Sermon Seeds: Christ Among Us
Third Sunday of Easter Year B
Acts 3: 12-19
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24: 36b-48
Additional reflection for Acts 3:12-19 for Earth Day Sunday
Christ Among Us
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
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 hampered, 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.
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” (Texts for Preaching, Year B). 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 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, writes Martyn D. Atkins, 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 (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). 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.)
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” (The Lectionary Commentary:the Gospels). 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.
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” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). 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.
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 (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). 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” (The Christian Century, April 21 2009).
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 us in many different ways – in light of the living Word of God.
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” (R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” Luke/John, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary).
Because of the Resurrection, everything is different for Christians, and not just on Easter Sunday. That’s the challenge of preaching 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 Christian Century, April 21 2009).
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” (“Hands and Feet,” Home by Another Way).
As I write these reflections 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 unemployed woman from a humble village. Their (our) categories didn’t work anymore, the labels and the predictable reactions that 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 have joined them, not able to explain what happens in their hearts and minds as they watch this unfold, over and over again.
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 but humble woman who had walked out onto it, claiming her dream of being a great musical star. Only now, they had eyes 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. Where is your church two weeks after Easter? Is your church’s experience similar to the Emmaus encounter, on the road, or more like the disciples locked in a room, hiding and fearful? What has your congregation witnessed that strengthens its belief, its understanding, and its trust in the resurrection? In turn, what are the ways your church “witnesses” to what it has experienced of the resurrection? Does your church connect its feeding of the hungry with its own feeding at the Table? How does the death and resurrection of Jesus help you to make sense of scripture?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as 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 on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
Flower photo by Sue Powers McKeon.
For further reflection:
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.”
Père 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.”
Additional reflection on Acts 3:12-19 for Earth Day Sunday: Healers in a Broken World
by Meighan Pritchard
One thing I love about reflecting on scripture passages is the variety of entry points. In this passage from Acts, with whom do you identify? Peter and John? The beggar? The crowd? I find myself wanting to identify with Peter and John, who are just starting to test their ability to center themselves in God’s healing power for the benefit of the world around them. Then again, I can also imagine being the beggar, lame from birth, expecting no more than a coin and receiving instead the healing and love that he has long since learned will not come. I don’t really want to identify with the crowd, flocking to the Solomon Portico in amazement, only to be chastised by Peter for killing the Author of life. Oh dear.
On this Earth Day Sunday, perhaps we can find hope in all three vantage points. Beyond all expectation, the beggar is healed and given new life in God. Peter and John are feeling their way into a new life as healers and preachers of the good news. They are learning how to live in a post-resurrection, Christ-centered Way. God has not abandoned them, even though Jesus is no longer walking the Earth with them. And the crowd is open to amazement at the healing, hope and love possible through God.
With the crowd gathered, Peter preaches a sermon. Repent from killing the Author of life, he says. Turn to a new way. Center your lives in the experience and presence of God all around you, and the potential for God’s realm to emerge becomes manifest.
Since God is the Author of all life, all species, Earth Day is a good time to reflect both on ways in which our fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyle destroys life and also on ways in which we are empowered to be healers. When we first started down the fossil fuel road, we did so ignorant of the ramifications. And at first, the extent of damage was limited. But now, with a human population of over 7 billion and developed countries in particular pumping vast amounts of carbon emissions into the air every day, our use of fossil fuels has ramped up to unsustainable levels, and the Earth is hitting some limits. Fossil fuels started out as a convenience but have become our undoing. We may have acted in ignorance before, but now that we know the consequences of our actions, we must find a new way to live—a way centered in God’s love for all of Creation. Like Peter and John, we must learn how to be healers in a time of great brokenness.
The beggar is passively awaiting the kindness of strangers to fund his status quo. If we identify with the beggar, and the broken status quo is our fossil-fueled society, we may be awaiting more and more fuel, delivered through both conventional and extreme means of extraction (e.g., hydraulic fracturing, mountaintop removal coal mining, and strip mining on a massive scale). The best we can hope for in this scenario is that the fuels won’t run out, won’t get too outrageously expensive, and won’t destroy the planet during our lifetimes. This is a shortsighted, broken vision. The system itself is broken.
Thomas G. Long writes that the crowd expected to live in a broken world, with little or no evidence of God’s presence. He also notes, “[T]hey thought that the healing called only for astonishment; but it calls for more, it calls for repentance.… God’s healing and restoring work discloses another world, another reality, another sovereignty shimmering amid the wreckage of a decaying culture. In the face of God’s deeds of mercy all around us, we are summoned not merely to say, ‘How wonderful!’ but to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship, and to become a faithful part of God’s work in the world” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2).
Perhaps the members of the crowd did not want to see the brokenness around them or consider ways in which they might be part of the problem. But it is only when we are bold enough to see brokenness that we are able to turn again to a new way. God’s unexpected gift of healing and love for the beggar points to that new way.
As we seek a new way to heal the brokenness of our planet, we may focus on whether a healthy world depends on economics (think of the beggar expecting money) or God’s abundance. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, talks about the difference in mindset between seeing the abundance around us as gifts to be shared or resources to be owned and exploited.
“In Potawatomi, we speak of the land as emingoyak: that which has been given to us. In English, we speak of the land as ‘natural resources’ or ‘ecosystem services,’ as if the lives of other beings were our property….
“A gift is different from something you buy, possessed of meaning outside its material boundaries. You never dishonor the gift. A gift asks something of you. To take care of it….
“[T]he generosity of the land comes to us as one bowl [of berries], one spoon. We are all fed from the same bowl that Mother Earth has filled for us. It’s not just about the berries, but also about the bowl. The gifts of the earth are to be shared, but gifts are not limitless. The generosity of the earth is not an invitation to take it all. Every bowl has a bottom. When it’s empty, it’s empty….
“We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us. And so the empty bowl is filled” (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, 383, 382).
As people who put their faith in God, we are invited to take a longer view, to think about the well-being of all of Creation. We dare to hope and work for the healing and wholeness of all. We cannot wait passively for this healing to arrive in our laps. Technology, for example, will not save us. Rather, like Peter and John, we must center ourselves in God’s love and healing power. We must take a deep breath and learn to work for that healing all around us: in ourselves, in our communities, and throughout the world.
The good news is that we do not have to settle for brokenness. God is present with us in the brokenness and calls us to be healers. We are empowered, through the love of our risen Christ, to be part of making the world whole. This is good news worth sharing!
[Note: “Have you anything here to eat?” from the Luke scripture is the theme for this year’s Creation Justice Ministries Earth Day resource.]
The Rev. Meighan Pritchard serves as Minister for Environmental Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
Butterfly photo by Sue Powers McKeon.
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out….”
Answer me when I call,
O God of my right!
You gave me room
when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me,
and hear my prayer.
How long, you people,
shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words,
and seek after lies?
But know that God has set apart
the faithful for God;
God hears when I call.
When you are disturbed,
do not sin;
ponder it on your beds,
and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in God.
There are many who say,
“O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face
shine on us, O God!”
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down
and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O God,
make me lie down in safety.
1 John 3:1-7
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.
There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.