The Power of Jesus is Alive

Easter 2019 John 20:1-18

   It was different back then.  You didn’t put the body in a casket and dig a 6 feet hole.  They actually practiced a recycling way.  When a death occurred it was important to attend to the burial immediately.  We saw this tradition in the desire for our Muslim brothers and sisters to bury their dead as soon as possible.  Ideally burial happened within 24 hours. As soon as death was certain the deceased eye’s were closed.  The corpse was washed and then wrapped and bound.  Perfumes and ointments, usually nard, myrrh and aloes, were used for the ritual washing and the body wrapped in a shroud with the hands and feet bound with strips of cloth.  A special cloth was placed over the face.  Again as we saw recently the corpse is carried on a funeral bier rather than a closed coffin to the burial site just outside the city walls.  Traditionally this was a cave or large tomb carved out of the soft limestone rock that is found all round Jerusalem.  The body would be taken inside and laid out on a limestone plinth or shelf.  The entrance would then be sealed by placing a large rolling stone that moved in a cut channel and left for a year.  At the end of that time relatives would return to gather the bones that were left and place them in an ossuary or bone box which might be engraved with the person’s name and stored elsewhere or within the tomb itself. 

In Jesus’ case his family owned no tomb but one of the disciple band Joseph of Arimathea did and he offered the unused tomb for the burial. It seems that this is where the preparation of the body took place but that this task was not completed on the Friday before the Sabbath began at 6pm.  The Saturday being the Sabbath meant the work had to be delayed until early Sunday morning but that’s when the drama began.  Where was the body. 

      Mary assumed someone had stolen the body, and was obviously distraught. The earliest versions of Mark’s gospel which represent the earliest Christian stories have no stories of resurrection appearances, just the empty tomb.  What did happen?

   There have been some interesting suggestions.  Most Muslims believe Jesus who they recognise as their second greatest prophet never really died on the cross.  The person who died was a substitute.  Others believe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and was taken down still breathing, and when he was put in the tomb and as he lay there in the cool or possibly with the aid of some special drugs administered by the disciples he came round again.   Whatever Jesus ascended to God and will come again.

  Other people talk of the resurrection as if it were a resuscitation of a dead body.  After 2 days in the tomb as a dead person somehow Jesus human body came to life again as if someone performed CPR on him and got his heart beating again….a resuscitation. 

   Yet others claim the disciples were suffering from cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on believing it even more strongly even when faced with evidence to the contrary.  In other words they denied his death by actually reporting seeing him alive again.  Their minds tricked them into actually seeing him and meeting him, but actually it was all in their heads.  Grieving people I have found often have powerful meetings or encounters with those who have recently died and some of us will know this. 

   Interesting theories.  I think the disciples had no expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead, but it seems clear they encountered something –  a new  presence.  Jesus’ risen body had many of the properties of as an ordinary body – he could talk, eat and drink, be touched and so on, but it seems even closest disciples  didn’t recognize him until he somehow opens their minds.  Mary and the disciples on the road to Emmaus engage with him but don’t immediately see him as Jesus. It’s only when they break bread together that they recognise him.  He has other strange properties too.  He could appear and disappear in a manner not unlike Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. He can appear in the midst of a locked room, and it seems he can appear in one location and shortly after in another location hundreds of kilometers away.  He only seems to appear to those he knew.  There are no recorded public appearance after the crucifixion.  The appearances simply don’t fit any normal patterns.

This of course is very frustrating for scientific minds like ours. Science likes to study phenomena that can be repeated in laboratory conditions and this event, the resurrection of Jesus just isn’t one of those sorts of events. 

   I believe that there was a physical reality to this new way of being, but I don’t think I can tell you much more.  There is real mystery here.  If you want to get theological I think it’s important there was a physical reality to the resurrected Jesus because this physical earthy stuff is what Jesus was all about. However in the end these history questions of what actually happened come up against a bit of a brick wall.  A better question is what does it mean for us now?    

   For me the reality that God raised Jesus to life gives me hope.  It tells me that God’s love is stronger than the powers that killed him.  I rejoice because in Easter is the affirmation that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than indifference and apathy, light is stronger than darkness, truth is stronger than lies, and life is stronger than death.  All that separates and injures and destroys in the world does not have the final say.  The power that reconciles and heals and loves is stronger.  The powers of goodness and life in our world are stronger than the powers of death, destruction and darkness.  The stone was rolled away and Jesus wasn’t left defeated by the powers that consigned him to die on the cross.  In our reformed tradition the cross is always empty.   The cross was not the final word.  Death is not the final word.  This is a hope that sustains my faith and my life.  This is the great hope of Easter and it means I live with with a confidence that all will be well.

   But the resurrection is not just a hope or an idea.  I believe that the risen presence of Jesus is a living power.  All that Jesus stood for in healing, in reshaping, in opening our lives to life is not just an historical reality but is a living reality.  There is a power, a presence of Jesus alive in our time that we can invite into our lives and which can shape our living and live in us to be the continuing living presence of Jesus.  Compassion, kindness, truth, goodness.  Power to affirm and draw the best out of others.  Power to work to heal the wounds in others and in ourselves.  And on this day I invite you to be more aware of this active power and presence.. 

   You may find yourself moved deep inside by something that stirs you.    Seeing another human being abused in some way.  Seeing someone in need of healing.  Seeing God’s creation abused, seeing the sacredness of life trampled.  Here in Christchurch the terrible events of March 15th still weigh heavy.  Human beings just like us gathered in worship gunned down.    Our deep passions, our tears I think are closely connected with this living presence of Jesus.  

   In our personal journeys  we experience pain or tragedy.  There may be dark and dull days which engulf us.  Sometimes I think of these days as sitting in the tomb of darkness.  It may take weeks or months or even years but the day comes when it seems there is a ray of light, and the stone has been moved away just a fraction.  Often people will say that time heals, but I don’t think it is time.  I think the living presence and power seen in Jesus is at work, patiently working in our lives leading us from the tomb to the dawn of a new day.

   The earth is warming rapidly and slowing human beings are waking up to the reality that we are responsible and our children’s children deserve a future.  The power of seen in Jesus is alive. 

   The truth of Easter is that Jesus is alive.  Whispering, nudging, inviting, calling us to work with him in shaping a new earth in the power of love.  He’s continuing to reveal the evil and the darkness of the world, and to show us another way.  He is continuing to meet us as he met Mary outside the tomb, to call us lovingly by name, and to invite us to participate with him in shaping a new world of goodness, respect, and peace.

   Jesus is alive, and he invites us to take his life into our life. One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle.  He said, My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, selfishness, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority and ego.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, hope, serentity, humility, kindness, generosity,, truth, compassion and faith.”  The grandson thought for a moment and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”  The old Cherokee answered simply, “the one you feed.” 

   That’s why we gather Sunday by Sunday – to feed on the presence of Jesus, to be nourished by this presence, to encounter his love and truth, to be shaped by his life.  We need to take the life of Jesus into our hearts, and we need to be warmed by his love and compassion for us and all people we meet….and so we come to this meal.

    Together we can and will shape a new world of goodness, respect, peace, and justice for all.

Dugald Wilson 20 April 2019