Jesus has a very busy day on that first resurrection Sunday in Luke’s gospel! He rises, walks the seven miles to Emmaus with the two disciples, returns to Jerusalem, eats a meal with the other disciples, takes the group to Bethany and then ascends. This is concentrated drama!
It is not biography, but symbolic narrative. In Acts, Luke tells us that there was a period of 40 days between his resurrection and ascension. Here in the gospel, his concern is to make clear the significance of what is happening. By compressing everything into a single day, he is making the point that everything that happens is part of the unfolding drama of resurrection. Resurrection is a “new day” – not just chronologically, but qualitatively too. Although there will be many subsequent “days”, they, together with all of human history, take this event as their starting point. It is the dawn of a new creation. In it, the disciples meet their risen Master and learn the meaning and significance of all that has happened. The seismic tremors of resurrection are already beginning to spread from their epicentre in Jerusalem throughout the whole world.
The difference that resurrection makes
This week’s gospel passage has two striking parallels. The first is the one we noted last week, with John 20: 19-23, which, in all likelihood, John knew and was reflecting upon; the second is Luke’s second version of this incident in Acts 1: 3-8. The essence of Luke’s message is very simple: God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, so that all that Jesus proclaimed and promised will come about; Jesus is alive – alive, and not a ghost; Jesus wants his disciples to continue his work in the power of the same Spirit that came upon him at his baptism and empowered his ministry.
The message of the resurrection is startling, amazing and exciting! This is the faith by which Luke’s community lives, and is a matter of ongoing, genuine rejoicing – holy glee in the best sense! That’s reflected in the way Luke tells the story, where he almost caricatures the disciples’ inability to grasp what has happened. Here are the disciples, gathered in a room, listening to the astounding story of their two companions, breathless from having hot-footed it straight back to Jerusalem from Emmaus. This is the second bunch of possible crazies from among their number: first the women, back from the tomb in the morning, and now two of their number from Emmaus in the evening. Perhaps they’re thinking, “It’s not safe to go outdoors! It must be grief – or is it something in the water? After all, everyone who steps outside the room starts seeing Jesus! Better to stay right here in this room, where it’s safe!”
At that moment, Jesus appears in their midst! And he says, “Peace be with you.” There’s something deliciously ironic here, isn’t there? After all, “peace” is probably the last thing Jesus’ entry and comment provokes! They’re hallucinating – seeing a ghost – and the ghost is saying, “Relax! It’s ok!” Then the ghost goes on: “Why are you frightened?” Is Jesus being serious? Wouldn’t you be? What a ridiculous question! Then another killer: “Why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Well, Jesus (or whoever you are), do you really expect us to just roll over and say, “Oh, it’s you! Good to see you back. Come sit down – we were just talking about you!” Can’t you hear Luke chuckling as he plays with his readers?
In verse 39, Luke hammers his main point home: this is the risen Jesus. Not a ghost. Not his spirit. Not some wonderful hallucination. This is the flesh and blood Jesus! There’s the invitation to touch and see, and he eats with them.
I don’t know what you believe about resurrection. I do know that the Easter message of resurrection gets lost in uncomfortable debates about whether or not the risen Jesus was actually a flesh and blood, eating, drinking, touching, human being who had been dead and was now alive again, or whether “resurrection” is a symbol of the enduring presence of Jesus, even though his body remained on the slab somewhere.
So let’s be clear: the witness of all four evangelists is that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. They hammer that home. The notion that Jesus was actually raised bodily was as difficult for Christians in Luke’s church as it is for people in our own time. Resurrection was not common currency at the time – a characteristic of a primitive and credulous culture. Nor was it used as a clever, nuanced symbol. People then (as now) could cope with the notion that Jesus was, in effect, a “ghost” – some enduring spirit-presence. “That’s not good enough”, says Luke. This is about dead bodies being made alive again – and changed in the process. Yes, the risen Jesus is certainly different from the pre-Easter Jesus. And he doesn’t behave in the same way, relate in the same way or obey the same physical laws. But then, resurrection is not just an “event” that “happens” to Jesus! It’s something that happens to all creation – and the experience of the transformed, risen Jesus is a foretaste of what will happen to the whole world when its transformation into the Kingdom of God is complete.
Resurrection and transformation of this world
It’s not what happened to Jesus that is as significant as why, and what it all means for the world. Resurrection faith is not “believing in bodily resurrection rather than enduring presence”. Conservative Christians who believe in bodily resurrection are no more “Christian” or faithful to the resurrection than liberal Christians whose faith would remain unaltered were Jesus’ bones to be discovered tomorrow. Belief in resurrection is not something akin to whether or not one believes in fairies or the Loch Ness monster. It’s not even a question of whether or not one believes in miracles. The stress on faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus in the gospels is the question of whether or not one believes in salvation as the transformation of this world.
The key question is whether this world and these bodies of ours have a future with God. It’s a question, therefore, about the meaning and content of salvation. Resurrection says that salvation is recreation – salvation for this world. God could have done at least two things differently. The first is to have abandoned us and our world because we rejected God. Resurrection tells us that God doesn’t do that – even when we have resisted God’s companionship to the point of murdering God’s Son! The second is to abandon creation but not human beings. In this case, salvation would be escape or rescue from the world. God could say, “You are not your bodies. The ‘real you’ is non-material. And this world isn’t ultimately ‘real’ – ultimate reality is another place altogether, called heaven. So let me rescue you from all this mess of creation (bodies, earth etc)”. God, in other words, could be a dualist.
But resurrection is anti-dualist. God isn’t a Hindu, or Buddhist, or classical Greek deity. The Hebrew and Christian God is a God who is inextricably linked to creation by love and a determination to save what has been created. Matter matters! Bodies matter! God embraces body in Jesus (Incarnation) and enters into our world. God becomes part of our world. And God does so in order to save it by transforming it into all that it was always intended to be.
Bodies matter (1 John 3: 1-7)
That is why God is so concerned about what happens to the earth and to human beings. That is why God is distressed and angry when people starve, or are mistreated, or murdered. Suffering matters – not just because it is unpleasant and distressing, but because our bodies are integrally us. How we treat our bodies and the bodies of others is therefore enormously significant. That is why Jesus healed people, rather than just telling them not to worry about suffering and this life and concentrate on pie in the sky when they die. That is why Jesus says that giving a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, or clothing someone who is naked, is ministry to him.
It’s also why John says what he does about sin. If matter and bodies don’t matter, then what we do with our bodies here and now is hardly significant. They do, however. We are already God’s children because of resurrection (1 John 3: 2). Our bodies are made for living differently from the way we used to live. Hence John’s concern with authentic, Spirit-inspired Christian living. We are in a process of becoming (v2b). That transformation is taking place both in us and in the world – because as we are being re-made through the Spirit, we are to be involved in remaking the world in the shape of the Kingdom of God. Our hope is in a transformed world, in which there is no more sorrow, or sighing, or pain, or death; in which those things have passed away (Revelation 21:4). But note: it is not a hope only in a world in which those things have merely passed away, but also in one in which everything has been made new!
This earth and these bodies have a future with God. That is why there is resurrection: it is recreation. Salvation, in other words, is as physically real and significant as that from which we are saved – disease, despair and death. It is not some other world, or some sort of ghost-life that is the substance of salvation. That is why Jesus is raised from the dead. There is life for human beings beyond death – and human beings are both body and spirit equally. Those transformations to the body are no less important and can be no less physically real than the transformation of this world into a place where peace and righteousness kiss.
That, at least, is what both Luke and John want to tell us.
“It was all meant to be” (cf Acts 3: 12-19/Psalm 4)
All that happened to Jesus happened as a direct result of his actions and message, and the opposition it created. Jesus came to bring about the Kingdom of God. That was his task and mission. Tragically, our response was to crucify him. And yet, the risen Jesus is at pains to explain, there is a sense in which it was all meant to be. God was not wrong-footed and caught out. The resurrection is not some last-minute rescue job, dreamed up during some divine three-day emergency summit! It was a “fulfilment” of everything that had gone before. Jesus is the one who, first on the Emmaus road, and now in the room with his disciples, begins the “Christian read-back” of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the literal beginning of the “new” testament – the new way of understanding all that has gone before.
Peter, too, rehearses the same theme in his sermon in Acts 3: 12-19. The Way of the Cross – the way of the Suffering Messiah – was not a plan that went horribly wrong, but the way of a God who chooses to save by becoming involved in human darkness (Acts 3:18). The darkness, in this case, is the cross: Peter’s hearers have chosen to kill the Author of Life (v15); God chooses to raise Jesus. Why does God choose to raise Jesus? Because they acted in ignorance, as Peter reminds them (v7). Yet this is a sign of hope, because Jesus (in Luke’s gospel) speaks the words of forgiveness from the cross directly to them: “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing!” (Luke 24:34). That is why their response ought to be to repent and turn to God in order that their sins might be wiped out (v19).
Does this mean that we can ultimately blame God for the crucifixion? After all, if it was God’s plan, who are we to thwart it? And are we not simply pawns in some gigantic, cosmic chess-game being played in a divine realm? That is not what “fulfilment” is meant to suggest. Prophecy in the bible is not some sort of Christian horoscope. To be human is to have choice and to create our own world. We are not determined by fate or even by the gods. That is part of the divine image in human beings. In what sense is the cross “meant to be?” The deepest sense of that isn’t some sort of “divine script”, in which God engineers the cross. Rather, there is a consistency to God’s saving acts throughout the biblical narrative that is linked by God’s entry into human darkness. Yahweh in the Old Testament is the God who travels with the people: Yahweh literally travels in the Ark; Yahweh is present in the Temple and Yahweh travels with the people into Exile. The biblical narratives affirm this: even when God acts in judgement, God does not abandon the people but shares with them the consequences of their actions and of divine judgement. The cross is “meant to be” in the sense that God, in Jesus, delivers God’s self into human hands, allowing the course of human resistance and rejection to take its course, and planning to suffer the consequences.
Read Psalm 4 for a moment. Here the psalmist – a righteous man – expresses confidence in Yahweh’s deliverance from enemies when he calls. Yahweh is a God who honours covenant. Yahweh honours fidelity and righteousness (v3) and hears them. There is a peace that comes with living in covenantal faithfulness with Yahweh (v8).
The cross is the story of the psalmist’s opposite. What if people are faithless? What if people do not honour God, but reject God? The implication (from Psalm 4) is that there is no rescue or peace to be had from God; only judgement. Yet Easter Day tells us something different: such is the depth of passion of God’s saving love for the world that God enters into the whole mess and darkness of sin and rejection. God suffers the consequences, so that the cross becomes the instance of divine self-sacrifice on behalf of a lost, broken, dying world.
What God tells the people through the prophets is about the results and consequences of those choices. And what God does in terms of salvation is to save us from those consequences. We chose to reject God and the kingdom God offered in Jesus. We chose to crucify Jesus and have nothing more to do with God in our world. The consequence of that is that God ought to reject us – but chooses instead to save. Our rejection is simply the climax of the long history of human rebellion against God. Every small act of rejection and resistance pointed towards the ultimate act – the crucifixion. Likewise every saving act of God pointed towards this ultimate act of God in Jesus: resurrection. Resurrection means that even this can be forgiven, so that there is now nothing in all creation to stop God forgiving. This is the good news. It is what Peter tells his hearers in Acts 3: 12-19. We need not be bound by our choices and actions. We can repent – because God is the God of resurrection! God intends Life, and even death will not be allowed to thwart that divine passion!
That is the message we have heard, and believed. This is the Life we have experienced in the Spirit. And now the task of witnessing to it is ours.