The Way of Sozo

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 22nd April 2018, the fourth Sunday in Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24

Our history story begins today, as it does every Sunday between Easter and Pentecost, in The Acts of The Apostles, or as J.B. Phillips calls this book The Young Church in Action.  Outside Easter we hear the history of our faith from the Jewish tradition, but in these seven weeks we hear how the Jewish tradition continued after the departure of the messiah and how The Way, the practices of those who have faith in the name by which all men and women might be saved, was enacted.

Today we are in Acts 4, and Peter and John the disciples of Jesus, two of the inner three, have been called to appear before Annas, Caiaphas, Jonathan (who would be High Priest after Caiaphas) and the Sadducean elite families.  Hopefully you heard last week how, when a crowd flocked to them following their healing of the man born lame Peter began to speak of Jesus the Risen One who brings salvation through healing and grace.  Now the two have been detained by the temple guards, locked up overnight, and are now speaking with the Sanhedrin who ask Peter and John where their authority comes from to minister.  Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit we read in Acts 4:8 responds that the man who was healed was healed by Jesus, whose power was released through the apostles by their proclamation of the resurrection.  (At this point it’s good to remember that Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection, so Peter knows very well he’s stirring their pot.  Add to that that Jesus had been crucified by the Sanhedrin, the same council before whom Peter is now speaking.)  You yourselves murdered Jesus, but God has raised Jesus from the dead.  The rejected, despised one, the one you had taken out to the garbage tip and crucified, is the one chosen by God, and sozo (saving and salving) is found only through him, Jesus.  The challenge is clear, the Sanhedrin killed Jesus; they didn’t “have Jesus killed” but they killed him as if they were the crucifiers, but God is bringing salvation (sozo) through him and through those who he has authorised.  And not through the Sanhedrin.

Peter is either very brave or very foolish.  Meh, maybe six-of-one-and-a-half-dozen-of-the-other, but he’s full of the Holy Spirit and he’s speaking God’s wisdom.

The world’s history tells us that within forty years of the time of this episode takes place Jerusalem in its entirety would be destroyed, including the temple and the Sadducees would cease to exist.  The temple will never be rebuilt, and the Sadducees will never return; but the Christians, free of links to the temple in their dedication to Jesus the saviour, would go on.  The authority behind the disciples who stood before the Sanhedrin, and the authority of Christians from the night of resurrection and the Day of Pentecost right through today in Morwell and into the future, is the living temple built with living stones on the cornerstone which the builders had rejected.  Hereditary High Priest or third generation illiterate fisherman, without the Spirit you are nothing, with the Spirit you lack nothing.

Today the Psalm set for us is the greatly familiar one: perhaps I can paraphrase the first line and say, “The LORD is my saviour”.  The LORD is my protector and provider; when I listen to The LORD I am lead to places of restoration; to rest, and water and food, and safety.  My soul is restored, and my body strengthened.  My conscience is clear because I am lead by the Voice of God, the Holy Spirit, and regardless of the terrain outside my eyes my heart is at rest within me because I am with God.  Khesed shall pursue me says Psalm 23:6, the fullness of divine blessing shall chase me with the intention of grabbing and holding me when I am caught. This is the experience of Peter and John in the temple courtyard, in the cells, in front of the Sanhedrin, and on into life.  This is the sozo of Jesus: safety and healing, protection and restoration.  The LORD is my saviour, what have I to be afraid of?  Certainly not of the puppets of religion and empire.

God as Love is extreme: perhaps we might say that love is best defined by completion in that it goes right to the extremes and beyond them.  John said in 1 John 3:16, in another of those great three-sixteen verses in the Bible, that Jesus’ love for us was proven in his death, and our love for others is proven in our willingness to lay down our lives for them.  Who do you love enough to die for them: Jesus loves you that much.  This passage is not a guilt trip, as if if you don’t love Jesus enough to die for him then you are unworthy of salvation.  That has never been the Christian message, although you may have heard that said in error by the Church.  In error, by the Church.  Martyrdom is a gift, not a prerequisite: what God needs from you is not your death but your trust.  So, the point is not to guilt you in to martyrdom, the point is to explain the dimensions of Jesus’ love for you and the limits of his ministry of salvation. In fact, Jesus’ love is immeasurable, and it is limitless.  That is the point, the encouragement, the endorsement of the message of the Kingdom of God, the realm of love.  This is the context for 1 John 3:17: how can you say you have love, love which has just been defined for you by Jesus, and yet you do nothing to alleviate the need for salvation of the person next to you.  John speaks in the language of the NRSV of a brother or sister in need: not “an alien in your land,” not “a man or woman” not even “a neighbour”, a brother or sister.  A brother or sister is a member of the family, a son or daughter of your father, The Father.  If not a blood sibling, then certainly a fellow believer in Jesus.  Love in action, John goes on to say, don’t just talk about it but do it.  Make your ministry matter, make the truth obvious by the change it has made in your life, and the change it brings to the lives of those whom you meet as you go about your day putting love into action.

If your life, like Peter’s, or John’s, is about serving your world with generous love, then God will answer your prayers.  1 John 3:21 assures us of this.  Again, this is not some magic spell to get what we want, as if you can get those new shoes you had your eye on by asking God for a lotto win balanced by three days a week volunteering with the Red Cross and tithing fifteen percent to the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster.  By all means do tithe over and above but do it as an act of delight and gratitude for God, and your brothers and sisters.  Do volunteer with Red Cross, but from the same motivation to see the world transformed for the better for the glory of God.  (By the way, Red Cross will do that, you don’t have to focus your attention on organisations with “church” in the name and “Jesus” in the constitution for God to use you for Heaven’s glory.)

When Peter and John entered the temple, they were going to pray.  They had no other plans, no hidden agenda, they were a pair of Jews in Jerusalem and they were heading for the regular afternoon service of public worship.  On the way they met a man with a need, a need deeper than the one he knew about, and because they were attentive to the Spirit and were filled with the overflowing love of the Risen One they were ready and willing to act.  The man they met was released from physical disability and mental anguish, and he ran, and he worshipped.  Love, not obligation, not charity, not pity, love was on display.  In the mode of 1 John 3, (which of course was written much later than this episode), two disciples of Jesus met a brother in need, not a fellow Christian (yet) but a fellow Jew and a fellow Israelite, and their love would not let them walk past.  When they were called upon by the Jewish and Israelite authorities, religious and national leaders, and it was demanded of them that they explain themselves, they did.

  • What authority do we have to heal? The authority of love, with power to heal twisted bones and wasted tissue coming from God who is love.
  • What authority do we have to proclaim truth? The authority of love, with power to heal anxious minds and broken hearts coming from God who is love.
  • Who is God? God is love, and that love was seen in the preparedness to allow himself to be murdered by you rather than retaliate with the forces of Heaven and destroy you.

In Peter and John, in their actions on that day and in Luke’s writing afterwards, we see the story of God.  The love of God is always sozo love: God’s love only ever acts to restore.  God saves, God salves, God soothes; God forgives, God restores, God welcomes home.

This is how you are loved.  This is how you are to love.  This is the power and authority by which you love the world, beginning with your brothers and sisters.

Amen.

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Welcomed as Family (Easter 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Congregation to be presented on Sunday 15th April 2018 at Yallourn North Uniting Church.

Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Today’s reading from Acts puts us straight into action with the first generation of Christians.  We listen in as Peter speaks to the gathering crowd in Solomon’s Porch, a public part of the temple in Jerusalem where the man who had been lame from birth had just been healed by Jesus through the apostles’ prayer.  A man who had asked for alms from Peter and John had received legs from Jesus: the crowds were rushing to see who and what and how.

In the first verse of today’s reading we see Peter grasp the opportunity of the crowd’s amazement at the miraculous healing to point to Jesus in a new and exciting way.   Look at Acts 3:13 and see how Peter refers to God with the names of the Jewish ancestors.  This is the same name by which God introduced Godself to Moses in the burning bush: Peter repeats the phrases of God’s self-identification and connects their ancestral God with Jesus whom the Judeans had had murdered by Pilate.  The one who was lynched by the Judean crowds had been sent to them by God to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  The miracle of the burning-yet-not-consumed-shrub given as a sign to Moses that The LORD was the one whose message was to be proclaimed is mirrored by the miracle of the walking-yet-recently-lame-man.  Once again God is speaking, and once again God chooses and vindicates the choice of the speaker of God’s behalf, the new Moses was Jesus and now in Jesus’ authority Peter and John speak.  Once again “I AM” is speaking to Israel, but this time it is “HE WHOM”; he whom you crucified and is both LORD and prophet whose truth is proclaimed.

So many signs.  In the mystical past God spoke to Moses and proved it was God with a burning bush which doesn’t burn.  In his immediate past God spoke to Peter and proved it was God with a dead man who was not dead.  In his today (today for him) God speaks through Peter to Judea, and proves it is God with a lame man who is not lame.  This is as much a sign for Peter as it is for Jerusalem, Peter who is now understanding that God has a preaching ministry for him, attested to by signs and wonders as had been the preaching ministry of Jesus, has just seen the second sign of his ministry.  First, he and his fellow apostles had spoken in every language needed to proclaim the good news to every adult in the Shavuot crowd in Jerusalem; now he and John see a man born lame begin to walk.  Even as Jesus welcomes Jews of all nationalities into the Kingdom of God, not just the Galileans, Judeans and Idumeans of the Holy Land, so Jesus welcomes Peter and John, and in their model all disciples, into the ministries of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrection is supposed to remind us that God is at work in the world, and that God is at work through us as God had been through Jesus.  What Jesus did, we now do.  What Jesus said, we now say.  How Jesus was given authority to do and say, and was vindicated in the doing and saying, which is the testimony of Godself through the Holy Spirit, so we are authorised and vindicated.

Peter describes Jesus in this sermon as the child of God (Acts 3:13b) which also carries the meaning of very trusted servant: and he reminds the Judeans that they collaborated with the Roman government, against the personal wishes of the governor, to murder this one most dear to God and to secure the release of an assassin and rebel.  “You made Pilate release Barabbas,” says Peter, “a man who you know was a zealot and a killer, and you had Pilate execute Jesus for treason and sedition.  Pause and consider!”  Briefly, we hear Peter go on to describe Jesus as the holy one, (so, God), and the ruler which also carries the meaning of “source” of life, (so, also God).  It is Jesus working through the proclamation of those who believe him who delivered the man from his lameness: short answer, look at the man on his feet here and praise Jesus who is the message of the God of Judaism, the liberator of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.

So that’s all rather spectacular: Jesus is the very trusted servant of God, the child of God, and one who carries the nature of God as holy and sovereign in life.  This is Peter’s introduction to what he goes on to say, first to lambast the Judeans for killing Jesus, and second to announce that with the resurrection the story did not end there.  “New life is available for you,” says Peter, “even you, you murderous scum, just as it is for this man with new life in his long-dead legs.  Believe Jesus, the child of God.”

Now that’s a pretty exciting message, but it gets even more exciting for us.  Where Peter speaks of Jesus as the child of God, John, in 1 John 3:1, speaks of every Christian as a child of God, and all of us together as children of God.  Woohoo!  Peter proclaimed in Acts 3:13-15 that Jesus was like God, now John in 1 John 3:2-3,7 tells us that because of Jesus we will become like God.  Woohoo!  And again, I say woohoo!  But I also want to ask what that means.

I think it’s great that when God’s fullness is revealed to us and we perceive it that we will become like God as we see God.  But I wonder what God is like that we shall become like God.  Of course, the full answer to that is a mystery, the mystery which John explains.  We just don’t know, because we don’t know yet, and when we do know then we will know, and it will all have been done by God.  So, does it matter that we don’t know yet?  After all what we do know now is that we will know later, you know?

Two answers.

  1. No, it doesn’t matter. I trust God, I believe God, and that’s enough for now.  It will happen, and when it happens God will do the thing.  As far as I am concerned if God is doing the thing then God can do whatever thing God wants to do when it comes to doing things to me.  You too?  Excellent.
  2. We already know a bit, because we have seen Jesus. Specifically, we have seen the risen Jesus, Jesus at his most like-God-ness, or perhaps Jesus at his most Godlike-ness.  So, we will be like Jesus, like the Jesus of the empty tomb, the vindicated, transformed, child and most trusted servant of God which John says is now our status within creation.  Where Jesus is The Son you and I are each a son or a daughter in the likeness of The Son, who is the image of The Father.  Awesome.

Are you following this? Phew! So, what is The Son like then; that I and some of you as a son, and the remainder of you as a daughter, will be like him?

Well, in Luke 24:36 we pick up one of the stories told about Jesus and his adventures around Judea on the evening of Easter Day.  In his first post-resurrection appearance according to Luke; (there were only angels in the garden to speak with the women and no risen Jesus); Jesus walked the last part of the road with the Cleopases and broke bread with them in Emmaus.  Then Jesus disappeared from their sight, and Cleopas and Mary returned to Jerusalem and told the story of Jesus on the road and at the table.  And then…well and then we get to today’s reading.

Enter Jesus, from nowhere, having only been seen by two people since his death (and even then, he went unrecognised until the final second), suddenly in the middle of the room, declaring “shalom”.

The first thing we can say about Jesus on the night of the day of his resurrection is that he is an embodied life.  And as I am trying to say, this will one day be true of us.  Jesus the risen one is not a spirit in Heaven and a ghost on Earth.  He has a body, he can be touched, and he can eat and breathe do all those things that bodies with a life in them do.  But he can also appear in a locked room without making use of the door.  The presence of Jesus is a presence that belongs in both worlds, the world of Heaven and the world of Earth, without needing change.  There is no border for him, the place where you need to change trains at Albury and get into the NSW carriage with a different set of wheels if you want to go to Sydney.  No, Jesus can pass between Heaven and Earth in a new way, a way he couldn’t have done a week ago (and remember a week ago for Jesus was Palm Sunday).  Even the man heralded as “Hosanna, Son of David” can’t walk into Heaven on human feet – but The Resurrected One can.  That is the Jesus we worship as Lord above all, The Son of God, God’s child, who is also God The Son, Godself.  And we shall be like him, him like that, when we enter eternity.

But for me that it not the best bit.  It’s a pretty good bit, and that would be a great conclusion.  Jesus is Risen, he is risen and returns to show himself in person, in glorious and shining and walking through walls and breaking bread and eating fish with his hands person to his friends and to strengthen their faith and vindicate their hope.  Hallelujah and Amen.  But look also at what Jesus says.  He says “shalom”.  Now, okay, that’s a pretty standard line at first look.  He’s saying “hello”, he’s saying “g’day” in the sense of “good day” or perhaps “good evening” as it is for him.  It’s a greeting, and nothing special in that.  Well okay it’s a bit special because the actual message is also “peace be with you”, so he’s speaking like a Jewish man, like a Christian.  He’s “passing the peace”, well (shrug) good for him, he’s a rabbi and these are his mates, so what?

So what, indeed.  For me it is remarkable that these words are coming from a man whose body, miraculous and glorious as it is, is still in the shape of a body torn apart by nails, flails, sunburn, and a spear.  He is risen, and he has in a sense been healed as he’s no longer dead, he’s no longer bleeding, and he is breathing without difficulty.  The stuff that actually killed him has been fixed, yeah?  But he was killed, and he was betrayed, and it was bloody hard: it was bloody and hard as we heard on Good Friday.  Friday hurt, we heard that on Good Friday too.  What that says to me is that not only was Jesus’ “shape” restored in a glorious new way, this body that can hold bread yet pass through walls, Jesus’ “sense” was restored too.  The man of sorrows, the man who had been broken, abused, mocked, betrayed, abandoned, flayed, crucified, and stabbed walks into a room and says “shalom”.

I think I would have started the conversation, and remember that this is the first conversation Jesus has had with these people since Gethsemane , I would have started with “now listen…about Thursday night…and then Friday…all bloodied day…hmm?”  The new body of Jesus has come with a resurrected spirit.  Jesus does not hold a grudge; indeed, Jesus does not hold anything because he withholds nothing, he gives all he has.  All his love, all his comfort, all his blessing, all his shalom.

When John in 1 John 3 speaks of us as God’s children he is telling us that we have a future in God’s family.  That future looks like the resurrected Jesus, the eternally living one who is also the eternally loving one.  We who live surrounded by sin will sin and live with sin no more, because we will be refashioned for an eternity where we will live with shalom from God and shalom for each other.

This is the story we proclaim.  This Jesus, whose return in Luke’s account seems more interested in comforting his grieving friends than in declaring his own glory and vindication, this Jesus speaks the fullest form of peace and hope to humanity.  The shalom of God which raised Jesus from the dead raised the lame man from the path outside Beautiful Gate, raised Peter from a denier of Christ in a darkened private courtyard to a proclaimer of Christ in the busiest part of the temple at the busiest time of the day, raised two weary travellers who had walked mournfully from Jerusalem to Emmaus to then run all the way back to declare their hope because of who they had seen and what they had heard.

Because he lives, his peace be among you.

Amen.

Together

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th April 2018, the Sunday after Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

On previous Sundays at this point in the service I have spoken of my time as a teacher, and this morning I want to briefly touch on that experience again.  Some of you may remember from my earlier stories that in several schools in the past was a teacher of students who wore the label “EBD”, which stood for “Emotional Behavioural Disorder”.  These were kids, and kids they were, whose disability was not physiological in that they had brain damage or a missing limb, but emotional in that they experienced mental illnesses or simply displayed anti-social or asocial behaviour.  I taught kids who had been expelled from other schools because they had taken a gun or a bong to school, or been involved in repeated fights, or were chronic non-attenders.  In other words, “EBD” quite often stood for “every bloody day” because that is how often they were naughty in class (or not in class as the case may be).  These weren’t the special children in wheelchairs you might feel sorry for, no, these were the special children who would spit at you because you wished them good morning and for whom no one ever felt sorry.

In other words, these were children with a reputation, and specifically a reputation that they were each and every one of them irredeemable.

In today’s reading from the gospels we came across a man of irredeemably poor reputation, the disciple Thomas.  Now when I name Thomas I am sure you don’t immediately think of the ambassador in chains, that apostle to the east who was the first man to live and die for the sake of the gospel in the lands of India.  I am sure you aren’t immediately put in mind of the Thomas Christians who to this day worship Christ in India because of Thomas, and who have a tradition of faith that is as old as the Petrine and Pauline Christianities of the Roman and European churches.  No, when I say Thomas you say, “ah, Doubting Thomas”.  Poor Thomas.

Well, let’s have a look at that story.  The lectionary jumps us in to John’s story of the twelve on the evening of Easter day, and the time when ten of the twelve, plus some of the women no doubt, were gathered together in shell-shock. Jesus appears in their midst and these gathered disciples were given divine authority as apostles, given the right and power to reveal Jesus and make him known to those who did not believe.  Jesus delegated this holy power personally through his breathing on them and conferring the infilling of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22-23.  There is no seven weeks wait for Pentecost according to John, this is the time, on Easter Sunday evening, when the Spirit is conferred and the ten are blessed with power from on high.  The power they are given, alongside the task of preaching for which they are empowered, but the authority as power, their right and duty of command and superiority relates to sin which they are authorised to forgive or not forgive.  “Now that you have seen me again,” says Jesus, “and you know me as the risen one and have received the Holy Spirit, go and meet unbelief in the world with grace and enthusiasm.”  That’s what they’ve been told to do: tell people that Jesus is Lord, proven by his resurrection, and help them to believe him and follow him as disciples.  If the apostles spoke of faith, then the rumour of God would be in the world and people would be able to respond; but if the apostles did not speak of faith then the word would remain hidden and the people living in darkness would not have the opportunity to respond.  The future of the Christian story, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the frightened women, was up to the witnesses of Christ.  Jesus wasn’t going to preach any more, the duty and authority to speak and to keep silent was up to them, the apostles.

Jesus made it quite clear: whether people live in the sin of unbelief or in the sun of understanding is up to us because we have the job of telling them the story which leads to hope and belief.

Now, Thomas wasn’t there John 20:24 tells us, so he missed out on the empowering sight of the risen Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit so it’s no wonder that he’s doubt filled.  Thomas was where the other ten had been seven days earlier, they’d not believed the women so how can they judge him for not believing them?  They’d seen Jesus, so how can they begrudge him the same evidentiary experience?  And, most importantly, how ineffective must their preaching have been that Thomas was not convinced?  Here are the apostles charged with all of the authority and resource of Heaven to declare new life to the world, and they can’t even sell it to one of their own?

Psh, “doubting Thomas”, more like “dubious apostolic preaching”.

When the resurrected one appears a week later and speaks to Thomas, Jesus does NOT breathe on him; rather in John 20:27 Jesus addresses the area of Thomas’ unbelief, which was Thomas’ desire to have touchable proof in John 20:25.  Thomas, having been offered the chance to put a finger in Jesus’ wounds, but without actually doing so, worships Jesus in John 20:28.  Jesus words in John 20:29 are probably not what he actually said to Thomas, after all Thomas has done more than the ten with the evidence he was given; more likely John later put these words in Jesus’ mouth as encouragement to those who read the gospel.  Thomas is no more doubting than the ten, and a week later he worships Jesus as Lord which indicates to me that he was far more convinced, and therefore far less doubting of Jesus than the other ten.

No wonder it was Thomas who Jesus and the Holy Spirit sent to India, and less effective Peter and James who Jesus left in Judea.  As with my EBD-labelled kids in England, reputations can be undeserved, but they stick once stuck, and they mislead.

In both of our Old Testament portions for today, one of which comes from Acts 4 in that strange way the lectionary provides for our history lesson in the time between our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the theme is unity.  Better said the theme is the opportunities that congregations of believers provide God with to bless the world through our single-minded devotion to each other in God’s name.  Unity is not enough, even ten-against-one the apostles could not convince Thomas of the resurrection, it is unity with devotion that God requires.  How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity we heard as our call to worship from Psalm 133:1Now, the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul we read in Acts 4:32, such that with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them we read in Acts 4:33.  The spoken out witness of the apostles as individuals was supported by the lived out witness of the loving fellowship in which all lived, including the support of all from the common wealth of resources.  Everyone had a bed under a roof, everyone had food and clothes enough, everyone had love and comfort as part of the family, everyone had encouragement and good cheer from the testimony of the others.  No wonder they saw three thousand added to their number in one day, and others added daily because of the apostles’ testimony: who wouldn’t want to be part of such a loving community with a profound and delighted sense of hope in the world.

Thomas was part of that Acts 4 action, and then he went alone to India where he spoke of Christ and established a community of faith that lives to this day.

So, what does this mean for us?

  1. We must hear the message and take it to heart. Like Thomas we must believe and know that Jesus once dead has been raised by God in vindication of his message of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.
  2. We must proclaim the message and take God’s appointment to heart. Like Thomas we must go where God draws us and filled with the Spirit and the authority of God to do so we must proclaim the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.

Our evidence that the gospel is truth is that we have met the risen Christ.  Like those who came after Thomas we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but like Thomas we don’t have to touch the resurrected one to believe, we believe without seeing yet we believe by having known Christ. The world’s evidence that the gospel is truth is that we who have met the risen Christ live in harmony, unity, peace, and mutual enjoyment.

Where our reputation is one of love and peace the world will believe that we have the life-giving words of faith.

Every.  Blesséd.  Day.

Amen.

Resurrexit B

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster of the Uniting Church for Easter Day 2018, Sunday 1st April.  On this day they gathered at Yallourn North.

Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Mark 16:1-8

The disciples who gathered (and scattered) on Holy Saturday did not know it was a day of vigil.  They did not know Sunday was coming: they thought it was all over.  When the women approached the tomb just after sunrise, whispering amongst themselves about how they were going to move that huge stone, they were doing so because they hade no expectation that the stone had been moved.  They were carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ corpse because that is what they expected to find, if they were actually able to move that huge stone in the first place.  No-one was expecting the stone to be moved and the body to be gone, and even when they arrived and found it thus their first thoughts would not have been resurrection but desecration and grave robbery.  Do not be mistaken, the women’s first impressions of the empty tomb were not joy and worship, but heartbroken desolation.  “First, they crucify him, and then this.  They open his grave and steal his battered body to do God-knows-only what horrific things to him.”  It was with this mindset, this anguish and agony, this anxiety tinged with outrage, that the women meet the young man dressed in white.

Unique among the four gospel writers Mark relates only an empty tomb story and not a resurrection.  Jesus is not in the tomb, the tomb is open and empty, but unlike Matthew, Luke and John Jesus is never seen alive.  In one way we should not expect to see Jesus there, since in Mark 14:28 we read how he instructed the disciples to meet him in Galilee; so that’s where he will be.  To see the risen Jesus the disciples must go to Galilee, to the home of Jesus the Nazarene as Mark and the young man in white tell us in Mark 16:6.  Strangely, uniquely, Mark doesn’t tell us about that event and he finishes his story here.

Jesus’ final instruction to his followers in Mark’s gospel is to go home: to his and their home, which Mark 1:16-20 tells us is Galilee and the place where it all began.  Jesus will appear again, but he will do so away from Jerusalem, in private, and among the “True Believers”.  The message is reiterated at the empty tomb to the women; and these women are also Galilean.  The next big thing in God’s plan of coming into the world in creaturely form is given to three women; Galilean females far from home, standing in front of a tomb which has been ransacked, and if they are seen there, women who are liable to prosecution and execution on suspicion of being the grave-robbers themselves.

I bet you weren’t expecting that from the first page of your Easter Sunday sermon, were you?  So baffling, so threatening, so many unanswered questions, so abrupt a conclusion to the story of Immanuel that it hardly constitutes a conclusion at all.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 says what Mark 16:1-8 does not, which is what happened on and after that first Easter Sunday morning.  Jesus does appear in person to Peter and then the twelve, and to a crowd of 500, and to his brother James, and to the apostles, and then to Paul himself.  So, not to the women then: and since Paul doesn’t actually say where all of this took place then perhaps it did all happen in the Galilee somewhere.  Maybe the women did eventually tell Peter what they saw, and maybe he lead the group back to the lake where he and they found Jesus waiting for them.  Perhaps this is where the 500 were, and James as well.  Maybe James as the next brother in the family has assumed the duties of the eldest with the death of Jesus and he has taken the grieving Mary home to Nazareth.  Thanks to Paul, we get a sort of seventeenth chapter of Mark in 1 Corinthians, and all is good with the world.  All is good for the moment at least.

You don’t need me to tell you that for Christians the resurrection of Jesus is a central idea in our religion. It’s arguably the central idea, and the fact that you have each come to congregate in this building on this morning suggests that you get that.  The idea that Jesus returned to Earth in human likeness yet newly different; not as a disembodied and enlightened soul but as a real-yet-not-like-us person, is what 1 Corinthians 15 is all about.  The facts and faith of the resurrection of Jesus is the future of the Church; and that God is the one who does it is central to our understanding.  By God I am not saying that Jesus had inherent power to raise himself, but that The Father displays Jesus to whomever The Father chooses to reveal him, and hides Jesus from whomever The Father chooses to hide him.  God’s promise to the Church and to all who believe in Jesus is new life, a fuller life which is still recognisable as human life.  When Jesus appeared to each of the groups described by Paul, and those described by Matthew, Luke, and John in their gospels, and Peter in his testimony, he is not a ghost.  The resurrected one is not a phantom, neither is he an angel; he is a man transformed by the power of God.  When we leave this life and enter the next, fuller life in the perfection of the Kingdom of God neither will we be ghosts or angels: like Jesus we will be men and women transformed, transfigured even, by the power of God.  The resurrected Jesus is for Christians the definitive sign and the visible evidence of the promise of the Reign of God.  We shall become what Jesus became when Christ returns as king.

This is what it means when Paul writes that we are being saved through the good news we have heard (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).  This is the good news, this is the message to which we hold firm, this is the promise where if we don’t get it then all else of our faith is in vain.  Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and was raised to life in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  Christ Jesus was vindicated by the resurrection: the prophets had said centuries before that the victory of justice over violence was coming, it came, and now we hold to it as true and valuable.  Jesus really did live, really did die, and really was revealed by God as a resurrected and transformed man.  The Christian gospel in its entirety is proved right by this, and it is shown to have power to transform the world, starting with our self-identification as sinners and traitors (1 Corinthians 15:3).

So, what does this mean for us?  Our Old Testament reading offers that with the resurrection of Christ the promises made to Israel to bless all nations through them came into effect.  Isaiah 25:6-9 speaks to how what was first promised to Judahites is released into the world for all to take benefit.  In the Kingdom of God celebration will replace mourning, comfort shall replace disgrace, and restoration will replace destruction and all who choose to attend will be welcomed at the place of God’s revelation.  Just as Jesus was restored and vindicated in the resurrection so the hope of deliverance for all who gripped on to faith with tenacity and desperation as all else faded shall be vindicated when they are brought home to God and to freedom.

So that’s what today is all about, because that is what Christianity is all about.  The central message of Jesus was the inconceivably generous and gargantuan love of God for creation, particularly for women and men, and the eternal plan for reconciliation and the restoration of God’s rule on Earth as it is in Heaven.  That is what “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” means, the first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Change your mind about God, because overwhelming love is coming, and when it comes you will still be you, but you will never be the same again.

Amen.