Reading Luke 24:13-35
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
First of all, I’m going to ask you to do something incredibly difficult. Don’t worry, you don’t actually have to do anything, just exercise a little imagination. Imagine, if you will, the Christian faith without the Resurrection of Jesus.
Let’s imagine, for instance, the walk back to Emmaus by Cleopas and his companion that we just heard about. They’ve become followers of Jesus. They’ve been hoping he would be the one to redeem Israel: that is, to free Israel from the Roman yoke.
But it now appears that they have simply got it wrong. He has been crucified with Roman nails and pierced by a Roman spear. Jesus isn’t going to be freeing anyone from anything. As far as the Jews were concerned, getting yourself crucified was a very bad sign for anyone with claims to be the Messiah.
So on this imagined walk, this slow trudge back to Emmaus, there is no mysterious stranger who approaches Cleopas and his companion on the road, no opening up of the scriptures, no warming of their hearts as he speaks to them. They don’t invite him to stay with them – there’s no-one to invite.
At their evening meal they break the bread themselves. They satisfy their physical hunger but there is no great revelation. It’s just another ordinary meal, so there’s no excited rush back to Jerusalem to share the news. As they lie on their beds later that evening, they think of what might have been – without hope, with an intense sadness pervading all their thoughts.
Slowly, as the weeks and months pass, they recover a degree of psychological equilibrium but there’s no joy, no thrill of wonder – just a slow fading of memories.
End of story. End of gospel. These followers of Jesus go back to their previous lives, older and wiser no doubt. After all, they’ve got to know a remarkable human being in Jesus but nothing has fundamentally changed.
The other disciples too would presumably have returned to their previous lives – as fishermen, tax-collectors. What else could they do? You can’t survive on thin air and distant memories of a hope that has now evaporated. The Jesus movement would seem to have ended in failure, not to say ignominy. It can’t be stressed often enough that being crucified wasn’t seen by Jews as anything other than a sign of being cursed.
The fact is that it’s well nigh impossible to imagine the Christian faith without the Resurrection. Christianity just wouldn’t and couldn’t have got off the ground. No-one was expecting a crucified Messiah. That would have seemed a grotesque idea and it wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. There would simply have been no reason, no spark that would cause a Jesus movement to burst into flame.
But something changed everything. That something was the Resurrection. It provided that essential spark. It was God’s ultimate seal of approval for Jesus, the kind of Messiah that no-one was expecting, the kind of Messiah rooted in love, servanthood and self-sacrifice, not in power, domination and hatred.
Now, there’s a range of opinion among Christians about the nature of the Resurrection. Was it an entirely spiritual phenomenon? Was it an actual bodily event? Was it some kind of mixture of the two?
Well, for my money the biblical evidence points to some kind of physical resurrection but, you know, as Christians I think we can live with a diversity of views. On that first Easter Day there was something going on that is deeply mysterious to our limited understanding. We just have to live with that. The crucial thing is that Jesus was dead on the Friday and 36 hours later he was experienced as being alive again – though in a mode of existence that our experience cannot fully encompass.
Immediately after the Crucifixion the followers of Jesus were a group of dismayed and frightened people cowering in the shadows of Jerusalem – or going back home to safety in places like Emmaus. They weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the grave. Why would they? Why would anyone? Their main concern now was not to be picked off one by one as followers of the madman from Nazareth.
But something transformed them – and transformed them so utterly that they were prepared to proclaim Jesus as alive in the teeth of intense persecution, even in the face of death.
Over the years various theories have been put forward to explain this remarkable transformation. You know the kind of thing: Jesus didn’t really die on the cross and he recovered in the cool of the tomb. Or the disciples suffered an unprecedented mass hallucination. Sometimes you have the impression that people are clutching at straws in order not to believe. I have that impression quite often. None of these theories, in my view, hold water – except one.
The one explanation that does hold water is this: the disciples were transformed because they actually had met Jesus alive after his death. And once they’d had that mind-altering experience – about which they had no doubts – nothing on earth was going to stop them proclaiming it.