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Can the resurrection of Jesus be real?

Amazing things do happen, it’s just that we don’t expect them! If someone had told you at Christmas that by Easter all the pubs in Britain would be shut and they would be pouring the beer down the drain would you have believed them? I doubt it. People win on the National Lottery every day but if you play, do you ever expect your numbers to be drawn? Generally, we don’t expect the unexpected!
In our reading today, Luke tells us about two friends of Jesus taking a walk out of Jerusalem to a little place called Emmaus. They weren’t among the famous 12. One was called Cleopas. The other remains anonymous. It’s Sunday evening. Jesus had been crucified on the Friday and his death is still the hot topic of conversation. A stranger whom they do not recognise draws alongside them and they share their story with him amazed that he does not already know about the death of Jesus. Cleopas and his friend talk of their real sense of disappointment. They’d hoped Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, to set the holy nation free from the oppression of the Romans. (Luke 24.21) But it hadn’t worked out that way all. Instead, the leaders of Israel had seen to it that the Romans put him to death. That was it, end of story. The best they could do now was to get back to ordinary life, whatever that is, forget Jesus and wait for the next messiah.
But there was something else. The women! They had astounded them. Apparently, some had been to the tomb where Jesus was buried early that morning. They’d returned saying that the body had gone, and they’d had a vision of angels who told them that he was alive. So, the men had to go and check it out. You know what? They found that it all just as the women had said but there was no sign of Jesus. (Luke 23.22-24) Clearly this was not what they were expecting. Cleopas and his companion were inclined to dismiss it as a bit of wishful thinking on the part of those women.
It’s at this point that the mysterious stranger cuts in. Instead of agreeing with them and commiserating their loss, he chides them for being slow of heart to believe. (Luke 23.25) He takes them to the stories and prophecies in their scriptures, our old testament. He starts with Moses and goes on to the prophets explaining that the messiah was never meant to come as an all-conquering hero liberating the country but as one who would suffer before entering his glory. (Luke 23.26-27)
Eventually, the travellers arrive at the village. The sun is starting to set but the traveller is minded to go on. Cleopas and his friend urge him to stay with them, presumably in the house they were visiting. Impromptu hospitality was never a problem in the culture of that time. They settle to supper. During the meal, the stranger takes bread, blesses, and breaks it following the custom of the day. It is in that moment, in the breaking of the bread, that the identity of the mysterious traveller is revealed. It was Jesus! Yes, it was him on the road all the time. Yes, he was alive again. The women were right. They now had confirmation in their hearts and minds. The most unexpected thing imaginable had happened. The two friends are so sure now the only thing to do is to get back into Jerusalem and tell the eleven disciples. (that’s 12 without Judas) They hastily cram a bit more food in their mouths, say farewell to their surprised host and head off into the dark. While the outward journey had been mostly downhill, a significant climb now faced them to get back into the city. Such was their excitement and enthusiasm; they did not think twice about tackling it.
At the start of their journey to Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend cannot contemplate the unexpected. Jesus was dead and that was that. If the body was not in the tomb, then it had been stolen or worse. All the talk of angels and that he was alive was nothing but a crazy impossible dream. The moment it all changes for them is at that blessing and breaking of bread. Do they see the scarred hands at that point? Or is it that their minds go back to that other meal, the one just before Judas went out to betray him? Whatever, for these two, this is the point at which they realise that the seeming impossible, the unexpected has happened.
How is it that we realise that the unexpected, the unthinkable has happened? At what point did this unprecedented lockdown suddenly become reality for you? What in the past has made something you would never have contemplated like meeting someone special, a big win or a surprize job offer suddenly become real? The resurrection of Jesus remains amazingly unexpected, against the grain of predictable death. How can we know it to be true?
The Emmaus story helps us here because although the friends on the road experienced the physical resurrected body of Jesus for a short times in a way in which we can’t, he actually became real to them in two things which are very much at the heart of the church today: sacrament and word.
It was in the breaking of the bread, the penny dropped. Sharing bread and wine to remember Jesus is a moment in which as our risen Lord, Jesus especially reaches out to touch our hearts. Christians through the ages have all had their own take on it and you will have yours. The hardest part of our present situation is not being able to fully experience it at this time. The communion can never really be ‘virtual’.
And then there is the word. As Jesus explained the scriptures, to the two friends their hearts burned within them. (Luke 24.32) Viewed from one angle, the bible may seem a large intimidating book only for scholars. Humanly speaking, that’s true. The truth is that comes alive in many surprizing ways.
Valera comes from Moldavia. At one time he was involved with the mafia. Here is part of his story recorded by Maureen Wise in a book called ‘Celestial Fire.’ (Wise, 2018)
‘At the time I was living with a woman who was a prostitute. She gave me a book to read and told me it might help me. Its title was ‘The Book of Moses’. … I wanted to know who this Moses was who wrote this book. (It was the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the bible.) …I decided to read it all. I was amazed. It was all about me. It was speaking about me. I didn’t know there was such a thing as the bible. I got to Exodus and read about Moses when he was taken out of the water. When I was about 2 years old, I nearly died in a flooded hole. I remember that I couldn’t get out even though my brothers and sisters were not far away. My grandmother came and got me out. When I read that Moses was rescued from the water I thought, ‘That’s me!’ Everywhere I read in this book I saw me.’
Valera went on to get the rest of the old testament and then a new testament. The words came alive for him in remarkable ways. He then got into a fight and was bed ridden for two weeks. As he plotted his revenge, he heard a mild voice ‘Do you think what you are planning is good?’ ‘Do you really think you can leave it to the last minute to repent? For Valera, that is the moment when he finally knew it was for real. Jesus was not dead but very much alive and had designs on his life.
In this story, even the early books of the old testament spoke into that man’s life in the post-Soviet era.
Jesus’ resurrection validates much of what he says about himself. It lifts Jesus from being a good teacher and noble martyr, to one who commands our whole destiny. The resurrection of Jesus is not just about the resuscitation of a corpse. It is the means by which God restores fullness of life to all who believe, who seek to continue in a relationship with the risen Christ and welcome his Spirit into their lives.
Is this real for you? Wherever any of us are at with these things, The words of the bible read with an open heart will help make the resurrection real for us and we can look forward to meeting our Lord in again in shared bread and wine.
Wise, M. (2018). Celestial Fire. Wales: Evangelical Movement of Wales.
Easter 3 26.04.2020 Jonathan Smith

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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