What Jesus’ resurrection means for you
The esteemed scholar Geza Vermes, retired Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University wrote a book about Jesus’ resurrection from the Jewish point of view. It was published in 2008. He acknowledges that Christianity is based on Jesus’ resurrection. As St Paul said 'If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God hat he raised Christ from the dead…..And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins'.
At the time of Jesus the Saducees were a kind of equivalent of the liberals and politicos in the Church of Scotland. They thought that any idea of life after death was not true to the Old Testament in which reward for virtue and punishment for sin were expected in this life. The Pharisees who might be compared with conservative evangelicals in today’s Church of Scotland. They expressed piety and personal good conduct and did consider life after death to be something real.
For Geza Vermes Jesus’ resurrection is associated with stories about the empty tomb and about what he calls apparitions of the risen Jesus. He acknowledges that all four Gospels report that Jesus’ body was found to be missing from his grave. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the women who went to embalm Jesus’ body were informed by angelic beings that Jesus was risen from the dead. In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene meets Jesus whom at first she does not recognise, thinking he is a gardener. From our point of view, these are not opposing or contrasting accounts but complementary accounts - both having taken place.
Geza Vermes describes Jesus’ resurrection appearances as apparitions. Her thinks there are inconsistencies in the various accounts. Jesus was seen by the disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem, two disciples saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Jesus met his disciples in Galilee in Matthew and in John Jesus met seven disciples at the Sea of Galilee. We would say that Jesus obviously appeared to different people in different ways and at different times. The fact that there were many such appearances is something that strengthens the truth of Jesus’ resurrection - but - it seems that for Geza Vermes these accounts are unconvincing.
He thinks however that there are four rational possibilities of explanation for what might have happened. i) Jesus’ body had been moved by the garden staff because this tomb had been bought for someone else ii) The women went to the wrong tomb iii) The Apostles stole the body - but he agrees that this is unlikely and has no logic or purpose to it and iv) Jesus was still alive when he was buried and he survived.
Geza Vermes does not regard Jesus’ resurrection as a purely historical event which can be verified. But as Jew he recognises one powerful piece of historical evidence that does stand up to scrutiny. The transformation of the disciples at Pentecost. These cowardly men became great spiritual warriors. This, he says, was a work of the Spirit. It seems that he means the Holy Spirit which 'spake by the prophets' as the AV has it. The Holy Spirit of creation - that aspect of the living God. To that extent he is acknowledging that the disciples were inspired by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah. That is a large concession from a Jewish scholar in this day and age. Vermes concludes 'They felt their master close to them; He rose in their hearts. This is the historical element in the Resurrection saga.'.
Christianity happened. It still does. No-one can deny that Christianity exists in the world today. It is historical. St Paul’s life was historical as was that of many individual Christian recorded in history. St Augustine really did live, so did St Francis and Martin Luther and John Calvin and John Wesley and Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa and so does live Desmond Tutu and the Archbishop of York John Sentamu and David Lunan the Moderator of the General Assembly and you and me.
So there you have it. The key and clue is this - the transformation of human lives. That is the continuing evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. People are still meeting Him and are being changed by Him. He is still calling people to serve Him in His Church and in His world. And we are all the historical proofs of His resurrection. Are we? Are you sufficiently convinced and committed that you show forth Jesus’ resurrection? Have you been changed by Him? Can others see the difference?
There are still dramatic stories of Christian conversion today. The Gideons spend a lot of money giving out free Gideon New Testaments wherever they can throughout the world. They publish a little booklet about such happenings called Gideon News. The Spring 2009 edition tells the story of Kenneth Kelly. He lived in South Africa. He didn’t like school and he didn’t do well. However he had an aptitude for magic and he desired to be a magician. Later on he won the South African national magic championships and got work on television. He came a household name and had lots of highly paid work. He lived an extravagant lifestyle dominated by promiscuity. He started taking LSD and then cocaine and then crack cocaine. He quickly became addicted. He said, 'It compels you by fear and panic to get more, there is no peace and no escape other than another hit to ease the torment'. He started embezzling his television employers bank funds to feed his habit. He lost his job and was unemployable. He felt suicidal. For three years and in five rehab centres he tried unsuccessfully to kick his habit. He was taking heroin, his weight was down to 45 kilos (7 stone) and his skin was breaking out in sores. He needed £200 - £500 per day for heroin. He drained his mother’s bank account and sold her possessions and furniture. His friends were druggies and prostitutes. He said 'I never met a happy addict'.
Death or prison became the only options. Kenneth Kelly was sent to jail to await trial. It was hell in a South African jail. He escaped and was re-arrested. He became a jail gang member. The prison was awash with drugs and home brew. He was given a three year sentence. Two years into his imprisonment, the Gideons visited Witbank prison. They left New Testaments for the inmates. Kenneth Kelly hid it from his cell mates but one night he took it out to read. 'Ask and you shall receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you'. He followed the prayer advice at the back of the little book and asked Jesus into his heart. The very next day he was introduced to a prison officer called Captain Thomas who ran the school beside the prison. This man was a Christian and he asked Kenneth Kelly if he would give magic concerts to the children. This expanded into further work with orphanages in the area. The newspapers found out and made him a national story.
A young woman called Collette Davel began writing to him while he was in prison. They eventually got married and had two children. In 2007 they came to this country and he is a Christian entertainer and evangelist. He then became a Gideon himself. He has a website magic4jesus.co.uk. I looked it up. Kenneth Kelly’s life was transformed in a similar way to that of the first disciples by the personal love and power of the Risen Jesus Christ. 2000 years apart. The same yesterday, today and forever.
Do not doubt that Jesus has risen from the dead. Take to heart what it means for you. He loves you as much as he loved Peter and John and Saul and Kenneth Kelly. If you are struggling, he can save you. If you don’t know what to do, he will lead you. If all is well His presence will enrich you.
Here this morning, you and I share in the best thing that has ever happened to this world or to anyone. We take His body and blood in the form of bread and wine thereby uniting us with his physical historical life on earth, His sacrificial death and his triumphant resurrection. We share in the greatest event that ever took place. We do this amazing thing. The height of our human possibility and existence. The best there ever can be, in remembrance of Him and as witnesses for Him until we see Him face to face.