(sermon 4/18/21 – Third Sunday of Easter)
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “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. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
It isn’t any secret, any great mystery, that our world is filled with division. Differences. Arguments; ways of thinking and understanding the world so opposite that a person on one side of a disagreement can’t even imagine how a person on the other side could ever think the way the do. That’s clearly no mystery; that’s simply our daily existence. The mystery is why anyone thinks it was ever any different. Human reality is that it’s always been this way, and if we ever lived in a time or place that we didn’t personally experience those vast differences, it was only because we were privileged, or more accurately handicapped, by living a very sheltered and narrow existence where we didn’t have to be aware of such vast differences.
Those differences certainly existed in Jesus’ time; we hear it in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. Crowds around the cross – Roman soldiers, religious and civic leaders, and ordinary people alike – were mocking and ridiculing Jesus, taunting him. To them, he was a traitor, a troublemaker. Even among those who might have otherwise been sympathetic to his cause, some of them disapproved of his words and his unsettling, confrontational methods, thinking he was only angering the authorities by breaking their laws and customs, and ultimately he was hurting his cause and not helping it. Many people were very glad to see Jesus, the troublemaker, the discomforter, the gadfly, finally getting his, and to be clear, in accordance with the law of the day, Jesus got exactly what he deserved.
At the same time that those people were cheering on Jesus’ execution as a victory for law and order, there were obviously others, many others, who were having the worst day of their lives. They were emotionally gutted, completely demoralized, in shock because of what was happening. And then, just these few days later, everything changed.
If today’s gospel text seems almost like a replay of last week’s, that’s because it largely is. Last week, we heard John’s version of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples that first Easter Sunday evening, and this week, we heard Luke’s version of the story. They’re pretty similar, but there are some differences. According to Luke, Jesus had appeared to some of his disciples earlier in the day and walked with them as they journeyed out from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Now, those disciples had rushed back to Jerusalem and had told the others about having been with Jesus, when out of the blue – just as John told us last week – Jesus shows up in their midst, and from the sound of things, he does it about as nonchalantly as a teenager walking into the house after school and saying “Hey, how’s it going; do we have anything to eat?”
In fact, that’s an important difference between John’s account of that night and Luke’s Both emphasize that even though it was somehow different, Jesus did have a physical body. He wasn’t just a spirit, he wasn’t just a ghost, because if he were a ghost would signify that he was actually dead. No, he had mass, shape, form – he had corporeality. Luke even doubles down on this point more than John, by including the detail of Jesus eating the broiled fish, and likely having some wine to wash it down with. There’s a corny old joke – a skeleton walks into a bar and says “Bartender, give me a beer and a mop!” Luke’s point here is that that didn’t happen – Jesus was real; he was physical; he had a body. In short, Jesus was truly resurrected.
We need to admit here that no matter who we are, at some point, or at many points, we’ve wondered about the factual aspect of the resurrection. We may have completely rejected the idea as a literal event. That’s understandable, because on balance, all of us are reasonably sane and rationale and logical and scientific, and the resurrection is none of that. And many of us have also said something along the lines that if somehow it ended up being possible to categorically prove that Jesus wasn’t resurrected, or that his resurrection was purely spiritual, or that accounts of his resurrection are meant to be allegorical or metaphorical, that it wouldn’t really change our faith much at all; because so much of our faith is about life in the here and now, regardless of the possibility of some “golden ticket” to heaven, and eternity.
I get that, and on some days, I’ve even said that. It’s a true statement. But still, even for as postmodern, post-traditional, progressive as my own personal theology is, I still believe – on most days, anyway – I still believe in Jesus’ real, physical resurrection. I believe that his resurrection was indeed metaphorical on several levels, but I think it was much more than that, too. Maybe if I’m being completely honest, and I do try to be – I don’t believe in Jesus’ literal resurrection because of any complex theological arguments or “proofs” for it, or because it’s seen as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy – but instead, maybe I believe in it just because all reason and common sense and the smart money says that I shouldn’t, and because of that, I do, because that’s just the kind of person I am, and that’s just the kind of God I think God is.
To me, the resurrection would be the best, most effective way to put the world on notice that while it and its power thought it had the upper hand in the universe, God is always working behind the scenes and will ultimately play the trump card.
To me, the resurrection would also be the best, and maybe the most artistic way to affirm that we creatures formed from the dust of the earth aren’t just trapped in some unfortunate and ultimately useless and unimportant accident of evolution – but rather, that our having been created this way, life with skin and bones and warts and bruises is indeed good, and blessed, and what God intended all along; and that physical enjoyment in this world is also something good, and blessed, and planned.
And to me, the resurrection would also be the best and maybe the most poetic way to teach us all the reality of hope. It’s been written that the power of the resurrection is the power to plant the seeds of transformation. If resurrection is real, any kind of change can be real. Closed minds can open. Hatred can be transformed into understanding and compassion. Fear can be released and replaced with confidence and real security. If something like Jesus rising from the dead is possible, then so is stopping gun violence and police abuses of all kind be possible, too. If something like Jesus rising from the dead is possible, then erasing great swaths of racism and bigotry, and poverty and sickness is possible, too.
In short, I believe in Jesus’ resurrection because it would be the greatest single validation of the goodness of our physical lives here and the hope that solving so many of our problems is possible, and I refuse to give up that hope because I believe that God doesn’t want me, or you, or anyone, to give up that hope. So when Luke tells us that Jesus appeared in that room with his disciples, his friends, and he told them “Sit down; we’ll eat, we’ll talk,” and he proceeded to open up the meaning of the scriptures to them, and the deep truths of the faith to them; as rational and cynical and jaded as I am – on many days, anyway – I still believe it.
I believe it because I believe in the power, and the artistry, and the poetry that would be embedded in God using this ornery way to poke a stick in the eye of the powers of the world while simultaneously showing us how good, and blessed, and loved we are. To me, the idea that God would be willing to be so irrational, so illogical, to show me, and you, how loved we are is true gospel to my heart, gospel that we can all grasp onto in a world that claims to be logical and rational but that, as the news shows us every single day, ends up being anything but. I guess that in the end, in choosing to believe in the resurrection, and all the good news it would affirm, I’m not really choosing between logic and illogic – I’m just choosing which illogic to put my trust in – the world’s version, or God’s. And I believe – on most days, anyway – that I’ve chosen wisely.
Thanks be to God.