25th April 2010 - "Every leaf in springtime"
Usha Hull- St Mary's
Luke 24 36-49
Picture this. A young man, flees the Russian Revolution and as a teenager, settles in Paris in the early 1920s. Up until now, he has not had an easy life, but at last he has the freedom to study. And study he does, graduating in physics, chemistry and biology, and finally a doctorate in medicine. But life he finds, is meaningless. In despair he writes, ‘I could not accept aimless happiness... Happiness seemed to be stale if it had no further meaning. As it often happens when you are young and when you act with passion, bent to possess either everything or nothing, I decided that I would give myself a year to see whether life had a meaning, and if I discovered it had none I would not live beyond the year...’
And then a chain of events begin that are to change his life forever. He is invited by a student group leader to a lecture given by a priest. Unwillingly he attends but much of what the priest is saying about Christianity is profoundly repulsive to him. However, his curiosity is stirred and determined to discover the truth he hurries home to ask his mother whether she has a copy of the Gospel.
It is while he is reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel and has reached the third chapter that he is suddenly aware that there is a presence on the other side of the desk. The former Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom was later to write, ‘The certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true... History I had to believe, the resurrection I knew as fact... it was a direct and personal experience.’
Down through the centuries, a myriad Christian souls have had personal encounters with the living Lord. Today, the resurrection of the Lord continues to be a matter for debate among many church scholars and sadly many do not believe in the resurrection as a historical fact. Yet I believe, along with countless other Christians, in a real physical presence of Jesus that revealed his resurrection and I also believe that belief in the resurrection is central to our faith and the basis on which the church herself grew. So this evening I’d like to explore very briefly some aspects of the resurrection and the implication of it in our own lives, beginning with the Gospel story from Luke that we have just heard.
I often find, when reading the Gospel, that its stories are all the more compelling and believable because the conduct of the disciples is often something we can instantly recognise and identify with. Take the account we have just heard. Luke tells us that the disciples were startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost. Now wouldn’t you be scared, in fact terrified, if someone you knew had recently died suddenly appeared in the room with you?
Luke speaks of the disciples’ ‘joy and amazement’. Wouldn’t your joy have no bounds if the person you were mourning suddenly appeared alive in front of you, if that which you thought was lost forever was suddenly restored to you, if the tragedy and pain of the past few days were suddenly taken away? And wouldn’t you be amazed that this could actually be happening, something that you had thought until now was impossible, inconceivable, too good to be true?
Luke tells us that Jesus is at pains to calm the fears of the disciples and reassure them that he really is a living presence and not an illusion. By all Gospel accounts Jesus has a living body, but it is not a body like ours. The resurrected body of Jesus can pass through walls and appear in a locked room. And understandably to the disciples this defies all reason and shatters all theories of the world they have had until now. So Jesus invites them to touch him and he shows them his hands and his feet, scarred with torture. If you were a disciple wouldn’t you want to reach out and touch and be reassured that what you were seeing wasn’t some illusion or magic trick, that the resurrected body of Jesus is as real as your own body and more so, though in a way you do not understand?
Luke tells us that Jesus even eats in front of them. I don’t suppose that the Lord really needed to eat at all, but that he did so to reassure, to calm, to soothe anxious and fearful minds. The beauty is in the detail. Broiled fish? This doesn’t sound very appealing to me but I suppose it’s all they had to offer and no doubt some commentators will invest this little detail with some theological significance. The important thing is that in his willingness to meet the disciples where they are at, don’t you recognise this Jesus in your heart, the Jesus who has been there all along, the Jesus who knows us as we are, who heals, who reassures, the Jesus who tells the wind and the waves to be still in the great storms of our lives, whose message throughout the Gospels is, ‘Do not be afraid’?
‘Human kind,’ says the poet TS Eliot in the poems known as the Four Quartets, ‘cannot bear very much reality.’ We are no different to those disciples to whom Jesus first appeared. Suffering has huge reality in our lives and so has joy. Sometimes reality, whether of joy or sorrow, takes us by surprise and we stand silent, dumbfounded, unable to take it all in. Sometimes reality seems almost surreal, too intense, too vivid. ‘Is this really happening?’ we ask.
Sometimes good news is more difficult to believe than bad news. Bad news we can usually take, bad news is more often the norm, bad news happens every day. But good news? News of unlooked for release from suffering? News of the restoration of something we had thought was irredeemably lost? News of unearned grace and reconcilation? These things leave us speechless and unsure, wanting to believe but hesitant, ready for the worst should it all turn out to be an illusion.
So I can well believe the disciples were hesitant and unsure, unable to take it all in. Renowned priest and author Henri Nouwen was to write that those who saw Jesus had their lives completely changed. ‘What had seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning; what had seemed to be a cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage; what seemed to be defeat proved to be victory,’ he writes.
The hope of the resurrection of the body is a central belief in three of the world’s great religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The resurrection of the Lord was the tinder that set the early world alight and saw the rapid spread of Christianity in a world that had largely hitherto worshipped pagan gods. It proclaimed that the Christian God was the God of the living. The resurrection of Jesus was the reply of God to the historical inevitability of death. The victory of the resurrection was the victory over sin, over evil, over the fallen nature of mankind.
As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘If Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ Indeed, in the whole of 1 Corinthians 15 St Paul stresses belief in the resurrection as fundamental to our Christian belief and states that this stupendous act of God is the forerunner to a deeply personal event for every living soul, the hope of the resurrection of our own bodies, the hope stated in psalm 118 that ‘I shall not die but live’; the hope stated in Job 19 ‘For I know that my Redeemer liveth and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.’
Because we believe that Jesus rose from the dead we have hope, the hope which according to St Paul is like labour pains. This is a hope which acknowledges that we live in a fallen world, a world where evil is rife, where the innocent suffer, where sorrow and heartbreak never far away, but which still, in the words of the poet Francis Thompson, clings to Heaven by the hems, as it were. This is the hope of fragile beings in a world where sickness and disease come without warning and death can be sudden. This is the hope of freedom from our pain, our fragility, our vulnerability to death and illness. Because our Lord has gone this way before us, we know that we ourselves will also live, even though we must first die.
The Easter hope of the resurrection should live with us throughout the year. I spoke earlier of how joy can take us completely by surprise. And let’s go back to Archbishop Anthony Bloom for a moment. He writes: ‘The joy of the resurrection is something which we too must learn to experience, but we can experience it only if we first learn the tragedy of the Cross.
‘To rise again we must die. Die to our hampering selfishness, die to our fears, die to everything which makes our world so narrow, so cold, so poor, so cruel. Die so that our souls may live, may rejoice, may discover the spring of life.’
These are glorious days of spring. Martin Luther once wrote, ‘The Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.’ As new life comes into being all around us, let us not be discouraged by the problems that beset us, let us not falter in our faith by the distractions sent our way or grow cynical or cold on account of the ways of the world. Let us not ignore the fact that we are less than perfect but acknowledge instead that if we face our failings and our weaknesses and strive to overcome them, God will use us to make something new, that can never die and will live forever.
So may we find, in the words of Archbishop Anthony, ‘the joy of life recovered, the joy of life that no one can take away from us any more! The joy of a life which is superabundant, which like a stream runs down the hills, carrying with it heaven itself reflected in its sparkling waters.’