Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sermon for April 22nd on Luke 24:36-49

Another Encounter with the Risen Jesus

An ancient Christian writer once said, ‘We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!’ I think these words are profoundly true. As I said last week, the resurrection stories are at the end of the gospels, but they are truly the beginning of the Gospel. The good news that love is stronger than death, that Jesus is truly the Lord of all, that God’s purposes for his creation will one day become the ultimate reality – all of that is proclaimed loud and clear in the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And so in these weeks after Easter we’re staying with the resurrection story and exploring more of its implications for us, as individuals and as the people of God, the Church of Jesus Christ.

Today we heard again the story of the visit of Jesus to the Upper Room on the evening of Easter Sunday. As Luke tells this story, it happens after the Emmaus Road encounter. Two followers of Jesus had been walking out to the village of Emmaus, but on the way they were joined by a third, a stranger who they didn’t recognize. They talked with him about the death of Jesus, and he explained to them the prophecies from the Old Testament and how Jesus had fulfilled them all. They said afterwards that their hearts ‘burned within them’ when they talked with him on the road, but it wasn’t until he joined them for supper – when he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them – that their eyes were opened and they saw it was Jesus. He vanished from their sight, but they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. They found them in the Upper Room, and they told them what had happened. The others said, “Yes, the Lord is risen indeed – we know, because he’s appeared to Peter!”

Then comes today’s story. ‘While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”’ (v.36). ‘They were startled and terrified’, Luke says, and no wonder – I expect you and I would be too, if we saw a man we knew to be dead standing among us and talking to us. We’d think ‘Is this a ghost, or a hallucination, or have we all gone mad?’ But Jesus encourages them to verify for themselves that he is real; he invites them to look at his hands and feet, and to touch him and experience his physical presence - not just a hallucination, but a real risen body. And then, amazingly, he asks them ‘Have you got anything to eat’; they give him a piece of fish, and he eats it in their presence.

Then he reminds them of what he had told them earlier, about how everything in the scriptures must be fulfilled – that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. Those prophecies have been fulfilled, as they have all seen. But there’s another part of the biblical vision that has yet to be fulfilled: that is, that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in the name of the Messiah to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. They are called to be his witnesses. But they mustn’t rush right off and get started, because they need the power of God to help them, so they are to wait in the city until they have been equipped with power from on high – the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is the story as Luke tells it. Now, what is he stressing for us in the way he tells the story and the things he chooses to recall for us? Let me point out four things for you.

First, Luke stresses the reality of the resurrection. Not just the reality of life after death – let’s be clear about that. The disciples didn’t meet a vision of Jesus living in heaven as a disembodied soul; they met a real, embodied person, a resurrected body, a person who they could not only see with their eyes but also touch with their hands, a person who could eat a piece of broiled fish in front of them. ‘They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence’ (v.42). The words ‘in their presence’ indicate that Jesus did this for their benefit; he was showing them that he was not a ghost, but a real resurrected body.

Sometimes when talking to children about the resurrection of Jesus, we’ll use phrases like ‘Jesus came back to life again’. That phrase can be misleading, because it suggests that what Jesus ‘came back to’ was a life exactly like the one before he died. But this is not true to the amazing story the gospel writers tell. Yes, there were some continuities. They could see his scars and even touch them, and - at least some of the time - they recognized him. But there were also discontinuities; his new body did not appear to be restricted by time and space, locked doors couldn’t keep him out, and at times people didn’t recognize him right away.

How do we explain these continuities and discontinuities? In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul – no doubt struggling for language - explains it as being like a seed being planted in the ground and then springing up: there’s continuity between the seed and the plant, he says, but they aren’t exactly the same. Listen to his memorable words:
‘So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body’. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

This is what the followers of Jesus encountered in those days and weeks after the resurrection of Jesus. And it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience for them!  Here’s a list of the reactions provoked by the resurrection of Jesus in Luke chapter 24: the disciples were ‘perplexed’, ‘terrified’, ‘unbelieving’, ‘amazed’, ‘foolish and slow of heart’, ‘startled and terrified’, ‘frightened’, ‘doubtful’, ‘disbelieving and wondering’, ‘worshipping’, and ‘blessing God’. I don’t think it felt at all like a cozy fireside chat with ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. It was a cataclysmic experience, and it shook them, and changed the course of their entire lives.

Good Friday, however, is not erased or forgotten; indeed, in the light of the resurrection, it is seen for what it really was. And this is the second thing that Luke is emphasizing for us: not just the reality of the resurrection, but also the necessity of the cross.  Look again at verses 46-47; Jesus is speaking:
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.

We know that when the early Christians talked about the death of Jesus, they often turned to Isaiah chapter 53 to explain it, and this is so common that we can only conclude that Jesus was the one who had given them this line of interpretation. In Isaiah 53 the prophet talks about how the servant of the Lord will suffer, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the people. In Isaiah’s memorable words,
‘Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:4-6).

There is a kind of exchange here: we are the ones who are guilty, but we do not suffer for our own sins. Instead, God lays our sins on the shoulders of his servant, and the servant suffers on our behalf. The result is forgiveness and healing for us and for all God’s people, rather than suffering and judgement.

We see that forgiveness and healing in the way that Luke tells the story of the cross. Luke is the gospel writer who tells us that, when the soldiers were crucifying Jesus, he prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Later in the story we read about the two bandits who were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. The one mocks Jesus, but the other rebukes his comrade: ‘Don’t you know that we’re just getting what we deserve?’ he says, ‘but this man has done nothing wrong’. Then he turns to Jesus and says, ‘”Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:39-43).

Luke doesn’t give us a theological theory of how the cross works, but his story makes it clear that it is here, at the cross, that we sinful human beings can receive the forgiveness that we so desperately need. We are the guilty ones, but God in his mercy came among us in the person of his Son and bore our guilt and shame, so that we could receive forgiveness and healing. And that message needs to be proclaimed loud and clear to a broken world, so that people can come to the cross for themselves and receive God’s forgiveness.

That leads us to the third thing that Luke stresses for us: not just the reality of the resurrection, not just the necessity of the cross, but also the urgency of the task ahead. Look again at verses 46-48, where Jesus is speaking:
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things”.

This commission is given by Jesus in all four gospels and in the book of Acts, in various forms. Jesus did not intend for his followers to stay in Jerusalem and keep the message to themselves. Jesus did not think that all religions and philosophies were basically equal and that all that was necessary was tolerance and respect, important though they are. And so in all of the records we have, he sends his followers out - to proclaim his message to others, to challenge them to turn to him in repentance and faith, and to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. A Jesus who is content for his disciples to stay at home and just ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ is an imaginary Jesus; he’s not the Jesus of the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels is a missionary Jesus - the word means ‘one who has been sent’ - and he commissions his followers to be missionaries too. The message has been entrusted to us as stewards, and our responsibility is to pass it on.

Of course, you’ve been hearing a lot about this lately, as we had a sermon series through Lent on sharing our faith; Bishop Jane stressed it at Easter as well, and I was glad to see some of you taking it to heart! As I was checking Facebook on Easter Sunday afternoon, I was really pleased to see that some of you had posted little status updates about your faith in Jesus and his resurrection. I don’t remember noticing this before, although possibly I just missed it. But even a little thing like that is a word of witness, and all of us have opportunities to put in words like that. It’s in ways like this that the good news of Jesus spreads.

And this is how Christ wants our church to grow. Yes, we’re looking forward to the possibility of a new building and we hope we can use it to run programs and build bridges into our community. But the YMCA and the Scouts and the Lions Club can run programs to benefit their communities, too, and in the end, if that’s all we do, we won’t be fulfilling the commission that Jesus gave us. Jesus wants to change the world one heart at a time, as people become his followers and receive God’s forgiveness for their sins, and the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why our words of witness are essential.

But there’s a fourth thing as well, and it’s vital that we not lose sight of it. We’ve said that Luke stresses the reality of the resurrection, the necessity of the cross, and the urgency of the task. The fourth thing is the secret of power. A brand new building may be able to impress people aesthetically, but it won’t change their hearts. A mission action plan may be helpful, but if it’s only about human action, then people’s lives won’t be touched. And if a clever argument can make a person a Christian, then an even cleverer one can unmake them.

No, this is a spiritual struggle, and we need spiritual strength for it. And so our passage ends in verse 49 where Jesus says,
“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”.

If the first reality that shaped the early Church was the glorious resurrection of Jesus, the second one was the experience described by Luke as ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’. He’s not talking about water baptism here; he’s using the Greek word ‘baptizo’ in its literal sense: to sink, to immerse, to fill and surround with water.  Just as a person being baptized by immersion is plunged into the water, so we are promised that we can be plunged and immersed and filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of God. This is what happened to the disciples on the day of Pentecost, and although our experience may not be an exact duplicate of theirs, we are all promised the living reality of the Spirit. On the day of Pentecost Peter quotes the words of the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy’ (Acts 2:17-18).

In the Old Testament the Spirit of God came upon special individuals – kings, prophets – but Joel promises that in the last days this gift will be available to all people. This, says Peter, has been fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, and it is still being fulfilled today. There is absolutely no doubt in the Book of Acts that this was a living reality to the early Christians; take away the Holy Spirit and their life would have collapsed.

So this is where I want to leave you today, because this is the thing that makes everything else we’ve been talking about real to us. The resurrection is real, but most of us today don’t see the risen Jesus with our own eyes and touch him with our hands and watch him eat a piece of fish in front of us, though we’re grateful for the stories of those who did experience him in that way. Our way of experiencing him, though, is to be filled with the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit is the one who connects us to Jesus. The Spirit is the one who assures us that our sins are forgiven because, on the cross, the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world. And the Spirit is the one who gives us the words and the courage to speak to others about the Lord Jesus and to invite them to become his disciples; the Spirit is the one who works in their hearts too, drawing them to faith in Christ. So let us pray to God daily that we too may be baptized in the Holy Spirit, so that we may know Christ for ourselves, and make him known to others. Amen.

Note: the outline for this sermon (but not the actual content) is based on William Barclay's commentary on Luke 24:36-49 in the Daily Study Bible.

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