April 3, 2016

Jesus Came and Stood Among Them

Passage: Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
Service Type:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’

Some of you may remember when Rev. Dr. Stephen Williamson preached here at Central. (July 11, 2010) Stephen and his wife Heather are friends of mine and Valerie from Northern Ireland; our friendship began through a ministry exchange. We exchanged homes, congregations, and automobiles for the month of July in 2003. When people ask Stephen how we met he says—through an internet dating site.

There is some truth to his depiction—though he says it that way to raise eyebrows. We had both posted our profiles with an organization that facilitated these kinds of exchanges and our first contact was indeed over the internet via email. But I can tell you this, we became friends because we met each other in person. It was that day when we stood in their home meeting them face to face that a wonderful friendship began. The internet is a wonderful tool and we may think we are friends with many people through electronic contact; it is my experience that living breathing relationships require face to face contact.

Stephen and Heather have three daughters and when the eldest was getting married we were invited but unable to go. In their church, services are broadcast over the internet so Valerie and I were delighted to be able to watch the wedding as it occurred. When their second daughter was married we were able to make the trek to Northern Ireland and attend in person. I can tell you that these were two very different experiences. When I visit people who can no longer get to church they often admit that while televised services are a help they long to be with us in person; there is no substitute for being bodily present with others. There is something about human life that requires face to face encounter; things that can only be experienced by bodily presence.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The Apostles’ Creed was articulated around 150 A.D.—about 120 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The creed came into existence in the face of theological controversy; its design was to set out some parameters for theology that would keep things on a trajectory of the Apostles’ teaching. In essence, each of its affirmations were held by all the Apostles. It is interesting that in the Nicene Creed (4th century) that is confessed in many churches it says “resurrection of the dead.” Now, “resurrection of the dead” is itself a unique affirmation, but it doesn’t make the point as explicitly as “resurrection of the body.”

Now why is this affirmation in the Apostles’ Creed? The gospels witness that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. In our reading today from John’s gospel we read “Jesus came and stood among them and said.” Other gospel stories make the same point. Jesus ate food, invited them to touch him, asked Mary Magdalene to stop clinging to him, he spoke and is heard, they see him standing there. In the story of Peter restored where Jesus asks him three times if he loves him—such restoration could only happen face to face.

The Apostle Paul addresses this issue head on in his first letter to the Corinthians. In his famous chapter on love, he speaks of a future day when we will know the Lord and one another, not “through a glass, darkly” (“in a mirror, dimly”—NRSV), but “face to face.” He goes on, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The gospel proclamation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is troubling for many. Skeptics abound in any generation and, to be sure, the ineffable nature of the resurrection makes it impossible to talk of it directly. It is the first time it occurred in history. Yet all the gospel agree that the tomb was empty and the body nowhere to be found. So for many in the church there is this pension to spiritualize the resurrection bypassing the body. For many theologians and preachers—unable to embrace the inexplicability of the story—they turn this into a “Jesus lives on in the hearts and lives of the disciples” kind on event.

I invite you to reflect on the skepticism for a moment. Doesn’t the skepticism itself bear witness to the point of the importance of the body for the actualities of human life? Consider Thomas’ assertion. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Does Thomas not express what skeptics from any generation assert? Christian faith and the skeptic both assert the importance of the body. What we disagree about is “unless I see.” The believer has experienced the truth of Jesus’ promise—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Consider with me the change that occurs among these disciples and ask what might account for this sort of dramatic turn. It important to reflect on how dispirited these disciples were following the crucifixion of Jesus. They had all deserted him. They couldn’t believe that they had been so wrong about Jesus—just another pretend Messiah. Everything they left behind in order to follow him had been a total waste. Bitter, discouraged, and now in hiding for fear that the authorities might come after Jesus’ associates next just to be sure they stamped out the problem.

In John’s gospel we note they went from having the doors locked at the first appearance of Jesus to them to simply having the doors shut when he came the second time. And then when we get to where we read from Luke’s story of the early church from the book of Acts these same disciples are before the Sanhedrin, having been arrested by the high priest from preaching the story in spite of being ordered not to by this same authority. From despondency to hopefulness, from cowering in fear to fearlessness, so much so that before the same Sanhedrin who voted to condemn Jesus to death Peter (the denier), speaking for the Apostles says “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:29-32)

What accounts for such a dramatic turn around? The idea of the immortality of the soul was such a commonplace belief in the Hellenistic world of Jesus and the apostles that, even though it was not a Jewish idea, no one would have been surprised to hear it. Similarly, we today hear people talk of rebirth, life after death, personal immortality (person lives on), reincarnation, and all kinds of other generic religious beliefs almost as a matter of course. I hear them when I meet families at the time of death; people want to believe there is more to come. Christianity speaks about the resurrection of the body—not the immortality of the soul.

Suppose for a moment that the Angel messenger in Mark’s story had stood outside a still-closed tomb and said to the women, “The spirit of your Master lives on,” or “The immortal soul of Jesus has gone to heaven.” Maybe this would have been comforted the women. Maybe it would have encouraged them to pick up their lives, warmed them with a religious glow and sense of possibility. Maybe. In view of what they had witnessed at Golgotha, I doubt it. In any case, this is not at all what the gospels describe.

Imagine the despondent disciples behind locked doors in fear trying to avoid any further disaster for themselves. Do you think the women returning from an undisturbed grave with news of seeing an angel who said “the spirit of your master lives on” would have made a bit of difference to them? They could have heard that on any street corner from the local Greek philosopher. Do you think these disciples would be before the Sanhedrin risking life and limb to proclaim forgiveness of sin in Jesus name if they thought “the immortal soul of Jesus has gone to heaven”? Is what happened to the disciples the “coming to terms” with the death of their friend over a period time such that the shock wore off the crucifixion wore off and they decided that it would be a tragedy to let the teaching of Jesus be forgotten so they mustered the courage to carry on his teaching? Maybe. But I don’t see it as possible. The fact alone that Jesus was crucified, numbered among the scum of the earth, renders such theory dubious.

The only thing that I can see that accounts for the shocking, head-snapping turnaround is that behind those locked doors “Jesus came and stood among them.”

The Corinthian congregation that Paul founded and nurtured was turning away from the revolutionary Christian proclamation of the resurrection of the body. They were returning to the much more familiar religious idea of the immortality of the soul. In fact, the Corinthians thought that they had already gained immortality. They had a “spiritualized” idea of the resurrection that bypasses the body. Paul writes to them, explaining that if they are going to go that way, they are giving up the foundation of the Christian faith: “how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised … your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-17)

All the Gospel accounts of the resurrection convey a sense of something completely unlooked-for that has happened, something altogether without precedent, something that stuns and astonishes with its inexplicable power. Yet this event is revealed—in various stages—as being the resurrection of Jesus to bodily existence. To be sure, it is a different sort of body, which passes through doors, isn’t always recognized, and appears to only a chosen few; yet it is a real body that east fish, cooks breakfast, and bears the marks of the nail wounds. The risen Lord was not a disembodied spirit, but a real body with whom the disciples had a continuing face-to-face relationship. The resurrection of Jesus is a completely new happening in the world; the single, definitive, and unique action of God to vindicate and enthrone the crucified Messiah.

I began this sermon noting with you the importance of the body presence for human relationship. I have spent good portion of this sermon dwelling on the change that takes place in the disciples between their desertion of Jesus on Good Friday and their preaching of the crucified Jesus now risen from the dead following the day of Pentecost. I have pressed upon you the gospel witness that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and made the connection that only this could account for such a dramatic change. I want to be careful to note with you that the change in the disciples is only a sign, an indicator that something unique has occurred.

I note with you that such an event would by definition be inexplicable. No one was in the tomb in the darkness to see what happened. We have the witness that it was empty and the body gone and that Jesus came and stood among the disciples. Our task is to proclaim the crucified Jesus now risen from the dead now standing among us. Our task is to invite people to believe. Our Lord will make himself known to any who would reach out in faith no matter how tentative that faith.

This is the point the Apostle John makes. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” I think it is the point Jesus made with Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

How our Lord looms before us and makes himself known is mystery but that he does is experienced by believing. Jesus is right here. He is here in a way that no one else has ever been. It is very difficult to describe how this can be, but just as the beloved disciple grasped by faith that Jesus’ body had passed through the grave clothes, so also we today may grasp by faith that he is risen and alive. Every single person in this church today has been given at least a small glimmering of faith, or you would not be here. However tiny your seed of faith may be, it is enough. Your faith is a mustard seed Jesus promised would grow into a great tree. If you are new to all this, let your seed of faith begin and sprout and grow today.

The Apostle Paul concluded his discussion of the resurrection is a sort of rapture; Listen, I will tell you a mystery! … For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)

Changed! Our sinfulness exchanged for his righteousness, our mortality for his immortality, our sorrow for his joy, our bondage for his freedom, and our deteriorating human body for an altogether transformed one that will nevertheless be our very own and no one else’s, a body with which to love others and be loved in return with all the love of Christ himself. “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ (1 Corinthians 15:54). Amen.