The Easter mystery

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 2.44-47; Psalm 34 (CH4 27); 1 John 3.1-3; Luke 24.36b-48
Church of Scotland, Geneva, Auditoire de Calvin, April 14 2024

As a boy growing up in Catholic Ireland, I was always puzzled when teachers or priests, nuns or Christian Brothers, spoke about the mysteries of our faith. It took me a while to figure out that these weren’t the same kind of mysteries as those I found in the detective stories I loved to read.

Travelling in a coach on the Orient Express, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot cudgels his little grey cells to figure out which of his fellow-passengers murdered the unpleasant American businessman Samuel Ratchett – only to conclude that they all did. And now his only problem is to what to do with this new knowledge.[1]

The mysteries of our faith aren’t like that. They’re not problems to be solved or puzzles to be unravelled. They are mysteries to be grown into – grown into over the whole course of a life.


At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of Emmanuel, the mystery of the Word made flesh. But we do not understand what it means for God to be with us in human form, because we do not understand what it means to be God.

On Good Friday, we remember that Christ died for our sins. But some of our best hymnwriters and brightest theologians understand this in ways that turn God into a monster.

In the season of Easter, we celebrate the raising of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, from the dead. But we do not understand what it means to be raised from death, for the simple but sufficient reason that we have not yet died.

We cannot predict the future, and we certainly can’t understand our ultimate future, because, as one writer says, “we are, as it were, in the middle of an unfinished German sentence – and the verb which will give it its final meaning comes only at the end.”[2]

That verb is, of course, the Verbum Dei, the Word of God made flesh for us and our salvation who will return in glory at the end of time.

We Christians affirm these mysteries with conviction, but also in the conviction that this side of the grave we can never fully understand them. “We walk by faith, and not by sight.” (2 Cor 5.7)

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul, the earliest of our New Testament writers, quotes the book of Isaiah to say that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2.9; Isa 64.4). The letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11.1) Our epistle today tells us that “what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” (1 John 3.2)

We trust that we have a future beyond death even if we cannot imagine what it will be like. And we trust this because we believe that God, to begin with, has raised Jesus from death.


We have four kinds of evidence for Easter.

Two of these we find in our Gospel stories: A tomb is found empty. A man who was dead is later seen by his followers alive.

Paul says nothing about an empty tomb, but he too speaks of seeing the risen Christ:

“… he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15.5-8)

In the same place, Paul has some enigmatic words about what resurrection means:

“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body…” (1 Cor 15.42-44)

A “spiritual body” sounds almost a contradiction in terms. But Paul is not saying that we shall be raised as ghosts. A “spiritual” body is a body animated by the Spirit of God, and so imperishable.

In the story from Luke’s gospel we read this morning, Luke so concerned to emphasize that the risen Christ is not a ghost that he has Jesus ask the disciples, “Do you have anything to eat”. They respond by giving him a piece of broiled fish. (When I am feeling flippant, which happens surprisingly often, I imagine that Jesus then asks them a second question: “Do you have any tartare sauce?”)


Each of the Gospel writers tell their stories of an empty tomb and an appearing Jesus in their own way.

In the passage from Mark we read on Easter Sunday, a young man in a white robe tells the astonished women “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (Mark 16.7)

But Luke has everything happen in Jerusalem, because in the second of his books, the Acts of the Apostles, he tells the story of how, two thousand years ago, the Jesus movement, beginning from Jerusalem, spread out through all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.


But that brings us to the third kind of evidence we have for Easter: the transformed lives of early Christian communities, in Jerusalem and beyond, of which we read in Acts, the letters of the New Testament, and the book of Revelation.

Without these early transformed Christian communities, showing in their lives the power of the risen Christ, Christianity wouldn’t have spread anywhere.


What was true then is also true today. The fourth kind of evidence for Easter is Christian communities that today are living transformed lives.

But then the question for each of us, and for all of us as a congregation, is whether we are really living transformed lives that may serve as evidence for Easter.

A generation ago, the German theologian Johann Baptist Metz asked us a series of pointed questions and, like his namesake John the Baptist, pulled no punches:

“Are we Christians really changing our hearts [he asked], or do we just believe in a change of hearts and under the cloak of this belief remain basically unchanged? Are we living as disciples, or do we just believe in discipleship and under the cloak of this belief continue in our same old ways? Do we show real love, or do we just believe in love and remain the same self-centred conformists we always have been? Do we share the sufferings of others, or do we just believe in sharing and remain as uninvolved as ever?”[3]

If our answers to his questions are in each case the second of his alternatives, then no one is going to believe in resurrection because of our transformed lives. Our lives will not witness to Easter.


Last Sunday, we sang my favourite Easter hymn (CH4 417):

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

It’s my favourite hymn because it imagines the wonder of Easter – that miracle of miracles – in a simile drawn from the ordinary but wondrous rhythms of nature:

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
he that for three days in the grave had lain…

But, like all Easter hymns, it poses a challenge to each and every one of us:

How are the “fields of our hearts“? Are they like the fields of winter, “dead and bare”?

Or are they touched by love and alive with an Easter life? When we look in the mirror of our conscience, can we see in ourselves the new life that springs from faith in resurrection and is given to us by the Holy Spirit?

If we can answer that question with an honest but humble “Yes”, then, and only then, we may count ourselves among the witnesses to Easter.

[1] Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (1934). The novel was made into two good movies, one in 1974 featuring Albert Finney as Poirot, the other in 2017 starring Kenneth Branagh.
[2] Peter Hebblethwaite, The Runaway Church (London: Collins, 1975), 228.
[3] Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World (London: SCM Press, 1981) 3.

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