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The Servant of Life

Jesus is the servant of God through whom God gave new life to the world. All that was old, sinful and decaying in human life was capable after God raised him from the dead of being refreshed and restored. The servant who went in obedience to his death was the Prince, the Leader, the Pioneer, the Author of life whom God raised from the dead. He who had been the Lord of life from the beginning of creation, became the servant of life even to the point of death, and was raised again as the Lord of life with the same creative power, this time to renew life.

That is the message for which the disciples were commissioned to be apostles, as Luke tells it in his Chapter 24:

And it is what they did indeed make known, as we read in the later work of Luke in Acts where several of Peter's sermons are recorded. For example in the reading which has many parallels with the gospel for today:

They understood that the refreshing of life may begin here and now when a believer turns to God, perhaps even picking up again the hope of the Psalms where refreshing rains are seen as the sign of God's blessings:

And they looked forward to the completion of the promises of God in the universal restoration of a broken world:

How the apostles came to be equipped for the ministry in which they made such a witness to God's renewing of life through the work of Christ is important to us, both in understanding the message they brought and in our own calling to be witnesses. There are several points of importance in the gospel reading which are essential background to the witness of the apostles through which the word of saving grace has been brought to us.

  1. The disciples who knew him well saw Jesus and were convinced by what he did that he had been raised from the dead. Jesus was actively involved in persuading them of his resurrection.
  2. He explained to them from scripture how it had been necessary for the Messiah, the Christ, to be also the suffering servant who would die for them, and yet be raised. Jesus was their teacher, equipping them for their mission.
  3. They were commissioned by the Lord of life, to take the servant role together with him, to make the renewal of life through him known to all the world. Jesus sent them out as the apostles, the sent ones.
  4. They were promised inspiration in the power of God for their ministry through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus sent them with his prayer for their empowerment certain to be fulfilled.

This last point is part of the commissioning although beyond the limit of today's gospel reading. We come back to it at Pentecost. Now we need to take up seriously the position of the disciples immediately after the death of Jesus when messages about the empty tomb and his being seen alive began to be passed on to them from some of their members.

His bodily presence

In a sense he was already present through the witness of those who passed to the disciples that first news on Easter Day that he had been seen risen from the dead, but he made his presence known bodily, not in an abstract or we might say spiritual sense. That was critically important, for the apostles were first of all, above and beyond any other function they had in the early church, witnesses to the resurrection which was the cornerstone of belief in Jesus as God and saviour. Here was no mere part of a person, a separated soul or spirit, which might have been in some ways of thinking a natural occurrence. The whole future of the church depended upon their experience of having met with him after he was dead and buried, and the point of this particular appearance was that he was indeed alive in the fulness of his being. It was Jesus the man in his complete personal identity who stood among them and spoke of himself. That completeness of his identity as a man is what is brought out by Jesus when he said,

At first they had be terrified, thinking they were seeing a ghost [or spirit, pneuma]. It was like the time when they were out on the lake in a boat at night and he came to them walking on the water:

But here now as then he was more than a ghost or spirit, and no mere apparition, no chimerical fantastic conception lacking reality. This verse in the words of Jesus about his own body of the resurrection having flesh and bones is similar to the challenge he put to Thomas in John's account we read last week where the doubting disciple was challenged to touch his wounds, but his saying here is in some ways stronger. Nowhere else is he said, after the resurrection to have flesh and bones: a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. His bodily presence is further emphasised by his asking if they have anything to eat, and then eating a piece of fish.

You might ask whether that really matters. After all we are not called in faith to accept particular physical or psychological theories of human personality in order to believe in Jesus as Lord and saviour; and I am not asking you to believe any strange physics although you might need to resist the temptation not to keep an open mind in that respect, but there was a point to it which is still relevant to us. The point is that the notion of spiritual resurrection only through the natural immortality of the soul is being rejected, and for good reason. The Hebrew conception of life and personality was not like the Greek ideas of a material body which decays and an immaterial soul which naturally survives death - a pagan notion which still persists today. The Jews thought of the person as a living body. Words for soul and body were interchangeable in many respects, while to lose one's life [often in the New Testament, psyche] was the same thing as to lose one's soul [psyche]. A spirit alone coming among them would be an unnatural intrusion, a demon perhaps, certainly not the man they knew, or even an angel -- not unlike the time when Peter escaped from prison and knocked on the door and they refused to believe the maid that he was actually standing there:

His identity as the servant who suffered

Jesus was making the point that he was the same person in the completeness of his character, the one who had been known to them before he was hung on the cross and died. Thus the reference to his wounds, his hands and his feet, was a sign of great importance for his identity. Jesus was not talking about survival or revival of the person after death, but of resurrection as transformation and renewal or life, the manner of his death had been of central importance in the meaning of his life. He did not go blithely through life untouched by death and corruption. You might say, he did not appear before them as a "blithe spirit", unworried by the world. His victory over death and corruption was not a demonstration of effortless superiority. It was not some perfect untouchable and essential hidden character which survived the ordeal, but his body still wounded which was raised up. It was where he took the pain of corruption in the world that his true identity was shown.

His body of the resurrection was different from what they had seen before, sufficiently so for Mary in the garden according to John, and the two on the road to Emmaus in this same chapter of Luke, not to recognize him at first; and he suddenly vanished from their sight and appeared in a closed room. Yet, different though it was, his body still bore the marks of the nails in his hands and feet. It was essential to his identity as the one who had suffered. Not only did he show them his hands and his feet, he spoke of the necessity of his death,

So he taught them, with reference to scripture, what they would need to make known to the world as his representatives. The reference to resurrection could be based in part on the many instances in the history of Israel when God had brought the nation back from virtual oblivion to live again in confidence and thanksgiving; and it could be seen in the more specific teaching of the prophets who dealt with the need to recognize the power of God to renew life, perhaps in the more literal wording of Hosea which fits the circumstances of the death and resurrection of Jesus:

The manner of his death had been especially hard for them to take in spite of his having tried to warn them many times in the face of their more traditional ideas of how the Messiah should triumph. As one of the two on the road to Emmaus had said in Luke's story earlier in the same chapter,

And then as now with the disciples in Jerusalem he told them of the necessity of his death on the way to glory:

The witness of the apostles to the suffering servant

Following his example in these resurrection appearances, it was common practice of the apostles to teach similarly from scripture, at least when speaking with Jewish communities. So Paul in Rome,

The most striking example is probably the teaching by Philip of the Ethiopian official who had been reading about the suffering servant in Isaiah as he road along in his chariot reading,

The apostles undoubtedly referred also to how the prophet speaks not only of his death, but how God would honour him for his suffering for the sake of others,

Jesus taught the disciples then to relate this meaning of his death to their ministry of reconciliation:

And so they went out with message which we find Peter proclaiming in Acts 3.

It would be difficult to understand Peter's talk of Jesus as the servant of God without the background of the suffering servant tradition in the Hebrew scriptures. That the same servant was the Author of life is a new insight. The one who bore the signs of corruption in the marks on his hands and feet, was none other than maker of life who could remake it when it went wrong. So they testified that the Author, the Pioneer, brought about transformation through his suffering, and opened up the new way to God. As the writer of the letter the Hebrews put it:

Jesus, the suffering servant thus became the beginning, the foundation, of the way to glory on which many would follow him, the servant of God who thereby for us became the servant of life. All glory be to him.

The call to repent and believe

That belief of the apostles, to which they witnessed with such power that the world was indeed transformed was not presented simply as an abstract theory but with a sense of urgency. They appealed and pleaded with their hearers to leave their old ways and turn to God in the name of the one who was the Author of life, to take for themselves the way of forgiveness, reconciliation and refreshment:

The same challenge, urging and appeal comes to us today. The same Author of life still offers the way forward, and people still have the same capacity to respond in faith to his call. May we all be so blessed. Amen.

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