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Readings: 3rd Sunday of Easter

16 April 2015


(Zephaniah 3.14-end); Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36b-48

Almighty Father, who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord: give us such knowledge of his presence with us that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life, and serve you continually in righteousness and truth. Amen.

COMPLEX emotional states are very difficult to describe. The writer of Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles avoids the traps of incoherence and sentimental excess to achieve a near-perfect account of the feelings of 11 shocked and grieving men as they find themselves face to face with the risen Jesus. Despite the tangible assurances that it is really him, they cannot take it in (Luke 24.36-40): Jesus has to speak to them again, and ask for food "while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering" (Luke 24.41). This masterly weave of elation, incredulity and amazement makes such an impact because it is entirely consistent with the behaviour that might be expected of people who had had no hope of seeing again someone they dearly loved.

 Conversation in the room must already have reached excitable levels by the time Jesus arrived. The 11 disciples had been joined by Cleopas and his companion, and had told them of the Lord's appearance to Simon (Luke 24.34). The other two had related in turn how they had met him on the journey to Emmaus (Luke 24.35). Suddenly Jesus himself was there with them, and the 11 were too happy to believe their eyes. For a fleeting moment they might even have imagined a return to their earlier life as Jesus's followers. But the Jesus who had first called them was not scarred by crucifixion; and there was now something different about the nature of his presence. "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you," he says (Luke 24.44). In future, "being with" the disciples would mean something quite different.

 To be prepared for that, the disciples had to believe that this risen Jesus really had stood among them, touched them, and eaten with them. Jesus's persistence heralded the next stage of his call to those he had first addressed as they despaired of making a catch after a long night's fishing. Then, they were promised that they would become "fishers of people" (Luke 5.10). Now, the metaphor was being translated into reality, in the ambitious task of carrying the message of salvation through the resurrection from Jerusalem to all nations (Luke 24.47). The disciples' eyewitness testimony would form the substance of the teaching of those who did not have such immediate access to the experience of Jesus's presence (1 Corinthians 15.3-9), and must "walk by faith and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5.7).

This conviction of experience, reality and presence is at work in Peter's powerful speech to an audience outside the Temple in Jerusalem, amazed at the healing of a crippled man. It is essential to read Acts 3.1-11 before embarking on the excerpt prescribed by the lectionary; for the earlier passage is what makes sense of Peter's words. Two things have happened: a crippled man, raised up on to his feet, has been given a bigger and possibly more problematic gift than a few coins (Acts 3.11); and the assembled crowd has seen God's promise of healing and renewal fulfilled (Isaiah 61.1-2).

Peter is at once stern and encouraging. This is not the first time he has had to speak in these terms, singling out Israelites (Acts 2.22) from the large crowd gathered on the day of Pentecost as those who should have known better (Acts 2. 22-36). Yet he calls them "friends" (Acts 3.17), and assures them that the covenant God made with their ancestors is extended to them; and that God has privileged them by sending Jesus to them first (Acts 3.26).

Such generosity of approach surely traces its roots to the dominant note of joy in the reported appearances of the risen Jesus (Matthew 28.8-10; Luke 24.41; John 20.16, 20). The transformative element of the message preached to the nations was the visible joy of those who carried it, often in the face of adversity, insult, and danger. Many times, the words of Psalm 4 may have been the prayer of these early missionaries, as they clung on to that first joy: "You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their corn and wine and oil increase" (Psalm 4.7).

This Easter, church leaders have spoken out against the systematic and vicious persecution in many parts of the world of Christians who have not denied their faith. As the Churches hold persecuted Christians in their prayers, they should ask that somehow the gift of that profound and transforming joy will not desert those who suffer in the wreckage of their lives.

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