What is happening to the world with COVID-19? Is it a freak step, as some would say, in the evolution of life on this planet in making us super-men and super-women? Or is it a judgment of God on our personal lives that often thwart his will, and on our public economies that often ignore the poor.
As regards the poor, currently in sub-Saharan Africa, COVID-19 is beginning to spread on top of the locust plagues that are destroying food for millions. We, by the way, at Anglican International Development (in a consortium with other charities) are seeking to address those problems not least in the South Sudan.
So how do you respond to these crises at home and abroad? How do you respond to the Government’s urgent and much needed advice, particularly now in the North East, to 'Stay at home, Protect the NHS, and Save lives?' And not least, in the current context, how do you prepare for death as many people will die through this plague - for such it is? For so many refuse to think about death and eternity.
In the secular world of 2020 the public assumption is that there is nothing beyond death. So as we are shut indoors for hour after hour, now (as has been well said) …
“… only [secular] TV talking heads, media pundits and public health officials will speak to our anxieties and fears. This reinforces the secular proposition: Life in this world is the only thing that matters.”
But Easter, that we celebrate today, tells a very different story. And faith in the risen and reigning Jesus Christ, helps you as you deal with these current questions and challenges. However, before we explore the Easter faith and how it helps us, let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that we can share together this morning in praising you for the fact that Jesus Christ is risen and reigning; and we thank you that, by your Holy Spirit, as we meet in his name, he is present with us wherever we are. So as we study the truth of your word, will you enable each one of us, by your Holy Spirit, to trust more and obey more Jesus, our risen and reigning Lord, in our so needy world, for his name’s sake. Amen.
Well, what I want to say this morning is under two headings relating to Easter.
The first is What Actually Happened? And the second is Three Questions Answered.
1. What Actually Happened that first Easter?
Andy Gawn’s poem and our second Bible reading from John’s Gospel tell us what the disciples believed happened. But can we be sure, now in the 21st century, that what they believed, was true? The answer is, “Yes, definitely!” Let me give you six short reasons.
First, what happened was, like any fact of history, datable.
It was (counting inclusively as was done then) on the “third day” after Jesus’ Crucifixion in that Passover week of the trial. And that trial involved not only the Sanhedrin but also the Procurator or Governor of the Roman province of Judaea, Pontius Pilate (about whom we know from other sources).
Secondly, regarding that second reading from John’s Gospel (and John’s Gospel generally), listen to Dorothy Sayers. Writing as a dramatic critic she famously pointed out that John’s Gospel …
“is the only one that claims to be the direct report of an eye-witness … and to any one accustomed to the imaginative handling of documents, the internal evidence bears out this claim.”
Thirdly, yes, it is true as some say, 'the Resurrection accounts in all four Gospels differ'.
However, they don’t then say that the basic differences lie in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples. For the accounts of how women (and others) found the tomb of Jesus empty are remarkably similar. But different apostles were simply reporting different appearances of Jesus. Also the differences in the Gospel accounts show there was no collusion. And the four Gospels provided four witnesses. Jewish law required only two or three for establishing evidence.
Fourthly, the tomb was empty and nobody could produce Jesus’ body to prove wrong these claims of Resurrection.
Fifthly, and this is hugely significant, the disciples kept meeting Jesus forty days after Easter.
But he was totally transformed, with a recognizable but touchable body, and mostly unexpectedly. And he appeared mostly to groups of people numbering from 2 to 500. Of course, that gathering of 500 showed these appearances were not hallucinations.
And, sixthly and finally, the disciples then preached and witnessed to the Resurrection of Jesus around the Roman empire in spite of ridicule, as we heard happened at Athens, but also in spite of persecution and death.
Yes, the Resurrection is beyond human imagination. But these disciples had an inner compulsion to witness to the reality of what they had seen and experienced - namely that Jesus, who they trusted, was no longer dead but amazingly alive in an altogether other order of existence.
So he was the promised Messiah after all.
And not surprisingly, Luke summarizes Paul’s teaching at Athens simply as: “Jesus and the Resurrection” (Acts 17.18).
What, therefore, does all that mean? It means we can be sure that what the Apostles believed about Jesus was fact, not fiction. And also we can say the Resurrection was a historical event, like other historical events. It wasn’t a spiritual event in the minds of his disciples. No! For as Luke says, who was a serious historian (Acts 1.3):
“He [Jesus] presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days.”
But - there is a big “but”. This was also a historical event unlike any other event in the history of the universe so far. For it was Jesus Christ’s supreme victory over sin and death. To quote the Apostle Paul writing to Timothy (2 Timothy 1.10), it was when …
“… our Saviour Jesus Christ … abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
God’s plan of Salvation had reached a partial climax with his death for our sins, facing our judgment in his own body, on the Cross. As the hymn says:
“In my place condemned he stood, Hallelujah, what a Saviour.”
But the great finale was Jesus’ resurrection that was not just a restoring of his broken body taken down from the cross. It was a transformation of his human frame that enabled him to appear, vanish, and move unseen from one place to another. He now had a glorified and deathless body, which believers at their resurrection also are to experience.
So, all that was happening that first Easter. On one plane it was normal history with historical events taking place at different times on the clock and in spatially different places. But also this supra-historical dimension of God’s eternity was alongside that, or, if you like, invading history in an absolutely unique way. And as such it was beyond the disciples full comprehension.
But it was not beyond their ability to describe what they actually saw or experienced.
And that brings us to our second heading
2. Questions Answered
The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, once said there are three great questions that concern (I quote) …
“… a rational and reflective human being: 1) what can I know? 2) what can I do? and 3) what may I hope?”
I think, on that, Kant was right.
But Kant was part of the 18th century European Enlightenment that exalted individual human reason above everything else. And this had has led in some areas of life in the modern world to darkness rather than light.
And the Easter Fact can bring light to this darkness. Let me explain.
The answer to the question “What can I know?” has resulted in numerous sciences and, since the 18th century, significant success.
The answer to the question “What can I do?” has resulted in new moralities and certainly now, by the 21st century, significant failure. I don’t need to mention the breakdown of the family, the fundamental unit of any society.
And, the answer to the question, “What may I hope?” has resulted in confusion and sometimes danger. This is in terms of political hopes such as Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism and a plethora of very different religious hopes and, of course, no-hope secularism.
So how important are the answers that centre around, and come from, Jesus Christ, our risen and reigning Lord.
For he was the most “rational and reflective human being” that has ever lived.
So, first, how does the Easter fact help answer the question, “What may I know?”
Well, we live in a pluralistic modern world that produces scores of faiths and philosophies. But the great controversy is over which is the true God among the many other gods, some being non-theistic gods, such as money or sex. And the Resurrection of Jesus, being the proof, provides the answer. The true and living God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. So Paul starts off his great letter to the Romans 1.1-4:
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord [the word ‘Lord’ identifying him with the God of Israel and the biblical prophets]".
The resurrection of Jesus, the Easter fact, testifies to the fact that Jesus is truly God as well as man.
He is, as we say, in the Nicene Creed, …
“one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.”
That is what we can know.
Then, secondly, is the question, “What can I do?”
To answer that we need to go back to Jesus’ final resurrection appearance to his eleven disciples. He there told them to …
“Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28.19-20).
The apostles were not only to baptize but teach people to obey Christ, as they made disciples.
So, “What can I do?” Answer: “all that Jesus has commanded us to do” and that covers the whole of biblical ethics and is the grounding for them.
But it is one thing to know what to do and what not to do. Doing or refraining is quite another matter! However, as you trust in the risen Christ who promises to be “with you always, to the end of the age,” by his Holy Spirit, he will help you. He will help you both to know what you can do, and then to do it.
That brings us thirdly and finally to “What may I hope?”
This relates to both the encouragement and the challenge of Easter.
We’ll, take the challenge first!
Do you remember our first reading and Paul’s message to the Athenians on the Areopagus (Acts 17.30)? I quote:
"The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
There is going to be a final judgment day. That is why repentance and forgiveness through the Cross is so important. That is the challenge of Easter. Because Jesus himself will be the judge and his Resurrection is proof of that fact.
But the encouragement of Easter means you don’t have to fear that judgment day and beyond. And with this I close. The Apostle Peter explains that Easter should mean a great hope if you trust in the risen Christ. Remember, Peter was among the first to discover Christ’s tomb being empty that first Easter and subsequently he met Jesus in his risen body. And years later in old age, he wrote this (1 Peter 1.3-5):
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time [that is, when Christ returns at the end of history]."
But you say, “how do you trust in Christ to be born again to that living hope?” Well, the earliest baptismal confession suggests a way. It is this:
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved” (Romans 10.9).
“You confess with your mouth, (because it is a public not a private truth), that Jesus, (the man of Nazareth, is God the Son) the Lord”. And “you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (“him” - Jesus who died for your sins who is now risen and reigning - and you believe in your heart - in your hidden self as a desiring, willing and thinking being.”
So to repeat:
“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, may we, along with the Psalmist this Easter, “store your word in our hearts, that we might not sin against you,” for Jesus sake. Amen.