Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
History is His Story (Revd Neville Watson) 23.3.2008
Reading: Matthew 28:1-10
A few weeks ago Elva mentioned that she had found a sermon of mine that I preached ten years ago. I was somewhat flattered to think that for some reason or other someone had a ten year old sermon of mine. Elva wondered whether I still thought the same, and I said I would check it out. I keep all my old sermons. When I was in Mullewa as a Home Missioner, the great Methodist preacher W E Sangster visited and suggested I keep all my sermons. ‘They will keep you humble,’ he said. And so they have up to a couple of years ago. Such are the exigencies of old age that now I pick them up and recognise that some of them are better than the ones I now preach.

The one Elva referred to was entitled ‘Experiencing Easter’. I certainly stand by what I said then – that the Christian faith is not primarily about belief but of experiencing Jesus as a present reality. We cannot and must not speak of Jesus in the past tense. Jesus of Nazareth is as relevant today as he was then. He is a present reality – as relevant and alive as he was then. Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus of Wembley Downs. He reveals the nature and the purposes of God for us today. There is no closure to the relevance of Jesus. Resurrection is about experiencing Jesus as a present reality – and, of course, there is no one way in which this is done.

Paul expressed it in terms of a blinding light and a voice saying ‘Paul, Why are you persecuting me?’ Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road was a pivotal experience to him. From that moment his life was turned completely around.

In Mark’s gospel it is expressed in terms of an angel saying to the women: ‘Go into Galilee and there you will see him.’ Galilee was the place where they lived and worked, their secular life. There Jesus would make himself known to them.

In Matthew’s gospel it is expressed in terms of an empty tomb and angels delivering a message. The word angello means messenger of God. They go into Galilee and there they hear the message ‘I will be with you to the end of the age.’

Many people see these incidents as factual. I do not. Recognising that stories were the media of the day, I see them as stories with a purpose, the purpose being to present Jesus as the decisive revelation of God whose words, actions and meaning are just as relevant and operative today as they were then. Into these stories are packed incidents, words, meaning that are of huge importance for us today. And of all the stories my favourite would be the one we heard this morning about Mary not recognising the risen Christ; how it is only when we hear our name called that we recognise the risen Christ.

Call is the operative word. Jesus calls us by name. It has happened to millions of people since that first Easter- they have experienced the risen Christ. Martin Luther King in his kitchen, and Albert Schweitzer in the African Jungle. Schweitzer’s lyrical words are an all time classic ‘He comes to us as one unknown, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words ‘Follow me’. And sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toil, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is’. Easter is about experiencing Jesus as a present reality.

So, to Elva’s question, I would answer ‘Yes I stand by what I said ten years ago but I now see it in a deeper sense’ – in two ways.

(1) I no longer speak of religious experience. That is to categorise the Christian faith into something that one can experience or not experience, a kind of an option for life for those that are that way inclined. What we seek to do on this day is not to affirm religious experience. We seek rather to say that the resurrection is about the experience of life itself. Jesus gives us real eyes to realise where the real lies.

(2) It is the ‘seeing’ that is important. Jesus is found not so much in the thing seen as in the act of seeing. When Moses became convinced that he was being called to free the Israelite people from slavery God was not in the burning bush, not in some kind of spooky image, but in the seeing.

Let me try and explain this by relating what I regard as one of my most formative experiences. As a 20 year old I spent three months distributing relief with the Quakers in Calcutta. I was on my way to the Third World Conference of Christian Youth in Tambaram where Bob Hawke and I walked out of the lavish garden party to welcome the delegates. The contrast between the event and the appalling poverty there was too much for us to bear. For Bob it was the end of faith. For me it was the radicalising of faith. To get from Calcutta to Tambaram I travelled fourth class, a kind of cattle truck where you sat on the floor. On the way to Allahabad I struck up a conversation with an old Indian guy who could speak a little English. With the little Hindi I had picked up working with the Quakers we managed to communicate with each other. After about 4 hours or so, he pulled out a piece of cloth in which were a couple of scones – in all probability his meal for the day – and he offered me one of them. I was gob smacked and declined on the grounds that his need was greater than mine. It was one of the stupidest things I have ever done – to refuse the gift of one who had so much to teach me. It changed my life irrevocably. I refer to it as one of my conversion experiences. In that carriage I believe I experienced the risen Christ.

But what I now recognise is that the resurrection is not about seeing some kind of glorified ghost in a peasant in a railway carriage, or in jail, or in the hungry or anyone else. God is in the seeing, The ‘in as much’ experience, as it is called, is a very real one. When did we see you? they asked. They didn’t see. It’s all in the seeing. It is, as I never tire of saying, a matter of awareness, experiencing awareness, deepening the awareness of what we refer to as ultimate reality. And we must always be ready to see anew, to see beyond the cultural hypnotic trance, in which we live and move and have our being. It’s all in the seeing. On the Emmaus Road they did not recognise Christ in the stranger, then their eyes were opened, then he vanished from their sight. It’s all in the seeing. We must not see Jesus as a figure of the past. He is of present and future significance. As I was saying to the young people ‘History is his story’.

Let me in the time that remains expand on that idea and bring you right up to date with the significance of the resurrection for me today.

The human venture, history as we sometimes describe it, has always fascinated humankind. The philosopher Hegel is the one who probably thought most about it and came to the conclusion that the meaning of history appears only at the end. Kiekegaard on the other hand thought this to be most unjust. Why should all the generations be sacrificed for the benefit of the last one? Why should it only be those at the end who know and understand the mystery of life? Kiekegaard maintained that the meaning and purpose of life had been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, that in Jesus is a life that transcends the present and reveals the purpose and mystery of life – that history is his story, and that when he spoke of the Kingdom of God he was speaking of the goal of history.

Kiekegaard maintained that Jesus calls his followers into history, not out of it! They are called to provide a prophetic interpretation of the events of our time in the light of the end time of Jesus. They are to confront the powerful forces standing in the way of the realisation of the Kingdom just as Jesus did. The cross is confrontation. History is his story. His life is the life towards which history is moving. The disciples encountered in Jesus what they experienced as true human existence. In the life of Jesus they experienced a life in which the expected limits of human life were constantly being transcended – a life that opened up for them the way to ultimate living. They saw in him the purpose of history and they projected this faith into the myths and stories of their day – as we should do for our day. History is his story and the Church is called to be the new community in whose life there breaks the final community life of humankind.

What is the central affirmation of Easter day? It is not that Jesus was resuscitated. As John V Taylor says ‘We trivialize the resurrection if we think of the risen Christ as someone brought back to life.’ This is profoundly true. The resurrection is about Jesus not simply being a figure of the past. Past present and future are to be found in Jesus of Nazareth. In this man, we submit, is to be found meaning and purpose and fullness of life – not just for the people of his day but for us today and those of the future. We do indeed trivialise Easter day if we think of it in terms of someone being brought back to life. The resurrection asserts that history is his story.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands