I reckoned he had to be dodgy.
I was not in the least bit frightened. Quite the contrary. We had all been warned about strangers, but now I had actually got to meet one. I felt like a trophy hunter who had just spotted a fine specimen of some exotic species. Now it was time for the kill. I stood upright, stared him in the eye, and with that simultaneously rising volume and intonation that only a pre-pubescent boy can achieve, proclaimed, “NO! I’m not going ANYWHERE with YOU! YOU’RE a STRANGER!”
The stranger froze. So did everyone else within earshot. Excited chatter suddenly became overwhelming silence, and parents who had come to collect their children glared at the stranger with collective malicious intent. The stranger looked terrified, like a possum caught in headlights. For the first time in my life, I found myself in control of a tense situation involving grownups, and I must confess I was quite enjoying it.
The stranger stammered he really had been sent to meet me. That wasn’t good enough. I didn’t know this bearded deviant. He named my mother. I didn’t blink. He named my brother. I started to wonder ever so slightly. I think he might have then named our cat and dog. I thought a little bit more, not allowing myself to be rushed. Perhaps my mother really had sent him. But I wasn’t going to take any chances. I finally agreed to accompany him, but only on the condition that he walked well in front of me, and I frogmarched him home like a captured prisoner of war.
I will never forget the expression on my mother’s face when she saw me escorting the hapless captive through the back gate. When she finally managed to stop laughing, all was revealed. The stranger was an old a family friend who lived out of town and had made an unexpected visit. Mum had sent him to meet me and give me a surprise. However, he had grown a beard since I had last seen him, and it simply had not occurred to her that I might not recognise him.
Today is the second Sunday of Easter, the great 50 day celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He had said numerous times he was going die but he would rise again, but nobody seemed to understand him. I very much doubt if anybody seriously expects him to come back to life. Healing the sick and feeding large crowds is one thing. But coming back from the dead after having been mutilated by Roman scourging and crucifixion is something else. So despite all the times he had told his friends he would rise again on the third day, Jesus was buried, and I very much doubt any of them are expecting to see him alive again.
The women who come to his tomb are not expecting find anything other than a dead body. They have brought spices with them that they had especially prepared to anoint his body with.
While the resurrection accounts vary slightly between the four canonical gospels, they all report one or more women coming to Jesus’ tomb and finding he is not there.
In the account from the Gospel According to St Luke that we heard this evening, two men – who are presumably really angels – ask the women why ‘they are looking for the living among the dead, and tell them that Jesus is not here, but has risen.
The resurrection of Jesus is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity. We can hold different views on such matters as biblical inerrancy, whether the stories about Adam and Eve and Noah and the ark should be taken literally or allegorically, Mary’s virginity, how atonement works, and the nature of the Eucharist. But it’s pretty hard to get around the resurrection.
However, not surprisingly, there are many views. But it is not my place to tell you what you may or may not believe.
Some of you will remember the theological controversies that surrounded Professor Lloyd Geering back in the 1960s. In particular, his statement, “The resurrection of Jesus is not an historical event”, and his quotation of Professor Gregor Smith’s view that “… we may freely say that the bones of Jesus lie somewhere in Palestine”, in a 1966 article, caused considerable outage. Professor Geering was not actually saying anything new. Such ideas had long been discussed in theological circles. What he did that was so radical was to bring these ideas into the public arena.
I do not personally agree with Professor Geering. But I am grateful he opened up these issues for wider discussion. Our faith not only permits us to ask difficult questions and to sometimes have doubts, and I would argue that true faith requires us to have questions and occasional doubts. Otherwise it would not be faith at all, but blind acceptance.
My personal view is that Jesus is risen, but the texts we rely on clearly show there is different something about him.
The first actual encounter of anyone with the risen Jesus in this gospel occurs immediately after the text we heard tonight, when Jesus appears to the travellers on the road to Emmaus. And what is clear is that the risen Jesus is different to what Jesus was like before he was crucified.
He is not immediately recognised by people who know him. He enters locked rooms, and he appears and disappears without warning. It is clear he is in a somewhat different kind of body.
We will not fully understand this in this life, but St Paul throws some light on the it in his First Letter to the Corinthians, where he describes how the risen Christ appeared to his followers, and the hope this brings us, noting that:
53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’1
But once Jesus is recognised, there is no doubt it is really him. Just like I had no trouble remembering our family friend once his true identity had been revealed to me.
Humankind was estranged from God, but we were given a way to be reconciled. And that was for God to become fully human in Jesus the Christ, experiencing the joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, and high hopes and broken dreams that are part of human life. Including death.
Jesus went to the cross with self-sacrificing love, and he triumphed over death and sin with his resurrection, and we can be confident that we too can share in his risen life.
But like the first witnesses to his resurrection nearly 2,000 years ago, we don’t always recognise Jesus when we see him. Jesus taught that when we give food to the hungry, refresh the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we do it for him.
So if we to find the risen Jesus in our midst, we don’t have to look very far. Because he is all around us.
As St John Chrysostom once said, and I often repeat, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice”.
Finally, given it is Easter, let’s say the Easter acclamation one more time. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
11 April 2021
1 1 Corinthians 15:53-55