Sermon Easter 3 Luke 24:36b-48, Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Ps. 4
About 2 weeks ago in a Bible study session in the chapel in the prison where I serve as chaplain, we spent some time on the Easter gospel text from John which we heard last week. As the conversation had drifted into speculation around creedal and doctrinal issues relating to the Resurrection, by way of bringing the group back to our customary method of reflection, which regards the gospel as living and relevant for each person, I asked, “what has been your experience of resurrection?” The period of silence which followed seemed stunned, but also charged… and it did not last long.
Today’s Gospel account from Luke is similar to that of John which we heard last week: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering” – even with the “flesh and bone” Jesus among them, showing them his hands and his feet, the disciples were full of joy at seeing him but were yet incredulous – in spite of the dramatic appearance of Jesus himself, greeting them with “peace be with you” they thought they were seeing a ghost!
Both Luke and John go to some length in showing, dramatically, that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and in each case the disciples carry and play well, the role of the many doubting people who will hear the gospel, then and to this day – to the extent that even “… in their joy they were disbelieving,” as Luke tells us. In John, Thomas is asked to reach out and put his finger, his hand, in Jesus’ wounds – In Luke, Jesus asks for food and eats the broiled fish which he is given – concrete and dramatic imagery which still impresses us…..
The tension between Resurrection, and disbelief or refusal of it, is widely felt and lived in the world I know well, a questioning and doubtful, but yet hopeful category that informs and shapes lives, certainly those with whom I am engaged in my chaplain role – informing and shaping lives, whether understood and articulated, or still obscure. In some, it may never be grasped and made explicit but even when refused, this tension can be discerned if one chooses to be attuned. (Even the excuse, “better the devil you know” is laden with the desire for release)
You will understand that for me, as chaplain, in prisons, and with ex-prisoners in the community, there is no shortage of strangers, of outcasts, of the alienated, of the reviled even, those who are in prison, and those who have been released from prison, though who yet do not belong – no shortage of souls, and bodies, who long for NEW LIFE, for better life, for life that is right – and with those whose struggle is more urgent, there are others like myself, whose need feels less acute. It is clear to me that in my world, we share, with varying degrees of awareness, the hope of resurrection.
It is the sheer physicality of resurrection in the Luke account of today, and in the John account from last week, which is striking for me. And I could add to these the other familiar story in Luke of the encounter between “two of them” and the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, again with the extraordinary stretch between the concreteness of their walking and talking together over some distance and the failure to recognize Jesus, finally resolved in their recognizing him in their breaking of bread together – (the Emmaus model of shared journeying, of pilgrimage, resonates deeply for me as a chaplain).
There can be little doubt that for the early followers of Jesus it really did happen, that Jesus was bodily resurrected. The texts attest powerfully to this in their persuasive and gripping imagery, perhaps especially effective in proclaiming the good news, and for teaching those who were not witnesses. We know and accept these texts as foundational for our faith, that is both in and through the crucified and risen Jesus. But for me the concreteness in the accounts, the physicality of resurrection, points in directions other than those of creeds and teaching – beyond any persuading or offering of proof, which in my experience invariably call up doubting, questioning and speculation which tend to become ends in themselves, often dead-ends of argument.
The healing of the man lame from birth to which todays reading from Acts refers, can perhaps be helpful in appreciating those other directions… I am sure that you are familiar with the account of healing – and may also be struck by the sheer physicality of new life for the lame man:
“One day when Peter and John were going up to the Temple… a man lame from birth was being carried in… people would lay him daily at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. (When asked for alms) Peter said ‘I have no silver or gold but what I have I give you – in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth… and he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple.”
The gospel accounts witness to the real, justifying resurrection of Jesus by God, with all its promise for world healing which sustains and enables us. this account in Acts, of Peter and John carrying on the work of Jesus in their agency for the healing of the lame man, affirms that resurrection by way of God’s grace and love, is a hope, and more than just hope, a principle element of faith for each of us… no matter where, no matter when. Although “we have not seen” that which Thomas and the other disciples saw, we yet can see and feel healing, transformation, repentance, conversion… we can experience concretely the grace of new life, of resurrection to which God in boundless love has given flesh, once and for all, and continues to call us into, in our concreteness. Lived Resurrection can be ours too…
It can be ours but as Peter says (in Acts today) repentance, turning back towards God,FROM REFUSAL, FROM DENIAL, is the condition for it.
I was struck during Lent by a reading we heard from 1 Peter (3:18-22) in which was suggested this view of the promise of resurrection as concrete, of our dying with Christ to our sinfulness…
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey… this baptism… … now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
I have experienced a resurrection of sorts in my own falling by Grace into the vocation which has held and blessed me for some 17 years and which through no merit of my own had attuned me to a capacity for love of which I had only ever had hints till then. This has attuned me keenly to the struggles with, and the experience of resurrection in my pilgrim partners.
In the prison chapel two weeks ago the first response to my question of “what has been your experience of resurrection” came from Nevin, a man in his early forties who has been incarcerated for about 14 years (for 13 of which I have known him) – 14 years of a life sentence for murder with a minimum of 25 years to serve. When I met Nevin he was an emotionally crippled man, emotionally knotted and diminished not only from the horror of what he had done but also from the lifelong abuse and poverty which had mal-formed him. So damaged was he that he even appeared physically disfigured. About 10 years ago he ingeniously escaped from prison and was at large, furtively fleeing for some weeks, but in a way, going in circles as if awaiting recapture. He describes this period of coming to himself as the turning point at which he decided to take responsibility for his life, his past, his present and his future, of turning back from refusal and from denial. It has been a lengthy and complex* transformation process – the reshaping which I have witnessed has taken time but Nevin now beams with the love that he has newly found within himself, and he has become an agent of care for others in his carceral world. We have no hesitation or doubt in accompanying this resurrected man as he turns towards new life with us – in fact new life with the clear quality in him of life for the first time.
In our same chapel session, another account of personal resurrection came from Millicent, who spoke of life coming to her, again, but as if for the first time, in her serving as a chapel volunteer and a volunteer in our community reintegration project for the last 15 years. She articulated this eloquently but the greatest eloquence is simply given in the concrete, loving, respectful, non-judgmental engagement by this competent, middle-aged, professional woman, of those we have cast out. In her account of conversion, and her living this new life, it is clear that in her visiting, engaging and accompanying those least of the members of our family, in prison, that she responds to the risen Jesus whom she recognizes in and among them.
There are many such accounts… and it is good to hear them… but what links them is the love of, and from God, and the Grace of God which touches us and becomes known to us in the personal experiences of healing and redemption, of repentance and new life. The physicality in the gospel accounts of resurrection, beyond proof and persuasion, signal a profound, mysterious domain** in which each of us can experience life as new, by Grace, in communion with God and with one another, justified through the risen Jesus.
It is the same domain in which the hand of Thomas reaches out to the body of the risen Jesus, in which the hand of the lame man is taken by Peter and John, in which the criminal turns and repents, in which the prodigal son comes to himself, in which the hand of one of us administers communion to the others, in which the chapel volunteer incarnates gospel hospitality, in which the hand of the beloved reaches out as if to say “let’s go together”.
Resurrection Life… Peter Huish