SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY APRIL 26th 2009
Luke 24: 48 “That repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem”.
In my sermon on Easter Day you I referred to the story on Easter Day, in the afternoon, how the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to two disciples walking to a nearby town called Emmaus. At first they did not recognize him, and then he opened the Scriptures to them, and then broke the bread – and they knew it was Christ.
Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 24: 36-48) is a continuation of that story. It begins with those two disciples returning to Jerusalem after the event, and going to the Upper Room where the apostles were still gathered in fear and puzzlement. They told the apostles what had happened on the Road to Emmaus, and the apostles replied, Yes, others have also seen the Risen Christ and told us.
Then Jesus appears to the apostles. This is the same story that we heard last Sunday from St. John 20. Though there is a difference in St John’s Gospel, in that it centered on doubting Thomas. St Luke does not record the incident of doubting Thomas – but Jesus answers their doubts and invites them to touch him, like he did with St Thomas.
As we look at this Gospel story we can see that like St John, St Luke is anxious to convey that the Risen Christ appears physically. It is a physical body that the apostles can see and touch. St Luke goes on to say that Jesus not only talks to them and invites them to touch him, but he eats with them. Broiled fish….not my idea of a great meal but I suppose on Easter evening when the shops are shut what else can you be offered?
Here Jesus does what he did at Emmaus – he eats with the apostles and opens up the Scriptures. He talks about himself as prophesied in the prophets, the psalms, and the books of Moses. So here today we have the two ways in which the Risen Christ continues to appear to his people: in the Scriptures, and in the breaking of bread – the Eucharist, as today’s Collect declares.
Luke´s Gospel story concludes with our Lord giving the charge to the apostles that they should go into the world to preach Christ crucified and risen – and therefore because of that, forgiveness of sins. This is the message of Easter. The apostles did just that – they took our Lord at his word, and they went out and preached that Jesus was risen from the dead – and this meant forgiveness of sins.
We can also see that in today’s first reading from Acts 4. Peter stands before the council of the high priest and witnesses to them that Jesus is risen, and that in his name the world will be saved. Then he quotes Psalm 118 – a Psalm that refers to the Resurrection of Christ in a symbolic way: The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord´s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes:
St Peter says to the council, referring to Christ: “This is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, but which has become the corner-stone”. It was very gutsy of St Peter to say to the council, You builders rejected Jesus, and he has become the corner-stone. Brave preaching – no wonder it says in Acts that St Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit.
And when we come to the Epistle (1 John 1: 1 – 2: 2 ) we find the same thing – but we have moved forward a few years. St John is writing about Jesus risen from the dead and the forgiveness of sins – though it is actually a very difficult passage of Scripture. I don’t blame you if you wondered what on earth St John was talking about!
St John was writing to some Christians who had succumbed to a false teaching. It seems that he is writing to Christians who do not believe that Jesus was truly human. This is one of the early heresies – that he was more divine than human. Obviously they thought that the resurrection was not a physical resurrection because he wasn’t really human – that the Risen Christ was some sort of spiritual manifestation.
We hear this heresy all the time. It didn’t stop in the first century. Denying the humanity of Jesus was one of the early heresies, and as a result we have the Nicene Creed with that wonderful phrase: “And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”.
The problem is that those Christians to whom St John wrote had forgotten that. Looking at the Epistle, it’s marvelous – because he begins this Epistle in the same way as the Gospel. He says: “That which was from the beginning……which we have looked upon and touched with our hands….concerning the word of life”. Doesn’t that remind you of the beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word”?
He then makes it clear that if they follow this heretical teaching they will not only be out of fellowship, but they will be walking in darkness – recalling the images of darkness and light all through St John’s Gospel.
It reminds us of St John´s great words about Jesus the Word of God: “That light was the light of men”. He says that if they follow this false teaching, not only will they be out of fellowship with the Church – but they will be in darkness. And he then refers to Christ dying on the Cross for our sins, and says: “Not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world“. St John is doing what Our Lord commanded the apostles – he is preaching forgiveness of sins through the resurrection.
Fast forward to today. Preaching forgiveness of sins in the church is not exactly popular these days. You are more likely to hear about social justice, millennium development goals, or how you should vote. All well meaning, I guess – but not particular Christian.
Rarely do we hear about sin because preachers these days don’t want to embarrass their flock suggesting they might be sinners. We of, course, know otherwise! We know that we are sinners. And we know the message only the Church can preach is forgiveness of sins.
Nevertheless, it is uncomfortable to hear about sin, and those old fire and brimstone sermons hardly get an airing these days. I’m sure that this is the reason why Christmas is more popular than Easter. In the common mind Christmas is much more popular..
Everyone gets born. Everyone gets sentimental over babies, and so we get sentimental and romantic over the baby in the manger. But an empty tomb not only requires some thinking – it presents Our Lord as someone to be reckoned with, someone to contend with. Images of Christmas – shepherds, kings, animals, are all very nice and easy on the eye. However for Easter what do we have? We have an empty Cross. But the empty Cross has become a generic symbol for Christianity it doesn’t convey the power of the Resurrection.
So what could we use? We could hardly hang a gallows round our neck on a piece of chain could we? And we wouldn’t make a fortune selling silver images of an empty tomb. So in the Church we use more abstract symbols to symbolise Easter. The most obvious, of course, is the great Paschal Candle which burns in the sanctuary until Pentecost.
For those of us who came to the Easter Vigil the symbolism of the candle is powerful. Adorned with flowers and symbols, such as Alpha and Omega, it does stand as a special sign of the Resurrection of Jesus. If you have been to cathedrals in Europe often the Paschal Candle is huge, and is on a very high candlestick.
One church in London where our Walsingham pilgrims worshipped two years ago has an enormous Paschal Candle stand in the sanctuary which required the acolyte to get on a chair to light the candle. Unfortunately one Sunday I was there in Eastertide, and they had forgotten to light the candle. So at three minutes to eleven, as the bells were being rung and everybody is praying, out trotted an acolyte with a chair, put it down in front of the candle, got up the chair and lit it!
Yes the Paschal Candle is a great and obvious symbol. After Pentecost it is brought into Church, for baptisms and funerals as a symbol of the resurrection and eternal life, which we associate both with birth and death in those liturgies.
In religious art, the most common symbol of the Risen Christ is the Lamb, usually carrying a banner over his shoulder and standing on the Gospel book with the seven seals. This image comes from Revelation chapters 4 & 5, and it is a wonderful image of the resurrection. The Lamb of God triumphant is Christ. He bears the wounds, but he is in glory.
The whole of the Book of Revelation contains fantastic images of heaven and its worship, and of the Lamb standing enthroned and being worshipped by countless saints and angels. Perhaps it is an image difficult for us to comprehend – but it is a great image. It is used in Christian art because the Lamb once slain is now in glory. It is the same proclamation of Jesus our Saviour in art like St Peter proclaimed in word, and St John proclaimed in his Epistle.
We use symbols to convey the Resurrection of Christ because it is an event that is amazing and unbelievable, and therefore hard to convey to those who do not believe or understand.
The apostles – following Our Lord’s command – just went out and told it how it was: Jesus died and rose again, and through him we are saved and made free. That is what we celebrate at every Eucharist of course, and particularly in these days of Easter joy and hope.
But for us ordinary Episcopalians it is not so easy to proclaim, is it? We have to resort to psalms, hymns, artwork, and a Paschal Candle. Perhaps if we were to proclaim in word what we celebrate we could look no further than our Psalm today, Psalm 98:1:
“O sing unto the Lord a new song, for he hath done marvelous things”.