Easter Sermon at the Transitional Cathedral 04 April 2021
Readings: Acts 10:34-43 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 John 20:1-18 Psalm 118:1 – 2,16 – 17,22 – 23
Professor Alice Roberts, a University of Birmingham scientist, is President of the charity Humanists UK, an organisation which campaigns for state secularism and for "a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail".
That Tweet sparked lots and lots of responses, many of which chastised her for being unkind to Christians. Some responses were quite smart and witty along the lines of “well, one did come back to life and that’s why we make quite a fuss about him.”
But the best reply, I think, was from Tom Holland, the historian (not Spiderman) and author of Dominion,
It’s not just the evangelism, but the conviction that people who walk in darkness must be brought into light, that marks humanists as so irredeemably Christian. pic.twitter.com/ik9lJ9gpyD— Tom Holland (@holland_tom) April 2, 2021
Tom Holland makes the point that Alice Roberts may not be a Christian but she thinks and acts like a Christian: she wants to convert people from what she thinks is darkness to what she thinks is the light of truth.
What she Tweeted could apply to Lazarus – a dead man whom Jesus brought back to life.
But the resurrection of Jesus was not God bringing Jesus back to life.
The resurrection of Jesus was God bringing Jesus forward to life in a new realm – life in a new body,
- to be sure with marks of the old body (the nail marks in his hands and feet)
- and the ability to eat and drink,
- but no longer constrained by the usual constraints of space and time (see how in the resurrection stories, Jesus comes and goes from his friends at will).
The raised to life Jesus was – in language Paul uses later in 1 Cor – the first fruits of the resurrection of all baptised.
And those of us looking forward to that resurrection are not looking forward to being resuscitated after we die.
No, we are looking forward to a new resurrection body and life in a new world, in which we worship God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – eternally.
In other words, when we talk about the raising of Jesus from the dead, we are talking about much, much more than what Alice Roberts denies, that a man can be brought back to life.
We are talking about our Christian conviction that because God raised Jesus from the dead we dare to hope that Jesus’ death was transformative for our relationship with God – that through Jesus’ death we who believe in him might have peace with God – a reconciled, healed relationship with God.
Let’s go back to Friday. What happened on the cross? Michael Bird, an Australian Anglican theologian sums up the whole understanding of the New Testament when he says:
“On the cross, Jesus is the Passover lamb, the Levitical scapegoat, the suffering servant, the mercy seat, for on him God unloads the sins of the world, he bears the transgression of others, and the judgment of God against our wickedness falls upon him.”
Why would we think that? The plain fact of the matter is that if Jesus died on the cross and that was the end of his life, the end of his mission and the end of his movement, we would have heard no more about him.
If his death had some kind of eternal, universal significance, we would never have known it.
But something happened on that first Sunday after Jesus died and was buried. Our Psalm gives a hint, for instance,
Psalm 118: 17: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 15 offers a list of appearances of Jesus to his followers.
John 20, in common with the three other gospels, tell us of an empty tomb and of an appearance of Jesus – a resurrected Jesus who has left the tomb.
When Mary goes to tell the other disciples that she has seen the Lord, as the apostle to the apostles, she sets in motion the possibility that the meaning of the death of Jesus will not be lost to the world but will be proclaimed to the world.
Acts 10 makes a very interesting point – let’s hear verses 39-42 again:
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.”
That interesting point is that God permitted appearances of Jesus to those who would share his message with the world. The resurrection appearances would embolden and encourage those who would share the significance of Jesus’ death.
1 Corinthians 15:14: “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
We are not still in our sins because of what Jesus achieved on the cross; we know what Jesus achieved on the cross because his death was not his end: God raised him from the dead and so – especially according to Luke’s Gospel – the risen Jesus was able to explain the meaning of his death.
Alice Roberts is right, normally dead people don’t come back to life. That’s why what happened to Jesus, what Mary and Peter and the other disciple saw – the empty tomb, the burial clothes without a body in them, and then, later, along with many others, an appearance or three of the raised Jesus – is extraordinary. It shouldn’t have happened.
The Christian faith should have died, according to Alice Roberts, stillborn on the cross. It didn’t. Mary told the disciples. They saw and believed. They told many others throughout their world who believed and they have told others through successive generations.
As Ian Paul, a British biblical scholar says,
“Seeing and believing are the foundations of apostolic faith, but believing without seeing, based on apostolic testimony, will be the reality for successive generations. The new reality, that God is Father not only to Jesus but to all who believe, so that we are together brothers and sisters of Jesus, is established here but made real by the Spirit ().”
The resurrection is about you and me: through belief, will we enter into the new reality of God’s love made real for us on Good Friday and revealed to us on Easter Day?