Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
While they were talking about this, 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.
Looking for Jesus- Luke 24:36b-48
The women had told them that Jesus had risen. In this way, Luke is very much like John and Matthew. The women who had followed Jesus and later went to tend to his body were the first witnesses to the resurrection. They became the first preachers of this particular piece of Good News. But the male disciples did not believe them. They thought Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James' mother Mary, and the other unnamed women who were present were simply telling "an idle tale"… a lie or gossip or garbage, you know the things women's stories get dismissed as all the time. The women had seen the presence of God through two beings in dazzling white. They had been reminded of Jesus' own message that death need not be the end. But, the men, with the exception of Peter, did not think their report was worth heeding. Either it was too strange or they were too sad to be willing to entertain any hope after the crucifixion. The women had told them that Jesus had risen. They chose not to believe.
Eventually, someone believed the women, else we would not be here. Today's reading describes how some people came to believe. There are two stories. Our reading for the day is the second. First is the story of the two people meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I tell this story sometimes when we share communion. After all, it's a story where Jesus' friends recognized him in the breaking of the bread. That's one place we, too, regularly recognize Jesus, in the breaking and sharing of a simple meal. Those two, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, run to tell the others, just as the women had. When they arrived, they learned that Simon has seen Jesus as well. As they talked about these incredible sightings, verifying what the women had said, Jesus appears once again and offers them peace.
I learned in my research this week that there are ancient historians who recorded different ways to check and see if a person is a ghost. Apparently, ghosts were a big enough concern that learned people developed tests for other people to make sure that the person they were talking to was really there. First, you may check the potential apparition's feet to see if they are touching the ground. You might also check their hands, to see if they feel solid. You may examine their teeth and watch them eat. Jesus followed the template of this kind of test to show that he was not a ghost. Though he has offered peace with his appearance, he saw that they were frightened. He saw that they had doubts. He knew this kind of ghost test would be familiar to them, so he ran through the motions, showing his hands, his feet, sharing some food. He needed to show them that he was real and really there. He needed them to believe.
I read another scholar this week who pointed out something interesting. María Teresa Dávila notes that while we are likely intended to read Jesus' resurrection as a victory, it is not a victory without cost. His body bears the marks his struggle. His hands and feet, though once again alive, are scarred by his interactions with the Empire. Victory didn't erase the scars. He continued to carry on his very skin the evidence of a life lived in radical commitment to God's love and justice. All of his ministry was created in the face of the destructive patterns of the Empire. Even his ultimate victory will always be remembered in light of his great vulnerability. His wounds were there. They knew it was him because they saw them. It did them no good to pretend that they weren't there. In fact, according to Dávila, it reminds us that "the work of building the beloved community takes place within history and within our wounded bodies." The presence of Christ's wounds helps show us that our own woundedness has a place in our community. We don't have to hide it in order to take part.
Once he was sure that they knew who he was, he reminded them why he was there. He reminded them that the Messiah wasn't a military leader who would be declaring war on God's behalf. He reminded them that repentance and forgiveness were central to his life and should be central to their on-going ministry. And, he told them that they had a future... one without his physical presence but still guided by the Spirit. In a lovely little line just after today's reading, Jesus said they will be clothed with power from on high. But, they have to wait for it. God will give them what they need to do this work. They are already the witnesses to God's grace in this story. There will come a time very soon where they will share what they've seen.
The thing is, it is not just the ancient disciples who are witnesses to the Resurrection. We are, too. We have encountered Christ in so many ways. We know that there is something Divine that is real and bigger than us and that there is a just and loving future we are building with the Holy Spirit. We probably didn't ask to be a witness. One rarely does. And, yet, here we are witnesses to the movement of God in this world, tasked with sharing the word, and empowered to carry this mission out. In so many ways, we are like these men. We have seen the Lord. Now, we are invited to share that experience.
It's not always easy to bear witness, though. We can get out of practice, if we ever really started to begin with. I read something from the scholar Lucy Lind Hogan that I thought might help give us some form to our witness... help us flesh out how we describe our God to someone else. What she wrote is actually a shorthand description of today's reading... an easier way to understand how this story flows. I think it can also help guide us in our learning to be witnesses for Christ. The whole process centers around these 5 words:
We won't always initially understand our encounters with Christ. Each encounter we have must be examined. We will practice discernment informed by prayer, the scriptures, and by our interactions in Christian community. With all the sources and some guidance from the Holy Spirit, we can work to more fully explain and understand how we've encountered Christ. We can never say fully what and who God is, but we come closer every time we are willing to share some of our story with others.
The eating part is important, too. This isn't just about an ancient ghost test. I think it can be shorthand for relationality. We share food in worship when we take communion. That is a ritual that is always supposed to teach us something about the presence of Christ. We share food in community, having coffee and cookies after church while we catch up on our weeks and baking casseroles for someone who has been ill. We share food with complete strangers at the food pantry and at lunches on our lawn. When we eat together, we care for one another and give one another the opportunity to, once again, experience Christ through fellowship.
When we've had an encounter that feels holy and placed it in conversation with our scriptures and traditions... when we've prayed about it and talked about it with people we trust... when we feel like we might have an explanation or a couple explanations for our Holy experiences... when the Holy Spirit moves with us, we may feel a sense of enlightenment. Even in times when it's hard to communicate what we experienced, we are called to try. We are called to practice. Jesus promised that we can be clothed with power from on high that will help us share this good news. Now we just have to live like we believe it.
Shortly after our reading for today, Jesus exits the story for the final time, carried away to be with God. We will exit, too, from this house of worship, from our homes and places of work, from the plays and games and activities that provide us with evermore opportunities to encounter Christ. We will exit the place where we have sought sustenance for our journey. When we leave, we are invited to go out singing God's praises. We will exit so that we can proclaim the Good News of our encounters with Christ so that the whole world will know something more about love and justice. We will leave as witness to God's loving future. Even with our fears and our doubts, we are still witnesses. May we help one another to live out this holy calling.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3627
Lucy Lind Hogan: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1238
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5126
María Teresa Dávila "Third Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.