A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 18 April by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: Luke 24. 36-48
More than a year ago, on April 1 last year, the African American poet and activist Sonya Renee Taylor wrote these words in an Instagram post. ‘We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.’ No more than a week or two into the pandemic, Taylor realised how deeply this experience was already shaking our sense of what constitutes normal.
I want to suggest to you that a year into the pandemic we’re perhaps better placed to think about Jesus’ resurrection than at any time for a century or more. The reason is that there’s scarcely a person in this country, let alone world, whose life hasn’t been profoundly affected by the virus and its fallout. It’s shaken our confidence about what we previously took for granted. From the perspective of April 2021, we can look back on the last century as a sustained effort to gain mastery over all the unpredictable and hitherto uncontrollable aspects of our natural environment, such that what we called normal became increasingly subject to our decision and definition.
See how that confident sense of being in control of the normal came to determine how we’ve come to read the story of Jesus’ resurrection. ‘Normal’ comes to mean the way things turn out when I’m in control and things go according to my plan. It’s a view that sincerely believes I’m the centre of the world, I’m the centre of history, everything’s evaluated by how it fits in with my sense of my life. Let’s look at the resurrection of Jesus through those lenses.
The straightforward approach is, it just didn’t happen. Why? Because resurrection is something that can’t happen. Can’t happen biologically: the body’s dead. Can’t happen historically: never happened before or since. Anyone who calls Christians dogmatic hasn’t spoken to many hardened atheists lately. So what’s this story doing in Luke’s gospel, about Jesus appearing and eating fish? It’s just made up, apparently. Even though it’s remarkably similar to the story in John’s gospel, and it seems unlikely the one author knew the other? Yup. Like most dogmatism, this view needs a bit of imagination. So how do you account for the greatest evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, that a group of dispirited disciples suddenly turned into a dynamic posse of evangelists changing hearts and changing the world? Wish fulfilment. They couldn’t deal with Jesus’ death, so they hallucinated or pretended he’d risen. Even to the point of martyrdom? Seriously? And generations after them, up to this day? I think we’ve got to do better than wish fulfilment.
Now I’m not mocking the hard-line atheist position here. Because all of us, at some time, or most of the time, have looked at the resurrection stories and thought, ‘How’d he do that?’ Which is why so many Christians for so long have been open to having it both ways. By this I mean we get to keep our sense of the normal – people don’t rise from the dead, silly – but we’re happy to acknowledge that something special happened that Easter Day 2000 years ago. Let’s have a closer look at that statement, ‘something special happened.’ This is what leads to the assertion that Jesus rose spiritually. We usually think of this as coming out of a worldview that says, ‘People back in those days didn’t grasp science and history like we do, but they clearly felt Jesus with them in some way: it couldn’t have been physical so it must have been spiritual.’ Now take a look at the part of Luke chapter 24 we’ve just read together. Jesus says, ‘Why do you doubt? Touch me. I’m not a ghost. What ghost has flesh and bones? Give me something to eat. Look at my hands. Look at my feet.’ Here’s the point of the story. Luke is writing a story precisely for the benefit of those who rather tend towards a spiritual view of Jesus’ resurrection to tell them they’re wrong. Let’s drop the superiority complex that says we’re so much cleverer than those uneducated first-century disciples and that we get to control the sense of what’s normal. This story shows us the same arguments were alive and kicking from the very beginning. Luke says Jesus isn’t a spirit, and Jesus isn’t a body that wasn’t really dead come back to life. He’s physically resurrected. Luke rules out having it both ways. It’s physical resurrection or no resurrection at all as far as he’s concerned.
There’s actually a third way to wriggle out of what Luke’s telling us. We’ve talked about ‘I’m telling you it didn’t happen’ and about ‘I guess something happened, but only spiritually.’ The third option is, ‘Maybe it did happen; but it doesn’t matter or make any difference.’ This is the other argument Luke’s account sets out to demolish. Let me walk you through how he does it.
Jesus refers to ‘Everything written about me in the law, the prophets and the psalms’ – what together we’d call the Old Testament – and how it’s now been fulfilled. Now this needs a bit of explanation. The Old Testament centres on the covenant God makes with Moses on Mt Sinai. Everything before it, like the creation and the exodus from slavery in Egypt, prepares for it, and everything afterwards, especially the entry into the Promised Land, the emergence of the kings and the building of the temple, derived from it. When Israel went into exile it lost land, king and temple. When it returned two generations later, it got back the land and rebuilt the temple – but it didn’t have its own king. So thereafter it was looking for a new king, the messiah, to restore the covenant with God and control over the land. The confusion over Jesus’ crucifixion is that his followers took him to be this new king, and were dismayed that he was so conclusively rejected and humiliated. So Jesus is teaching his disciples to reread the scriptures: to recognise a God who suffers with, is rejected by, and yet is restored among the people. It’s all there: but it requires Israel to read its story a different way. Jesus gives the Old Testament back to the disciples as a book they now realise was all about him.
Then Jesus says some more revolutionary words. ‘Proclaim this to all nations.’ We’re so used to words like ‘nations’ in the Bible and in worship songs we miss the significance of what’s going on here. Remember all that smiting that bothered you so much in the Old Testament? That was because Israel was a tiny nation surrounded by threatening neighbours. The nations were always on the point of destroying Israel, even a couple of chapters after being on the end of an old-fashioned massacre. Assyria and then Babylon smote big time, destroying the northern kingdom for good and casting the southern kingdom into exile. The nation of Rome was occupying the Holy Land as this conversation was taking place. The nations were scary, hostile and predatory. Jesus says this good news is for them too. That’s almost inconceivable. The risen Jesus is asking the disciples to turn round thousands of years of history and create something beyond endemic enmity. Something called church. It’s unthinkable.
But the coup de grâce is yet to come. I once witnessed a person come back from the dead. Not a resurrection miracle, but a feat of modern medicine. A parishioner took a huge overdose. Hours later he woke up, his stomach on fire. He was rushed to hospital. I held his hand as he lost consciousness. The next morning, I was called back to the hospital. I said, ‘But he must be dead.’ They said, ‘We gave him a new liver.’ I said, ‘He’s not going to like that.’ I wasn’t wrong. I was with him when he woke up. He was volcanic with rage. Think about when the disciples saw Jesus. Last time they’d seen him they’d fled, denied or betrayed. They must have thought he’d be mad as hell. ‘Errr, look Jesus, about what happened in Gethsemane. I know it doesn’t look good on the video…’ What does Jesus say? ‘Peace.’ Now again, we’re so used to the word peace that we think it belongs to Woodstock, John Lennon and flower power. But see what the word means here. Jesus has been through the most significant event in universal history. The first thing he says afterwards has got to be pretty significant. ‘Peace’ isn’t a way of saying here’s a joint, take it easy, man. It sums up everything Jesus has sought and achieved. And at the end what’s the message he entrusts to his disciples to take to the nations? Forgiveness. Peace with God and neighbour. Peace be with you: now, be with each other. If I can, you can.
These are the ways Jesus demonstrates in this short episode the difference resurrection makes. Resurrection makes sense of the Bible. If God can raise Jesus from the dead, God can create the world, liberate the Hebrews, be in covenant with Moses, come among us in Christ, be with us forever. Resurrection turns enemies into fellow disciples. Jesus turns centuries of antagonism and slaughter into the promise of a future together. Resurrection embodies peace. Jesus restores those who deserted him: he offers each one of us a future bigger than our past.
So Luke’s brief account of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples on Easter Day scuppers any attempt to assert our normal over God’s normal, dismantles any effort to have it both ways, and demolishes any bid to pretend the resurrection doesn’t matter. There’s only one option left to us. Let’s say Jesus’ resurrection really does matter – that it’s actually the most important thing that ever happened. What then?
Again, the clue’s in the story. Notice this line: ‘While in their joy they were… still wondering.’ A lot of people at St Martin’s over the last year have done the Being With course together. The main part of each session is responding to four wonderings. In the final session of the course one of the wonderings is this: ‘I wonder, if you could change one thing about the world, what it would be.’ In the course I was in last autumn, one of our beloved congregation members gave a response I’ll never forget. She said, ‘I’d abolish the whole notion of normal.’ I sensed her comment came from a childhood of being regarded as different, and an adulthood devoted to helping those dismissed as different discover true pride and belonging.
I was captivated by her idea of abolishing the normal. Until I read the words of Sonya Renee Taylor – ‘We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. … We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.’ And then I realised Taylor’s words were not just about the pandemic. They were about the resurrection. The resurrection is God’s invitation to enter a new normal. To set aside the old normal that says it couldn’t happen or doesn’t matter. To allow ourselves to be stitched by the Holy Spirit into a new garment. To allow our imaginations to be captivated by peace, our bodies convulsed by forgiveness, our whole beings somersaulted into joy.
Jesus comes among us and says, ‘Don’t be afraid. Touch me. Read the scriptures with me. Wonder with me. Eat with me. Be sent by me. This is more real than anything you once thought was real. Welcome to the new normal. Welcome to resurrection.’