The beloved disciple

Sermon preached at St Michael’s Church (unspecified service and location), 16 April 1995 (Easter Day)

For Christians, Easter is the supreme festival. The churches are decorated with flowers, the bells ring, and in some country parishes the choir surplices get their annual wash!

What is being proclaimed is that all that separates and injures and destroys has been overcome with healing, unity and creation. It could be easy to become overwhelmed with the headiness of it all…

St Augustine said, “we are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song.”

But I can’t think of anything as half-hearted and wet as an Anglican ‘Alleluia’ – perhaps I’ve been in the wrong places.

I’m aware that there are those for whom the festival means only tearful children, traffic jams snarled up on the A30, and the desperation of “we’re here to enjoy ourselves” (with grim determination) and there are four days in which to do it. I think that there are Christians, too, for whom the prospect of forty days of celebration is a muddled marathon.

Where there is resurrection the Eternal Word is spoken. But what does this mean?

Is this just a desire for a ‘feel-good’ factor?

What do you hope for in a festival like Easter? Is it possible to experience any kind of a resurrection today?

What do you want to kill in your own life? What drear demon still hangs around your neck like an old fox-fur, moth-eaten and decrepit? Where are those crumbling, yellowing letters of past bitterness? Those rusty daggers, still half-unsheathed? Can it ever be that when you come into this church, week after week, perhaps for years, that anything can in fact make a difference? How do I understand that the resurrection of our Saviour can have any relevance for my life where I undergo it, bear it, struggle with it?

It will always be difficult if resurrection is seen as something happening on the horizon or in the distance. Something happened in the past. It was momentous. But the more the years go on, it can seem only like a recycled tea bag, the flavour becoming ever more thin. Of course we as a nation are being invited, as the century closes, to become recharged with millennium fever. That is so like a discussion of resurrection.

Something that happened in Jerusalem on the third day after the Crucifixion, or something which may happen to us after we die. But what about now, and here, and personal?

I’m sure it depends upon what you understand happened at the resurrection.

I am convinced that if you believe Jesus came alive again after his crucifixion, then you’re going to miss the point.

Rising from the dead is not the same as “coming to life again.” A mere resuscitation was the very thing that the authorities would leap at to prove that Jesus had merely swooned and was later revived.

Matthew’s Gospel takes on board that very possibility:

“The chief priests… gave a large sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘You are to say that his disciples came during the night and stole his body while you were asleep.'”

Anyone who had wanted to steal the body, as is suggested in Matthew, would not have bothered to remove the wrappings.

The whole point of the javelin thrust to the side was to dispel any possibility of this happening. Jesus truly died. Jesus was truly buried. For, if Jesus came alive again, then perhaps in human terms he’d have to die again.

But he rose, and ascended (whatever that means, whether it is like the final assumption of Elijah or Enoch). His rising has to be on a different level from normal human demise. I believe it is a passing over from one life to another. From an old life, with all its limitations, to a new kind of life with endless possibilities and no restrictions. Can you imagine a life with no restrictions? A clear vision with things being as they really are? All the excitements and challenges that such a phenomenon offers? It seems all too much. Let’s play safe and settle for a temporary revival.

Then there is the problem of the empty tomb. The conviction that Jesus had risen seems to have depended rather upon the post-resurrection appearances. The testimonies, from the women first, then various disciples, had in common the statement, “We have seen the Lord!”

Only the “beloved disciple” saw and believed on the evidence of the empty tomb. It seems that the Lord did not appear to him.

Who was this figure? Tradition suggests that it was John, brother of James. Scholars are divided upon whether the same person wrote the Gospel and the Epistles bearing his name. Others have suggested he was the Evangelist Mark, whose first name was John, and even Lazarus has been given some credence. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea could also be likely candidates. But all this is conjecture. It may even be an anonymous figure representing the first epoch of Christians who, as the gospel says later, are those who are “blessed by having never seen, but believed,” and so on through successive generations of Christians. All those who have become embraced by Jesus can claim the title.

Putting it bluntly, the “beloved disciple” could well be you and me.

On the Friday the victory was won. On the Sunday began the gathering of its fruits. Are we not numbered amongst them?

If not, then you might as well stay home at Easter, or sit on the A30.

If ours is a Risen Lord and not just a revived one, then ours is a redeemed life and not merely one continually held to ransom.

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