How do you know someone is alive?

Easter 3 – 2015

Luke 24:36-48

Marian Free

In the name of God whose mysteries we can never fully fathom. Amen.

 There was a fascinating programme on the radio yesterday. The presenter was raising the question: “how do you know that someone is alive?” One hundred years ago the answer would have been obvious, if there was no heart-beat and no breath, then a person could be considered to be dead. Fifty years ago, even thirty years ago the answer became more complicated, but was still reasonably clear. If a person had no brain function then they were to all intents and purposes already dead. However, there are always complications. Families who hoped against hope and refused to turn off life-support systems were rewarded when someone who had been declared brain-dead resumed functioning normally. At least one person with a condition that I know only as “shut-in” syndrome was suddenly restored to normality. Our definitions of death have become more fluid in recent decades.

Jesus was really dead. Unlike those who were crucified with him, Jesus did not need his legs broken. He had died some hours before as the spear in his side confirmed. The question in Jesus’ case is the same: “how do you know that someone is alive?” This is a question that obviously exercised the minds of the first disciples and of the gospel writers.

There are a number of accounts of the risen Christ. As I mentioned last week, the accounts of the Sunday morning are remarkably similar. Matthew and Mark add little else except to report that the angels told the women to remind the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee. Luke and John have fuller accounts and some differences. Both seem to emphasise Jesus’ corporeality and his formlessness. He is able to be touched and to eat, yet he can pass through walls. He is recognizable and not able to be recognised. In John, Thomas seeks proof and in Luke’s gospel the disciples give Jesus fish to eat to assure themselves he is really alive.

Whether by touch or by sight, or even by the feeling of warmth that fills the disciples as Jesus’ speaks, they are absolutely convinced that the grace has been unable to contain him. So convinced are they that they leave their hiding place, and driven by the Holy Spirit, take to the streets, to the countryside and even to different nations to proclaim the resurrection. A foolish, frightened group of men are mobilized by their experience to tell the world that Jesus is risen. Resistance to their message and even persecution does not change their mind or dampen their enthusiasm.

Within three decades of Jesus’ resurrection the gospel has reached as far as Rome and others such as Paul and Chloe, Barnabas and Phoebe have come to share the conviction that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead. It is hard to conceive that these later believers came to faith simply through the words of others. Enthusiastic as the early apostles were, they were preaching to a society that was not unfamiliar with miracles. There are very few records of the experiences of those who came to believe. We know from the Book of Acts that scripture puzzled the Ethiopian eunuch until Philip provided the answer. We know that Paul had a very dramatic experience of the risen Lord, that Cornelius saw an angel and that some were convinced of their sinfulness are responded by being baptised. Beyond that we know almost nothing.

We are left with conjecture. My guess is this – that in dramatic and not so dramatic ways – those first believers, like Paul experienced the risen Lord for themselves. I suspect that for them the resurrection was not a past event, a miracle reported to try to bring people to a point of view but that it was a lived experience of the risen Lord that convinced people that he was in fact alive.

I believe this because this is what I believe still happens and has happened in every age. We believe, not because the gospels record that the tomb was empty or Jesus ate or did not eat. We believe not because the resurrection is a miracle locked in history. We believe because Jesus, having risen lives for ever, he is not bound by time or space but lives as much in our present as he did in our past. We believe because we know the presence of the risen Christ in our lives – as a quiet strength or as a sense of disquiet, as a comfort or a challenge. Whether our experience was dramatic and life changing, or a gradual assurance, we believe not because Christ rose from the dead, but because the risen Christ continues to be a vital presence in the world today.

We need not other proofs, but what we know to be true.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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