Readings: Acts 4:32-5; John 20:19-end
Today’s gospel reading provides a very detailed account of the resurrection and includes the famous story in which Doubting Thomas’ doubts are put to rest. We should be clear that whatever Jesus’ resurrection body was it was not a body as you or I would know it. We are told that he entered the room despite the door being shut and in other gospel accounts he seems to appear as if out of nowhere. Some find the details of these accounts deeply reassuring, others highly problematic. Fascinating as all this is I don’t want to talk this morning about the evidence for the resurrection. This is such a fascinating and complex subject that I suggest we save it for our next Sceptic’s Group meeting after church on May 10. Instead, I’d like us to put aside our doubts and certainties and begin by taking the resurrection as a given. Having done that, what I want to do is ask the question: why is the resurrection so important? Today we are welcoming Beau and Logan into the family of the church. What difference will being a part of a community that holds the resurrection as a central tenet of faith do for them? What, one might ask, has the resurrection ever done for us?
I don’t believe there is anything about the idea of resurrection that is inherently significant. By way of illustrating the point, imagine for a second that it wasn’t Jesus who was raised from the dead but one of the criminals crucified with him. Do you think we would still be talking about it now? I’ll wager that it would count only as one of those odd historical footnotes. If that is correct, then it’s surely the case that the significance of the resurrection lies in the fact that it was Jesus’ resurrection – in other words, its significance was inextricably linked to the profound effect that his life and teaching had on his followers. What this entirely unexpected resurrection did was to underline that significance in the most powerful way imaginable such that it transformed the way they thought and acted.
You see the evidence of this transformation in today’s reading from Acts in which we are told that the early believers pooled their possessions and lived in a community in which there was not a single needy one among them. We are told the apostles proclaimed the resurrection with great power, not least because its impact on Jesus’ followers was so palpable and attractive. The resurrection acted as the most powerful possible validation of all that Jesus taught and did such that far from being cowed and depressed by his horrible death they were emboldened to follow the pattern of living that he had set.
The impact of the resurrection was so profound and world-changing that the early church continued to meditate on its significance for many years. The author (or authors) of John’s gospel and letters were writing some 60-70 years after the crucifixion and were among the latest of the New Testament writers. In the first letter of John you find this extraordinary statement:
‘God is love. Those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”
And elsewhere in that letter we find this:
“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
These statements go to the heart of what is so important about the resurrection, for they mark a decisive break with the Old Testament. I know that many of you who took the Bible Challenge were deeply shocked not just by the violence in the Old Testament but by God’s apparent role in it. There are, for instance, stomach-churning massacres in the Books of Kings and a truly vile rape in the Book of Judges. In many of these cases God is either seen as not condemning such outrages or, in some instances, actively condoning them. There is an essential ambiguity about God in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 45 we find these words:
“I am the God of weal and woe” – “I make well being, I create woe.”
You see this same ambiguity in the Psalms. For every psalm that thanks God for his goodness, grace and mercy, such as Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…”
there is a psalm in which God appears as our enemy, like Psalm 88:
“Wretched and close to death from you youth up I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.”
The New Testament gives a decisive response to this: there is no ambivalence about God at all. He is love and there is no darkness in him at all. This changes both nothing and everything. It changes nothing in that evil still exists in the world. But it changes everything in that we now know that God is unequivocally with us and on our side. He wants the best for us and the best for us comes from adopting Jesus’ pattern of living: a joy in the pleasures of life without grasping at possessions and position; a commitment to service – “I call you friends, not servants”; a cheerful cocking a snook at authority when it works against the interests of humanity; and a commitment, in the name of love, to non-violence.
This is all extraordinarily challenging if we are to be serious about following Jesus, and yet when people do set about following him with courage and in earnest, the results speak for themselves. It’s not for nothing that the three moral giants of the 20th century – Gandhi, Luther King and Mandela – all took Jesus as their role model. This is all the more remarkable in Gandhi’s case given that he was a Hindu, all of which raises an interesting question (for another time!) as to what makes someone a Christian.
We are unlikely to have the energy, vision and moral courage of these great men but is it worth following Jesus’ example, however halting and poor our efforts? The answer, surely, is “yes!”. If there is one thing the New Testament is clear about it’s that the first disciples were also a pretty pathetic lot, full of doubt and lacking in courage, yet in the resurrection they found the final validation of all that Jesus said and did. The resurrection was God’s way of saying: “this is who I am; this is what I am about.” It gave the disciples the confidence they needed to press on with what Jesus had started and should surely do so for us too, for in the pattern that Jesus set and that we are committed to following, we discover how to live that truly human, fulfilled, abundant life that really is worth living.