Jesus’ Resurrection: a sermon for Eucharist on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, preached on 18th April 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
(Acts 3: 12-19 and Luke 24: 36-48)
In Jesus’ resurrection appearances to Mary of Magdala in the garden by the empty tomb, and to a couple of disciples on the way to Emmaus, those involved do not at first recognise him. The disciples in Jerusalem, in today’s Gospel, have no such problem: they recognise him immediately. Their difficulty is that they assume he is a ghost; and ghosts, if they exist, have little or no substance. That is why they are notoriously awkward to portray on stage.
I remember seeing two performances of Macbeth, a couple of years apart. In the first, with Shakespearian actors in London, the ghost of Banquo appeared stage left wrapped in what appeared to be a green polythene bag. I am sorry to say that this occasioned some mirth amongst the audience. In the second production, in Edinburgh, the scene was set with the assembled company along the sides of a very long banqueting table, Macbeth at one end. Suddenly, all background conversation stopped, as he began to rant at a perfectly empty chair at the other end. He could see Banquo’s ghost but no one else could. It was a spine-chilling moment.
That is the trouble with ghosts: they are elusive; one cannot get a handle on them. Which is why Luke, in this account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples, is at pains to stress his physical reality. He is fully corporeal – flesh and bone – and eats fish. He really has risen from the grave: that is still the central tenet of our faith, as it became to the first disciples. They saw in real time and life what we believe by faith. (Remember that Jesus has a special commendation for us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”.)
But that is not the full story. In his resurrected form, he is not entirely as he was before: he appears and disappears at will, even in locked rooms. His divine nature, implied previously in his healing miracles, becomes now more evident. As we saw on Easter Day in his conversation with Mary Magdalene, when he gently tells her not to hold on to him, to let go of the corporeal in favour of the spiritual, this is a period of transition. He is going back to his Father. This dual nature, both human and divine, is also part of our key belief about and in Jesus.
And so he commissions his disciples. When he is no longer with them, it will be up to them to continue and expand his work on earth – specifically to preach repentance and forgiveness, to restore the broken relationship between humans and God. That is exactly what we find Peter doing in our first reading; and of course the fact that he and the other disciples are now full of zeal to do this gives ultimate validity to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and divinity. They would hardly have transformed themselves into wholly committed bearers of this good news if they knew it was all a sham, if Jesus had appeared simply as a ghost, or if they had taken Jesus’ body away and buried it elsewhere.
They were also commissioned by him to proclaim the news “to all nations”, and of that we are the great beneficiaries. When we see Peter here, and hear his challenging words, he has just performed a miraculous healing on a man lame from birth. He does it through faith in his risen Lord. “Therein”, says William Barclay, “lies the secret of the Christian life. So long as the Christian thinks only of what he can do and be, there can be nothing but failure and frustration and fear. But when he thinks of ‘not I, but Christ in me’ there can be nothing but peace and power.” (Wm Barclay- Acts (Daily Study Bible))