April 15, 2018
Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 3:12-19 Psalm 4 1 John 3:1-7 Luke 24:36b-48
In these weeks of Easter season, the lectionary guides us through various accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples. The scriptures contain accounts of at least eleven appearances. If you put all of them side by side and compared them, you would see very quickly that there are quite a few differences in the details. Of the main witness there is no question: Christ was raised, and he appeared. Beyond that central proclamation, though, many different, even contradictory accounts are given.
Some appearances take place in Galilee, others in Jerusalem. Sometimes the disciples recognize Jesus, sometimes they don’t. In some cases, the disciples are filled with joy at seeing Jesus; in others they are terrified at the appearance of what they think is a ghost. In Matthew and Mark, the disciples are told to return to Galilee, where they will see Jesus. In Luke’s story today, they are instructed to remain in Jerusalem until they are empowered. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him; in last week’s reading Thomas, and this week the eleven disciples are specifically invited to touch and see that it really is Jesus. Luke gives us two different accounts of Jesus’ ascension – one at the end of his gospel and the other at the beginning of Acts, which is volume two of his work. The apostle Paul lists a number of appearances, including one to over 500 believers at one time. Paul includes his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus with the resurrection appearances, even though it is separated from the events of Easter by several years.
What emerges from the accounts of these appearances is clearly a bodily resurrection of Jesus. A different body, to be sure, a transformed body, able to appear in locked rooms, but recognizably the same person, bearing the marks of his wounds. The resurrection appearances are a time of looking backward, seeking to understand and interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus in the light of scripture, and a time of looking forward to the mission of the church, which we see at its beginnings in the reading from Acts.
Today’s gospel reading takes place in the middle of Luke’s sequence of events on the first Easter day.
- The women go to the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Jesus, and find the stone rolled away, but there is no body. Two figures in dazzling robes remind them of Jesus’ words that the Son of Man must suffer and be raised. The women tell this to the eleven and all the rest, but it appears to them an idle tale. The disciples dismiss them as a bunch of hysterical women. Peter, however, does run to the tomb; he sees the burial cloths lying by themselves, then he goes home amazed.
- Jesus appears to two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but they fail to recognize him. After listening to their tale, Jesus interprets the scriptures to show the necessity of the Messiah’s suffering before entering his glory. When Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them, the two disciples recognize him. In the same moment, Jesus vanishes from their sight. The disciples immediately hurry back to Jerusalem, where they find that Peter has also seen Jesus.
- As the two disciples recount their experience on the road and how they recognized Jesus, Jesus himself appears in their midst. Where during their time together he was the host at the table, now he receives their hospitality. Again, he helps them understand that the Messiah had to suffer, die, and be raised. Then he commissions them to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations and promises them power to do so.
- Jesus leads them out of the city, blesses them, and is taken up from them. Luke’s gospel ends with the disciples returning to Jerusalem and joyfully praising God in the temple.
From this sequence, we can discern an answer to the question “What are the hallmarks of an Easter church?”
- Jesus is at the centre of every gathering that bears his name. Without him, there is no Easter faith. When Jesus appears to the gathered disciples, they are terrified. They think they are seeing a ghost. Understandably so: the dead are supposed to stay dead. Yet here he is very much alive in their presence. If what he said about his death and resurrection was true, then so is everything else he said. That includes everything he said about how we should treat one another, and especially those who are marginalized. Remember his promise: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Every time we meet, Jesus is there too. We need to welcome each other with the same reverence as we would welcome Christ himself.
- Jesus brings peace to anxious, fearful people. Peace is his first greeting and his first gift. Even after he shows them his hands and feet and invites them to touch and see that it is really him, the disciples are still disbelieving and wondering. Faith is not a requirement or prerequisite for the gift of peace. We need to extend that same peace unconditionally.
- God really did raise Jesus from death. Luke goes to great lengths to emphasize the reality and physicality of Jesus’ presence. He invites his friends to touch and see. He eats in front of them. He is truly alive, not a disembodied spirit, but the same person he was before his death. In the same way, the resurrection means that the person I am somehow endures, that we, who are created us as unique individuals, retain that uniqueness. We do not lose our identity in some existence after this one – that’s the difference between resurrection and reincarnation. God created us as whole persons, embodied and incarnate, and our future holds a similar bodily life. Exactly what kind of life is a mystery, but Paul tells us that the spiritual body is raised above the limitations of this life to be a perfect instrument of God’s praise. As the first letter of John tells us today, “We are God’s children now; what we shall be is yet to be revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” This life is possible only by God’s gift and power.
It is not that the events of my life have somehow led me to believe in resurrection. It’s the other way around: my belief in resurrection helps me to find meaning in the events of my life, to make sense of the events of my life, and sometimes simply to bear the events of my life. Knowing that Jesus is alive is the source of hope for all those who bear the wounds of bereavement and the certainty of mortality.
- The risen Christ still bears the marks of his suffering. “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says. He is at one and the same time wounded and glorified. His wounds demand that we tend to the wounds and scars of others and that we be willing to suffer on behalf of others. The witness of Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated 50 years ago this month, was grounded in his understanding of the willing sacrifice of Christ.
- The scriptures are essential to understanding and appreciating the ministry of Jesus. He reminds the disciples that his life, ministry, death, and resurrection flow out of the scriptures and cannot be understood apart from them. He names the law, the prophets, and the psalms, the three major divisions of the Hebrew scriptures. In the same way, our ministry must be grounded in and flow out of the scriptures of both the first and second testaments.
- Jesus commissions his followers as witnesses. He does not say, “You will become witnesses” or “Please be witnesses.” No, he says, “You are witnesses.” It is more than our calling; it is our identity. An Easter church is a witnessing church. We are to proclaim the good news of repentance and forgiveness to a world sorely in need of both.
- The good news of Jesus Christ is for everyone. The gospel is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. We, the church, must remember that the good news of God’s healing, reconciling love transcends all barriers and prejudices of race, gender, sexual identity, culture, political conviction and ability.
These, then, are the hallmarks of an Easter church:
- centered on Jesus
- offering peace
- proclaiming resurrection
- gently tending the wounds of the world and its people
- grounded in scripture
- proclaiming forgiveness to the whole world so that divisions may be overcome
And we do it gathered around the book and the table. Jesus opened the scriptures to his disciples, so they might understand. He shared food with them. In this way he shaped them into a community ready to continue his mission to share and show God’s love. In the same way, he opens our minds and hearts. He shares the food of his own body and blood with us. Let us be ready to carry the Easter gospel to the places we find ourselves called to minister in his name. Amen.