After the splendour and excitement of Easter Day with the orchestra here, the augmented choir, the glorious flowers – here we are again, meeting to celebrate. But celebrate what? What, after all, does Easter mean to you, to us, to the world? The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke’s second book, picks up where his gospel left off. Jesus is raised from the dead. So now we hear what happened after that, what that life, death and resurrection led to. But before we get into that, I want to make an admission. It is quite simply that I know very little about my subject today. I am pretty ignorant about what resurrection means, and know next to nothing about what lies beyond death. I’m in good company there as even St Paul admitted that resurrection life is a mystery, a hidden matter which we cannot truly grasp.
But I can share with you what St Peter thought and believed in those heady days when a few hundred – perhaps a few thousand – Jews first heard about the resurrection of Jesus. St Luke describes the events, the ideas, and the excitement of it all. To catch a flavour of that excitement, you’ve got to understand where Luke was coming from. He was a friend, follower and colleague of St Paul. Like Paul, Luke was a Jew – if not by race then certainly by religion. So the focus of his life was his utter trust that God is in charge of the universe, and is never going to betray that trust nor tell us lies. Luke knew that God had promised that, one day, the whole world will come to see that God is truly Lord over the whole earth. One day, at a promised time, God’s glory will be revealed. It will be centred on Jerusalem with a more splendid Temple than the one that Jesus knew. World rulers will make their way to Jerusalem, and the Jewish people will pass judgement and mete out punishment to all wrongdoers and tyrants.
Nobody was quite sure when this would happen, though God had given strong indications through the prophets. What Luke knew – but we have to remind ourselves – is the trauma in the 6th century BC when first the kingdom of Israel and then the kingdom of Judah were overwhelmed by invaders from what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Towns were laid waste, temples, including the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem were destroyed and ransacked. Royalty, officials and leading citizens were deported to Iraq / Babylon. It was in that time of deportation and exile that the religion of Judaism began. It was founded on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of exiles who longed for the just rule of YHWH their God. And although there was a partial return of exiles to the land of Palestine, the exiled people who called themselves Jews were effectively scattered across their known world, but linked by a common dream of the rule of God centred on a restored Temple in Jerusalem. Only when God’s rule is finally established, centred in Jerusalem, will that exile end and all God’s people be gathered together.
You can read about those hopes and expectations in your Bible, for instance in the later parts of Isaiah. But other biblical books describe this Kingdom yet to come – parts of the book Deuteronomy and the book Daniel. In Daniel 9.2, for example, faithful Jews read that the complete restoration of the Temple will come after 70 years of exile, a figure they quickly adjusted and generally thought of as “a week of Sabbaths” which they calculated as 490 years. Then will follow the recall of all Jewish people from around the world, the enthronement of God in the Temple in Jerusalem and the establishment of the God’s Kingdom as a political, economic, legal and social reality.
As time went by, the baseline or start date of that week of Sabbaths had to be adjusted. Other religious teaching of the time built on those expectations, and it was up to good Jews to work with the numbers to calculate when to expect the Kingdom. The whole scenario would be ushered in by a divinely anointed messenger. The Greek word for anointed, by the way, is christos; the Hebrew is mashiach or messiah.
Now, back to Peter in Jerusalem. Peter grew up with these beliefs. He knew that mashiach / Christos would come – God had promised. But Peter had realised that his teacher and friend Jesus was in fact God’s anointed. No wonder he could not understand why God would let the anointed one suffer torture and death. Now Peter had become absolutely and unshakeably convinced that he had met his teacher and friend after that person’s death. He knew Jesus to be alive, and alive in a quite astonishing and new way. He did not think Jesus had gone to be an angel somewhere ethereal. He’d seen Thomas touch Jesus, he’d eaten with him, spoken with him. And now Luke reports how Peter tells people in Jerusalem what has happened. He tells his fellow Jews that Jesus is the anointed one they have all been waiting for. And he goes on to say that Jesus will take the place of his ancestor, King David, on God’s throne in Jerusalem.
You don’t have to be a first century Jew to realise what an enormous claim Peter is making. The kingdom of God is a real kingdom promised by the one, true God whose word you cannot doubt. All the leaders of the world will come to see that, and come to pay their homage. This is the dawn of a new political, social, legal and economic reality. And that is the basis of the Christian vision and the Christian faith. That is what St Paul preached. That is central to the message of the New Testament.
So where is it, this kingdom of God? One answer, and I believe a wrong one, is commonly found in the West. It is that the kingdom of God should not be taken literally. It is a spiritual notion, not to be found in the world, but in some afterlife beyond the world. But that is not what resurrection is about. This resurrected life, our gospel today and the letters of Paul all agree, starts now.
And this is where my ignorance comes in. I can’t tell you much about beyond-this-world possibilities, and, for obvious reasons, my experience of life after death is zero. All I can tell you is that Christianity is at its most powerful when we live in the expectation that God is keeping, and will keep the promise to establish God’s real kingdom. We don’t talk much about kingdoms nowadays, for obvious and good reasons. But we can talk about the rule of God. More than that, we can decide now to live under the rule of God. We can even decide to live as though God were ruling now. And when you do those simple things, you discover that actually the world does begin to change. I could point as evidence to the martyrs of our recent history (people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero); or I could point to great exemplars of Christian resurrection living of our time like Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu. But let me instead give you a tiny example of what I mean because it is in such tiny things that I can often see this most clearly. A man I knew – Georges – worked as an industrial chaplain in France, in the shipyards at St Nazaire. In those days, wages were low, working conditions bad and labour relations appalling. One day in discussion, the subject came up of tools “walking” off the yard. “Why shouldn’t we take what we can?” said one man. “They screw every centime they can out of us and cheat us at every turn”. “True” said Georges, “but for us Christians, it’s not as simple as that. You see, we live in two worlds. One is the shipyard and the exploitation of the bosses. The other is the Rule of God. We have to live as though the Rule of God holds, even if other people don’t. That way, we believe the Rule of God becomes real and it will change things.” Naïf? Perhaps, though I’ve met enough people who do live as though they were already under God’s rule that I have come to think they are right. That way, the Rule of God does become real and – in time – it will become the political, social, legal and economic reality that our Jewish predecessors hoped and prayed for. Our lives will be transformed, and so, ultimately, the world will be transformed and God’s promise made good. And Jesus is risen to assure us that even death will not defeat God’s purpose.