Sunday, April 15, 2018
Third Sunday of Easter Year B
Love Means Showing Up
Holy and righteous God, you raised Christ from the dead and glorified him at your right hand. Let the words of scripture fulfilled in Jesus your Son, burn within our hearts and open our minds to recognize him in the breaking of bread. Amen.
Luke 24: 36-48
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."
All readings For this Sunday:
1 John 3:1-7
Questions for reflection:
1. Where are you, in your spiritual life, two weeks after Easter?
2. Do you feel more like the travelers on the road to Emmaus, or like the disciples locked in a room, hiding and fearful?
3. What have you witnessed that strengthens your belief, your understanding, your trust in the Resurrection?
4. In turn, what are the ways you respond to Jesus' commission to "witness" to what you have experienced of the Resurrection?
5. How do the death and Resurrection of Jesus help you to make sense of scripture?
by Kate Matthews
The lectionary has separated this appearance of the risen Jesus from the Emmaus story, which immediately precedes it. Two weeks after Easter, we're very much like the earliest disciples, wondering about the things we've heard, and wrestling with the question, "What does all of this mean?" We're probably also wondering, deep in our hearts, "What could all of this mean in my life? Is this just a story from long ago, or does it mean something important to me? Could it profoundly change my life?"
Luke tells us that the disciples were frightened and confused and filled with questions. Maybe they weren't burdened, as we are, by "post-Enlightenment" doubts, but they had to confront their own doubts and disbelief nevertheless. Their heads and their hearts both needed help.
Sharing our experience of the Resurrection
No one then and no one now really knows how to "explain" the Resurrection, so the disciples long ago--and we, in our own day--can only try to describe a personal experience of it. When we read the story of the two disciples whose eyes kept them from recognizing him on the road to Emmaus (even though their hearts were mysteriously burning as he spoke), followed by this picture of a growing little community of questioning, wondering believers, we're reading about ourselves, too.
This week's passage speaks of an offer of peace, a request for food, a blessing and a commissioning; in both stories, Charles Cousar writes, the disciples experienced Jesus' presence as "mysterious but real. It eludes human perception, and yet is no human fabrication." Both of these stories describe the very earliest Christians hearing and doing the very same things that 21st-century Christians do: journeying, questioning, fearing, but also feeding and being fed, listening for and receiving God's call, and, of course, like any good church community, doing Bible study.
Each one tells the story
Each Gospel writer tells the Easter story in his own way, with important differences among them. For example, Luke puts the disciples in Jerusalem instead of Galilee. This setting matters, Martyn D. Atkins notes, because Jerusalem is where the young church received the Holy Spirit and set out on its mission to the world in Luke-Acts. Jerusalem is where it's happening, the center of it all.
And yet, "it" won't stay there; the disciples will be charged with taking the gospel out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. Atkins describes this well: "The prophecy of Simeon that Jesus will be a light to the Gentiles, made at the beginning of the Gospel, is now about to be fulfilled at its end; he will preach through them." While the Jews brought "the nations" to Jerusalem, Atkins says, the church went on "a centrifugal mission" out into the world.
Doesn't this provoke interesting questions about how we "do mission" in the church today? Are we going out into the world borne by centrifugal force, or only preparing for "the world" to come to us? (Personally, I think both models have value: going out into the world, and offering extravagant hospitality to those who come through our doors.)
What was Jesus like?
We have some sense of what the disciples were like, and how they were feeling. But what was Jesus like? Apparently, not like anything they had ever seen before! Not like Lazarus, a resuscitated corpse, and not exactly like Jesus was before the crucifixion. On the one hand, locked doors didn't keep him out, but on the other hand, he could still eat solid food, just like them, which is interesting. Atkins points to verse 44, "While I was still with you," as a sign from Jesus that now things are different, and yet somehow still the same. In the face of this new reality, the disciples, Atkins writes, "have to embark on a steep spiritual learning curve."
Time is short, and there's so much to do, here, not at the end (it's not all over after all!) but at the beginning of something new. Jesus has to prepare them for their mission not just to the people of Israel but to the entire world. He's been working on this for some time, but they're clearly not quite ready. They need something more. Their eyes still need to be opened; their hearts still need to be opened: they are in need of transformation, dramatic transformation.
In need of transformation
Encountering the risen Jesus is a powerful experience, and yet, once he's done the very human, earthy thing of eating the fish, he does the same thing he did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus: a Bible study. The signs of breaking bread and eating fish (we remember the feeding of the multitude, don't we?) combine with the Word of God to help the disciples (and us) to make some sense of "all of this."
I appreciate Bernard Brandon Scott's explanation of what Jesus was doing in that Bible study, not "proof-texting" to convince them he is the Messiah, but drawing their attention back to Moses and the prophets, who faithfully "proclaim God's word" in the face of rejection and suffering but are still affirmed by God. "That," Scott writes, "is the pattern of divine necessity."
The combination of seeing Jesus, of being with him, and the sharing of the Word together, opened the disciples' hearts and minds, the Gospel tell us. Whenever we shine the light of the gospel on our lives, perhaps our hearts and minds are similarly opened.
Opening hearts and minds
What did they open their hearts and minds to? There are several things we might discern here. First, why the emphasis on Jesus' bodily presence (however "not the same" it may be) and not simply as a ghostly apparition? Stephen Cooper agrees with the many scholars who say that the resurrection of Jesus' body affirms the goodness of the human body. For many reasons in the early years of the church and just as much today, people of faith tend to separate the body and the spirit, with the spirit more important than the body.
On the other hand, our culture hardly recognizes that the spirit exists and must be fed. And yet we know that we are saved in our whole being, body and soul, and that somehow that salvation gets worked out here, on earth, in our bodies just as much as our souls. As Cooper puts it, "To insist on the reality of the resurrected body is to demand that we accept our present reality as the place where transformations of ultimate significance take place." This makes us embodied creatures, Cooper says, a people of hope.
And Cynthia Lano Lindner eloquently describes the resurrection as "God's affirmation that creation matters, that love and justice matter, that humanity, in all its ambiguity and complexity, is still fearfully and wonderfully God-made."
Even our own culture, in its marketing messages, loves the idea of "new and improved." But this "something new" represented in the Resurrection of Jesus is so far beyond any advertised product, beyond anything we can get a handle on; it breaks all the rules of reality that we've come to accept as dependable and true. Again, many scholars say this, that God did and is doing something new in raising up Jesus, and in a sense, God is doing something new each time we experience the risen Jesus.
What does all of this mean in our lives? How could this profoundly change each of our own lives? In the remembering and telling of this story, it seems to me, the church is, like Jesus, interpreting our experience of the risen Jesus--something that happens to each of us in many different ways--in light of the living Word of God.
Making sense of it all, together
Trying to make sense of it all seems to be easier, or at least more fruitful, in a community that shares our experience, our questions, and, in the end, our call. And it is not insignificant that Jesus brings table fellowship right back into the narrative, because it's still at the core of our story and at the center of who we are.
The experience of the early disciples who touched Jesus, put their hands in his wounds and heard his voice, fed his hunger and received his blessing, is the same experience of Christians today who feed the hungry, break bread together, hunger for God's blessing, and respond to the call to turn our lives toward God once again. R. Alan Culpepper describes this experience of God by the community of faith as one of joy, "the natural by-product of blessing."
Everything is different now
Because of the Resurrection, then, everything is different for Christians, and not just on Easter Sunday. That's the challenge for us two Sundays after Easter (and for forty-nine more Sundays after that). Cynthia Gano Lindner's reflection on this text reminds us that "new life never slips in the back door quietly or painlessly." She focuses on that first and important word of this 24th chapter of Luke's Gospel: "but," which challenges "that tired old script."
All the sorrow and shock that immobilized and confused the disciples pivots on that little three-letter word. It redirects us and sets us on a new path. Isn't that what repentance is? Isn't that what transformation feels like? Nothing ever is quite the same, including us.
And yet, as Lindner says, this doesn't have to be (and isn't often) something that happens completely and all at once, for us or for the disciples long ago. Instead, for them and for us, it happens "by fits and starts, in hours of doubt and moments of exhilaration, with days of numbness and mourning punctuated by brief moments of holy presence and powerful certainty." This, she writes, is "good news" for our lives, even in the "spaces and places" where resurrection may seem most unexpected.
The hands and feet of Jesus
Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text beautifully describes the embodied experience of Jesus, the way he drew their attention to his hands and his feet. She poetically recalls the ways the hands and feet of Jesus had been important in his ministry, healing people, breaking bread, traveling around with the good news. Now, wounded and bruised, those same hands and feet were proof to the disciples that "he had gone through the danger and not around it."
Through the danger, and not around it. Much of our time and energy is spent on finding a way around things, rather than living through them. We don't want to experience pain or danger, or even to come face to face with the suffering of other people, or the suffering of the earth. What can we do about all of that?
And yet, Taylor says, we bear hope for the world because of the commission Jesus gave the disciples and the whole church long ago, for we are the Body, and the Image, of the Risen Christ in the world today: "Not our pretty faces and not our sincere eyes but our hands and feet--what we have done with them and where we have gone with them."
When I think about transformation, about eyes and hearts opened to understanding things that formerly we were closed to, I'm reminded of the powerful experience of watching the YouTube video of a Scottish woman, humble but hopeful, on a talent show several years ago. Susan Boyle stunned a disbelieving crowd that had already judged her undeserving of their affirmation because of worldly standards that determine how a "star" should look and speak. Three notes into her song, however, there was a mass transformation of the crowd, their hearts moved by her exceptional voice, completely unexpected from an unknown woman from a small village.
Their (our) "categories" didn't work anymore, the labels and the predictable reactions--judgments, really--that sometimes fuel audiences on such shows. On a dime, in the time it takes to say the word "but," the crowd pivoted from cynicism and disbelief to wholehearted support, embracing this woman and her dreams. Millions around the world joined them, not able to explain what happens in their hearts and minds as they watch this unfold, over and over again.
How do we encounter one another?
It's been asked, legitimately, if the unkind attitude of the crowd would have been somehow justified if her voice had turned out not to have been so beautiful (of course not). Still, it's also worth reflecting on how we encounter one another in our bodies with their talents and gifts, and their appearances, too. The goodness of this woman's gifts, given by God, made her radiantly beautiful in the eyes of those who watched and listened. But the transformation was of their hearts and minds, not of her, for she left the stage the same beautiful woman who had walked out onto it, claiming her dream of being a great musical star. Only now, they had hearts and eyes open to see that loveliness.
The risen Jesus enters our lives and turns us around, too, when we're jaded and critical and judgmental and closed-off in heart and mind. On a dime, as quickly as you can say the word "but," everything is different. It is enough to move one to tears, every time. The power of experiencing of the risen Jesus enabled the early Christians to endure persecution and trials, and it enables us to step out in faith, in every new occasion, in response to the Stillspeaking God who continues to save, send, and bless us today.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 21st century
"What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent with the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves."
Terry Tempest Williams, Leap, 21st century
"How do we remain faithful to our own spiritual imagination and not betray what we know in our own bodies? The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"In a gentle way, you can shake the world."
John Philip Newell, 21st century
"It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life."
Paul Gauguin, 19th century
"I shut my eyes in order to see."
Bruce Epperly, 21st century
"When author Madeleine L'Engle was asked, 'Do you believe in God without any doubts?' she replied, 'I believe in God with all my doubts.'"
Parker Palmer, 21st century
"The moments when we meet and reckon with contradictions are turning points where we either enter or evade the mystery of God."
PËre Armogathe, 21st century
"Churchyards are not urban repositories for garbage but places of sleep and waiting. It's like there are seeds under the ground, waiting for spring to come."
Alice Walker, 21st century
"Wake up and smell the possibility."
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