Saturday, 18 April 2015

Witnesses of the risen Lord

This Sunday is one of those when to really benefit from the readings they would be better read in a longer form. The reading from Acts begins with people responding to something that has just happened: to really understand the reading, start from 3:1, rather than 3:12. Likewise the gospel reading opens with the disciples discussing something that has just happened. For a fuller reading, instead of starting at Luke 24:36, begin at verse 13 and read the encounter on the way to Emmaus.

Easter is such a familiar story to us that we forget how shocking and frightening it was for the people who lived through it. First their Lord crucified, and then talk of seeing him alive! And yet, Jesus showed them, it should not have been a surprise at all, nor something to fear, because the Law and the Prophets had said what was to come. From Moses' encounter with God in the burning bush and the escape from slavery, to Isaiah's description of a suffering servant restored to life, Jesus was the absolute fulfilment of the Law - he was not something new, but the one long promised and expected. 

But those fearful disciples weren't thinking about the scriptures, they were thinking about the stories that people were telling them at the time. Jesus who was dead, had started appearing to people. A ghost then? The dead walking? This really did feel alarming. Which is why before Jesus opened their eyes to the scriptures, he ensured that they understood that he was definitely not a ghost. What ghost eats baked fish? No, Jesus was and is physically alive, able if he chooses to live in this world just as we do. But the resurrected body is not the same as the mortal one. Jesus, as he showed his disciples his solidity and life, also showed them a body which can pass between earth and heaven, a body glorified and able to be in the presence of God the Father. He showed us a body that for us is to come, when heaven and earth come together. 

Having explained to the disciples the connection between the scriptures and the events of the last few days, Jesus gave them a job to do, a job arising from those familiar scriptures: repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus' name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. And he told them that they were witnesses: in other words, they had a story to tell. They were to be the ones who started sharing the gospel. The reading from Acts shows us what this looked like in those earliest days. Peter explained the healing of the lame man using those terms of repentance and forgiveness of sin, telling his listeners to repent. Peter explained that faith in Jesus had brought strength to the lame man, and he called Jesus the Bringer of Life. Different translations use titles like Prince of Life or Author of Life - the point is that through Jesus comes a full, wonderful new kind of life which brings us, forgiven and full of grace, into the presence of the Father. This life is available to all who turn to Jesus in faith. Faith means believing and trusting in Jesus. Faith requires repentance of the sin that went before, but that is no difficulty for those who truly turn to Christ. Faith is more than a simple belief system, more than calling on the name of Jesus and expecting a magical thing to happen. Faith draws you into a relationship with Jesus, and in that is life.

Just as Peter followed the command and told people his experience of Jesus and how he had learned about the new life available to all people through repentance and faith in Jesus, so we are commanded to do the same. The job wasn't completed in one generation. For all people to know about Jesus' invitation to life, every generation of the faithful must continue with the task of being witnesses. Right now, that means that the baton is in our hands, and we must tell the world the great news. The church spends so much of its time in systems and routines. This week in my benefice, and I know in many others too, we have annual church meetings. There is a lot of value in these meetings. They are a chance to consider all that the Lord has done for us and in us, and to give thanks to God for his goodness. And they are a chance to remind ourselves, having remembered what God has done, of our shared calling to witness to our experience of the risen Lord, and to tell the world Jesus' message: repent and have faith in Jesus. 

It is very easy at this time of year to get bogged down in consideration of  buildings and committee numbers and rotas. I'm not suggesting that all that stuff should be chucked out, but I am suggesting that the daily business of running the institutional church only has relevance if the church is doing the job that Jesus called us to. If our buildings and committees and rotas genuinely help us in witnessing and sharing the gospel with the world, then by all means let's give them a little attention, but only as a means to facilitate the real purpose at the heart of the church. If our buildings fell down, our committees had the wrong numbers, our rotas had gaps or too many people or didn't exist at all, the gospel would still be all that matters. So as we consider the life of the church, let's put the emphasis where it matters - on growing our faith in Jesus, our risen and living Lord, and sharing that faith with others. Let's be people who share the message of life in all its fullness and show people what it means to live it.