The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      15th April 2018
Easter 3 - The resurrection made tangible
Jeremy Fletcher

Acts 3. 12 - 19; Luke 24. 36b - 48

Those of us who enjoy the digital life have been caused to think very carefully in recent days. The strengths and advantages we’ve come to regard not just as novelties but as essentials over the last twenty five years of the web and last ten years of social media have now got us angry. We are connected in ways which are so good, but with a flip side which is worrying. A significant number of my Facebook friends have signed off this week.

Many wonder whether the digital world – what old people like me used to call ‘cyberspace’ – is any way a community; whether friendships are real; whether the relentless series of short hits are just like individual ready meals rather than the shared experience of a gathering round a table. I think the digital world has extended, not demeaned, our notions of community, but occasionally at the expense of a tangible encounter with others. One of the protocols I know of is that the first person to check their phone in a social setting buys a round of drinks. Another is a friend who will only befriend someone online if he has already eaten a meal with them. 

When we are face to face with people there is more challenge, and no place to hide. Our readings from Acts and Luke today are in part about such tangibility, challenge and community. The disciples, meeting the risen Christ are ‘startled and terrified, as if they had seen a ghost’. Jesus speaks in order to reassure them – it is me. I am not the creation of your grief, nor a spirit conjured from the shades. I live in a new way. I am not virtual, existing only in a photo, or pixels, or binary code, or imagination. To prove it is me, look at my body, and touch me. 

They do this, but still cannot quite believe. So Jesus says the least religious thing you can imagine. ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ And they give him the least amazing thing you can imagine: a piece of broiled fish. Is there anything less spectacular? Anything more ordinary than that? Eating a kipper for supper with them makes the new world a reality, just as breaking bread in Emmaus, the story which precedes this one, opens the eyes of those two disciples.

I’m pleased that the disciples were able to have this tangible experience, but what about those of us who live after the Ascension? The story Luke records in Acts also deals with tangibility. A lame beggar, whose accustomed pitch was at the Gate Beautiful has made his standard call for money. Peter makes the beggar look at him and makes it personal. ‘I have no money, but I will give you what I have’, he says, and in the name of Christ he tells the man to get up and walk. The man is miraculously healed.

Our reading takes up the story at that point. The crowd want to know what has happened. Peter explains that the man has been touched – literally – by the power of the name of Christ. Christ has brought healing and new life to a man without hope in the same way as he would have done were he physically present. The man has not seen Christ, but the power of the resurrection has been made tangible and effective through one of his faithful followers.

What interests me about both these stories is that Luke in his Gospel and in Acts makes a further point with each one. In his resurrection body Jesus eats with his disciples, and they believe in him. This could be the end of the story, and, reading it, we who have not seen could also become intellectually and spiritually convinced of the resurrection. But Jesus continues to speak.  Firstly he gives them a theological and historical context, opening their minds to understand the scriptures, and then he gives them a command – ‘proclaim repentance and forgiveness’. You are witnesses, he says. Not observers but those who testify to what they have seen. Don’t just believe. Do. Don’t just find wholeness. Speak. 

Peter, in Acts is the same. Every commentator on this passage about the healed beggar notes that Peter could have stopped his speech having explained that the man was healed in the name of Christ. But he goes on to challenge the onlookers. If this was Christ in action, then you need to stop being onlookers and make a response. Don’t just spectate. Repent. Don’t just be interested. Commit yourself, and find the true power of the death of Christ in the forgiveness of your sins.

It is all too possible to use the digital world as an observation point only, not a place of encounter. To meet someone face to face, tangibly, is to continue a relationship with all its demands and opportunities. The disciples meet the risen Christ, are touched by him, and are given a mission which transforms them again. The beggar and the crowd are touched by the risen Christ through the healing, and are challenged literally to turn themselves around, and follow the new way of Christ. 

The resurrection is tangible for us who have not touched or seen or eaten when we do tangible things: when we come to this place, when we read and hear God’s word, when we do what God wants. Just to come to an intellectual conclusion about the resurrection is a bit like liking a story you can then forget online.  The power of the resurrection comes in what follows it – in encounter and relationship with the risen Christ bodily or spiritually. In this meal Christ becomes visible – and we eat with him.  The presence of Christ is tangible, our relationship with him is made personal, our forgiveness is given flesh. After this encounter, may we also be renewed, and like the first disciples be given a purpose and mission, to give people what we have – the good news of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

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