by John Williams
Text John 20:19-31
It’s a week since Easter Day…but looking back what is Easter all about?
What has it meant for you?
We had many wonderful times of worship that brought us face to face and in close encounters with the drama that took place in the familiar Easter stories. But despite all this and a week later what if any still connects with you.
Now that it’s all over…are you left wondering?
Did you have to suspend your rationality, critical faculties, so you could join the party?
Does the Easter story make any sense?
On one level the answer is obvious God raised Jesus. Yes.
And what does it mean when I say that:
Is it about a spectacular miracle?
Is it about God demonstrating that Jesus was indeed his son….that Jesus was who Jesus said he was?
Is it the promise of life after death…that death is defeated?
Maybe it was all of these?
Or maybe it was something else?
In the most common form the pre-understanding sees the stories as historically factual reports. This has three elements:
The tomb of Jesus was empty
This was because God raised Jesus from the dead…and it was not empty because they went to the wrong tomb or somebody stole the body first.
Jesus appeared to his followers after his death in a form that could be seen, heard and touched.
This way of seeing the Easter stories is about public factuality…anybody there would have experienced what was reported. The events could have been photographed or videotaped. If such technology existed (See Marcus J Borg p276-277.)
For many of us the historical factuality of the Easter stories is so central that, if they did not happen this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity would disappear.
But focusing on the public factuality of the Easter stories risks missing their meaning and thus the impact and significance they may have on our life and living.
They have a more than factual significance.
When they are claimed to be factual reports, the questions of faith most often become:
“Do you believe they happened?”
Debates become whether the tomb was empty and whether the testimony of the witnesses can stand up to rigorous historical enquiry.
Easter faith becomes believing that these utterly unique and spectacular events happened on a particular Sunday and for a few weeks afterwards, a very long time ago.
The factual question dominates and the meaning question… what does it mean for you and me remains unasked.
And so we turn to the question of meaning.
What did Easter mean to the early followers of Jesus?
Easter had at least two meanings…as revealed by a study of the New Testament authors.
First the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death. They continued to know him as a figure of the present and not simply as a figure of the past. Indeed they experienced him as a divine reality, as one with God.
Second Easter had meant that God had vindicated Jesus. As Acts 2.36 put it “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Messiah” Easter is God’s “Yes” to Jesus and God’s “No” to the powers that crucified him. Jesus was executed by Rome and vindicated by God.
In short Easter means…”Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord”.
We can be confident of this because:
The followers of Jesus had experiences of him after death that convinced them that he continued to be a figure in the present.
The followers felt the continuing presence of Jesus with them recognizing the same spirit that they had known in him during his historical life continuing into the present, and know the power they had known in Jesus to operate-power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. These experiences have continued amongst Christians ever since.
Now let us reflect on what the lead up through Lent to Easter…what do we know to be true for us…not necessarily what do we believe but what do we know to be true for us?
Conventional wisdom says that the Resurrection and Pentecost experiences were so profound and overwhelming that they transformed a group of frightened and disillusioned disciples instantly into a fired-up bunch of fearless witnesses. The experience was so undeniable that their lives were instantly turned upside down. There is no doubt that their lives were turned upside down, but was it really as sudden as we have usually assumed, or does it just seem that way because we are reading an edited summary of the highlights?
There are some things in the gospel accounts that give cause for some doubts about this. And the doubts themselves may prove quite helpful and inspiring because they make the first experiences of the resurrected Christ sound a lot more like our experiences of the resurrected Christ.
Even those who had the evidence of their own eyes and hands experienced still a mixture of faith and doubt.
Experiencing the risen Christ is quite unlike any other experience, and because you have nothing to compare it with and no category to put it in, it is mind blowing in a way which creates as many doubts as it dispels.
And not only is it mind blowing, but it is simultaneously subtle and even ambiguous. The Christ appears and disappears. We catch sight of him, dancing on the edge of our awareness, and just as we think we’ve got him, he’s gone again, leaving us wondering whether we’re kidding ourselves.
We sense him among us, breaking bread at the table, but the minute we try to step back and be objective about what we are experiencing, there is only bread again. We see him appear in the face of the stranger bearing a word from God, but the minute we try to confirm our hunch, there is only a stranger again and often one whom we find it difficult even to like!
Perhaps it wasn’t so different for those first witnesses to the risen Christ, because whatever the nature of their experience that day, it wasn’t something that swept away all doubts and filled everyone with unshakable faith. And that’s kind of exciting because not only does a little community which is a mixture of worship and doubt sound a lot like us, but it is precisely that little community, with its mixture of faith and doubt, that Jesus regards as being worthy of being his representatives on earth and entrusting his mission to: “Go into all the world and be my witnesses.”
In John 20 after the first appearance Jesus disappears for a week, and when he next appears, where are they? Locked in the same room again! The community that received the Holy Spirit and was commissioned to take on the world is still locked in the same room. And they’ve grown by only one – Thomas has turned up! And what’s more, their experience of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit hasn’t even changed them enough to convince Thomas, so the mission of being witnesses to the world is looking to be in shaky hands.
If you are still unclear in your own mind about whether or not you have experienced the presence of the risen Christ, join the club. You’re in good company. It seems to me that for most followers of Jesus, and even for these foundational few, the experience of Christ didn’t suddenly wipe out all the doubts and fears of their pasts and turn them into unstoppable world changers.
But does that mean that we’ve been conned; that it is not really something that will set you free and change your life?
No it doesn’t.
What it does tell us is that the experience of the first disciples can show us a lot more about the reality of our own experience than we might have cared to imagine.
Even though quite a few of us could name the time and place when we were converted, others of us can’t, and none of us found that everything about our life was utterly transformed on the spot.
We look back on it now as a turning point rather than as the moment when we were miraculously changed into the perfect people we were supposed to be.
It was the turning point, from which faith and hope and love began to take root and grow.
Faith took root along side our doubts, and gradually grew stronger.
Hope took root alongside our despairs and gradually grew stronger. From a mountain of despair we cut a stone of hope.
Courage took root alongside our fears and gradually grew stronger.
Love took root alongside our apathies and gradually grew stronger.
Like the first disciples, we may well have still been huddled behind the locked doors of our fear and doubt a week later. But within a few years those few had carried the news to the ends of the known earth, and we are not the same people we were either.
We are on a journey. A journey on which we continuously expect to encounter the risen Lord:
in hearing the word and sharing around the table,
in seeking to care and nurture for God’s creation, and
in serving the broken and needy among whom he was and is so often found
In challenging oppression and injustice
Our faith and confidence continues to be nourished by sometimes earth-shattering and yet strange and indefinable encounters with this Jesus who lives and yet who remains both ever-present and ever-elusive.
Some of us here this morning are new to the journey.
Others have been on the road for a long time, but are exploring it anew with a different band of travelling companions.
But all of us are on the journey, and no two of us will experience it exactly the same.
As Thomas experienced…Jesus comes to us in our fears and responds to our doubts and touches us where we need to be touched so that we might have the faith and courage to take the next step. And just as happened for Thomas, the conversion of our lives leads us into the mission of transforming the world, for we too, with all the uncertainty and ambiguity of our experience of the risen Christ, are the ones to whom he gives his Holy Spirit and leads us into healing, reconciliation and the building of the Kingdom of God.
Or as John Emmett has written: “Only when each Christian, when each local church assumes this disposition can we find the ‘thin places’ where God’s calling and empowering breaks through. It is the way of humility, not the way of power. It is the way of faithfulness, not the way of strategic planning. It is the way of grace, not the way of earnt reward. It is the way patient love, not the way of ego centric posturing. It is the only way to become Christ’s witnesses and to be fitted for the service to which He calls us.”