Third Sunday of Easter
A Sermon preached by Fr. James Heard on Sunday 19 April 2015
‘Think again, unshackle yourselves, repent’. These are not my words (though they might have been), they aren’t even words of scripture (though they might very well have been). They are the words of David Burke Jnr, an American expatriate living in London who helped launched the Annual ‘TV turnoff week’, now described as Screen Free Week. ‘Think again, unshackle yourselves, repent’. Turn the telly off argues Burke Jnr, unshackle yourself from the sofa, turn outwards, step outside in the spring sunshine, smell the flowers, chat to your neighbour.
From the very bowels of the Office for National Statistics, we learn that Britons currently watch on average, about 4 hrs TV per day - or, more startlingly, by the age of 75 the average Brit will have spent more than 12 years of his or her life watching TV. ’Think again, unshackle yourselves, repent’ - his words.
They might well be words from scripture - the unspoken words of the Risen Christ - or rather the message which the presence of the Risen Lord plants in the lives of the disciples: that this continuing conviction, this mysterious new life, this incomprehensible and uncontrollable Jesus – their friend, their teacher, their inspiration, their great hope, their crashing disappointment –somehow it isn’t over with him. He can’t be nailed down to a cross, he can’t be sealed away in a tomb, he can’t be held onto by Mary Magdalene. The early followers of Jesus come slowly, falteringly, to realise that this resurrection is perhaps not so much important for what happened to the dead body of Jesus, as for what is happening to the living minds and hearts of his disciples.
Jesus rose in their understanding, from the death of their own misinterpretation of him as a temporal, worldly leader, to the present icon of divine human living – the pattern of true humanity, the window onto God.
Slowly, painfully, scarily, the disciples moved from seeing resurrection as being about then (whether, as in today’s Gospel, a then that was a mere week ago, or from today’s perspective a resurrection that was 2000 years ago). They had to move to see resurrection now – the experience of a living identity, a relationship with this Jesus for today. And they were changed by this resurrection, changed by it because they were witnesses to it, as this known, but somehow unknown and different Jesus came among them anew, but repeating the words and actions they knew so well – greeting them with God’s peace, spending time with them, encouraging them, eating with them, explaining the scriptures to them, sending them out to live and talk and heal and feed others. And through this they discovered that they were ‘thinking again, unshackling themselves from their hopelessness, repenting, turning again because they were, as Jesus said, witnesses to these things.
In all three readings today these words ‘you are witnesses’ are used. The Gospel finishes with Jesus’ reminding the disciples that they are witnesses to these things. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, justifies his words to his hearers because ‘to this, you are witnesses’ And in the first letter of John ‘we will see him as he is’. The Greek word, in which the New Testament was written down, is martures [μάρτυρες] – witnessing, testifying to, seeing things as they really are. It gives us the English word martyr, someone who not only experiences an event, but also willingly attests to it. A martyr is someone who by witnessing something, seeing it truly, is changed by it. The Jews had long worked with a centripetal model – the nations would come to Jerusalem – but Jesus’ witnesses will engage with a centrifugal mission – going in to ‘all the world’ (Martyn Atkin).
For these disciples in the Upper Room, on the road to Emmaus, on the lakeshore in Gallilee – or Paul on the road to Damascus, Augustine changing his lifestyle, Mother Julian in her medieval cell in Norwich, Elizabeth Fry in her work for Penal reform, Wilberforce in his engagement to end slavery, Maximillian Kolbe who offered his own life for another in a WW2 concentration camp, Archbishop Tutu in his fight for equal human dignity for all God’s children regardless of colour, social status, sexuality, religion. Millions of other such witness to the resurrection, known and unknown, have realised that to be a witness to the Risen Lord means the need to ‘think again, unshackle oneself and turn again – to be a martyr, to change one’s way of being, to sacrifice self, to move from self-absorption to God-absorption, from self-centredness to God-centredness.
For the resurrection is no resurrection if it remains something that happened one week ago or 2000 years ago. If that is all it is (as well as a chocolate bonanza and two days holiday) then it is a cruel con.
The real testimony to the truth of this mystery of the Risen Lord for us – every bit as much as for those frightened friends, locked in an Upper Room, or retreating to the supposed security of their former jobs in Galilee – is that the resurrection answers not only to our hearts’ longing, but also to our experience. ‘We are witnesses’ in the words of the Risen Jesus. We are witnesses that there is hope for living life to the full, hope as well as despair in life. We are witnesses that while people and things pass away – we constantly lose what we love – our parents, our youth, our jobs, our figures, my hair – new things also come to us when we dare to look. The breaking through of the divine constantly surprises us, keeps us living, trusting, and finding new grounds for hope. The excitement of new love, new birth, forgiveness. The loving care by neighbour, nurse, or nephew, or a nobody (in the world’s eyes) can change us.
And as we are witnesses to the mysterious presence of this Risen Christ in the worship of the Eucharist – in simple gifts of bread and wine – as in the worship of our daily life, so we are also martyrs in that we are challenged to ‘think again, to unshackle ourselves, to turn around’.
Ours is not so much to search for him back there, to fret over the details of what happened in that tomb and garden, road and lakeshore. We won’t find the living among the dead, instead we are indeed called to turn off the TV and tablets and smart phones and to go out beyond the doorsteps of our homes or schools or clubs into God’s boundless future and follow his way, knowing that, while we will never catch up with him, we will be changed, martyred, when as witnesses our eyes are sufficiently open to the world out there, every bit as much as in here, the world which the Risen Lord inhabits today and tomorrow and into which he challenges us to walk with him.
Alleluia Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed Alleluia.
References: Martyn Atkin, Brian Leathard