Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter - Philip Plyming

Sunday 14 April 2024

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

On Friday evening members of the College of Canons heard a presentation from Richard Sewell, Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, the Anglican retreat and pilgrimage centre in that city, situated within the Cathedral compound in East Jerusalem. Richard spoke as a witness to the impact that the conflict in Gaza is having both on Palestinians there and on Christian and other communities across Israel and the occupied West Bank. What he has seen and heard over the last six months has quite understandably gripped his mind and his heart that he could but share it compellingly and movingly with all of us who were there.

There is a difference I suggest between being an observer and being a witness. Being an observer is something quite passive – you observe and then let go. Being a witness is something very active – you capture, and are captured by, what you see and take it with you. Richard spoke to us not as an impartial observer but a committed witness.

The word witness – or witnesses – occurs in both our Bible readings today. The disciples and the crowd are told that they are witnesses. But what are they witnesses of, and what does being a witness involve?

First, they are witnesses
to the living Christ. Luke 24 takes us to the evening of the day of resurrection, to a room in Jerusalem where the disciples and the other companions of Jesus are gathered together. And Jesus comes and stands among them. And what do they see? Not a ghost as the first think – pretty understandably – but rather an embodied Jesus, who can eat a meal in front of them. And they see his hands and feet, and with them we must assume, the scars from the crucifixion. They see the one who was nailed to the cross and yet who lives. And they hear from Jesus that these wounds were part of God’s plan – for the Messiah was always meant to suffer and die before being raised on the third day.

‘You are witnesses of these things’ says Jesus to them. They still don’t entirely get it – and again who can blame them – but they have been captured what they are seen and they are to tell this story of Jesus, suffering, crucified, raised and living.

Second, they are witnesses to the saving Christ. Our passage from Luke 24 ends with a hint that being a witness isn’t just to what happened to Jesus, but also to what Jesus makes possible. Jesus talks about repentance and forgiveness of sins being proclaimed in his name, beginning from Jerusalem. And with that we can fast forward to our other reading from Acts 3, where we are still in Jerusalem but some weeks later, after the ascension of Jesus into heaven and the day of Pentecost. And by one of the gates to the Temple complex a man is healed, following the words and touch of Peter.

But Peter says that this is not about him and his power. This is all about the power of Jesus – the Jesus who had been betrayed and crucified but who God raised from the dead. Jesus has made this man well. And it is because of Jesus that everybody – including those who handed Jesus over – can according to Peter have their sins forgiven as they repent and turn in faith to the crucified Messiah.

So what are the crowd witnesses of? With their jaws on the floor as to what has happened to this man, they are witnesses to the saving Christ – the Christ that makes healing and restoration and so much more possible.

As we continue in Easter season, can I suggest that we too are called to be witnesses – people who have been so captured by what we have seen and known of Christ that we carry that with us.

First, we too are called to be witnesses to the living Christ. We are called to be so captured afresh by the Easter story of Jesus that it is something that we carry with us and share with others.

It was wonderful to walk through Lent, Holy Week and Easter with so many of you here at Durham Cathedral. They were such important and moving days as we walked with our Lord Jesus, as if for the first time, and saw all that he went through for us. The liturgical year with the annual celebration of Easter – and indeed the weekly celebration of the cross and resurrection with our Sunday Eucharist – invites us to be regularly captured afresh but all that Jesus did for us and for the world.

Richard Dawkins, the well-known scientist and writer, described himself as a ‘cultural Christian’ but who doesn’t believe most of the credal claims about Jesus. But our witness as a community and a cathedral is not to set of cultural norms or moral values but to the wonderful and shocking and world-changing news that Jesus was dead but is alive!

Whether it is a cross around our necks, a palm cross in our windows, a tattoo on our wrist, a word on our lips, we can be witnesses to the crucified and risen, the living Christ.

Second, we too are called to be witness to the saving Christ
. Now salvation – what the saving Christ offers – is one of those religious words which can be difficult to pin down, or we can understand it in a very specific and narrow way. But salvation is a broad and spacious word that refers to all that crucified and risen Jesus offers us in the past, the present and the future. It can include healing or mind or body or forgiveness of sins (the two referred to in our Acts reading), but also the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in worship and prayer, and the promise of life beyond the grave, to name just three. Put simply, it is the way Jesus touches lives today.

On the Cuthbert Day pilgrimage I had the joy of walking with people from Durham and far beyond from Chester-le-Street to here in Durham. And during that day I heard stories about people’s faith journey and how they had known the love and healing touch of Jesus in their lives. One person spoke of Jesus healing him from addiction through AA and giving them strength for each day. He was being a witness to the saving Christ.

On Friday evening, Richard Sewell was asked if he was optimistic for peace in the Middle East. He differentiated between optimism, which he did not have, and hope, which he did. And he said his hope was because of the resurrection of Jesus and because of the knowledge that Jesus was walking alongside the church today. He was a witness to the saving Christ who promises we will never be alone.

Our situations are different, and we might live with as many questions as those first disciples had, but we are all called to be witnesses to the saving Christ, to the Christ who has shone his light in a dark place, who has picked us up when we have fallen down, who has walked with us when we felt alone, who has enabled us to forgive when that felt beyond us.

This morning we are invited to come to the Lord’s table and to share in Holy Communion together. We come not as observers but as witnesses, witnesses to the living Christ as in bread and wine we receive his crucified and risen life, and witnesses to the saving Christ who touches our lives even today. His story becomes our story. His life touches our life. And we are witnesses of these things. Amen.

The Very Revd Dr Philip Plyming