Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sermon for April 24th (Easter Sunday)

The Christian Adventure

One of my favourite movies about the life of Jesus is Franco Zeffirelli’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, which was first shown on TV on Easter weekend of 1977. Near the end of the movie, there’s a wonderful scene in which one of the Jewish religious leaders – the people who have been Jesus’ enemies – goes down into the empty tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid. He looks around him, shakes his head, and says to himself, “Now it begins! It all begins!”

At first that may seem a very strange thing to say at the end of the movie, and at the end of the story of Jesus. But the scribe was right. He and his colleagues had tried hard to stop Jesus and to stamp out his message, but the empty tomb spelled disaster for their efforts. He knew that once the word got out about this, the movement would spread like wildfire; hence his words: “Now it begins!”

And so it’s true, you see, that although the story of the resurrection of Jesus comes at the end of each of the four gospels, it’s really not the end, but the beginning. We Christians read the stories of the things Jesus did and said long ago when he walked the earth as a human being who could be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands, but those aren’t the only stories about Jesus we celebrate. We believe that this Jesus has been raised from the dead and is seated in power at the right hand of God the Father, and that he continues to work in the lives of men and women and children by his Holy Spirit. Those stories began on the day of Resurrection, Easter Sunday, and have continued right through to today.

And those stories will continue in the lives of Michael and Joshua, who are going to be baptized today. Our risen Lord Jesus Christ is in the business of transforming lives, bringing us forgiveness of sins, a living relationship with God the Father, and the power of his Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out. Baptism and faith is how all that comes into our lives, and so today as Michael and Joshua are baptized they are at the beginning of a brand new adventure of learning to know and love and follow Jesus. What a great day for them!

Let’s go back in our minds to the evening of Good Friday, and let’s think about those scattered and shattered followers of Jesus, Peter and John and James and Mary Magdalene and the rest. They had firmly believed that Jesus was the Messiah – that is, the King like David who God was going to send, the one who would drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up God’s kingdom on earth, his kingdom of justice and peace. The old prophecies had said that the Messiah would defeat his enemies through the power of God, but something had gone horribly wrong with that picture: Jesus had not defeated his enemies, but had been crucified by them. This was not something that the disciples had been expecting. In their minds, this could only mean one thing: they had been wrong about Jesus, and he was not God’s promised Messiah after all. They had wasted the last three years of their lives on an imposter. The best thing for them to do was to keep their heads down in the city until the dust settled, and then slip off quietly back to Galilee, resume their lives as before, and chalk this one up to experience.

But then the stories began to come in. Some of the women went to the tomb on the Sunday morning to finish the job of anointing the body (which the arrival of the Sabbath had interrupted). Tombs in those days were not like graves today – they were family affairs, usually caves in which the bodies were kept until they had decayed and all that was left were bones. Then the bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary for posterity, and that particular place in the tomb would then be available for another family member when it was needed. That’s why John’s gospel specifies that this was a ‘new tomb in which no one had ever been laid’ (19:41), made available to Jesus by a rich man who had been one of his secret followers.

But when the women got to the tomb they had a shock; the huge stone across the entrance had been rolled away, and when they looked in, they saw that the body was gone. So they ran to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them about it. Peter and John decided to investigate; they ran back to the garden, and one of the women, Mary Magdalene, followed them. Peter and John found everything as Mary had said – the body gone, the linen cloths lying where it had been, with the turban for the head lying a little way away, neatly folded. Puzzled, not knowing what was going on, but beginning to hope, Peter and John slipped away.

Mary, however, stayed at the tomb, and so became the first person to actually see Jesus alive after his resurrection, as we heard in our gospel reading this morning. I want to point out to you that if a fiction writer in first century Jerusalem had been making this story up, there are two details he would definitely have left out. First, in the culture of that day women were considered to be unreliable witnesses; their evidence was inadmissible in a court of law. So if you were making this story up and wanting to convince people that it was true, you definitely wouldn’t have a woman as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. Secondly, you definitely wouldn’t include a story about how sometimes people didn’t recognize Jesus at first; you would want to get across the idea that there was absolutely no doubt about his identity.

The gospel writers, however, were not quite so creative with the truth as some modern skeptical scholars would have us believe. They tell us that a woman was the first witness of the resurrection because they knew that that is, in fact, what happened. And the fact is that there was something very mysterious about the risen Jesus, and people didn’t always grasp right at the beginning that it was him. This was the story that the witnesses remembered, and because they were honest, they told the truth.

So Jesus appeared first of all to Mary by the tomb early on Easter morning. Later in the afternoon two followers of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, seven miles away; they were talking sadly about what had happened, but then a stranger came and joined them as they walked along the road. He asked them what they were talking about, and out came the whole story. “How dull you are!” the stranger said: “Don’t you know the scriptures predicted this?” And he proceeded to give them a guided tour through all the prophecies and explained how they had been fulfilled in Jesus.

Eventually they reached their destination and invited him in for a meal. There he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they realized it had been Jesus all the time. He vanished from their sight, but they ran all the way back to Jerusalem, went to the upper room and told the disciples “We’ve seen him!” The others said, “Yes, we know – he’s appeared to Peter as well!” – a meeting we know nothing about beyond the fact that it happened some time during the day. But as they were talking together, Jesus appeared among them! They were afraid and some found it hard to believe, but when he invited them to touch him and asked them for something to eat, they realized it was true.

And so it continued for the next six weeks. Sometimes Jesus appeared to individuals, sometimes to groups; at one time, to a group of more than five hundred of his followers. Sometimes the appearances were in Jerusalem, sometimes back in Galilee. Sometimes people recognized him right away, at other times it took longer. It was wild and unpredictable and scary and exciting; the disciples knew that God’s power had broken into their world as never before. The story of Jesus wasn’t over after all: the adventure had just begun!

If it’s true, what difference does it make for you and me?

First, it means that Jesus was right. Jesus, you know, wasn’t just a nice mild-mannered person who had gone about helping people everywhere. He had also said and done some pretty puzzling things that seemed rather bigheaded and even blasphemous at first glance. What sort of humble and godly preacher says to his followers, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God the Father?” and “I and the Father are one?” What sort of genuine religious leader tells people that if they believe in him he will give them eternal life? What kind of a crank assumes that he has the power to forgive people’s sins, and makes a habit of doing it on a regular basis? Or claims to be the one who had been sending the prophets and preachers to Jerusalem for the last few centuries? Or, when one of his followers kneels before him and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” accepts it and says, “You believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet still believe!”

When I read about some of the words and actions of Jesus, I can’t avoid the impression that if he had appeared today, we would have seen him as a cult leader or a candidate for permanent residence in a psychiatric ward. Certainly that is the way that some of the people in his day saw him – the religious establishment thought he was a dangerous charlatan, and at one point his family tried to take him home because they thought he was off his rocker!

But then came the resurrection, and suddenly Jesus’ followers realized that in fact God had vindicated him. He is the Son of God; he is the way, the truth, and the life. His death wasn’t just a cruel travesty of justice, but was somehow a fulfillment of God’s purposes as the blood of the lamb of God was shed for the sins of the whole world. And now God had raised him from the dead and exalted him to the highest place, higher even than Caesar off in Rome – because everyone knew that Caesars lived and died, but only Jesus had been raised from the dead. And so, they said, God had made him ‘Lord of all’ – an amazing title for a Galilean carpenter, and only possible because of the resurrection.

So the resurrection means that Jesus was right – that he is the Son of God, the Lord of all, the one who died and rose again for us and now calls for us to give him our allegiance and follow him. Second, it means that Jesus is on the loose! You can’t nail him down any more! The world will never be safe from him again; you never know where he is going to show up.

Some years ago a man named John Sherrill was lying in a hospital room having had cancer surgery that day. He was experiencing some pain, and he also had a room-mate, a boy who was moaning in his sleep from the pain of his own surgery. Sherrill tells of how, as he was lying in the darkened room, he gradually became aware that there was a light in the corner – not coming from a lamp or from the corridor, but mysterious and real. He said, “Christ?” and it was as if the light, without moving, suddenly enveloped him, and his pain disappeared. After a moment he glanced at the sleeping boy in the other bed, still moaning in pain, and said, “Christ, could you help that boy?” At once the light seemed to envelop the boy too; he gave a sigh, and his moaning stopped. And then the light disappeared.

These sorts of dramatic stories, of course, don’t happen to everyone, but they are more common than we modern people think. And there are other stories, less dramatic, perhaps, told by millions of Christians around the world, stories of how the presence of the risen Jesus has brought them forgiveness and peace, and a strength beyond their own. I would not be standing in front of you as a preacher this morning if I could not tell a story like that about my own life.

The resurrection means that Jesus was right – he is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. It means that he is on the loose, doing real things in the lives of real people, not just long ago in Bible times, but even today too. And thirdly, it means that Jesus is calling for our allegiance. He said to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20a).

That’s what baptism is, you see – it’s a transfer of our allegiance. From now on, we acknowledge that our lives don’t belong to ourselves, and they certainly don’t belong to our employers or to the leaders of our country. Above all other rulers, Jesus Christ is Lord of all. To be baptized is to acknowledge him for who he is and to commit ourselves to serving and following him as our Lord. That’s what Michael is saying today by being baptized: he is committing himself to following Jesus as Lord above all others. Jeanette and Brad are bringing Joshua to baptism, saying, “Yes, Jesus is our Lord, and we want our son to grow up to follow him too”.

And what about the rest of us? Have we given him our allegiance? One of the pitfalls of formal liturgical worship is that it’s easy to mouth written words without really meaning them. Many people have come for baptism and confirmation, or brought children for baptism, without really meaning what they are saying. But today, perhaps, is an opportunity for us to really mean it. Perhaps the risen Jesus is speaking to you this morning as you listen to the message of the scriptures. Perhaps you realize, maybe for the first time, that he really is alive and is calling you to believe in him and follow him. If that’s so, don’t put him off; rather, turn to him in your heart and respond to his invitation. The exact form of words isn’t important; simply put your life in his hands and ask him to forgive you your sins and help you to follow him from this day forward. And then step out in the joy of his resurrection and begin to live the Christian adventure!

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