Third Sunday of Easter
15 April 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Acts 3. 12-19; Luke 24. 36b – 48
A few years ago the journalist and author Christopher Booker wrote a book called The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. The book did what it said on the tin: it described seven different plot types which, taken together, cover all the stories that human beings tell one another. Crucial to Booker’s thesis is that all stories, whatever their plot type, are concerned at heart with just one character – the hero or heroine. All the other characters in a story are like planets revolving around this central sun. Opinion was quite sharply divided about the book’s central thesis, but it is certainly a thought-provoking one. At the very least it is an interesting, and quite fun – exercise attempting to fit novels, or children’s stories, or films, or plays into one of Booker’s seven categories, and to reflect on how the plot deals with the relationship between the hero or heroine and the other characters in the story.
Booker calls one of his plot types ‘voyage and return’. The main character journeys to an unknown or dangerous place; he or she overcome the challenges that are there, and finally returns ready to pass on wisdom and experience to others who have often been waiting anxiously, fearing or assuming the worst. I wonder if we might think of the account of Jesus’s ministry, trial, death, and resurrection as a story of voyage and return. In all four gospels Jesus, in Booker’s terms the hero, journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, accompanied by a group of companions – the other characters in the story. Jerusalem is not an unknown place, but it is certainly dangerous. Jesus is arrested there, put on trial, and crucified. Death is the final destination of Jesus’s journey: definitely an unknown, indeed unknowable place. He leaves behind a group of companions assuming the very worst: he is gone for good. But the gospel writers, in this morning’s case St Luke, show us the return. Jesus appears among his companions who are gathered together on the evening of the first Easter Day. He has overcome the final and ultimate danger – death itself – and returns to his startled and terrified disciples, showing them his hands and feet; eating a piece of broiled fish; assuring them he is not a ghost.
Finally Jesus passes on the wisdom of the scriptures to the startled and terrified group: Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
In his introduction to The Seven Basic Plots Booker writes, ultimately it is in relation to (the story’s) central figure that all other characters in a story take on their significance. This, too, is true of the Evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection. It is especially so of Luke’s writing. Remember that that the final appearance of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel which we heard about this morning is actually only the halfway point of Luke’s contribution to the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles Luke went on to write a full account of the development of the early Christian communities in Jerusalem and beyond. The characters in Luke’s account only have significance in the story in relation to Jesus Christ to whose resurrection they are witnesses. They are, if you like, the planets to his sun. So for instance this morning we hear Peter speaking to the crowds in Solomon’s portico on the eastern side of the Jerusalem Temple. A poor fisherman, and a denier of Jesus to boot, Peter has no significance in this story other than in relation to Jesus, to whom he bears witness. As if to emphasise the point Luke has Peter proclaim to the crowds the wisdom that Jesus had imparted to the startled and terrified disciples on that first Easter Day: In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. What is true of Peter is true of the other major characters in the Acts of the Apostles: John, Stephen, Philip, Barnabas and, especially, Paul. Their significance in the story of the early church is rooted solely in the one to whom they bear witness: the risen Christ.
It is true for us too. Identity politics might be the predominant feature, and siren voice, of our political landscape at the moment, but for Christians it is nothing less than idolatrous. It is only in relation to the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection – his voyage and return – that we have any significance. St Paul’s word’s to the church at Colossae are words we need to hear, and live out, in our own time: you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!