An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Resurrected for What?

A sermon on Luke 24:36b-48 by Nathan Nettleton

Five years ago, in a book of real-life church stories called Fair Dinkum Ministry, I wrote a chapter about what was going on in our congregation here. I titled the chapter Will there be a Resurrection?, because it spoke of our experience of death in the previous year as our church collapsed under the weight of scandal and disillusionment, and of our attempts to lay the foundation for the rebirth of our church. At the time I had to send the chapter off for inclusion in the book, we had just put in place our first experimental version of an annually renewed Church Covenant and begun to adopt something of the style in which we now worship. We had done a lot of hard work in getting to those decisions and putting those changes in place, but the smell of death was still in the air and it was far to early to predict whether or not the new changes would be anything more than a final pitiful yelp as we slid to extinction.

Will there be a resurrection here? At the time, I rather optimistically thought we might know the answer within the next twelve to eighteen months, but over the next three and a half years, every attempt to read the pulse of our church yielded conflicting data. Our worship life was growing stronger and nourishing healthy spiritual growth in most of our people, but our numbers were continuing to decline, seemingly towards a point of no return. I don’t think any of us knew how to read those signs, and the question of the possibility of resurrection remained an open one, although I for one was getting increasingly doubtful.

Well, this year, as we celebrate Pascha, the great fifty day festival of the Resurrection, we celebrate as a people who know the experience of resurrection in our own midst. This congregation has been raised from the grave. It took rather longer than three days, but now almost all the indicators look very healthy. Over the last eighteen months, the rate of growth in our worship attendance and our financial giving would probably be the envy of pretty much every other congregation in our Union. We have gone from wondering whether to begin planning our closing service to wondering how big would be too big for the dynamics of our worship style. For many of us, this is almost as mind-boggling as encountering the risen Christ after seeing him comprehensively dead and buried a few days earlier. We are bursting with joy and disbelief.

Now that we have an answer for the “will there be a resurrection?” question, there are some new questions that are needing answers. There was for the early disciples after they first encountered the risen Christ too, and some of the questions are not dissimilar. In the reading we heard from Luke’s gospel tonight, we can hear the early church grappling with some of these questions. One of the burning questions that the new church had to try to answer when it began proclaiming the resurrection of an executed man was, “Just what was it that they had encountered: a ghost? a mixture of inspiring memories and overblown imagination? a resuscitated corpse? or what?”

Twenty years ago, books like Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Who Moved the Stone? taught us to focus almost exclusively on the dead body of Jesus and its return to bodily life. Given the impossibility of a grave robbery, the absence of the body from the tomb, they said, was definitive proof that Jesus was raised back to bodily life, and that was definitive proof that he was the unique Son of God. Sorry to say, this was a load of bunk. Lazarus’s tomb was empty too, and nobody says it proves that he was the unique son of God. There were numerous resuscitations recounted in the Bible. The widow’s son raised by Elijah, Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter by Jesus, Tabitha by Peter, and the bloke who fell from the second story window by Paul. Some of them had been dead for several days, so no first aid explanations were possible. These were stories of miracles. The gospel writers and the early church knew that if the resurrection simply meant that God made the dead body alive again, then Jesus was just another name added to the list. The gospel writers make sure we know that such an explanation is inadequate by telling us that the risen Christ can be completely unrecognisable to people who knew him well, and that he can materialise out of nothing inside locked rooms and disappear before people’s very eyes. He couldn’t do that before his death, so this is not just a dead body raised to life.

But nor is it a figment of overwrought imagination, or a ghost. Luke tells us that Jesus addressed that possibility quite explicitly. “Here, look at my hands and feet, touch me and feel that I am flesh and bone. You can tell I am not a ghost.” And just in case they are still not sure, he asks for something to eat and eats it in front of them. The food disappears, so they know the body it has disappeared into is real, and not just an apparition. He might pass through locked doors, but he’s not a ghost.

The gospel writers seem to take all the likely theories and systematically destroy them. No explanation will stick. The message is clear: this resurrection is like nothing else. It is without precedent and without explanation. It defies all our categories, exceeds all our hopes and dreams, and blows apart all our perceptions of what is possible in the world. If we were to add the witness of Paul into the mix, it becomes even more category-defying, because Paul claims that his meeting with the risen Christ on the Damascus road is of the same kind as the meetings the other Apostles had, but when you ask Paul what kind of body the risen Christ has, he answers, “the Church.” The Church is the body of the risen Christ. Paul also places great emphasis on the idea that we are raised to new life with Christ. Whatever resurrection we experience is therefore continuous with that of Jesus himself. And so we can’t stop at asking what sort of body the risen Christ had and what resurrection meant for him. We have to ask what sort of resurrected body we are and what it means for us. What have we, the Baptist congregation in South Yarra, been resurrected as? And what have we been resurrected for?

We can look to Luke for an answer. We can look to any of the other Apostles, and we will get exactly the same answer. Luke tells us that in light of our experience of death and resurrection we can now make sense of the scriptures and we can now see what they meant about the Messiah having to suffer and be raised to life again. And with that understanding we can also get our heads around the scriptural call to take the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins, the message of radical life-change and starting out with a clean slate, to the whole world. And realising that that sounds far too big and daunting, Jesus according to Luke says, “you can get started right here in your own city. You have witnessed these things, get out there and tell everyone.”

The Apostles are unequivocal on this. The experience of resurrection leads to joy and mission. We here have shared plenty of joy as we have experienced our resurrection. We have found ourselves to be the risen body of Christ and we have learned to celebrate in ways that unite us with our Lord and with his body of people in every time and place. Our worship has a joy and a wholeness and in depth that we can be rightly proud of and which we can go on enjoying into the future. But we cannot pat ourselves on the back and leave it at that. If we do not answer the call to proclaim the reign of God and go into the world around us to share our experience of new life, then our experience of resurrection is highly suspect, and if God has raised us at all, we will have been raised in vain. Our discussions over the year ahead need to focus around seeking to discern what kind of missional community God is calling us to be, and how we are to become it. Five years ago we consciously chose to focus in on ourselves and our in-house experience of God’s grace known in worship and prayer. We excused ourselves from the need to think about reaching out on the grounds that outreach cannot be on the agenda while you are a laid out corpse facing the decision of whether to turn off the life-support machine. But we can excuse ourselves no longer. To do so would be obsessively self-indulgent.

There is a whole world out there that is as wounded and torn apart as we were five years ago. There are people on our collective doorstep and on all of our doorsteps who desperately need to know that there is one who can raise them from the death and hell that they find themselves in, and they need to hear it from those who can prove it by saying “Here, touch and see our life. Know that we are real.” We are now celebrating the resurrection, and we now know the experience of being resurrected. We should never stop singing and celebrating the glory of God who in Jesus Christ overcame death and defeated the powers of evil, and made resurrection possible even for us. I’ve told the story of our resurrection many times now, and so have many of you, but I’ve been telling it in-house. The question I asked in that chapter I wrote, has been answered, and I’ve recounted the answer over and over. But it is time to write a new chapter. It is time for us to begin to work out the content for the next chapter that asks what happened when the Spirit was poured out on the resurrected body at South Yarra Baptist and the Risen Christ said, “You are my witnesses; go!”

We are about to stand and affirm the faith that unites us with the body of Christ in every time and place, and in a few minutes we will share the meal in which the risen Christ nourishes his body for the tasks ahead. These are things we do every week, but as we celebrate the resurrection, Christ’s and our own, let’s do these things conscious of the imperative to answer the questions about what exactly are the tasks we are being nourished for and how, in real terms, this faith will take flesh in the world. What have we been resurrected for?


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