SERMON TEXT - Readings - 1 Cor 15:35-37 & 42-50; Mark 16:1-8
Here in the UK there was a man who was regarded by many as an authority on prayer, respected across a number of denominations, and in fact all around the world. This man was known as Anthony Bloom. He served for much of his life in London as an Archbishop within the Eastern Orthodox Church. His family were originally from Russia, but after the Russian revolution they became stateless as his father had been a diplomat. Life was hard. He initially started working at the age of 12 giving lessons to children younger than himself so that he could afford books for his own education. After studying Physics, Chemistry and Biology, he went on to study medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1939 just before the war. By that time he was living in France and ended up serving in the French resistance.
During his middle teens he was a non-believer and very anti-church. He says, “I knew no God, I wasn’t interested and hated everything that was connected with the idea of God.”
At the age of 14 for the first time since the Russian Revolution, he and his family finally lived under one roof in a house in Paris. He said that the experience was real happiness for him. But he says that when he found himself confronted with perfect happiness for the first time, an unexpected thing happened. He suddenly discovered that if happiness is aimless, it becomes unbearable. Because it had no further meaning because he himself believed in nothing, the happiness seemed to be stale and empty. And so he began a search for meaning although initially it did not take him in the direction of the church or Christianity which he found profoundly repulsive.
Eventually, after having been convinced against his own will to attend a lecture by a priest, he hurried home in order to check the truth of what the priest had been saying. He said he expected nothing good to come from his reading and so decided to read Mark’s Gospel which was the shortest of all the four gospels.
He writes the following: “While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of the desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point he writes. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence, I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God.’
From this experience of sensing the Presence of Christ on the other side of his desk, he said that the Resurrection was more certain to him than any fact of history. History he had to believe he said. The Resurrection, he knew for a fact.
It is a fascinating story. He never saw a physical Jesus standing in front of him. He never heard a voice. But in the heart and mind of this unbeliever, who had been repulsed by Christianity and the Church, in that moment he felt the presence on the other side of his desk was non-other than the Risen Presence of Christ.
Now the earliest New Testament references to the resurrection can be found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Scholars will point out that all of Paul’s letters were written before any of the Gospel’s were written.
What is interesting in reading through Paul’s letters, although he is thoroughly convinced that Jesus is risen, he never refers to what many today call the empty tomb. In contrast to the Gospels especially of Matthew, Luke and John, Paul also never refers to the raising of the flesh and blood body of Jesus. In fact, Paul in 1 Cor 15:50 even asserts that “...flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”. And so interestingly, for Paul, the Resurrection Body of Jesus was not his former flesh and blood body. In verse 53 he goes on to say that “...the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul asks the question “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” And in verse 36 he answers his own question: “You fool!” He says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that will be, but just a seed.”
Clearly in Paul’s mind, the Resurrection of Jesus did not mean the bringing back to life of the physical flesh and blood body of Jesus, but rather that in dying like a seed sown into the ground, the Resurrection of Jesus represented Jesus’ birth into a completely new kind of life, no longer a flesh and blood kind of life, but rather what Paul speaks of as a spiritual body.
And so although Paul was absolutely convinced that he had encountered the Risen Christ, a bit like Archbishop Anthony Bloom, nowhere does he write about his encounter as though it was with a revived or resuscitated physical body.
In Acts 9 where we read of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ, what is described is a light flashing all around him and a voice speaking to him. A light and a voice.
Isn’t it interesting, on the one hand, Paul writes in 1 Cor 15 that without the resurrection of Jesus, Christian faith is useless, and yet he never spoke of the resurrection in the terms of flesh and blood. For Paul, Jesus was alive and risen, but for Paul Jesus physical body had died like a seed being sown into the grown, giving birth to a new spiritual body, which in Acts 9 is described more like a kind of a spiritual light and a presence rather than a physical body.
I’d like to turn now to Mark 16:1-8. Most scholars agree that Mark 16:1-8 is the earliest Gospel story about the resurrection of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel is the earliest Gospel to have been written, and yet the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel all end at Chapter 16:8. What is fascinating about the passage is that there is an empty tomb, but no actual physical encounter with the Risen Jesus. All we have is a story of a young man dressed in white, with a promise that his disciples would encounter him in Galilee, the place where they had first met him, and first heard the call to follow him. The suggestion is that Jesus will come alive in our experience when we go back to the beginning and seek to live again as disciples of Christ, putting his teachings into practice.
Some would thus suggest that it confirms the perspective of the Apostle Paul, that the resurrection of Jesus was not a reviving of Jesus’ previous physical body. They would say that in the later Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, the resurrection stories become more and more physical in nature. The suggestion is that these later Gospel writers were attempting to express in story-form a mystery that the Apostle Paul believed was true and real, and yet, for which for Paul never used the language of the physical, but rather the language of the spiritual. A spiritual body is what he calls it in 1 Cor 15.
For Paul, Jesus was alive, but his presence was not located in a specific physical body anymore, rather for Paul, as we see in Ephesians 4:10, “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” The New Living Translation reads, “...in order to fill the whole universe with himself”. In the English Standard Version, we read: “... that he might fill all things.”
There is the humorous story of a Zen Master visiting New York City, who goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, "Make me one with everything." The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill. The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. "Excuse me, but where’s my change?" asks the Zen master. The vendor responds, "Change must come from within."
Paul’s reference to the Risen Christ in Ephesians 4:10 is that the Risen Christ is now, on could say, one with everything, filling all things, and if we are to encounter the Risen Christ ourselves, the one whose presence fills the universe, then a change needs to come from within, a change of heart, a change of mind, a change in the spirit of our minds as he says in Eph 4:23, and when that inner change takes place, then we will discover the mystery of Christ’s presence in all of life, in every moment of every day filling all things. As the old gospel classic poetically and metaphorically suggests we will discover that “He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own.”
And so may God bless us on this Resurrection Sunday. May a change come within each of us, in our hearts, and in our minds, a change in the spirit of our minds, that like the Apostle Paul we will come to know the Presence and the Spirit of the Risen Christ filling all things and thus to discover that there is no-where we can go where Christ is not already present. And when the perishable kingdoms of this world seem fragile and fading, may we become aware of a realm or a Kingdom that is eternal, uncreated, and imperishable. Amen.