Toorak Uniting Church

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Resurrection Life

Rev. Glennis Johnston
22 April 2012

Not only do we get a kick out of a good ghost story, but lots of people actually hire out movies to enjoy the thrill of ghosts up close and personal, with no apparent after-effects the next day. With a whole section of the DVD shop allotted to "thrillers", we fail to comprehend the terror for first century people associated with the presence of ghosts.

Appearances of the dead were not for them reassuring, not even to loved ones. The first followers of Jesus who talked about his continued presence with them after his death needed to reassure the community of faith that this presence was not a dark, threatening ghostly appearance that might be connected with the underworld. …. So how do you do that?

How do you reassure a people that a sense of Jesus’ continued presence was not dabbling in the underworld? It’s all in how you tell the story.

"Do not be afraid." "Why are you troubled?" "Touch me and see – give me something to eat – I am definitely not a ghost." What you’ve experienced of me since my death is not a ghostly, demonic or underworld experience. My presence in your midst brings light and empowerment – it is as though I were physically present again – just not quite the same. This is a wonderful experience of the spiritual life, not a frightening one."

Like a wraith, like a dream, Jesus leaves behind no children, no estate, no writings, no trace of himself except this feeling that his presence is real, that his absence is only partial. We cannot cling to him. It’s interesting that in both Luke and John no-one actually is said to touch the risen Jesus, only that they were invited to. We are not to cling to a form such as a body – that is static life. Resurrection life is meant to be dynamic, changing, evolving, resistant to being coded.

The reading today is the completion of the Emmaus Road story – all described as happening on Easter Day itself. Renowned Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan, calls the Emmaus Road story "the metaphoric condensation of the first years of Christian thought and practice into one parabolic afternoon" to which he famously added, "Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens."

The story is not, in other words, primarily a description of an historical event, but a story that reflects the experience of Christian life for the early disciples.

Two followers of Jesus are walking home on Easter day and are joined by a figure that they don’t recognize. The stranger proceeds to interpret the Scriptures for them. After some hours of walking they still don’t recognize him. Later, after being invited to stay with them, they recognize him at the table as he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Then he vanished from their sight. After that the disciples hurry back to Jerusalem to have yet another experience with Jesus behind closed doors.

The story is wonderfully suggestive. The risen Jesus opens up a fresh understanding of the Scriptures for them and for us. The risen Jesus is recognized by the early disciples, and still for us today, in the breaking of the bread. The risen Jesus journeys with us, sometimes without our even realizing it. We may or may not recognize Jesus accompanying us on our life journey. But then there are those outstanding memorable moments, when we do know him and suddenly recognize his presence with us.

Whether the story "happened" or not, Emmaus always happens. Emmaus has happened again and again in the history of people of faith. This is the truth of the parable and the powerful truth of your life and mine.

At the end of these two appearances in Luke, just a couple of sentences later, Jesus leads them out to Bethany and blesses them and lifts up his hands and parted from them. But in the first chapter of Acts, Luke describes this ascension 40 days later. From these two ascension stories, (on Easter Day and then 40 days later) it is clear that the author is not concerned with calendar time but with meaning.

The Easter appearance stories affirm that Jesus continues to be experienced after his death, but in a radically different way. He is no longer a normal human figure of flesh and blood, confined to time and space, but a reality that can enter locked rooms, journey with followers without being recognized, vanish and reappear somewhere else, and be experienced in both Jerusalem and Galilee, and abide with his followers, even you and I, always, "to the end of the age."

Jesus lived and died in one seamless whole. His death mattered because his life mattered. The stories of resurrection appearances are not about an afterlife or about happy endings.

In the experiences of Jesus after his death, the community of faith affirms God’s "yes" to Jesus and God’s "no" to the powers that executed him. The stories of Easter are not primarily about what happened to Jesus’ bones in the tomb, but about what was happening in the early Christian community. The resurrection is an inner encounter that happens for all people of faith "to the end of the age."

For those of us who give our lives to follow Jesus, he is a figure of the present, not simply the past. The ‘presence’ his first followers had known in Jesus before his death is intimately identified with his ‘presence’ afterwards. In fact, the stories affirm that the risen Jesus still bears the scars of crucifixion. We cannot make the Christ of faith into our own image. The Jesus we choose to worship must not become a product of our own religious projections, even though throughout history that has so often been the case.

The Christ of our Faith is only real if he is continuous with the man Jesus. If the Christ of Faith does not bear the scars of crucifixion, it is not the presence of Jesus that we relate to, but to a figure of our own making.

The scars of crucifixion aren’t just about Jesus not being a ghost. The story of his eating fish may be that. But the scars of crucifixion are much more than that. Jesus didn’t simply die for our sins or to appease an angry god. Jesus didn’t simply die. He didn’t fall from a building or have a heart attack. His resurrection was not simply about life after death. His was not just any death.

He was killed as a political prisoner for opposing the most powerful and oppressive military empire of his day. His passion for justice and the dignity of human life, his love for the weak, the outcast, the marginalized brought him into conflict with those who believed that they knew what God wanted. And when those religious powers colluded with military power, Jesus’ execution was inevitable.

Jesus’ continued presence with his followers, described as a resurrection, was a vindication of his stance against these powers. The scars of crucifixion are the wounds of the empire that executed him. None of the gospel writers speak about Jesus’ resurrection without speaking of his crucifixion. Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and do not have the final word.

‘Empire’ is about the use of military and economic power to shape the world in one’s perceived interests. Jesus’ passion in life led to his death. His passion was what he referred to as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven – a vision of what life would look like if the way of God were dominant, and the rulers, domination systems and empires of this world were not.

It was a world that the prophets dreamed of – a world of distributive justice, of what Biblical scholar, Ched Myers, calls "Sabbath Economics" – in which everyone has enough for fullness of life and systems are fair and just. According to Jesus this was not simply a political dream, but was God’s dream. This dream could only be realized if we were grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God. It was a dream and a passion which had political and economic dimensions but which was foundationally spiritual.

But the dream required a very real transformation of the way power is used by all of us in human relationships, in communities and in nations. It was a dream that was not to be realized in Jesus lifetime.

And yet as fearful and death-dealing as any empire’s powers may be, they do not have the final word. Resurrection means that the dream that did not die with Jesus. It is alive in his followers. There is more to the world than coercive power, more than military might, more than the exercise of power in any of its forms. There is the way of love.

Many, like Martin Luther King, and his team, the Catholic priests of the base communities in South and central America, the Jesuits in South America, Gandhi and Mother Theresa in India, and countless others have forged new possibilities for communities and nations empowered by a similar vision.

Brimming with resurrection life, and committed to the way of non-violence and love, men and women of faith have, consciously or otherwise, incarnated the presence of God in later generations.

Despite our doubts and fears, there is the reality of resurrection, of God’s new possibilities in any moment of our lives.

The resurrection of Jesus is not about empty tombs or the absence of a body. It is not about life in heaven after death. The words of Jesus to Mary in the garden, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the gathered followers in the upper room, to Thomas, all point to something much more. They suggest an invitation to all of us – as though Jesus says to us, "trust in my presence with you, not because you can see me or touch me, but because you have experienced resurrection within yourself."

Learning to live without Jesus was a grief for the early community. But it was also the path to their full humanity. Through the path of following, accompanied by the mysterious but elusive presence of Jesus, empowered by his vision, we find our true humanity. The dream of the kingdom of God, and the path of following the way of justice, compassion and the cross, is the meaning of the resurrection for us.

God does something in a place where for all intents and purposes, nothing good can come from it. God redeems death; overcomes doubt and fear. Love redeems life. Something new begins in us as a resurrection and nothing can remain the same. We find our true humanity as we find the rhythm of living, dying and rising within our own story.

Peace be with you.

© Rev. Glennis Johnston, 2012

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