In the sermon that follows, you will find my personal testimony of Christ’s presence and peace, as I experienced it in Ely in the hours immediately before my recent Bishop’s Advisory Panel, the final stage in the process of selection for ordination to the priesthood.
Our mid-week services usually use the principle lectionary readings of the previous Sunday. This week I found myself focusing on Luke’s account of the Christ’s resurrection appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem as they gathered after the ‘Road to Emmaus’ incident, where Jesus’ presence and peace are two of what I see as four gifts of the resurrection.
I wonder how many of us can say that we have a total and joyful understanding of Christ’s resurrection, without having ever experienced a single doubt or uncertainty?
The disciples in our Gospel reading were experiencing the emotional turmoil of daring to believe something that seemed impossible. Three among their number were saying that they had encountered Jesus, fully alive. Yet they were carrying with them the guilt of knowing they had kept their distance from his personal anguish in Gethsemene, protected themselves by hiding from his trial or lying about their friendship, and watched helplessly, if at all, at his execution.
Yet suddenly, here Jesus was among them, offering not the condemnation of the betrayed, but the peace of God. He had returned to give them faith, and a joyful understanding that would finally equip them to carry out the central task that Jesus had made complete: to preach repentance and proclaim the forgiveness of sins.
This passage offers us four key gifts that Christ gave those that gathered in Jerusalem after the crucifixion, which through the power from on high that they would receive a few weeks later at Pentecost, are now available to us all.
Firstly, Jesus came and stood among them. They were in the presence of their risen Lord, able to see the marks of crucifixion that testified to his suffering, but also to hear his voice, the voice of their King raised in glory. Jesus’ presence was the first of his resurrection gifts to those that follow him.
Very recently I had a most unexpected experience. The final stage of the selection process for ordination takes place over 48 hours, through a series of written, verbal and pastoral tests. I had the good fortune to be undertaking this on the most glorious week of early spring, in the historic city of Ely under the shadow of it’s Cathedral.
Having arrived deliberately, but excessively, early, I took the opportunity to visit this historic place of worship, and as I sat at the crossing below its central octagonal tower I was struck forcibly by two images of the risen Christ. (If you’ve ever visited Ely you will probably know them.)
One is a modern image of Christ in glory, made of driftwood covered in beaten metals. It hangs behind the pulpit and shows not only Christ’s arm raised in benediction but the wounds of crucifixion.
The other appears small, a painting central to images of apostles, saints and angels, that fill the octagonal tower space above the nave altar. Christ in Majesty, holds the spear wound in his side from which poured the blood and water of his humanity after his death. His other arm is raised again in blessing, as he looks down at those that receive the sacrament beneath him.
Never before have I been so aware of Christ’s presence. Not simply a crucified Jesus, nor a risen Lord evidenced by an empty cross; but a risen and glorified Messiah, in whose presence I was able to rest. If you are ever in Ely I can thoroughly recommend it.
The second gift Jesus gave the disciples in this room of tumultuous emotion, was the gift of peace. It was the peace of God that actually proclaimed their salvation – they were saved, released, forgiven for all the misunderstandings, disloyalty and doubts that filled them with tension and uncertainty.
If you read through the Gospel of Luke, you will see that Christ’s Messianic purpose is repeatedly revealed with peace:
- Zechariah exults at John the Baptists’s birth and purpose with the knowledge that through it, the Lord will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79);
- When angels proclaim the birth of Jesus it is to the “Glory of God” and for “peace on earth.” (Luke 2:14)
- Jesus also taught that the salvation that comes through his resurrection is also to be proclaimed with peace, for as Jesus sent out the seventy-two, their first act on entering a persons’ home was to to proclaim “Peace on this house.” (Luke 10:5-6)
Christ’s grace-full blessing on us all is the offer of a peace which passes all understanding.
I don’t think I had ever truly understood what that meant until that day in Ely, shortly before Easter. As I became and odd mixture of tourist and pilgrim, moving around the Cathedral, I became profoundly aware that although I was hours from what should have been the most gruelling and nerve-wracking experience of my ministry, all I was aware of was a sense of utter calm; a knowledge that many people were holding me through prayer in God’s presence; a sense of joy and certainty that whatever the outcome of the selection process, God’s will was being done.
My prayer will always be that each person who places even a shaky trust in the resurrection of Christ, will experience themselves this gift of peace.
The third thing that Christ did in the presence of those gathered that Easter week in Jerusalem, was to ask for, and receive, what they had to hand, which was a simple meal of boiled fish. This shared meal, as with his breaking of bread with those he had journeyed with to Emmaus, is a way of affirming the physicality of his resurrection. Jesus eats as one fully flesh and blood yet is also able to appear and disappear, moving between heavenly and earthly realms at will – Christ’s humanity and divinity revealed in a fellowship meal.
Christ can only ask us for something, if we remain in his presence and hold on to our experiences of his peace. If we cannot acknowledge those, we will not be able to hear what it is that he asks us, and give freely and willingly in response.
What strikes me forcibly here is that when the disciples give Jesus what he asks for, the reality of his resurrection is reinforced. I wonder how often we make that the case in our lives? It’s relatively easy to pray for a friend, cook for a neighbour struggling with illness or a young family, or even set aside one God given task for another. But is our expectation that through our fulfilling God’s request, we will see for ourselves and reveal to others, Jesus Christ, risen and glorified?
To be asked by Christ to do something for him, is as much a gift of grace as his presence and his peace. We need to raise our expectations not just of how we experience the gifts of the risen Christ in our lives, but how our actions in the presence of a glorified Messiah, and as his representatives, can reveal the purposes of God to others.
Yet this passage also says we are not fully equipped to respond to Christ’s requests of us, with full faith and a joyful understanding of who Jesus was, unless and until we understand the scriptures. The fourth gift of the resurrection is therefore to understand it’s very fact in the light of scripture, particularly those that prophesied Jesus suffering, death and resurrection, such as that we read in Isaiah 53:13-15:
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; … for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Our willingness to respond to Jesus with actions that proclaim his resurrection, whist being in his presence and peace, should reflect what scripture has already said about the nature and purposes of Jesus activity in both heaven and earth. It is this combination of gifts that builds up our faith and authenticates who Christ was. In a world where nothing is true unless it is written down, and everything that is written must be true, the reality of our crucified Messiah risen in glory, can only be truly seen by others if we witness to the physical, written and spiritual reality of our faith in the integrity with which we live out lives.