My husband died very suddenly one sunny Sunday afternoon at about 3 o’clock. That night our 14-year-old daughter came into my bed and it was like having a plank of wood lying next to me. The bed trembled. So strange. I remember putting my arm around her and realising that I was cold and stiff and shaking too. That’s the shock of a sudden or violent death.
In the days after Christ’s crucifixion, and when the tomb was discovered to be empty, in the weeks that followed as the followers gathered, as the news of His death reached outlying parts and people came to Jerusalem to hear for themselves, to try to strip the rumours and whispers down to the truth…. those early days of Christianity were days of shock.
That was the raw material of the Christian church – bewildered, frightened, heartbroken people, people just like my daughter and me as we stared into a new and unknown future, a future of grief. Pretty dodgy raw material to build anything on, anything at all.
So, how is it that 2000 years later a crucified man, Jesus, is still loved, adored, mourned and celebrated? And what fabulous ability did those grieving people have,to carry on this wonderful faith?
They had nothing. That’s it. For 40 days they had nothing but their own weak resources, and they just weren’t up to the job. They managed to group together, they managed to pray and to elect someone in Judas’s place, but apart from that… they hid. A bit like Lou and me, that night, when all we could achieve was the next breath. Alone, the early followers of Jesus were in the same state. What sort of foundation was that for the Gospel? This time last year, in the aftermath of Easter, I wrote a little study (just for myself) of the new church, thinking about the Book of Acts, and I was struck by the turmoil and emotion of those very early days.
When someone who means the world to us dies, someone on whom our whole lives are based, like a husband, or – for the disciples – their Lord and Rabbi, then in a single stroke, in that last breath, everything changes. When I saw George lying dead, my horizon changed for ever, and everything between me and that horizon was unknown. I stepped into a new and alien world. One I’d never even thought about. One day the disciples were learning, trying to understand, following, growing in their love for Jesus. Whatever they had thought was coming their way, whatever they had anticipated, it certainly hadn’t been execution, shame, persecution, terrible terrible loss.
Remember, my little dumplings, there was no phone, no email, no photographic evidence, no newspapers, no way of relaying information except by word of mouth. Chinese whispers. Imagine the confusion as news of the crucifixion reached distant hamlets;
“They executed Him? Why? What charge?”
“He said He’d pull the temple down in three days, or rebuild it in three days, or something.”
“Jesus did? Jesus? That doesn’t sound like Him.”
“Well, He did. The priests went bonkers.”
“Why was he going to do that?”
“Dunno but you know that old bloke who sells linen in Jerusalem? Well, he heard it, from someone who knows someone whose sister was there that day and she heard the crowd shouting ‘Kill him’ and a butcher told her what had happened. I think he heard it from a soldier.”
“Why did the crowd shout ‘kill him’?”
“And he’s dead?”
“Yeah, well, but no….. they reckon not. Maybe.”
“Either He is or He isn’t, mate.”
“Don’t get annoyed with me. I’m just saying what I heard.”
Wouldn’t you want to get to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles, the family of Jesus, those who actually knew what had happened? I would. I’d get to Jerusalem by hook or by crook, but once there what would I hear? The rumours started and fomented by the Romans, the shock of the followers, the amazing story of the empty tomb, and then I’d discover that the Romans were already beginning to crack down on the people who followed The Way, and most of them were keeping a low profile…. I mean, come on, my 2019 friends, wouldn’t you begin to wonder if it had all been some big scam, if you’d been taken in good and proper? You’d look at the frightened disciples and even the apostles and you’d see people who looked very like Lou and me looked the night of George’s death… pale, shaky, confused, broken hearted, aimless, shattered.
So, what changed? We’ve remembered the crucifixion this week, and the resurrection, and now I’m reading on in Acts, about the 120 believers in the days following Christ’s death. 120 is not far from the number of members in our church here in Wales. Could we transform the world with our faith as those early followers did? Could we lay the foundations for a world wide church lasting two thousand years and on into eternity?
Yep. We jolly well could.
Yep. Because those early Christians were just as flawed and broken as we are. They were just as prone to sin and self and laziness as we are. They were no different. What they could do, we can do.
Because… because…. because… it’s not us who do it. It’s not them who did it. The Holy Spirit does the work. The Holy Spirit enables. And 40 days later, the Holy Spirit came down, and made His home in the heart of every believer, and lives today, in our hearts. The Holy Spirit lives here and in Sri Lanka, in grief and shock and loss. He will not be defeated. Bombs and cruelty won’t win. Death will not win. The empty tomb says so.
This morning, just when I needed it, I saw a tiny drop of grace from the Holy Spirit. When I say ‘tiny’ I don’t mean small, I mean perfect, crystalline, a gem, a quiet hidden gift. A flower growing unseen is still a beautiful flower, still a gift from God to the world…..
I have some family problems to deal with and it’s a hard, really hard time, because I don’t know how best to deal with the situation minute to minute. I’m me. But it takes me to God, reminding me of how I need Him in all things… and that’s not me being halo-ed and holy, that’s me being human and a bit puggled. This morning, as I took my thoughts to Jesus, I felt completely useless and swamped. Just swamped.
And then I met someone who last week lost her mother; in her last days this elderly woman had been not just weak and ill but also confused and longing for comfort. I’d suggested reading some little bits of the Bible to her, among them a couple of Psalms and her daughter did this. The dying woman loved the reading, she remembered the Psalms, and responded to them. Her daughter told me this morning that the Psalms will be read at her funeral.
If that doesn’t seem much to you, I understand, but it meant a lot to me. It’s just what I needed to hear this morning, 22nd April 2019; Christ is alive, His Word is alive and however difficult life is, however lost we feel, we are no longer shaking and frightened and defeated and overwhelmed. I am not swamped, I have the Holy Spirit and He is all I need.
Sri Lankan Christians will not be swamped. They may feel all the symptoms of shock, they may look all over the place, tears, heartbreak, all of that, but they have the Holy Spirit living in their hearts and He is all they need. We forgive those who do evil to us, because of Him. We carry on carrying on because of Him. The church is established because of Him.
“.. we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”