Myles Herbert, whose passing we mourn today, always sat immediately behind us in church. And one of the things Barbara and I will miss is the way we heard him significantly raise his voice in the Creed as he said: “On the third day he rose again from the dead.” He was someone who had absolutely no doubts whatsoever that Jesus had conquered death, and done so his behalf and on behalf of us all.
This Gospel passage from John 20 is very well known to all of us. Jesus appears to his disciples who have locked themselves into a room in case of arrest or mob violence. The mood is fearful and extremely tense. And suddenly the Jesus they thought never to see again, appears in their midst, totally unexpectedly, and says those crucial words: “Peace be with you” and of course, they were overjoyed.
There are at least three principal things that John wants us to learn from this passage. The first is that Jesus really has conquered death. This is not a resuscitation. This is not a ghost. This is not hallucination – not a dream. This is real. There is eye witness testimony to the fact that Jesus conquered death and showed himself to his disciples to prove it. He showed them his hands and his feet.
Second, John wants to tell us that doubt is normal, and not to be despised. Poor Thomas has for ever been given the rather disparaging nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’, but his doubts surely encourage us when we find parts of our faith hard to believe. He was human, and we are human. Doubts are often brought upon us because of events or circumstances. Someone we love has died, as Myles has. In our shock and grief, we suddenly begin to think ‘Can the resurrection really be true?’ Or we go through a time of depression or events go against us. Doubts creep in. Of course they do. Jesus meets us (as he met those fearful disciples, and then his meeting with Thomas) just at our particular point of need. And at the right time and place, he will bring conviction again to our minds as we wait on him in prayer. When they met the risen Lord, the disciples were no longer fearful, and Thomas no longer doubted.
And the third thing John explicitly wants us to learn from this passage, is that he is not simply recording these events for their own sake. He has an evangelistic aim. He wants to persuade us to come ourselves to that point of personal belief and trust in Jesus Christ as our own Lord and Saviour. Verse 31: “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”
When the Gospel writers record the resurrection itself and the appearances that followed, they clearly had obvious difficulties. They were attempting to describe something which had never, ever happened before. I wonder if you have ever seen or heard something totally extraordinary, and then tried to tell other people what it was? If you have, you will know the difficulty of putting it into words which make any sense at all. And you will know the looks of incredulity on people’s faces, and the response you get. Are you sure you weren’t dreaming? How much had you had to drink? And this is particularly frustrating when you have seen perhaps a miracle of healing with your own eyes. People will not want to believe it, because it upsets their world-view, their understanding of what normally happens in this world.
And so the Gospel writers go out of their way to show us that this was the same Jesus who had gone through the total experience of death, and had – as it were – come out the other side very much alive. He showed them his hands and his side. With Thomas, he actually made him touch his wounds.
And yet they had also to explain that Jesus was also different. He now had a resurrection body which was not confined to the ordinary bounds of mortality. It was not a body that was ever going to be subject to death again, or decay or corruption. He was the first of God’s new order of creation. He had broken the bounds of the old order, ushered in God’s new kingdom, and from that moment on, God’s plan for the whole of creation was to enter an entirely new era
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What does this mean for us? The first step is for us to embrace that new creation ourselves, if we have not already done so. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone; the new has come.’ So as you and I place our faith and trust in Jesus, we become part of that resurrection that we celebrate at Easter. And as we come to communion, we take to ourselves the new life and the new creation which Christ has won for us. He has the victory over sin and death, and we are now participants in that victory.
So we can be absolutely confident that anyone who dies with their faith in Christ, will be raised at the last day and given a resurrection body like that of Jesus as we see him portrayed here. He is the pioneer who has blazed the trail through the valley of the shadow of death, made it safe, and now escorts us through to join him in God’s wonderful new creation, where sin and death have, for ever, been defeated. Here is our first reason for joyful celebration this Easter. Death for the Christian is not the end. Nor is it simply a matter of slipping quietly into some kind of parallel spiritual world. It is entering into our inheritance. Paul writes in Romans 6: 5 “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” Or again in Romans 8: 17 “If we are God’s children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ..” So today is a celebration of the fact that one of our brothers, Myles, is entering into his inheritance in God’s new creation, inaugurated by Jesus. Our loss is his gain.
But individual resurrection is actually only part of a bigger picture. In his letter to the Romans chapter 8: 22, Paul tells us that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”. It has been (verse 20) “subject to frustration” and (verse 21) “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God”.
So Jesus’ triumph in resurrection, which we celebrate during these weeks of Easter, brings not only individual triumph and hope for each of us, but it causes the whole of creation to celebrate, because its liberty from sin, conflict, decay and death is now assured.
We go out from here today in celebration, therefore, not only because we (through faith) are joint heirs of this kingdom through the victory of Jesus; but (like Peter) to proclaim to the whole world that they can join in too! And not only people. The whole created order will one day be made new. And as we work together for peace on earth, and for a happier, healthier, greener world, we are working for that day when God will make all things new, because God’s victory that began that first Easter morning, will one day come to complete fulfilment.
In Revelation 21: 1 – 7, the prophet John hears God proclaim “I am making everything new!” And when that day comes, we read: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Write this down, he says to John, “for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Questions for discussion:
1. What do you think is the most significant piece of evidence that helps us to be certain that Jesus really did conquer death?
2. Discuss the significance of Jesus’ resurrection as you understand it, and how you think it applies (a) to you personally and (b) to our world in general
3. Have you have ever tried to tell people about an extraordinary event you have witnessed? How did you try to explain what happened? And what was the reaction?