Easter 3 2012
Sermon preached by The Rev Charles Royden Year B 2012
This sermon explores three themes of the resurrection.
- The anger of the Jewish leaders who were so determined that Jesus should be silenced but were unable to quash the resurrection stories.
- The change in the disciples who faced the Sanhedrin fearlessly after their previous cowardice before the resurrection.
- The change in the resurrected Jesus who whilst resurrected had a spiritual body not confined by material or physical boundaries, which meant he could appear to Stephen and others.
So we know why Jesus was killed. It was out of envy and greed by those in power who saw him as a threat to their wealth and status. They refused to allow this carpenter from Galilee, (wrong job, wrong place) to come in and upset the apple cart. They had a workable situation in spite of Roman occupation and Jesus put the whole thing in jeopardy by his words and his actions, such as the overturning of the money tables in the temple. Jesus was not killed because he threatened the power of Rome, he was killed because he challenged the temple, the priests and religious powers.
Then no sooner had he died than he came back to life again. he appeared to his disciples and he spoke words of peace and forgiveness and told them to go and do likewise. Those who saw Jesus then went out and told others that Jesus who had died had come back from the dead and that they were witnesses. Some of them took some convincing. We know that Thomas wanted to actually touch Jesus before he believed. I am sure that we would all have been the same. However once they had seen Jesus, once they had had the opportunity to speak with him and eat with him, then the reality of what had happened transformed them as individuals and as a group.
Of course we are those who Jesus spoke about when he said
‘Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed’
We believe as people of faith and we hold the faith through times of blessing and adversity, through the highs and lows of daily life. We hold the faith in heart and mind, and our faith is nourished through worship and Christian fellowship. The validity of the resurrection is not something which can be proved and the attempts to seek to convince folks who do not wish to believe by reliance upon the facts themselves is a futile activity.
Those who want to poke holes in the resurrection point to inconsistencies in the Biblical narrative. Matthew has the resurrection stories in Galilee, Luke in Jerusalem, John in both. In Mark there is one man in the tomb, in Luke there are two men, in Matthew it is an angel and in John two angels. For believers these very differences can suggest that the disciples didn’t get their heads together and concoct a good story.
However there are two features of the resurrection which I do believe think stand out as significant.
The anger of the Jewish authorities The first thing of importance is that we need to remember the anger which existed towards Jesus from the Jewish authorities. They hated him enough to murder him. When the stories started to go around about the resurrection of Jesus the Jewish authorities were unable to produce a dead Jesus corpse. It is true that the disciples might have stolen the body themselves but this brings us to the second point
The fearlessness of the disciples. They were so energised by the resurrection appearances of Jesus that they fearlessly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus to the extent that they were not only prepared to die but willingly gave of their lives, some in the most cruel manner.
I remember a few years ago we had a church trip to see the Passion of Christ, a film which focussed on the death of Jesus and which was quite graphic about the crucifixion scene. I think if I remember correctly we all came out wondering why we had put ourselves through such a gruesome experience. We do well to remember that the disciples also gave up their lives in equally horrific deaths. It would be quite absurd to imagine that men and women would give their lives for something which they knew to be a deliberate deception. There is no more credible witness than one who is prepared to die rather than change their testimony. No wonder it is said that the death of the martyrs, or witnesses, was the seed of the church.
Jesus appeared to those who were thinking about him, who were looking for him. Still today Jesus is present to those individuals and groups who seek him. There will be no resurrection appearance to Richard Dawkins who seems to spend his time trying to be deliberately offensive to people of faith and evangelical in his atheism. If I were Jesus I probably wouldn’t show up either. But to those who honestly seek, the resurrected Jesus is alive today. This is because the resurrection of Jesus is not just a historical event, an event bound in our physical world, the resurrection is a spiritual reality in which encounter is just as important as understanding.
We obtain a glimpse of this in the Gospels themselves and it is important to remember this. When we speak of the resurrection we need to remind ourselves that Jesus was not resuscitated, his broken body was not just made to live again. Jesus was raised but he was raised spiritually not just the old Jesus made alive. The risen Jesus is able to pass through walls and it is all very Star Trek the way that Jesus is able to materialise in places and then disappear again. Shortly we will have the Ascension of Jesus and we need to remember this when we see those images of Jesus going up to heaven with his little feet eventually sticking out of the clouds. The risen Jesus did not have a physical body which was like his body before he died. Death and his subsequent resurrection changed Jesus. Jesus was no longer restrained by the physical laws which we are subject to.
The transformation of the disciples into what we know now as the Christian church, occurred because of the resurrection. The broken hearted, disillusioned disciples left behind their fears and despair and changed from frightened cowards into fearless lions.
Think of the complete transformation of Peter, a man who had let Jesus down really badly. He had been tongue tied when asked if he was one of Jesus followers, until he swore at those who accused him and ran away. After the resurrection all of that changed. He leaves his hiding place and preaches about Jesus and his resurrection in Jerusalem.
As we would expect, the Jewish leaders who had killed Jesus to put an end to the challenge to their livelihood, have him arrested and he is brought before the Sanhedrin, the same court which sentenced Jesus to death. Peter is brought before Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and we are told the other powerful men of the family. This is a scene reminiscent of the Godfather, these are a family of men of great power, who have proved that they will stop at nothing if you challenge them.
Does Peter hide, does he say sorry, does he try and get out of the court with his life ? No Peter tells these killers that he acts in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the one they crucified but whom God had raised from the dead. He was threatened and told that he must no longer mention Jesus but Peter replied.
‘Who should we obey you or God? We cannot stop from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’
And there we have it. The inability of the powerful Jewish leaders who had Jesus killed to disprove the resurrection. Then the powerful testimony of men and women like Peter who no longer cared whether the Jewish leaders killed them because as far as they were concerned Jesus had conquered death itself.
But of course there was more than just a fearless confidence which possessed these disciples. They were unafraid because the spiritual resurrection of Jesus meant that Jesus was no longer confined to earth and time, Jesus was with them when they were arrested, he was with them when they faced the Sanhedrin, Jesus was with them when they were put to death because they refused to deny the truth of the risen Jesus.
We know this to be true from the stoning of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr. Stephen was arrested and he was brought before the Sanhedrin too. The charge was made that he was speaking of Jesus and against the Temple and the customs of Moses. We know from the response of Stephen to the charges made against him that he had as little regard for the Temple and the Jewish authorities as Jesus before him. He accused the Sanhedrin of murder and we are told that they were so furious that they gnashed their teeth in anger !
You could forgive Stephen for being afraid, but we told that he was not. In the face of the threats against him he said that he was in the presence of the risen Jesus. He said
‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’
Do you remember these words?
They were the ones spoken by Jesus when they arrested him and asked him if he was the Christ. Jesus told them that he was the Son of God and said
‘The Son of man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God’
It was the risen Christ who was with Stephen as we are told they yelled at the top of their voices and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
We are told that from that moment they tried to kill off the witnesses to the resurrection, the church in Jerusalem was persecuted followers of Jesus arrested. The reason that the church survived was not because they had a great Mission Action Plan. It was not even because they all did the Alpha Course. The church survived and grew because of the presence of the the risen Jesus.
Some images of the early church seem to suggest that everything was wonderful and nobody ever disagreed about anything. In the lesson from Acts last week we read that ‘all the believers were one in heart and mind’ Acts 4:32 We know that is not true!In the following chapter we read of Ananias and Sapphira who lied and tried to cheat the rest of the group out of money. The epistles of the New Testament and Acts itself is full of the arguments and disputes which characterised the first churches.
It was ever thus and there has never been a time when the church has not faced huge temptations and challenges. At the time when the church has sometimes seemed at its greatest strength it has been the most corrupt. Yet in spite of this it is the risen Lord Jesus who meets with those who put faith in him.
We worship a living Lord who is not confined by any physical restraint and neither is he confined by any theologies or human traditions and who speaks to those who put their trust in him. This is what the resurrection means today. we read about the encounters which Jesus with those on the road to Emmaus, with Mary in the garden, the disciples in the upper room. But what really matters is whether we meet with Jesus who is here with us today.