To be part of any ‘first’ is quite something. So to be asked to write the opening column for the Ulster Star’s new church page is a real privilege.
While I am not a local parish minister, I live in Lisburn and worship in Elmwood Presbyterian with my wife Zoë.
It is one of five Presbyterian churches in Lisburn, and like all the churches in the city, alongside the Ulster Star, they play an important part in the life of the local community. They also have something else in common - they each bring us news – one, the news week, the others, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Coincidentally, I am the same age as the Star – we came into this world in 1957 – so we have witnessed a lot in these intervening decades, especially the rise of a twisted phenomenon known as ‘Fake News’.
As one online dictionary defines it, ‘false information that is broadcast or published as news for fraudulent or politically motivated purposes.’ ‘Fake News’ greatest finger-pointer, a certain recently defeated US president – was at the same time its best exponent.
Hearing news that appears to be beyond belief but proves to be true, is evidently not ‘fake’.
This is what the disciples of Jesus had to deal with on that first Easter Sunday. Today, Good Friday, marks the moment of Jesus’ supposed ‘failure’ as a would-be Messiah. Dead and buried, it seemed to mark the end of his mission, and the end of any hope for a broken and sinful world. Small wonder his followers fled. But Easter Sunday changed everything.
That day, Luke explains in his gospel that the women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb to complete the burial rituals found it empty. Two men “… in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them …” (Luke 24:4) only to tell them that “He is not here, he has risen!” (Luke 24:6). They ran to the disciples to tell them that Jesus was alive, but the disciples didn’t believe it. Peter runs to the tomb, and like the women found it empty, wondering what could have possibly happened there.
Luke goes on to say that Jesus appeared to two of his followers on the Road to Emmaus. They only realised that it was him when he sat down to eat with them. They rushed back to Jerusalem to let the disciples know what had happened and that Jesus was alive. And if proof was needed, as they were regaling them with their story, Jesus appeared in the room. What a day – and Thomas missed it!
At the same time, the world’s first attempt at ‘Fake News’ was being hatched. The chief priests told the soldiers who guarded the tomb to tell the world that “‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep’” (Matthew 28:13.) Writing 50 or so years later, Matthew also tells us that the story of the stolen body, had been widely circulated “…to this very day” (Matthew 28:15.) So what do you believe?
This weekend, nearly 2,000 years after these incredible events took place, Peter’s own words echo down the centuries when he wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
This new page will be an ongoing witness to those long ago events, with news of what his modern day disciples are doing today, here in Lisburn – and I very much look forward to reading about it.