“While they were talking about this” seems like an odd start to a reading. We have missed a part of the story and we are trying to join in and wonder what they were talking about. If we had read the earlier part of the chapter we would have read of the empty tomb, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus appeared to them, their hearts burned within them, and they rushed back to the upper room, to the eleven and all the other disciples gathered there, and told them what Jesus said and did in Emmaus. They were excited, invigorated, thrilled that they Jesus had broken bread with them. The empty tomb was no longer a mystery but a miracle, and they rushed back to tell everyone. And that’s where our story today begins. You can imagine their breathless excitement as they run those miles to Jerusalem, to the upper room, burst in and the story pours forth. Then suddenly, surprisingly, the risen Jesus is there in the midst of them, speaking to them.
There are a number of key things in this story to observe as we study it. The first is the stress on proving the reality of the resurrection. There were, and indeed still are, all sorts of theories. The body was stolen. The appearances are some sort of mass hallucination or hysteria. It was a ghost. Each of the gospels is at pains to disprove each theory. In this story look at Jesus’ assertion that he is flesh and bone, not a ghost, and then the fact that he ate the piece of broiled fish. His resurrection body is different from his previous body. Mary didn’t recognise him until he spoke to her. He has the power to appear and disappear, but yet it is still a recognisably human body, flesh and bone, which needs food. It is no ghost, and no hallucination. It challenges us to think again about the resurrection on the last day. We will be raised, not with the body we had on this earth, but with a new, spiritual body. But we will not be some ghostlike person, we will raise a real, tangible body to new life in God’s presence.
The second key things that is stressed in this story is the necessity of the cross in God’s plan of salvation. Over the past weeks we have reflected several times on John’s description of the cross as Jesus glorification or moment of glory. The cross is the moment of glory because it reveals to us the true heart of God, a heart of love for all his creation, a willingness to die for us, a willingness to love to the uttermost, a willingness to give and not count the cost, to spend and be spent. The cross shows us, as nothing else can, the true depth of the love of God for you and for me.
If we had read on into verse 49 we would have found an important part of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples. He tells them to wait in the city until they are clothed with power from on high. They are given a mission by God, but they are not sent out to work out, in their own strength or from their own capabilities, how to fulfil that mission. They are sent out in the power and under the direction of the Holy Spirit. And so they are told to wait for the Spirit. Sometimes learning to wait on God is the hardest part of being a Christian. We want to do, to achieve, to begin what we are called to do, and we can’t wait. Yet waiting is a key part in learning to discern the voice of God and the direction of God. Usually God has a better plan than we do, and so we need to learn to wait for his plan and not try to do it all on our own. When we set out on any task under the direction of the Holy Spirit, we will succeed. When we do it under our own direction we are doomed to failure.
What is the mission that he is sending them on? He begins by opening their minds to the scriptures which spoke of his suffering and death, and then proclaimed that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in the Messiah’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are my witness of these things, he says. There, in a nutshell is the mission of the church. To tell the story of Jesus, to call the world to repentance and to proclaim a ministry of forgiveness. That is our mission, that is your mission. It isn’t the mission of the eleven, or all the followers of Jesus gathered in that upper room. It is the mission of every Christian believer down through the ages.
Repentance isn’t simply saying sorry, it is a turning of life around. It literally means about turn or about face. It is the turning of our back on one way of life, and embracing a new way of life. It is turning our back on selfishness and self-centredness, on anger and pride, on arrogance and vindictiveness, on all that hurts, demeans, damages or belittles another person. It is a turning to and an embracing of the way of Jesus, the way of love and peace, the way which kneels before our friends with basin and towel and washes their feet, the way which leads to the laying down of our life in service of and defence of another. Repentance isn’t just about stopping negative things, it is at least as much, if not even more, about embracing positive things.
In repentance we find forgiveness for our sin, and in forgiveness we find the power to forgive. I have come to realise that forgiveness is the greatest power in the world. Bitterness is a cancer which destroys us, and forgiveness is the cure for that cancer. Over and over we say the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us.” The power of forgiveness is the power to break the hold of another’s sin on us. When we forgive, we take away their hold and their power. We become free to live again.
My friends, that is the message of Jesus that is to be proclaimed to all the world, beginning in Jerusalem. That is the message that you are a witness of, and that you are called to testify to in your family, in your school, in your work and in your social life. When we embrace repentance and forgiveness Jesus sets us free. That is the Easter message, that is the gospel. It is so simple, but so liberating.