Acts 2:14a,22-32 , Psalm 16 , 1 Pet 1:1-12 , John 20:19-31

Readings for Second Sunday of Easter 30 March 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Easter 2 , 30 March 2008 Textweek

Sermon by Theo Mackaay

In the name of God – Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen

Joseph Heller, who is most famous for having written “Catch 22”, also wrote a book called “Something Happened”. I have to confess to not having read either, but the latter title sticks in my mind because it could be the title of a book about the resurrection.

We all have some kind of response to hearing the word ‘resurrection’. My hunch is that some of us form a mental image of a revived body, some of us have an image of some sort of spirit, others picture other things. Some of us struggle to form an opinion and some of us refuse to form anything at all.

The New Testament writings pretty much cover the same field, and struggle with it. And you thought it was all so simple! Sorry, but it isn’t. There is neither certainty nor consensus about what ‘resurrection’ means.

The earliest writings we have in the New Testament are Paul’s letters. It was Paul who shaped Christianity for us and for all time. Paul was in no doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead by God. That’s good. Pity he doesn’t describe what it means. We are all familiar with Paul’s story of his conversion from being a persecutor of the Christians to the greatest thinker of the first Christian generation.

The Damascus Road experience – a term still used to describe people going through a life-shifting moment. “The Lord appeared to me …” he says. Appeared – the word used is the same as we use for ‘Epiphany’. Paul doesn’t say that Jesus walked up to him in bodily form. The term ‘appeared’ is used quite a bit in the New Testament to talk about Jesus after the resurrection.

Interesting, Paul never talks about the empty tomb – something we might have expected him to use as proof, - well, at least as evidence of the resurrection.

Mark’s Gospel – the first of the four written, stops at the empty tomb. There is no mention of post-resurrection appearances – well except in the spurious ‘long ending’. We read that the women ran away, frightened.

In the other Gospels, there is an interesting collection. Jesus walks down the road with two disciples who do no recognise him! He walks through locked doors. He invites touch but also refuses touch. Luke has Jesus meeting the disciples in Jerusalem, while Matthew places the post-resurrection appearances in Galilee.

So what’s going on here? Why is there no uniformity? Why no agreement about this most fundamental aspect of our faith?

To borrow the title of Val Webb’s recent book – describing something with no precedent is like catching water in a net. How do we describe the indescribable? How do we put into words our belief that God has done something so new, so radical, that it can only be approached as an item of belief?

That’s what the New Testament writers were grappling with – the utter newness of this belief. Yes, there developed in Judaism in its latter years a notion that those who were faithful to God and the Divine covenant would experience a life in the presence of God beyond their own death. But that was no guide for the Christian church as it developed its theology about Jesus the Christ. For every belief about Jesus is unique to the faith. There are no models to work with, no precedents to draw on.

The New Testament writings cover 3 generations, and it is interesting that the theological development is not linear – you can’t look at the earliest writings and see a crude understanding of the faith. In fact, Paul’s letters contribute arguably some of the most developed theology of the whole body of work. And personally, I am not a fan of the Book of Revelation (other than chapter 13), and that is at least in part because it seems somehow unsophisticated. In between we get all manner of degrees of development.

Why is it so, as Professor Sumner Miller would have asked? Well, it’s simple really. Each generation has to ask its own questions and develop its ownership of the faith. Even though most of the questions will be the same for each generation, they have to be owned afresh. That’s the point at which we find ourselves not just this Easter season, but every Easter. As Peter Humphris is so fond of reminding us, this material is not some historical artifact. If it were so, there would no point in reading it.

This is our story, this is what is happening to us. God comes with utter newness into life. If I were Peter, I would probably now talk about our internal empty tombs. But I’m not Peter., so you may go off on that thought train yourselves, if you wish.

Rather, I want to make this simple point – the task is put to each of us to grapple with what this all means. Not in the sense of forming a theory of resurrection – theories rarely sustain life. Rather, to grapple with what God is doing that is utterly new.

So, do I believe in the resurrection? Simple question, way too complex for simple answers. In the days of my conservative youth (yes – I had one of those!), in a very conservative theological context, there was a hymn people were very fond of, entitled “I serve a risen saviour, he’s in the world today. I can’t remember much more of the verses, but I recall the last part of the refrain: “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart”. End of story. Or perhaps more correctly – Beginning of story. Amen.

Theo Mackaay