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17th April 2022

Resurrection People

Passage: Luke 24;1-12


In our secular society, Christian preachers are advised to ask, “so what?” as they write a sermon. Picture yourself speaking to people who have barely heard the name “Jesus Christ” except to swear with and let them ask, “so what?”
OK. We began with the ancient Easter greeting “The Lord is Risen. He is risen indeed.” So what?

Belief in life after death is in our human DNA. Even the Neanderthals, who had no organised religion, buried their dead with objects they might need in an after-life. Right up to our secular society today, belief in life after death remains with us.
Human civilisations have always celebrated the return of the sun, and new life after winter. The very word “Easter” comes from the pagan celebrations of spring known as Eostre. We have always believed in an awesome life force in our world.

So, there are lots of stories in ancient religions of gods and heroes returning to life after everyone thought they had died. But we tend to think of them now as myths, products of the imagination, creative ways of making a point and drawing a society together. What is different about the story of Jesus?

It is a weird tale, isn’t it? No-one in that story seems to be able to prove anything. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, why not march into Pilate’s castle shouting, “look, here I am!” And if the whole story was made up by his disciples, why could not Pilate produce the body? You cannot hide a dead body for long, not in a climate like that.
No-one believed the women’s story of finding the empty tomb. Jesus’ disciples did not know what to think. And actually, each of the four Gospels ends shortly after on a note of uncertainty: “we are not quite sure what to make of this but we are going with it.” Hardly a shout of victory. So what?

The film “Risen” is about a tough Roman Officer named Clavius, who, when rumours start about Jesus coming back to life after being crucified, is ordered by Pilate to investigate. Find that body and disprove that story. It is like a Murder Mystery except that it does not have the tidy ending with Clavius gathering everyone together and saying, “I will tell you how it happened.” Because Clavius encounters the risen Jesus, although he cannot begin to understand how. And this Jesus somehow changes his life. It is no swift before and after conversion: “I’ve found Jesus.” It is a lonely, painful, bewildering experience but Clavius chooses to take this journey rather than the sure and certain path of a Roman Officer. There is just no way he can explain this to Pilate because Pilate simply won’t get it.

OK, it is a film, the product of creative genius, with some Biblical narrative thrown in. But there are very strong parallels between this story and the story of St Paul, which is embedded in history, as well as in the Bible. Paul was a powerful Jewish leader on a mission to destroy the first Christians. He employed secret police to track them down, then arrest them himself. This new religion was a fake and he would prove it. But he somehow encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. And although for Paul too, the process was a long, bewildering journey, he chose to follow Jesus and to dedicate his life to making Jesus Christ known as Son of God to the world. Not because he could demonstrate historic or scientific proof that Jesus had risen from death but because his personal experience of the living Christ had given him a whole new perspective on life and death, sin and suffering, pain and healing, guilt and forgiveness, family and community, God and humanity. And it all made sense, even to a man living, as he was, under the brutal regime of the Roman Empire.

What was different about Jesus? I can only explain it as the power of love. And love not just as a sentiment or even an emotion but as an attitude, a belief, a narrative to be lived out.
Paul had been brought up in a religion which had become a set of doctrines to be believed and rules by which to live. And none of this was bad stuff. It just was not enough. Human beings do not grow and develop and understand simply by keeping rules and ticking boxes. Human beings grow and develop and understand through relationships and, if there is a God worth believing in then this God has to be accessed through a relationship; a relationship which will grow with us; a relationship which will teach us who we are by walking with us through life, no matter how many winding paths we take; offering no simplistic answers to the questions we have but leading us forward to a place where we can answer for ourselves; a relationship which demands everything but which also gives everything.
God gave himself in Jesus; by entering the world and human life. When Jesus invited people to follow him, he asked for everything. You could not be a part-time follower of Christ. But he also gave everything, even his own life.

And this supreme act of love becomes our redemption. Because no matter how many mistakes we make, how many rules we break, how much pain and sin and evil there is in the world, here is a relationship with God that cannot be broken. And if there is a love in the universe more powerful than all evil and hatred, then yes, there just might be a life more powerful even than death.
Maybe it was not the resurrection that proved Jesus to be the Son of God. He did not march out saying, “down on your knees! You could not kill me, so I am going to take over the world.” No, it was the cross that proved Jesus to be the Son of God; the sheer force of that love which had taken him there and those who fell to their knees in the face of this love, would, through their love and faith, come to understand the resurrection, even if they found it hard to explain.

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. So what?
So what? Rather than being nothing more than a random combination of physical particles that govern my every thought, emotion and action, I am a child of God, filled day by day with the Spirit of God.
Rather than being nothing more than a CV, listing my achievements and my failures and considerably more of the second than of the first, I have a place in a universe brought into being by a God who is love and that is enough.
Rather than being nothing more than a pawn in the dangerous games played by powerful people; nurtured on their lies; I have the freedom to follow Jesus and take an alternative path.
Rather than being nothing more than a member of the evolutionary chain that will end up extinguishing life on this planet, I have the power to say No and choices that will bring about change.
Rather than accept or reject a religion, I am invited to accept or reject a living relationship with God.

I looked up the definition of the word “resurrection.” And Collins’ English dictionary defined it as “coming back into use or importance.” Because God in Jesus offers himself in love to us every hour of every day; so every hour of every day we respond to that love, we find ourselves coming back into use and importance. We are people of the resurrection.

One last thing: remember last year, we were not able to hold a full service in church but we recorded a video and this was played in three separate short sittings and the cross of flowers stood outside on the front steps of the church.
As people came up the path, they were invited to take a daffodil and place it on the cross. Lovely. What was staggering was the number of people who picked up their daffodil and then said, “What cross?” How could you possibly miss it? It is four feet tall, standing on a step and covered with daffodils. I guess people were not expecting to see it. It was not in the usual place. And this is the thought I would like to leave you with- it is all very well for me to talk about entering into a relationship with God in Jesus; all very well for Clavius in the film and Paul in the Bible to have dramatic encounters with the risen Christ. But what about the rest of us? Many of us do not have Damascus road conversion experiences. Risen Jesus- what risen Jesus? Where?
The angels at the tomb said to the women ‘you are not looking in the right place and you are not looking for the right person. He is not a dead body but a living being.”
Just keep looking. Prepare to be surprised. Jesus Christ might not be found by you in the places you expect. But it does not mean he is not there for you. Believe in his love; trust in that love; live out in your own life the story of a love which can never be beaten and, as he promised, those who look for him will find him.
Happy Easter.