This is the Sunday morning sermon by Rev Graham Crawford for 17 May 2015 (Luke 24: 44 – 53, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23):
Jesus is alive, we claim.
In some traditions, we should have opened every service between Easter and Pentecost with the minister proclaiming: ‘Christ is risen’, with you, the congregation, shouting back (not just murmuring under your breath): ‘Alleliua!’
But on what basis do we make that claim?
Christ is risen – but where’s the evidence?
Well, there is the testimony of those who saw him raised or who saw his empty tomb. But Luke’s narrative shows that such testimony can be questioned, even discounted, After all, it was by members of Jesus’ own movement.
Yes, there are the Scriptures that testify to his resurrection, but Luke’s story also includes Jesus having to explain the Scriptures to disciples who remain sceptical. Some of the disciples are gifted by visions of the Lord, yet even they struggle; Luke’s narrative shows us how some could walk and talk with Jesus and not know him, or watch him suddenly appear in a room and disbelieve.
The two kinds of convincing evidence offered by this chapter are:
- the memories of Jesus’ teachings, especially as interpreted by someone else who truly believes, and
- the experience of Jesus in meals shared with fellow believers, especially the Communion meal.
The women were confused until the two heavenly witnesses reminded them of what Jesus had said. The two on the way to Emmaus were confused until Jesus blessed and broke the bread. The apostles and disciples were confused even after Jesus ate in front of them until he “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
So let us hear Luke’s account of the events and see what lessons and what hope they give to us.
Luke 24: 44-53 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)
44 He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
The ascension of Jesus
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Thus does Luke instruct us that our experience of the resurrection, two millennia after the event, is not second-rate or defective, on the occasions that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.
Surprising guests and uncomfortable revelations
We need to recognise that, when we experience the risen Christ in Communion, he is truly present. What is more, every Gospel writer has a slightly different account of Jesus and, if the Jesus as recorded by Luke is present with us at Communion, it is a good thing for the church.
For, after all, this is the man who, according to Luke:
- accepted two dinner invitations from tax collectors and three from Pharisees;
- broke bread with his betrayer and with his quarrelsome disciples;
- refused to be bullied into rejecting the hospitality of Levi, Zacchaeus, or the woman who anointed his feet;
- instructed his disciples, likewise, to accept whatever was put before them, from whoever would receive them peaceably.
As one writer expressed it, if we conducted our Communions the way Luke’s Jesus conducted his meals, they’d be full of surprising guests and uncomfortable revelations about our values and conduct. And there would almost certainly be some moments to make the respectable folks cringe, and yes, that does mean you and me.
Are we brave enough to welcome that Jesus to our meals, or better yet, to sit at the table that Jesus hosts?
The questions that Luke’s risen and ascended Jesus raise for us today are also questions that the early church grappled with.
Love and holiness
We can see that from the letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 1: 15 – 23) where we read:-
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[a] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
This section focuses on the two virtues of love and holiness.
These two virtues must be balanced if the church is ever going to be both functional and healthy. Ephesians does not focus on one to the neglect of the other. The early church recognised that love without holiness is undisciplined emotion, while holiness without love is arrogant self-righteousness. This is a mystery to both the liberals and the conservatives within the church today.
Some Christians tend to focus on love. Love covers a multitude of sins, but often it does not change human behaviour. People must be held accountable for their actions or no substantive change will result in many cases. On the other hand, other Christians stress holiness often to the neglect of love. That is the reason for the many schisms in Christian history. People believe that they are tainted by association, working on the fallacy that any real Christian will automatically agree with them.
Faithfulness is doctrinal and communal
Human beings are imperfect and even good people disagree from time to time. True Christians live with this reality and have faith that God will help them navigate through the differences. Faithfulness is not only doctrinal; it is also communal.
That raises the next topic in this section. Ephesians argues for doctrinal correctness based on communal unity:
- “your love for the saints,”
- “mentioning you in our prayers,”
- that the readers “might receive a spirit of wisdom,” and
- “your heart might be enlightened.”
These blessings are for the entire community.
Ephesians affirms doctrinal unity (4:5), but not at the expense of communal unity.
This is difficult for many Christians in many communions to understand. Tensions within the worldwide Anglican, Reformed and Baptist traditions, for example, continue to threaten the spirit of fellowship within these traditions. These tendencies to separate say more about the separatists than Scripture: they suffer from the “Sinatra syndrome” (“I did it my way!”). This attitude is both unchristian and unbiblical, it shows a lack of spiritual formation and growth into the likeness of Christ who at all times was able to love others but at the same time instruct them to go on their way and sin no more, something the church seems incapable of doing any more!
Luke’s resurrection narrative shows us that this process of growing into the likeness of Christ continues after the ascension, how memory and reflection, guided by wise interpreters, are part of how we come to know the risen Lord. The angels remind the women; Jesus opens the minds of the disciples; and in Acts, the Spirit fills the believers, giving them boldness and insight.
But there is also the actual work of learning, thinking, meditating.
Growth in the Spirit – an ongoing process
We see in chapter 24 that the disciples are sharing their experiences with each other and talking things over. As Luke continues his account in Acts this theme of the whole church gathering regularly to eat, to worship, and to be instructed, continues. Our experience of the risen and ascended Jesus is thus not only a moment in worship but a process of formation under the guidance of the Spirit and in the teachings of Jesus. The church did not stop when Jesus ascended, it was filled with the Holy Spirit to continue to grow and develop as the body of Christ in the world. We too must never be static but must look for ways to grow and develop always under the guidance of that same Spirit and as we reflect and interpret the teachings of Jesus for our age.
It is not easy and it will not always be comfortable but it will always be a blessing.
Thanks be to God.