s106g97 Somerton Park 13/4/97 Third Sunday of Easter
"Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you -- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day".
In this time between Easter and Pentecost there is a certain amount of preparation work to be done. The defining event of Christianity, the Cross and Resurrection had occurred, yet the Holy Spirit had not been poured out on the disciples, to enable to do anything with the news. For all the time that Jesus had had with the disciples before the final week of his life, for all his teaching over perhaps one year, perhaps three, there was more teaching still.
The Risen Christ could have done many things I suppose. He could have laid down guidelines on how the Church could be organised. When one thinks about it in this way - how helpful it would have been if he had used this time to give us directions about the apostolic succession, church government, liturgical directions or the ordination of women! He could have used the time to talk about how we need to be evangelical, how frequently we should update prayer books or the necessity for services to be taken in the vernacular. Or he could have used the time to speak about adherence to the laws of the Old Testament.
In fact what he chose to speak about was that the Old Testament witnessed to the necessity of the messiah to suffer death and to rise from the dead.
In fact this seemed rather a passion for him. It is the second time in the gospel of Luke that he explains this. He did this when he appeared to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, and now to them all.
It is somewhat of a let-down to have this wonderful event in being raised from the dead, only to be told by the person to get out one's bible and read it. It is rather anticlimactic to say the least. We want to do things - to witness to the wonderful news that Jesus is raised - only to be told to stop. Before we get on any particular bandwagon it is important - nay vital - to get the message right.
The message is clear that Jesus wants us to thoroughly appreciate that the sacred scripture of his day, which we know as the Old Testament and the books of the Apocrypha, witness to the necessity of the messiah to suffer, to die and to rise from the dead.
The fact that Jesus fulfilled scripture finds expression in the sermon of Peter when he says: "In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. (Acts 3:17-18). Peter uses this fact to acquit and exonerate his hearers of the otherwise horrendous guilt he might otherwise have seemed to have been heaping on his audience: "And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.
The fact that Jesus fulfilled scripture is high on St Paul's priorities also. In his first letter to the Corinthians 15 he repeatedly asserts everything Jesus did was "in accordance with scripture" (3,4)
In fact when one looks at the gospel stories and the book of Revelation to St John, the whole of Jesus' life and the descriptions of the final heavenly conflict, borrow heavily quotations from the Old Testament. It is difficult, if not impossible to determine just how much the stories surrounding Jesus' life in fact derive from the evangelists searching scripture to fill in the gaps of what was not known. The story of the flight into Egypt after Jesus was born is one such example of this.
I was interested to read a sermon+ on John 20.19 recently - "When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." This person commented that the particular Jew the disciples were most probably most fearful of meeting was not one of the religious authorities like the chief priest, but in fact from the reports of the women, they were most likely most fearful of meeting the risen Jesus. After their abominable desertion and denial, their own feelings of guilt and self loathing would have meant the last person they wanted to meet was Jesus himself. No wonder Jesus keeps repeating "Peace be with you" to them. He didn't come back to accuse or for revenge. He comes always to excuse, to sweep the past under the carpet, to bring peace and acceptance. "They were startled and terrified" we are told, and well they might be.
I am reminded of the brothers of Joseph who were forced to travel, "cap in hand" to Egypt to buy food because of the famine. They came to the exalted prime minister of Egypt, only to find that he was their own brother, who they had left for dead so long before. Joseph could have well been full of schemes for revenge (for he had his own way of getting things he wanted too), but he merely says: "I am Joseph, your brother - God sent me before you to preserve life" (Gen 45.4)
The Churches task then is to excuse, to sweep under the carpet, to bring peace and acceptance, to acquit and exonerate, to say with Peter: "I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers."
Jesus on the Cross was totally and utterly powerless. When we excuse, when we sweep things under the carpet, to bring peace and acceptance, when we acquit and exonerate, when we say with Peter: "I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers" we place ourselves in the same powerless situation.
How do we as the Church reflect this same attitude?
One of things that really get up my nose is the short sayings with people in the Church have inflicted on others. One that comes to mind is the sign outside the Church: "Is it nothing to all ye who pass by?" It seems to me that this is designed to make people feel guilty - to drag things out of the closet. Again recently I heard a senior member of the clergy in the Church of England who is reported to have said that what this world needs is a sense of shame. If more people had a sense of shame the Church could deal with the shame and make us feel good about ourselves - that we have something to contribute - that we could retain a position of superiority over others.
The resurrection, indeed the whole Bible, tells us that when we are powerless God acts and acts for good. When we retain power over others we get in God's way.
The preparation that we have to do in this period of hiatus between Easter and Pentecost is to learn and to learn again that we as the Church must become powerless, to let God act. For the event at Pentecost can be easily (if not universally) misinterpreted as God's revenge. The Holy Spirit is indeed an enabler and a strengthener, but an enabler and a strengthener to be powerless - to excuse, to sweep under the carpet, to bring peace and acceptance, to acquit and exonerate, to say with Peter: "I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers." For that is when resurrection will take place - otherwise - nothing.
+ with thanks to Deacon Sil Galvan.
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