The Threefold hope of Easter
A sermon preached at Adel St John the Baptist, 12 May 2019 (Evensong)
Readings: Isaiah 63:7-14 / Luke 24:36-49
The story of the appearance of Jesus on the Emmaus road is a well known one, that has found its way even into secular use. Luke’s account of what happened later that day is less well known. Those disciples have run back to Jerusalem in the dark, and all of them are now are gathered in the upper room, maybe that same room where they had shared the last supper only three days earlier.
Luke uses a curious phrase to describe their state of mind – “they yet believed not for joy”, in other words they were so joyful they could not take in what was happening. In the last few verses of the gospel which follow today’s reading, Luke describes the Ascension, after which the disciples return to the city in great joy, continually praising God. But what was it that caused them such joy throughout the forty days of Easter and even after Jesus had left them for the last time? Easter offers a threefold hope:
First, there is the Easter acclamation: Jesus is risen! The appearances of Jesus to the disciples were no hallucination, no ghostly haunting, as he tells them himself: “handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have”. The physical resurrection of Christ is proof for all time that there is life beyond death, a life more than the mere shadowy existence of Sheol or Hades that was the best people had hoped for until then. That alone is a cause for joy, as we know those we have loved and lost in the Lord will rise with him.
Second, there is God’s continuing presence with his people, even after Jesus’ physical presence departed from earth. In John’s account of this appearance it is more explicit: he breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit”. Luke, masterful storyteller that he is, closes the first of his two volumes with a great cliffhanger of a closing line: “tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high”. The disciples would have to wait another ten days to find out at Pentecost what “power from on high” meant. But for us who know the end of the story, the promise of the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is love, joy and peace, should make us as joy-filled as the first disciples.
Third, scripture came alive to those disciples – at Emmaus and in the Upper Room – as never before. The new understanding that the whole of the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus was another cause for joy. For the Jews love to look back at their history, how God made himself known to their ancestors, rescued them from slavery and oppression, performed miracles whenever the survival of the race was at stake, as the reading from Isaiah reminded us. Now they understood it all had a higher purpose in Jesus the Messiah. Those who treat the actual words of the Bible as “the Word of God” miss the point: the Word of God is his living presence, promised in the scriptures, embodied in Jesus, and enlivening all who understand it.
So this is the threefold and joyful hope of Easter: to know that there is a resurrection of the body, to experience God’s presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and to be stirred into action by understanding the living Word of God. For none of this is without a further purpose: “beginning at Jerusalem you are witnesses of these things”. The task of witness begun at Jerusalem with eleven disciples is now the responsibility of all his billion followers, including you and me.
Our last hymn gives us an opportunity to declare this together: “We have a gospel to proclaim, good news for all throughout the world.”
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!