Road to Emmaus

Towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the king of the animals has been killed. As a Christ-figure, he gave his life in exchange for the boy Edmund. And now Edmund’s sisters gently tend the great lion’s body. They turn away to weep, and when they look back, he has gone. For a moment the grief becomes unbearable until they hear a familiar voice behind them. Aslan continues to speak p148.

C.S. Lewis captures well the joy of the Resurrection – that brightest of  mornings as a new life, a new world begins. There is life, humour and fun as the Risen Jesus pops up all over the place astounding his disciples, leaving a trail of joy and wonder behind him.

As Jonathan put it in his Easter poem ‘Erupting anguish obscuring, Gardener’s playful delight, Agony’s deep yearning, aching, Recognition ignites. Exploding joyful elation, Spirit’s music exclaims, Touching, soaring – soul suspended, Jesus beckons my name!’

That playful delight is in this passage too, the Road to Emmaus. I’d never thought of it until we read it with the children a little while ago. Susannah found it absolutely hilarious. Literally laugh out loud funny. Here are the two disciples, plodding glumly towards Emmaus – but we know don’t we that Jesus has risen. And here he comes, sneaking up on them – but they don’t recognise him!

And when he asks what they’re sad about, they start telling him all about himself – that was the funniest bit. He explains the Bible, how it foretold what would happen, but they still don’t see. It’s only at last, when he breaks the bread, that they perceive him.

Lay aside all the arguments about why the disciples didn’t recognise Jesus. Whether it was being dazzled by walking into the setting sun, eyes bleared by tears, only seeing what they expected, or as Luke seems to say in v.16 a spiritual blindness. Put aside all that – as far as my daughter is concerned, Jesus was playing ‘Boo’!

And yes, the Resurrection accounts are full of joy, playfulness and exhilaration. Grief is over. Sin is forgiven. Death is defeated and the horror of Calvary past. A new creation is begun, let us rejoice in its birth! Jesus is alive and will die no more, let us be joyful in his presence!

Surely that is the key message of the Road to Emmaus – that Jesus is with us. He is alive, alive today and we can know him. For that is the heart of Christianity. It is the presence of the living Christ which transformed those two disciples from tearful wanderers to running evangelists, and which transforms us today. All our witness, all our service, all the religious paraphernalia of Christianity is geared up to this: knowing, loving and serving the risen Christ.

I’m doing a leadership course at the moment which the Diocese are organising. It involves a day a month of input and group work. You might think that a course on leadership in the church would focus on techniques – how to be a better preacher; strategies – how to grow a church; and vision – how to discern God’s plan for your parish. There is certainly a lot of that.

Yet at least half of the course is about something much more important: how you live as a disciple of Christ. The inner life, knowing God. For no-one can presume to lead unless they first know how to follow. Last week’s session was called ‘Sustaining your first love’ – and it was all about how to keep your own relationship with God alive and flourishing. After all one of the biggest risks for anyone who tries to do good things for Christ’s church is that the busyness crowds out the love for Christ which brought us there in the first place. The danger of doing a lot for Jesus is that we forget to be with Jesus.

So how do we nourish that love? The Road to Emmaus gives us several pointers. Firstly, let’s support one another. It’s as the disciples were talking with each other that Jesus first came alongside them.

God gives us fellow Christians so we can support one another. Let’s make the most of that opportunity. Often when members of a church meet up there’s so much to talk about: fetes to plan, rotas to organise, gutters to clear, social chit-chat. How often do we actually talk about the faith that’s brought us together? Share the signs of God’s love in our lives? The things we’ve learnt recently? Our needs and support?

In v.18 the disciples begin talking with Jesus, and the equivalent for us is prayer. I find it interesting how honest these two are – they share their hopes and disappointments, their puzzles and doubts. Jesus doesn’t probe, but it’s as they are honest with him that he is able to carry their questions and answer them.

In my own prayers recently I’ve found it very liberating to say to God exactly what’s on my mind. Not to cover up the questions, or thoughts and temptations which seem unacceptable, but to let them all out. To tell God precisely how I feel, even if some of those feelings aren’t healthy or good. You know, you can’t surprise God. He knows it all already. So there’s no point having secrets from him. He’s totally unshockable. I’ve found that when I pray openly to God about the stuff that shouldn’t be there – anger, jealousy, whatever; God doesn’t close himself off and withdraw in horror. Instead he moves towards me and shows me how to deal with it. Keep trying to be more honest in prayer.

One of the ways God helps us is by reminding us of the promises in the Bible. Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the disciples on the Emmaus road. Like those disciples, sometimes we can get stuck with the Bible. Stuck reading the same bits, in the same way, hearing the same morals. So if you’ve got stuck, ring the changes. Try reading a different part of the Bible, use a different translation, get help from some reading notes. Read it in a new style – a whole passage out loud, or imagining it as a play, or taking just one phrase and turning it over and over in your mind.

For instance, a verse that came to mind when I was reading this passage was ‘Practice hospitality’. Paul says it in Romans 12:13, and the disciples did it when they invited Jesus to stay with them. The thing that interests me is that Paul writes Practice hospitality. And we all know that practice makes perfect! In other words, like squash or running, hospitality gets better the more you do it. If you don’t think you’re good at hospitality, try getting some practice in!

Finally, in v. 30, it’s in Communion that they recognise Jesus. And for us today, he offers himself to us in the sacrament so that we can be nourished by his presence. Communion is a very direct way that we can experience the risen Christ. In these churches we offer several communion services on Sundays, in different places at various times, so there are plenty of opportunities to receive. To keep on offering Communion, we need priests – priests who come in from elsewhere like Elveen, our new deacon who will be ordained in July, and priests who are raised up locally like Susan. Please pray that more people will respond to God’s call to be ordained and help us all experience Jesus.

There are many ways that we can know Christ today. For the reading we had this morning is not just a story about something that happened almost two-thousand years ago. It’s not just another piece of evidence in the Resurrection casefile, or an interesting discovery two particular people made. Far better: it’s the proclamation that Christ is risen indeed, that the joy of the new creation is begun, that we can know him today. That the presence of the Risen Christ is with us, ready to be known if we reach out for him

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

Easter mystery

There’s not much room for doubt in Matthew’s Easter story. For Matthew it’s very clear: Jesus was raised from the dead, so go and spread the word.

In the New Testament we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life. And when it comes to the resurrection, the four gospel writers describe the events in different ways. Imagine there’s a car accident, the police take statements from the witnesses, the things they say will depend a bit on whether they were in one of the vehicles, or standing by the roadside – they’ll describe the same events but from a different perspective.

So too the gospel writers tell the Easter story in ways which reflect their own concerns and understanding about what this amazing event means.

Mark’s gospel is mysterious and the ending unresolved. The women go to the tomb, and find the stone has been rolled back. It ends on a cliffhanger – is Jesus really alive like the angel said? Mark draws us in, encouraging us to find out more.

There’s mystery in Luke too but it soon becomes clear. Luke knows that dead men don’t usually rise, so he gives us lots of proof. He describes Jesus meeting the disciples, eating fish to show he’s not a ghost. Luke is very practical: how we can know Jesus today? He tells us how Christians in every place and time can know Jesus walking alongside them in life and can recognise him in the bread and the wine. How Jesus gives us energy to share the good news with the world.

Whereas the others are selective, condensing the story, John’s gospel gives the whole sequence of events. John is the consummate story teller. He describes the horror of finding your friend’s grave empty, the confusion and grief of Mary, the puzzlement of the disciples giving way to understanding. The human drama and emotion appeal to us. For many, John’s gospel is the Easter story as they know it. in some churches John is the only gospel read on Easter Day

The reading we had today, from Matthew is all about the power and the victory of God. It’s stirring stuff, and you might like to have it front of you as we look at it together.

The day begins with dawn’s first light bringing hope to the sky. Suddenly the earth shakes. The power of God splits the rocks in two. If you go to Jerusalem, in the Adam and Eve Chapel of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, they will show you the faultline in the rocks, said to go back to that day.

A mighty angel of the Lord descends like lightning from heaven. Singlehandedly he rolls back the stone… and sits on it. That action says it all – the angel sat on the stone. Job done, that stone is not going back. Death is defeated once and for all. The tomb lies open – for everyone. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of ours also, if we place our trust in him. We shall live forever. Then we too, forgiven through Christ, will be as holy and as pure as the angel’s white garments.

Overwhelmed the guards lie flat out. So much for the imperial might of Rome! God is victorious, Christ reigns. Sin and evil defeated.

<heartily> ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel says to the women. <to the point> ‘Look, that’s where he was. He’s not here. He’s risen. You’ve got a job to do: go and tell his disciples.’ Afraid, but full of joy, the women turn to leave, and there is Jesus! They worship him, convinced he is alive. Only when the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee does Matthew mention that some of them doubted.

How can Matthew be so clear when the other gospel writers take a while to get to a point of conviction, if at all? Partly it’s because they answer different questions. John wants to describe what the first Easter was like; Luke how we can know Jesus today. Partly it’s down to personality: Mark appeals to those who are inquisitive and like open-endedness.

Can they all be true? Yes. The others tell the story from a human perspective. We accompany Peter and Mary on the journey to the tomb, we share their shock and puzzlement. As we work out with them what’s going on, we slowly become convinced that Jesus is alive.

Matthew writes with an all-seeing divine perspective. Jesus has risen. Of course he has – this has been planned from eternity. God acted, and it was done. Nothing, not even raising the dead, is a problem for God who spoke the worlds into being. God’s victory is assured, the only thing that’s a bit puzzling is why the people take so long to get it.

As we celebrate Easter today, we need to hold together both approaches. We need the human quest for understanding, the faith that wrestles with doubts and looks for evidence. If we are told ‘It says so here, you must just believe’, it feels pastorally insensitive, not taking account of our need to think things through. If that’s you, you can take comfort that Jesus understands this: he was gentle with doubting Thomas and gave him the assurance he needed.

Yet we also need that divine perspective Matthew gives us. We should remember that the power of the resurrection is not limited by our ability to understand it; that truth is not constrained by our consent. If something is true, it is true whether or not you or I believe it. Matthew’s gospel is an important corrective to the human tendency to feel that our doubts and questions in some way affect what actually happened that day. It challenges us not to wallow in doubt. Matthew says this is life-changing truth.

The other gospels invite us to make up our minds. They include us in the story. They ask us to consider the evidence. But Matthew proclaims the resurrection. He invites us to live in the light of the new life of Christ. To rejoice that life begins afresh with him. To know that we are forgiven. To have faith that this life is not the end. To be changed by the power of the Risen Christ. Happy Easter!

Is your imagination up to it?

‘Life after death’ said the barber. ‘I mean, nobody knows what happens do they? After all, it’s not like anyone’s been there and come back? The clergyman, who was in mufti at the time, swallowed hard and said a silent prayer: ‘Actually,’ he began…’ there was Jesus’

Last week we celebrated the feast of All Souls. We gave thanks for those who have died with faith in Christ, and we looked forward with hope to the day when we shall meet again. For many people, that’s a great source of hope. It gives us comfort when loved ones have died. I still remember feeling that when my grandfather died – he was the first person really close to me who died, he’d been a wonderful example of steadfast faith. This amazing sense of peace came that his long battle was now over and a real confidence that he is now with Christ.

And when someone close to you is constantly living on the boundary between this life and the next, believing that there is a resurrection enables you to cope with it all. I know some of you were at the the confirmation service on Wednesday. I think it was the closest I’ve ever been to heaven: a glorious celebration; friends and family from every stage of your life; all gathered together in joyful worship of our amazing God. When time stands still and eternity seems very close.

But I also know it doesn’t always feel like that. At some times and for some people it’s really difficult to believe in the resurrection. For some folks, the doctrine is more of a stumbling block, a difficulty for faith. Like the barber, they might ask: How can a dead body live? What if there’s nothing left to bring it back together from? What will we look like, what age will we be, will we know each other? How will it happen and when?

Undoubtedly it can be hard to imagine. Or maybe the imaginings that we do have don’t really seem up to the job. How many people have I spoken to who say that they can’t believe in an old guy with a long white beard sitting on a cloud! To which I reply: I don’t believe God and heaven are like that either! But we have to remember: just because we struggle to picture it, doesn’t mean the underlying belief isn’t true.

That was the mistake the Sadducees made in the gospel reading. When Jesus was on earth, there were two main religious groups in Israel: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were working people who took the Old Testament law seriously. They believed that one day the dead would rise to life and God would make the world perfect. The Sadducees on the other hand were the priestly aristocracy. They believed that once you were dead, that was it.

There’s no reason for us to think that their beliefs weren’t honestly held. The Sadducees seem to have struggled with the resurrection on day-to-day grounds. If God will bring people back to life, what sort of lives will they lead? How are the practicalities going to work out? For instance, what about marriage?

Imagine, they say to Jesus, imagine a woman whose husband dies young. Now we all know that Moses commanded that she should marry the dead man’s brother. But before they can have children and carry on the family line, he too falls sick and dies. In order to pass on the inheritance, she marries the next brother. But he falls out of a tree picking olives. Hoping to be looked after in her old age, she marries no. 4. But he falls under a chariot. And so it goes on.

Finally no 7, who must have been a bit of a mug not to notice what’s going on, predeceased her. So, say the Sadducees, in v.33: imagine the resurrection. The woman climbs out of her grave, then her husbands rise too – all seven of them! So which of them is her husband now?

You see what happened? They’ve got carried away with their own rhetoric! They’ve set up a straw man and knocked it down. They’ve taken the idea of the resurrection and assumed that life after the resurrection would be just like this life. A continuation. And because there are obvious problems, and that doesn’t make sense, they said the whole concept is flawed. But nobody said the resurrection life is just like this life. It’s not a simple continuation. In the case of marriage, relationships are not the same in the resurrection. Marriage is a sign of the soul’s unity with God – and in the life to come the reality is fulfilled

Jesus then shows the Sadducees how the parts of the Old Testament that they accepted point to the Resurrection. The Sadducees only regarded the books of the Pentateuch as Scripture. But even there, points out Jesus, there is the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses approaches the bush, God speaks to him, and when Moses asks who he is, God replies:

‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Not the God whom they worshipped when they were alive. Not I was their God. But I am their God – because they are living with God still. To him all are alive.

The mistake the Sadducees made is easily done and we do it all the time: Because I can’t imagine it, therefore it can’t be true. rpt.

This is not some kind of religious cop-out, or invitation to believe uncritically anything outrageous. Coping with the limitations of our imagination is an issue for scientists too: for instance in the book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ Richard Dawkins says that the reason some people struggle with evolution is that they just can’t imagine it happening.

I wonder how many of our doubts are intellectual or moral, and how many are due to a simple lack of imagination?… I once read a physicist musing on eternal life – I’ll get bored he wrote. I’ll run out of things to do. I’ll get fed up with my own flaws. And as I get older I find I have a little more sympathy with that idea. You know that line in the hymn: ‘Amazing Grace’ – ‘when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’ve first begun.’ Sometimes I sing that and it feels wonderful. Sometimes it feels a little unnerving – I don’t know what 50 years is like, let alone ten thousand. What about life without end?

That too is a lack of imagination. So how can we begin to dream of eternity? Look back to the very best holiday you’ve ever been on, one you never wanted to end – and imagine that the whole of creation is perfect, ready to be explored. Or how when you’re totally absorbed in good useful work you lose track of time. Remember being engrossed in conversation with friends, or completely lost in worship which lifts up the soul to the presence of God – and imagine that there is never any earthly weariness or sin to drag you back down again.  We’ll be made perfect in the world to come. The infinity of God is able to keep us occupied. And eternity isn’t the same thing as a very very long time.

That physicist should have known we don’t need to be able to visualise something in order to believe it. He would have studied quantum physics, and that’s a prime example of what I’m talking about. For nobody has seen a subatomic particle and they have strange properties like nothing we experience.

And yet that physicist was willing to believe that in physics there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Why not apply the same logic to faith? Our imaginations are limited. There are some things we may never be able to grasp, or we can only approach by using pictures.

Are we ever like those Sadducees? Do we struggle to believe in the return of Christ because the words St Paul uses are hard? The Biblical imagery of stars falling from the sky, is a sign that words and images are striving to portray a reality that no-one has set seen. The Biblical writers were stretching their imaginations to describe it. No surprise that we have to too.

Let’s therefore be honest with ourselves. Most people have doubts. Not about everything all the time, but occasionally on particular subjects we do doubt. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s only human. Don’t try and hide it from God though – no point because he knows everything, and it’s when we’re open and honest with God about doubts that he is most able to help us.

Do address doubts. They show us where we haven’t quite understood our faith, where there is space to grow, as long as we address them. So don’t let doubts fester. Bring them to God and pray about them. Think about them and reason them through. Find a helpful book, ask a minister, go on a course. Have we really understood what Christians actually believe, or are we trying to believe something the church has never actually taught? Allow God to renew your imagination and draw you closer to the unimaginable.

On this earth, we won’t understand what life after death is like. Not until we get there. It will hold wonderful surprises! There’ll be limitations we didn’t know we had that we’ll be free from, things we can do that we couldn’t have thought possible, experiences that are inconceivable to us now. For God is the God of the living, and to him all are alive.

Why raise the dead?

In today’s Gazette, Marjorie has a wonderful illustration of faith:

Someone asks you to have a ride in his single-engine plane. You politely decline. Why? Well – you’ve heard that the plane has a history of mechanical problems and you don’t have confidence in its safety. The pilot has no such concerns. He assures you that he fearlessly entrusts his life to it whenever he flies. You still say no.

A few weeks later the plane crashes, and the pilot is killed. The engine was faulty. The pilot had a very strong, never wavering faith – but he had a strong faith in a weak object.

We sometimes think of faith as if it’s the amount of faith that we have. You’ve got a strong faith, I’ve got a weak faith – that kind of approach. But the story makes the point that it’s not the strength of our faith that matters – it’s what or whom we put our faith in. Even a weak faith in the Almighty God is better than a strong faith in a false God – and today’s reading from the Old Testament is all about real faith.

Firstly, a battle over the true source of faith. Just before our readings starts, 1 Kings describes a time when the King of Israel, Ahab and his wife Jezebel were enthusiastically urging everyone to worship the idol Baal. But the prophet Elijah called people back to worship the living Lord God. Elijah told the king that it would not rain until the nation returned to worshipping God rather than idols. Rain was particularly important because Baal was a fertility god who was supposed to be able to make rain – so if there was drought when people were serving Baal it showed that Baal wasn’t real and didn’t have power to help them.

The drought worsens. Elijah himself runs out of food and water. So where does God send him? Not anywhere in Israel. Not to a secret worshipper of the Lord. Not to someone rich with plenty of resources. But to Jezebel’s home country, to the heart of Baal worship, to a little town in Sidon and a poor widow who’s on her last meal.

Faith can be found in the most unlikely of places. Jesus referred to this incident when he spoke about a prophet not being welcome in his own town. It’s one of the places in the Old Testament where Gentiles, or non-Jews, are held up as models of faith.

For us today, it’s important to remember that all sorts of people can be surprisingly open to God. Perhaps they are searching for him, perhaps they have had experiences they are trying to make sense of, perhaps they are finding their way towards real faith. We must not write off anyone as uninterested or unable to be open to the Christian faith. One might think: ‘oh, it’s not his background’ or ‘she’s from a different faith’ or ‘someone of that age won’t be interested in what we do’ – but you never know.

Even those who have rejected the church in the past can change with time or be open to a new approach. I think that’s one reason it’s important that church buildings are open all the time – it allows people to come before God at their own time and own way.

So faith can be found in unlikely places. It is then expressed through obedience – in other words we see that someone has faith when they take God at his word and it shows in their actions. Imagine how it must have felt for the widow when she took God at his word and gave her last meal to the hungry prophet! She had nothing else, that was the only food in the house, and Elijah asked her to make a little cake of bread with it and give it to him. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been, but when she showed her faith through her actions God kept his promise. As the reading says, the jar of meal was not emptied, nor did the jug of oil fail.

It was a miracle – which makes some important points about faith. Sometimes God calls us to step out in faith, to commit ourselves to a course of action without being absolutely sure it will work. Often living a life of faith involves putting your hand into God’s hand even though you can’t see the way ahead.

For instance, we’ve started a new service at Sherston after a lot of prayer. It seemed like the right thing to do, we did all the planning we could, but there were no guarantees it was going to work. We just had to step out in faith and do it.

Also, one thing we’ve being doing in that new service is offering people a free breakfast. It expresses another principle from this reading: that generosity leads to blessing. Rather like Jesus pointing out the widow giving her mite, Elijah’s widow gave sacrificially from the tiny amount she had. It was not much but it was everything to her. And it opened the way for much more than she could ever have hoped.

Throughout the Bible, God has promised that when we give generously, he blesses us abundantly. In 2 Corinthians 9 verse 6 St Paul says: ‘whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’ Let’s not give a little from what we have left over, but make our giving a priority.

So faith can be found in unlikely places, it shows itself through our actions, and it sends us back to God in times of trouble. Faith is not an insurance against bad things happening. Faith does not insulate Christians from hardships and sufferings. It is not an agreement with God that he will protect us against whatever might go wrong. But faith does keep us close to a God who never lets us go whatever may happen.

Despite the daily miracle of the olive jar, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes ill – there is no breath in him – is he already dead or close to death? Like many people, the widow blames herself – she knows she is a sinner and she thinks that God is punishing her  .

Perhaps Elijah would wish to correct her mistaken view, and explain that’s not the way God works. But there’s no time for theological discussions. Elijah acts, and quickly. He takes the boy upstairs, cries out to God, and resuscitates him. Life returns and the boy is given back to his mother. I wonder how he remembered it

Sometimes when I meet a bereaved family to plan a funeral, they may say something like this: ‘We don’t feel sorry for the one who’s died. He has gone to a better place. We’re crying for ourselves.’ There’s a profound truth in that. For those who have died in Christ there is eternal life. But it is those who are left behind who must cope with loss.

 

Perhaps that truth is in both of today’s readings. As far as I know, across four gospels Jesus raises three people to life: Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow’s son at Nain. All were people who died young. Did Jesus raise them because they had a lot of life to live? Perhaps.

 

But I think it goes deeper than that. When my son Jonathan learnt to communicate using a plastic letters board – he is very disabled so cannot speak and has to spell out his words by looking at letters  – he told us how he had an amazing experience when he was very ill in intensive care. He refers to it as ‘going to Jesus garden’. He describes how beautiful it was, how he could run and climb trees, he talked about the people he met there – people we knew had died. It has given him hope and the most amazing positive attitude about death. He gets excited about going back. He really struggles to understand why we get upset by death – for him it is a chance to go this wonderful place.

That positive understanding of death is Christian. For the end of our earthly lives is the beginning of a new life. We return to God, and hopefully we will be prepared by trusting in Christ. For Christians, death is the gateway to eternal life. So, if Lazarus, Jairus daughter, the man of Nain had all gone to God, why did God return these people to life?

Was it because they had others depending on them? Lazarus appears to have been the man in the family supporting his sisters Mary and Martha. Jairus might have expected his daughter to care for him in his old age.

In those days widows were incredibly vulnerable. Without a son, this widow and the widow at Nain (in our Gospel reading) would have had no means of support when they got old.

Listen to how Luke relates it. He writes: ‘when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.’ Not, on the dead man. He is at peace. But Jesus has compassion on the one who remains behind. He knows what poverty she is condemned to. He knows the loss.

Christ has compassion for the bereaved. Whatever our circumstances around loss, Jesus understands. He himself lost his friend Lazarus and wept at his grave, so he knows what it is like to mourn. St. John tells us that Jesus wept.

It is therefore perfectly acceptable to God when a bereaved person has feelings of grief and loss. It is normal to feel a heavy burden. It is not selfish to feel sorry for oneself – for it is the bereaved who have to live with loss. God wants us to bring those feelings to him, not to hide them away. Christ loves those who grieve, and he longs to comfort and console. So when we mourn, let us be honest and be open to God.

If we do so, we can find comfort because Jesus offers us his promises. We can be confident that anyone who dies in Christ has life in him. This is the clear conclusion from the miracles: that Christ has power over death. He created us, therefore he can give us life again when we have died.

And so these miracles in Kings and Luke have a deep importance. They show us that God has compassion for all who suffer loss. They show us that Jesus has power over death; that if we trust in him we too will live in eternity. And they invite us to have that faith in him, to believe and trust and put it into practice, whoever we may be, whatever our circumstances.

 

Raising Dorcas

I wonder if you know a Dorcas? Have you ever met someone like Dorcas in the Acts reading, who devotes themselves to helping others? Who sees need and responds to it? Who uses whatever gifts they have to help, without fanfare or show?

And if you do know somebody like that, what impact do they have? If you’ve got someone in mind, are they a Christian? Does faith inspire what they do and does that faith have an effect on those around them?

I watched a fascinating programme recently. It was called ‘The Battle for Christianity’ and it’s still got a few days left on iplayer if you want to catch it. Professor Robert Beckford looks at the future of the Christian faith in the UK – particularly how it is changing. It’s really encouraging because it’s all about churches that are growing.

He goes to Holy Trinity Brompton and Hillsong in London and talks about new styles of contemporary worship reaching out to people in their twenties. But he also went to an Anglican church in a community centre in Barnsley where immigrants from Iran and Syria are becoming Christians – they have had fifty baptisms in the past year.

What really struck me was how these growing churches are involved in social projects. They run food banks, or help the homeless, or offer addiction recovery programmes. Their faith isn’t just about preaching and rock music, it’s backed up by action. You can look at them and say ‘actually this is genuine faith, it really makes a difference.’ In today’s world there are lots of competing claims in a marketplace of ideas – but people can experience that kind of Christianity and say ‘this isn’t rhetoric, it’s real’. There must be something in this.

They’re copying Christ’s example. Being a Christian involves getting stuck in, responding to the need that we see around us. V. 36 describes Tabitha as a disciple – that means one who follows Jesus. If we follow Jesus we must share his love for the lost, the broken and the poor.

How do we do that? In leafy North Wiltshire, we’re very good at getting involved in the community. If there’s a village event, almost always there’s a church member at the heart of it, Christians making tea and making things happen. Some people find themselves on the village planning board, getting stuck in at the school as governors, helping children to read or offering Open the Book assemblies. There’s a lot of wonderful things going – yet social need is perhaps a bit harder to see.

We’re aware of poverty overseas and respond through our charitable giving. We try to make the world a better place through Christian Aid and Fairtrade. In our nearby towns some folks help the homeless at Doorway or the Sisters of the Church.

Closer to home, poverty is less obvious in our villages – it’s there though. Not on the main street but often hidden away on little estates. I do wonder what need there is if we look beneath the surface? What desperation or dependency hides behind net curtains? Isolation can be a real issue in rural communities, particularly for teenagers who don’t have transport or the elderly who are housebound. How reliant are people on the village shop or post office?

Dorcas addressed the need that she encountered –verse 39 speaks of how she made clothes for the widows. In a society where there was no safety net, her help would have made a huge difference because she responded to what she saw. As a church, do we know what’s going on, what the needs of our community actually are? Listening and noticing are the first steps to helping out. Perhaps then we can think about what is possible with the resources God provides.

The church in Joppa were motivated by their faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t a woolly faith that had been reduced to just social action – it had real content and we see the depths of that faith when Dorcas dies. In v.38 they send two men asking Peter to come to them without delay – obviously hoping that some miracle will be possible.

And indeed it is. Not through Peter’s power, but through the Lord Jesus Christ. The raising of Dorcas has distinct echoes of the time when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. Just like Jesus did, Peter puts all the mourners outside. The words Jesus used ‘Talitha koum’ are just a letter different from Peter’s command using her Aramaic name ‘Tabitha koum’. Coincidence? Surely not!

The point is clear: The power of Jesus is at work through the apostles. Jesus raised the dead and now Peter has the authority to do the same. The apostles are carrying on Jesus’ work, doing the things he did and speaking in his name. In our gospel reading, John 10:25, Jesus says ‘the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me’ – in other words the miracles Jesus did showed that he came from God. Now, the disciples perform similar miracles, showing that God is with them. This is why in v.42 ‘many believed in the Lord’. It gives us confidence as well: confidence that the disciples were the true inheritors of Christ’s mission, confidence that their teaching continues his.

It should also give us confidence that because Jesus has risen we shall too. In the New Testament, whenever we read about people who have died being brought back to life, it has two meanings. Firstly, it is the ultimate miracle, the most difficult thing, the greatest sign of God’s power and glory. When the dead are raised, the Kingdom of heaven has come. When Peter and Paul do what Jesus has done, it is a sign that his power is with them.

Secondly, it looks forward to the resurrection of the dead – the wonderful promise that those who trust in Christ will one day be raised to life and live forever. Dorcas is not still with us on earth. Having been brought back to life she was still mortal, and eventually she died. This miracle was not a resurrection – instead it is a return to earthly life. However, it acts as a sign that God has power over death and that there will be a resurrection. As a disciple of Christ Dorcas will share in the life of the world to come. We can too when we trust in him.

As Jesus says in John 10:28 ‘I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.’ This is why we have these readings in the Easter season – they show us how the resurrection of Jesus is a promise of eternal life for us.

And when I say us, I mean the whole world. Anyone can respond to Christ and be welcomed by him. Yet at the time of our readings that wasn’t taken for granted. At this moment in Acts, the gospel has not yet reached the Gentiles. It has only been preached to the Jews – with mixed results as Jesus’ words in John chapter 10 recall.

But there’s a telling little detail in v.43 of the Acts reading: ‘Meanwhile Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.’ What’s so significant about that? Tanners made leather. They dealt with animal skins, a messy, smelly and unpleasant job. Strict Jews weren’t allowed to touch dead bodies, so tanners were regarded as unclean and had a poor reputation.

Yet Peter stays with Simon, a sign that his horizons are beginning to broaden. Peter starts to see that God’s love is offered to everyone. It is while he is at Simon’s house that he has the vision and receives messengers from Cornelius, the Roman centurion, leading to the first Gentiles being baptised. Here we see a sign of what is to come.

God’s love is offered to all. He invites us to come to Christ. He invites us through the preaching of the apostles and the church they founded; borne witness to by signs of power and acts of loving service. He invites us to deepen our discipleship, to speak of his love and to love others in practical ways, so that we too can join in the invitation and mission of God.