Sunday, 14 May 2023
Our reading stopped with the words “raising him from the dead”. Hear that as an opening, an offer, to live in the space of whatever comes next, to create a story that starts with that word; “then”.
Year A Acts 17:22-31
I don’t know about you, but I don’t immediately settle into readings from the Bible that start with the word “then”. We had one this morning. The reading from the book of Acts started; “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus”. Maybe you are more restrained than me, but that word “then” is a trigger word for my imagination to fire up – what on earth was going on before? Was Paul standing somewhere else? Was he sitting down? Was he round the back of the Areopagus? And, because the story is about Paul the Apostle whom, despite many years of studying his letters at University I still don’t quite trust, my internal voice can’t help asking “what’s he done now”? Then, before you know it, I’ve missed most of the rest of the reading.
More subtly, I think, that word “then” can act as a trigger to the logical parts of our brains. It leads us to think that there is something quite methodological going on, a story which runs along the lines of “if this, then that”. And I acknowledge that many a sermon has been preached, many a book has been written that claim that this sermon of Paul’s is a brilliant model of a technique and method for convincing people of the validity of the Christian faith.
This tiny word, “then” entices us, perhaps traps us at the beginning. As I’ve reflected on that, I’ve realised that we sometimes get enticed, perhaps even trapped at the beginning of the Easter story as a whole. For weeks after Easter, we traditionally hear stories of what immediately happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Stories of the traumatised disciples trying to make sense of it all. We often hear them in buildings, like this one, which have a prominent visual representation of Christ dying on a cross. We do so within the context of a Eucharistic service where we remember Christ broken body and his blood poured out. And life is tough, and we rightly need the comfort that Christ’s solidarity with our suffering and our solidarity with bewildered and anxious disciples brings. But sometimes it is good to also go beyond all that and to think and speak of resurrection. And that’s the gift this reading from Acts gives us this morning, once you are past the start, Paul stands up to speak of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There it is right at the end, the very last sentence, the finale of our reading, the door handle moment – “God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”.
Resurrection, though, is a tricky thing of which to speak. It’s difficult and complicated. It’s rife with problems. It’s awkward and risky and delicate and unsafe. And we are at the edges, of language, life and capacity when we speak of it. I am grateful to live in times, spaces and communities which are spirited enough to live with all of that. The apostle Paul is one of those people however who can be quite assertive when he's explaining resurrection. Oftentimes in his letters he’s assertive in the sense of being insistent about the true meaning or purpose of Christ’s resurrection. Here though, he’s simply confident, or Luke the writer of Acts portrays him so; talking about resurrection out loud, as a fact, to a bunch of strangers. And if you were to carry on reading past the point we stopped, you would see that he was so confident that unusually he didn’t carry on and mansplain, he left it as it was and wandered away.
Dig a bit deeper and you see that in his speaking about resurrection here Paul offers us two ideas or themes. Firstly, he puts resurrection firmly in the context of justice. Yes, it’s all tangled up in his ideas about what will happen at the end of time, and the strong statement that resurrection is proof that Jesus is God’s appointed one. But it is still there, resurrection and justice belong together. Isn’t that so much part of daily life when you think about it? Think about those organisations or groups, or people groups, that have been renewed and restored because corruption and unfairness have been dealt with, reparations made, and justice done. Think about those individuals’ whose lives have been restored and they have been able to start living life to the full once justice has been done. And think about those organisations and groups and individuals for whom our hearts break in longing that they would experience resurrection and life. More often than not, right at the centre of that situation there’s a need for something corrupt to be sorted and for justice and fairness to reign.
Secondly, in his speaking about resurrection Paul speaks of a resurrected body. Jesus, as a real embodied person, raised from the dead. His audience, the men of Athens, were far more interested in the goings on of our minds than our bodies. But Paul speaks of a flesh and blood saviour for flesh and blood creatures. And yes, that’s all tangled up in our ideas about how, scientifically, Jesus might have been raised from the dead but it’s still there too. Resurrection is embodied. To come to life, to be revived, to breathe, is the stuff of bodies. It’s the safety of having food to eat and shelter to rest in. It’s the peace of friendship and reconciliation. Its’ the energy of physical comfort and ease. Just as the body keeps the score of trauma, so it also keeps the score of resurrection.
Perhaps, as well as generally reflecting on and speaking about what resurrection might mean for you, us, now these two themes also gives us a new angle to think about and reflect on the work of development agencies, as we enter Christian Aid week. Theirs is the work of advocating for justice. Theirs is the work of advocating that religious faith needs to be grounded in reality, physical life. Simple things like crops for food, medicine for health and money to buy stuff that raises people out of poverty and distress.
As I said, sometimes it is good to go beyond and to think and speak of resurrection, tricky as that may be. Talking about it as embodied and practical, and alongside the need for justice may help alleviate some of that sense of trickiness. But there’s one more thing this story has to offer us I think, and we are back to the story starting with the word “then”. See, Paul wasn’t really up to much before the “then”. He was in Athens waiting for other people to join him. He’d done a bit of public speaking just because, and, unusually, he had sparked people’s interest rather than their anger. This is a relaxed Paul. And he’s speaking to a group of people who are at peace with themselves, simply interested in new ideas and therefore enthusiastic about what he has to say. They are all in a different space from the disciples we have been hearing about over the last few weeks. And that’s the point; there’s space. There’s room, and freedom and liberty and possibility. There’s space to use imagination and take chances. And that’s part of the meaning and the language of resurrection too. Our reading stopped with the words “raising him from the dead”. Hear that as an opening, an offer, to live in the space of whatever comes next, to create a story that starts with that word; “then”.