Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter
Another resurrection story for this, the third Sunday in Eastertide. “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.” While they were talking about this; “they” being the disciples and the others who were with them, and “this” being a rather wild story that two of those others had just breathlessly recounted. We were on the road to Emmaus… a stranger joined us as we walked… the way he talked about the law and the prophets set our hearts on fire… when we got there, we asked him to stay for a meal… he took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to us… and then we saw who it was! The women weren’t dreaming when they talked about an empty grave… we swear, he’s alive!
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And as those two reel out their story, suddenly Jesus is with them, offering his greeting of peace. Their response? “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” But hadn’t they just heard the story told by the two who’d rushed back from Emmaus; a story that must have given at least some credibility to what the women had said about the empty tomb? What’s with this terrified response over it being a ghost?
Frankly, they’re still not able to connect all that has happened; they’re still staggering from the shock of Jesus’ execution, just beginning to come to grips with the fact that all they’d been living for over the past few years had come to a violent end. Further, they knew all too well what crucifixion did to a body. They knew that after a dead body was taken down off of a cross, there wasn’t much left intact. So if they are seeing someone or something that looks and sounds like Jesus, it must be a ghostly spirit detached from that battered and broken body. In the Jewish world of the first century that’s a frightening aberration—almost an abomination—for human life was, by definition, embodied life. To be human was to be a body/soul, tightly and intimately intertwined. The Jewish world view had no sense that when a person died their spirit was freed from its tired or worn or broken body; no sense that the person’s spirit went wafting away to heaven. No, when someone died they were dead. In the view of the Sadducees, that was the end; the only life beyond death was in the heritage of children and grandchildren. Full stop. For the Pharisees and other schools of thought, there was a future beyond sheol—beyond the place of the dead—for in the end God would raise up the righteous dead in the resurrection life. But that was believed to be a future event.
Either way, in the world in which Jesus and his followers lived, to think in terms of a spirit detached from a body was to be dealing with something terrifyingly
out of order; something ghostly. Now we begin to hear the deeper significance of how this story unfolds. “Jesus 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.” Touch me and see; my life is a fully embodied one. If you look at my hands and feet, you’ll see the scars left by the nails. Touch me and see.
“And when Jesus had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet,” yet as Luke describes the scene he still notes that, “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Are they that thick-headed? No. It is just that this is something that really is quite unbelievable. Yes, we see your scars… and maybe one of the group is even brave enough to risk reaching out to touch him? But in Emmaus you’d been with the two companions, and then gone. And here—here—you didn’t even open the door; you were just here.
“He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” Here’s what amounts to the gold standard demonstration that they’re not dealing with a disembodied spirit. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” I suspect that this is more than just a proof that they’re not faced by a ghost, for all they way through the gospels—and most especially through Luke’s account—the sharing of food and drink has a massive significance. Whether to give to Zacchaeus the tax collector a dignity he’d never dreamed of, or as a context to engage Simon the Pharisee in conversation, or as an occasion to enact the abundance of the loaves and fishes, or as a gift of remembrance with bread and wine, in Luke’s view the act of eating together is so often a moment of grace.
The grace in this moment is that they stand peaceably in the presence, not of a ghost and not of a merely spiritual Jesus, but of the resurrected Christ. As N.T. Wright puts it, they finally saw that “Jesus had gone through death and out the other side into a new mode of life.” This new mode, Wright notes, “seems to have involved his physical body being transformed so that it was now inhabiting both our space and God’s space”; something “naturally enough, difficult to describe.” “Good theology,” Wright rather wryly notes, “requires good imagination.”
What does it finally mean for them to stand in the presence of this Jesus, who inhabits both our space and God’s space? It means at least two things.
Firstly, it means they must keep telling this story, for he has commissioned them to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Repentance—in Greek metanoia—which means a transformative “turning around” which yields forgiveness of sin; a healing of the distortion and disfiguring of what we were intended to be. Tell it, live it out, do it, be it.
Secondly, it means that in him they have seen their future—our future. What happens for Jesus at that particular point in time and history reveals what is promised for his people. That’s what Paul means when he writes in his 1st letter to the Corinthians that, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” He has forever kicked open the door between death and new life, and in God’s time it is through that door that we all will pass. Or, to borrow a phrase from Robert Farrar Capon, our deaths are hid safe in the death of Jesus. This is a “blessed assurance,” as the old hymn of that title puts it. We sang that hymn yesterday at the funeral for my brother’s mother-in-law, who died at the age of 93 quite utterly at peace with her life and her God, and it was good to be able to sing it out in full confidence of the resurrection to eternal life.
But you know, even a “blessed assurance” that our own deaths are safe in the death of Jesus is by no means an excuse for a sentimental and narrowly “me and Jesus” version of religious faith. Here I’m struck by the comments of Jacob Myers in his consideration of this resurrection account. “Jesus says, ‘Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.’ His pierced body bears witness against a mode of discipleship that does not endure scars on behalf of others.” His pierced and scarred body, in other words, alerts us to the truth that in our own lives as a death/resurrection people we may well find some wounds and scars on our own hands and feet; scars endured on behalf of others, as Myers phrases it.
Yet even over those scars, the risen Jesus proclaims, “Peace be with you.” It is a deep and empowering peace, of which we are invited to drink deeply.