Joy and Certainty

May 12, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Luke 24.36-43, at Mattins on Sunday 12th May 2019, the Fourth of Easter.

Confirmation. It seems so definitive – that moment when people confess for themselves commitments made at baptism, sometimes many years earlier and by others on their behalf: I turn to Christ; I submit to Christ; I come to Christ.

At confirmation the Bishop prays that the Lord will confirm this commitment to Christian faith with the seal of God’s Holy Spirit. The candidate’s self-offering in faith and God’s self-offering in the Spirit come together in a joyful consummation of love.

The life of a committed, confirmed Christian disciple should therefore be a life of joy. Joy is one of the keywords of Luke’s Gospel, and very right it is too to stress this quality of our walk with God. The passage just before our reading has a couple walking on the road to Emmaus. Once they have met the risen Christ and have recognised him, their hearts are filled with joy. They say to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?’

However, a life of joy with God in Jesus is not the same as a life of certainty. Think about it. If you are enjoying something, you don’t necessarily have to worry about its reality. My wife and I are big sci-fi fans and have seen rather more of the twenty or so Avenger films that have come out over the last ten years than we’d like to admit (the Avengers being the comic strip super-heroes brought to life by some decent acting and lashings of CGI).

The last of this generation of Avengers movies is a three-hour effort called Avengers Endgame. It’s hugely enjoyable and while you’re in that universe, or those multiverses, you don’t dissect or analyse too much, even when heroes long dead turn up to save the day. It’s the film-geeks on Google who do that afterwards.

Joy is a sign of wholehearted participation in something, but just how real that something might be remains open to question. I guess there’re many people who come to our services and enjoy participating in them who really aren’t sure about what everything being said and sung refers to. And I don’t mean the details of the Christian message; I mean whether God or the spiritual realm exist at all.

Luke’s Gospel is a gospel full of joy, but fortunately it’s also one where the question is pressed about what is real – real in the sense of being as undeniable as the reality of you and me. Luke is offering what he himself calls an ‘orderly account’ of events, to commend Christian faith to his reader, a man called Theophilus. And in the process he gathers witnesses from various sources.

Here we have the witness of disciples. They’ve just heard the resurrection shout, The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon. Something wonderful and joyous is happening in and around them; but what exactly is that reality? Luke is prepared to dig down into these encounter stories, which could so easily be understood as dream or visions.

The story begins with terror, so soon after joy and wonder. But the terror is due to Jesus standing among them, greeting them in the traditional Jewish way, ‘Peace be with you’. They think he may be a ghost. Of course, because he is dead, he must be. What’s going to make them, and us, change our minds about that?

Remember the end of Mark’s gospel, too, which ends with the women fleeing terrified from the tomb. It’s so encouraging when at these pivot points in the Christian story, people are terrified, because these are what people call nowadays, existential crises – moments when our whole framework of understanding is up for grabs.

The 20th century philosopher Thomas Kuhn coined the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ to describe what happens in science when the common framework of interpretation shifts. Something comes along which simply doesn’t fit into the old ways of thinking, and a new theory is born. Examples would be the Copernican revolution or the shift from Newtonian to quantum physics.

During the shift most of reality can still be fitted under the old model and, more importantly, the new model is rather wobbly and unrefined; but then scientists change their commitments and begin to work within the new paradigm, refining its insights, until it becomes more robust. Scientists are human, too, and they take time to change their allegiance to the untamed, uncolonised reality beyond their tidy, habitual understandings.

So back to the story: when a dead person stands before you, it must be a ghost – what could be the alternative? The alternative could be flesh and bones that you can touch, alive again somehow or other, and more than that, someone who can talk and eat breakfast.

Jesus takes them back to the Scriptures to give them a new paradigm. Yes, the Law and the prophets held the promise of national deliverance, but that was the old paradigm; they also pointed more deeply to a Messiah who would suffer, die and rise again, and thereby instigate a new age, the age of the Spirit.

Luke would give Theophilus and his future readers a whole new volume on the subject of this new age, but for now I have only one point to make. That our enjoyment of Easter, all those joyful Alleluias, refers to something as real as you and me, or to be more accurate to Someone as real as you and me, with flesh and bones, who can talk and eat.

The key difference is that this Someone had died and is risen.

To some this is an incredible paradigm. It doesn’t fit with what we know about ourselves and our world, a world filled with suffering and the finality of death.

St Paul in the earliest piece of Christian literature was having just this argument. He was saying, yes, if you disbelieve that resurrection can happen, then a priori you cannot believe in a risen Christ; but Christ is risen and therefore everything is different. We’re living in a new paradigm where death has been swallowed up in victory.

What this world after resurrection is like, what this new age of the Spirit is like, will unfold as we move from Easter via Ascension to Pentecost; but for now let’s just notice the hint Luke gives us. It’s a world where turning to God in repentance and receiving new life is possible.

Which brings us full circle to baptism and confirmation. We may not be certain of the ins and outs of the whole Christian story, we may not understand the mechanics of resurrection, but we do know that a way into a new reality is possible by turning to God, the source of all life.

And as we do this, we will discover that we ourselves are not simply flesh and bones, not simply talking, eating bodies, but that we can be freed from the chains of sin and death, and that though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed day by day.

These are the new facts that don’t fit into the old paradigm. On the surface of things, we are fed a reality where so much is depressing and stuck, where there’s unceasing violence and frequent despair, but, against all this, we can discover the dual witness of Jesus Christ risen from the dead and the Spirit of God living in our hearts, both testifying to a glorious new beginning.

From Jerusalem the first disciples went out to proclaim this new beginning; and from here we go out to live in the Spirit, to be new beings who know, though we may be uncertain of many things, that though we die, we rise again.