THE STORY – CHAPTER 27
Readings: Psalm 40:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:3-19, Acts 17:22-33, Luke 24:13-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 23, 2016
This week we reach Chapter 27 of 'The Story” which is all about what happened after the crucifixion of Jesus. In the Apostles Creed, our belief in resurrection is clearly stated. “On the third day He rose again.”
This belief, that Jesus defeated death, is where Christianity and other religions separate in their understanding. It is one thing to have a great religious teacher that comes to an unfortunate end, but quite another to suggest that such a teacher then returns to life. That, for many, is beyond what they are prepared to accept.
It has been that way ever since the gospel message was first proclaimed. We read in Acts chapter 17 of Paul going to one of the most religious diverse cities of his day, the city of Athens, and preaching eloquently, using illustrations from their own Athenian gods, about what Jesus taught and how Jesus died. But when Paul speaks about God raising Jesus to life, this happens; Acts 17:32 “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject."
Paul is utterly convinced that without belief in resurrection, then Christianity is the most hollow, useless, empty philosophy that could ever be concocted by feeble human minds. He tells the church in Corinth; “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)
Chapter 27 of “The Story” does a wonderful job arranging the scattered stories of resurrection that appear in the final chapters of each of the gospels into a sequence of related events.
We read of appearances of the risen Christ to Mary, Mary and Salome, to Peter, to Mary Magdalene, to Thomas in an upper room, to disciples gathered at the sea shore and finally to the gathered apostles on a mountaintop where they are commissioned to go and tell the world the gospel message and baptize people in Jesus name.
We also hear of events surrounding the resurrection... Mary and Martha's desire to anoint His body, Joseph of Arimathea generously donating a burial place, of a sealed tomb guarded by soldiers, of Jesus appearing through walls like a ghost, yet eating a fish breakfast in a very un-ghostly fashion.
Within the gospels themselves these stories are scattered in such a way to suggest that, even though Jesus had taught His followers that He would be raised to life on the third day, they really could not grasp what He meant and truly struggled to comprehend what had taken place. Yet slowly, and gradually, the truth dawns upon them. He was alive.
Thomas sees the scars and is convinced. Peter is led to re-evaluate what love actually means. Disciples in Emmaus have hearts that burn with vitality and understanding as Jesus interprets the scriptures to them, even though their eyes are not truly opened until Jesus breaks bread with them and they momentarily glimpse the reality of His presence.
The resurrection appearances are random and fleeting and temporary. For the disciples they come to an end after the Ascension. The only exception is an appearance of Jesus on the road to Damascus to a disciple called Saul, that so turns his life around that he becomes the greatest architect and spokesperson for this new movement that would capture the world.
Over the centuries since then have been countless numbers of folk, myself included, who claim that their lives have been influenced by the risen presence of Jesus Christ in such a way as they are convinced that the resurrection is neither a fairy tale nor a story but a truth about Jesus that should change the way we view and live our lives.
I well recall, from some of my earlier days in church, Ray, a wonderful gentleman with a booming voice, who used to love to sing a chorus well known in the Pentecostal Church circles at that time, called “He lives”. As I repeat the words to you I can still see his radiant face as he testified in his own unique way:- “He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today, and He walks with me and He talks with me, along life's narrow way, He lives, He lives, salvation to impart, You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!”
Something common to the gospel accounts, even to the predictions that Jesus Himself made to those who were His closest followers, is that the experience of resurrection is incredibly hard to describe, to frame, to put into words, but that it is a truth that once it touches you, leaves you never the same again.
We can argue it, we can contemplate it's unlikeliness, we can even, as some have done argue against it and find ourselves converted to it. That's what happened to author Frank Morrison who in the 1930's wrote a book called “Who moved the Stone.” His original intention was to disprove the resurrection but his book ended up as a defense of it's reality.
Likewise Lee Strobel, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune who set out to disprove Christianity, but ended up becoming a Christian and created a series of books under the title “Case for Christianity.” Then there's Josh McDowell, who set out to write a paper in college to expose Christianity as a myth, but ended up being so convinced that he became a Christian himself and wrote an influential book titled “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.”
For myself, one of my favorite resurrection accounts is that day, recorded in Luke's gospel, not long after the crucifixion has taken place, when a couple of disillusioned followers are making their way from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus.
There are many elements present in this story that others who have come to a belief in resurrection can identify with. It begins with disillusionment and disbelief. Then we see how the Spirit works on their understanding of Scripture in such a way that they later declare that as Jesus explained the scriptures to them, their “hearts were burning.” It concludes with an act of recognition that takes place during a time of fellowship and breaking of bread.
I like the way the story begins where we are, with all our misconceptions and hurts and doubts. Belief in resurrection is not an easy thing. Life teaches us that good, wonderful and hope filled things don't happen. We are hurt and compromised and often expect the worse. We read that the two travelers were so despondent that they failed to recognize Jesus even when He came and walked alongside them. There eyes were cast down.
As we have been reading through “The Story” we have talked about there being a “Lower Story” and an “Upper Story.” The “Lower Story” is the way we experience life, and the view our experiences give to us.
These travelers had put their faith in Jesus because they really believed He was the one who was going to redeem Israel. But now look at what had happened. The powers that be had murdered Him! That's life. The reality. We knew it was to good to be true. The “Lower Story” doesn't get much lower. Everything you hoped for is shattered. All your plans are scuppered. It's back to, well “We'll just get by, because tomorrow we die.”
That's how they feel. But notice something. Where is Jesus when all this happening? Right alongside them. Walking with them. They don't see it. They don't feel it. They don't recognize His presence. Can't we be just like that? The last thing we expect to hear in the midst of our doubts and confusions is that Jesus is right there with us.
Jesus does something for them. He starts to engage them with Scripture. We read “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.” He starts sharing the 'Upper Story”, the one about God's purposes and God's plans and how the Messiah would suffer and be crucified and be raised again on the third day.
There is power in the words of scripture when we allow God to interpret them to our hearts. When we take the time to look and prayerfully listen to what God wants to share with us, it is a transformation experience. God sends the Holy Spirit to interpret God's word to our hearts. That is what was happening on that road. The “Upper Story” was invading and transforming the “Lower Story” of their lives. And they are starting to get it. They are starting to see. So much so that as they near the end of their journey, we read “They urged Him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over."
Jesus stays with them. They are at table. “When He was at the table with them, He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, and He disappeared from their sight.”
At that point they know that Jesus is alive. Though He disappears from physical view they now know that He will always be with them. That experience is verified when they later speak with others who likewise have come to a place where their hearts testify; “He lives, He lives, ... salvation to impart, You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!”
Such a belief seems to reach people in as many different ways as they are different people. For the likes of folk like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell it came as they were trying to disprove Christianity. For two travelers on the Emmaus Road it was as bread was broken, that their eyes were opened.
For C.S Lewis, he says that it happened as he was taking a motorcycle side car ride to the zoo. After months of intellectual struggle and the gradual realization that God was there, he writes “I was driven to Whipsnade Zoo one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion…. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”
My own testimony is that, whilst on a youth retreat as a teenager, a friend prayed that Jesus Christ would become a living reality in my life. The next day, I woke up and it was just there. A sense of God's presence, that my life was headed somewhere new, that there was more to existence than that which could be touched and tasted and seen by the naked eye. And I knew it was all related to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the story that the scriptures relate to us of God's purposes and plans.
I pray that when those times of disillusionment or despair come to us, that we will discover that God is actually right alongside us. I pray that as we study scripture together the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal God's purposes and plans. I pray that as we worship and break bread together our eyes will continue to be opened and our faith continually enlivened. I pray that, wherever we are on our spiritual journey, wherever we may be along our own Emmaus roads, that we will know Jesus walks alongside us every step of the way.
May such knowledge empower us for service and enable us to commit our way to letting others know that Jesus lives for them. This is great and good news. Death has been defeated. Despair has been cast away. No matter what may come, eternity will have the last word, hate will be vanquished by love and what was thought to be lost, will be forever found. Resurrection is all of this. And so much more! To God's name be all glory. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.