How do you see the world? For me, it’s through a pair of glasses.
In my case, the menu for a new pair of glasses contains a number of elements. The lenses are varifocal, so I can have distance vision through the top, I can read through the lower part, and I can do middle distance vision such as computer work through the middle. Sometimes I need an astigmatism correction. Then there are the helpful additions such as anti-reflective coatings and anti-scratch, since I rely on them everywhere except bed and the shower.
But there’s one other element I always pay for. I am a blue-eyed boy – literally – and like all blue-eyed people I am more sensitive to bright light. In my case, I’m particularly sensitive to things like bright sunlight. And so I have photochromic lenses, the ones that darken in bright light.
Now one of the things about photochromic lenses is that whether you have them in their grey version or their brown, they make the colours you see more saturated. If I take off my glasses, the world looks rather washed out in comparison to the way I am used to seeing it.
I even process my photos according to this way of seeing the world. Their colours are brighter and punchier than other photographers would make them.
What about Cleopas and his companion (who may well have been his wife and may have been called Mary)? How did they see the world? Well, they had been seeing it through the lens of believing that Jesus, whom they took to be a prophet (verse 19), ‘was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (verse 21), but he has been crucified by the authorities (verse 20) so that’s all gone by the board. And now they are confused by reports from women friends that his body is no longer in the tomb (verses 22-24).
They don’t know how to see the world anymore. And that’s a bleak place to be.
All their hopes for this miracle worker from Nazareth had come to a climax when he had ridden into Jerusalem a week earlier signalling himself to be the Messiah, and acclaimed like a new King David, yes, surely he would set Israel free from the Romans and she would no longer be an exile in her own land.
And that hope, that imagined future, that vision of how things were to be, came crashing down in a matter of days. No wonder they’re despondent.
Sometimes we allow ourselves to see life through a vision that appears good and honourable, but which lets us down. It might be about our aspirations for our career, our family, or our children, only for work or a family member to take a wrong turn. I wouldn’t be the first minister to enter this calling with a vision for renewed and growing churches, only to be disappointed.
But the encounter that Cleopas and Mary have on the Emmaus Road with Jesus gives them a new way of seeing life. It’s a vision that won’t let them down. It’s a vision that will sustain them through joy and sorrow. It’s a vision that will inspire them as disciples of Jesus.
Firstly, we see life beating death. The ultimate enemy of the human race and indeed of all beings is conquered. We believe the gospel promise that Christ’s conquest of death in the middle of history guarantees ours at the end of history.
For Christianity, the essence of death is separation. The separation of the deceased from the living; the separation of the soul from the body. The essence of resurrection is reunion: the reunion of the soul with a new body animated by the Spirit of God, and the reunion of those previously parted by death.
That’s why at the funeral of a Christian we have this mixture of grief and hope, not just grief. We grieve our separation from the deceased, but we anticipate resurrection where we will be reunited and our bodies healed as the Spirit of God gives life to them. When we commit that person’s body at the funeral to be cremated or buried ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’, this is what we are anticipating. Not just life after death, but a a new quality of life after death.
In this life, it means we face the darkest of challenges with hope. Not that we go rushing after death and martyrdom, but we know that sickness, injustice, and tyranny will not have the final word.
So we don’t become cavalier about Covid, because this life God has given us is precious, but we do know that at its worst it cannot wreak ultimate destruction.
And right now our Ukrainian Christian brothers and sisters do not become reckless about their lives for the same reason, but they face the shameless violence of Vladimir Putin in the knowledge he cannot ultimately win. Either the events of this life or the resurrection of the dead will mean final defeat for account to Almighty God for his deeds.
So that’s our first new way of seeing that the resurrection brings, and it’s utterly transformational: we see life and death in a new way.
Secondly, we see hope beating despair.
In 1984, a painter named Gottfried Helnwein created a piece of art called ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams.’ It depicts four famous people in a diner. Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart are a flirtatious couple, James Dean is another customer, and Elvis Presley is the bartender. The theme is ‘emptiness’, because all four could have been said to have died senseless deaths: Presley from alcohol and prescription drugs, Bogart from alcohol, Monroe from drugs, and Dean from a tragic motoring accident. If the sort of dreams I described earlier have let you down and you feel empty, then the victory of hope over despair in the resurrection is for you.
We’ve talked a lot about the need for hope in our society over the last couple of years in the wake of the Covid pandemic. To a large extent millions of people have put their hope in science, and we are grateful for the remarkable work on vaccines. I certainly am: I am sure my recent bout of Covid would have been far worse without my three vaccinations.
Yet the hope our society has clung to in the face of the virus, while good, has not been ultimate hope. For that we need the resurrection, which shows that even death, the strongest of all the forces arrayed against us, does not have the final word.
And whether it’s Covid assailing us or the visions and dreams we’ve lived by letting us down, the only ultimate antidote to the despair they bring is the hope of the resurrection.
As I said earlier, I have known broken dreams as a minister. Church life has not generally become what I hoped and prayed it would. I guess my dreams were about some form of religious ‘success’, but of course that is not guaranteed to us and it is therefore not the solid hope that the resurrection is. Indeed, we might say that putting our hope in any vision and dream that is less than the resurrection is some kind of idol.
So what has kept me going when the experience of my calling has been dark? One Bible verse. It’s a verse that Tom Wright keeps coming back to in his wonderful book ‘Surprised By Hope’, and it’s the final verse of the Apostle Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15. The climax of his argument about the resurrection is to say this:
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
The resurrection means that our labour in the Lord is not in vain. In the eternal economy of God, all that we do in the Lord’s service counts. We may not be able to see how it does right now, but the resurrection means those acts of faithfulness are not wasted. They are invisible building blocks in the cause of God’s kingdom.
So the resurrection says to us, keep going! Keep doing the Christian thing. One day we will see what God has built with it.
Thirdly and finally, we see the kingdom of God beating the empires of this world.
When God made Jesus’ body new in the resurrection, it was the sign that one day he would make all things new. It was the promise of the new creation, the new creation we begin to experience in ourselves when God begins to make our lives new when we come to him. And it climaxes in the great promise of Revelation 21 that God is making a new heaven and a new earth, with a new Jerusalem at the centre.
So that is where all this is heading. A new creation where there will no longer be any suffering. There will be no sickness, there will be no sin, whether personal immorality or social injustice. Relationships will be whole. There will be harmony among people. Everyone will have enough. This is the new order promised by the resurrection.
But what are we supposed to do? Some Christians particularly of past generations would have simply seen us as rather passively waiting for it to come about at the end of time. No wonder Christians were accused of ‘pie in the sky when you die.’ That is not the way.
No, this great vision of the fulness of God’s coming kingdom that we see in the resurrection inspires us to act now. Of course the kingdom of God has not yet come in all its completeness, but it is coming. It is on the way. Jesus said it had arrived with his coming.
And this is why it’s important to keep doing the faithful stuff, as I said in the last point. Each prayer for healing, each act of care for the sick, each action in support of transforming the lot of the poor, each act of reconciliation, each deed of compassion, each drawing of someone into the love of Christ is all part of the coming kingdom and a pointer to it.
It’s the resurrection and all that it promises that is our inspiration to live this way.
So – like Cleopas and Mary – may we allow the resurrection to change the way we see life. May we then live by that vision – where life beats death, hope beats despair, and the kingdom of God conquers the empires of this world.