Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash
The following is the transcript of the Rev. Canon Phil Ashey’s Easter Sermon, given on April 17, 2022 at St. Simon’s Anglican Mission, St. Simon’s Island, GA. The sermon video can also be watched below:
Tim Keller is one of the best known pastors and preachers in America. In 1989 he came to NYC to found Redeemer PCA, which has in turn launched a global church planting movement. He is the author of at least 10 books, and if you haven’t listened to one of his sermons yet, you are in for a treat. They are thoughtful, thorough, and deep in his exposition of the Bible and its relevance to the questions of our day.
But at age 71, Tim Keller was recently diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. The doctor told Tim and his wife Kathy, ‘I want you to realize that when it comes to pancreatic cancer you’re going to die from this. The vast majority of patients live less than a year after diagnosis.” Tim described that day itself as a kind of death. He described the shadows that fell upon them: “My wife, Kathy, and I spent much time in tears and disbelief. We expected some illness to come and take us when we felt really old. But not now, not yet. This couldn’t be; what was God doing to us? So much more to do with children, grandchildren, life and ministry…”
Keller went on to describe the shadows of darkness and doubt he had to face, as many do, when suffering and death come knocking. He had to ask himself if he really believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and a life that never ends. As he reevaluated the evidence in N.T. Wright’s summa, The Resurrection of the Son of God, he was persuaded more than ever that Jesus Christ did in fact rise from the dead physically and appear to the disciples! “I came to realize,” says Keller, “ that the experiential side of my faith really needed to strengthen or I wasn’t going to be able to handle this [cancer]. It’s one thing to believe God loves you, another thing to actually feel his love. It’s one thing to believe he’s present with you. It’s another to actually experience his presence. My experience of his presence and his love was going to have to double, triple, quintuple or I wouldn’t make it.”
Is it possible to actually feel God’s love? To actually experience his presence? To actually know Christ personally, to know his light that shatters every darkness, his peace that stills every storm? The answer is in the story we just heard of two disciples who were beginning to walk into the darkness of despair, just as Tim Keller was. Let’s take a look at the beginning of this story.
It was probably late afternoon on the day of the Resurrection when two weary disciples found themselves walking westward along a dusty road toward the little village of Emmaus. Cleopas and his friend were not among the 12 who were back in Jerusalem wondering about the reports from Mary, Peter, and John that the tomb was empty, and Mary’s emphatic testimony that she had seen the risen Lord. They had heard the reports certainly, but Cleopas and his friend were followers of Jesus Christ. They followed him with awe after he raised Lazarus from the dead, followed him with shouts of “Hosanna!” into Jerusalem, followed him into the Temple where they sat at His feet and watched him confound the religious authorities. Then they watched the whole thing fall apart as the authorities crucified Jesus and put him in a tomb.
And now? They are literally, directionally walking into the sunset and the shadows—away from Jerusalem, away from the cross, away from the empty tomb, away from the fellowship of believers:
“They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked alongside them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’ They stood still, their faces downcast…Don’t you know…We had hoped…” (Luke 24:13-17, 21-24)
Dejected, demoralized, downcast, depressed; they were discussing all these matters, saying things like, “Do you remember the time the Master cast out seven demons from that lady? Do you remember the time he stilled the waters when the boat the twelve were in was about to sink in the storm? Do you remember feeling ‘this man MUST be the Messiah we’ve been waiting for’? But why didn’t he put up a fight? How could he be the Messiah if he’s dead now? Was he just another great prophet and teacher—killed like so many before their time?”
Notice, too: they heard the eyewitness testimony that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was alive, but they did not have any experience of that reality. And without any personal experience of Jesus’ resurrection they were unable to close the gap between the fact of the resurrection and their experience of death, loss, discouragement, and defeat. They are talking about everything and doing nothing other than walking into the sunset and the shadows of their own pain, doubt, and uncertainty
BUT this isn’t the end of the story!! Let’s read on:
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?’ They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them assembled together and saying ‘It is true! The LORD has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.” Luke 24:30-35
Something happened to these two disciples! One moment they are walking into the sunset of doubt and discouragement, and the next moment they are rushing back for miles through the dark of night, exposing themselves to robbers and danger, to spread the Good News that Jesus IS alive! They turned 180 degrees from paralysis to proclamation; from isolation to fellowship and unity; from sadness to joy; from fear to joyful and fearless conviction; from talking to action; from depression to confession!
So how can we explain this turnaround?
It wasn’t because they were on a “spiritual journey”. Many people today use that phrase as a description for a life of seeking and searching for spiritual truth, but without any final conclusion—as if that were a virtue! The problem with that kind of thinking is that whether you are on a journey to Emmaus or someplace else, you may be heading in the wrong direction—just as these disciples were! A ship could start out from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and if it begins off by one degree, the ship will miss Hawaii by 400 miles and never even see islands! That’s why Jesus didn’t affirm these two disciples on their journey. If he had, they would never have recognized him; they would never have opened the scriptures and understood them; their hearts would never have been burning with joy, satisfaction, conviction, and hope for the future; and he would have sent them off into the sunset of ambiguity and uncertainty, to the next village, and the next, farther and farther away from him.
And they didn’t turn around because they had the right facts about Jesus. They already had the right facts: his powerful words and deeds, his crucifixion, the reports of his resurrection, and they gave intellectual assent to these facts. But facts never saved anyone. It’s how you act on those facts that saves you or not, and in this case, though they had the right facts, they were drawing the wrong conclusions of dejection and disbelief.
So what was it that turned them around and transformed these two disciples from spiritual wanderers to confident leaders, joyful visionaries, and bold proclaimers?
What this story tells us is simply this: resurrection is not just a fact or mental abstraction. It is a reality that you and I can experience. Because Jesus HAS risen from the dead and is alive, you and I CAN know him and the power of his resurrection, and, thankfully, even suffering with something like cancer can drive us like a nail deeper into his GRACE and a PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP with Him.
This is what turned them around, you see. They had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that forever changed the way they thought, the way they felt, and the way they acted. They had a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus, who opened the scriptures of the Bible, challenged them personally to believe, and walked with them until the eyes of their understanding were opened, and their hearts burned with joy, and they recognized him. That’s the language of personal experience; it is the language of personal encounter.
For some people that personal encounter with Jesus Christ will be as dramatic as the disciples’ encounter on the road to Emmaus or as arresting as Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. For others that personal encounter will be gentle and peaceful, as undramatic a beginning as a prayer inviting Jesus to come into your life over a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a realization and conviction of the kind that C.S. Lewis wrote about in Surprised by Joy: a sudden realization at the end of your bus ride that you really DO believe that Jesus is your Lord and Savior. But whatever the form of the encounter, Jesus will engage and encounter you and me the same way he encountered these two disciples. Do you want to know what a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus looks like? Then dig in to the details of how Jesus encountered these two disciples on their journey
When Jesus encounters us personally, he:
always gracefully takes the initiative.
“Jesus himself came up and walked along with them…” (Luke 24:15 NIV) And this is true whether we recognize him or not!
draws us out and listens to our pain (see Luke 24:19-24)
Jesus drew them out with questions even though their pain was written on their faces, because Jesus is all about TLC—in his tender loving care, he draws us out, listens to our pain, and waits for us to reach the end of ourselves so patiently and lovingly until we are ready to receive every grace, every healing, every forgiveness, every high hope and fresh start that he has for you and me!
challenges our knowledge, our conclusions, and our direction
“Jesus said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25 NIV) Jesus lovingly GOT IN THEIR FACE and personally challenged their knowledge of the Bible, the conclusions they were drawing, and the direction they were heading, and isn’t that exactly what he did with some of us? Isn’t that exactly how our coming to Christ began, a realization that we didn’t know as much as we thought, that maybe the conclusions we had drawn about God and his purposes and promises were wrong, that there was something more– something promising and powerful that we always longed for? Didn’t most of us find our way here because in some way we found our life direction and goals challenged?
reveals the truth through His word, the Bible.
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scripturesconcerning himself.” (Luke 24:27 NIV) Jesus points us, just as he pointed them, to the Bible. He asks us to read it and think about it and ask ourselves the question, “Who fulfills all of the promises that I read in this book?” Then Jesus makes himself the subject and focus of all those promises, and the fulfillment of God’s plan for us, because he knows that “the journey” in and of itself is without value unless it leads us to him!
reveals himself when we ask him in.
“As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us….’… When he was at the table with them, he took bread… then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…” (Luke 24:28-31 NIV) He respects our freedom of choice, and he waits for our invitation.
fills our hearts with new life, new hope, and new direction.
Look at how this story ends:
“They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us’ They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them assembled together and saying ‘It is true! The LORD has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.” (Luke 24:30-35) Their lives were never the same, and the same is true for us: there is no substitute for a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s that personal encounter that connects his resurrection to our life, that closes the gap between right thinking and right living. It’s that personal encounter and personal experience with Jesus Christ that marks the turning point in our lives, and is such a powerful turning point that it is something we are compelled to share with others!
I love how Tim Keller shared with his interviewer about how he is personally facing cancer in light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: “If the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened,” said Keller, “then ultimately, God is going to put everything right. Suffering is going to go away. Evil is going to go away. Death is going to go away. Aging is going to go away. Pancreatic cancer is going to go away. Now if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen, then I guess all bets are off. But if it actually happened, then there’s all the hope in the world.”
But it’s not only hope that a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus brings you and me. It’s an encounter that brings a whole new way of living and seeing everything. So Keller concluded with this amazing confession about how he sees his own cancer: “I do think that the great thing about cancer is that Easter does mean a whole lot more because I look at [The resurrection of Jesus] and I say, “Because of this, I can face anything.” In the past, I thought of Easter as a kind of optimistic, upbeat way of thinking about life. And now I see that [The resurrection of Jesus Christ] is a universal solvent. It can eat through any fear, any anger and despair. I see it as more powerful than ever before.”
You and I need a personal encounter with Jesus Christ: there is no substitute! Not just a touch, not just a one-time encounter, but such a personal encounter that our lives are forever changed to follow Jesus, to live our lives as he would, and to share his risen life with others!