Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 15, 2018 10:30 AM
ἴδετε τὰς χεῖράς μου καὶ τοὺς πόδας μου ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι αὐτός. ψηλαφήσατέ με καὶ ἴδετε, ὅτι πνεῦμα σάρκα καὶ ὀστέα οὐκ ἔχει καθὼς ἐμὲ θεωρεῖτε ἔχοντα. καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἔδειξεν αὐτοῖς τὰς χεῖρας καὶ τοὺς πόδας. ἔτι δὲ ἀπιστούντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ τῆς χαρᾶς καὶ θαυμαζόντων εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· ἔχετέ τι βρώσιμον ἐνθάδε; οἱ δὲ ἐπέδωκαν αὐτῷ ἰχθύος ὀπτοῦ μέρος καὶ λαβὼν ἐνώπιον αὐτῶν ἔφαγεν.
“Look at my hands and my feet that it is I myself. Touch me and see that a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bone as you see I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them [his] hands and feet, but they still didn’t believe from joy and were awestruck. He said to them, “Do you have something to eat here?” And they gave him a serving of broiled fish; and he took it and ate it in front of them.
The disciples wanted it to be true. I want it to be true too. I want it to be true that Jesus stood with his disciples on the evening of his resurrection and asked them for something to eat. I want it to be true that death could not hold our Lord and that he was indeed the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). When the disciples saw the Lord, they saw what they had hoped to see; but even when they saw it, they couldn’t believe their eyes. They thought they were seeing a ghost, an apparition, a spirit, and Jesus goes through some mighty contortions to try to convince them that they were seeing him and not some mirage. Luke doesn’t tell us whether they ever got the message completely even after they saw him eating broiled fish and offering them the opportunity to inspect his hands and feet. What they wanted to be true seemed impossible even when they saw it.
The disciples’ confusion created in turn the most confusing verse in the Bible, as far as I am concerned: ἔτι δὲ ἀπιστούντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ τῆς χαρᾶς καὶ θαυμαζόντων, “but they still didn’t believe from joy and were awestruck.” Did their joy make them disbelieve? Maybe they couldn’t believe what they were seeing because they had so much wanted to see it! However you might disentangle the difficult syntax, Luke in all honesty depicts the conflicted emotional state of Jesus’s students as disbelieving, joyous, and overawed.
When Patricia and I returned from St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan with our new daughter, we carefully placed her in the cradle her grandfather had made for her and just watched her sleep her beautiful, innocent sleep. She didn’t fidget or whimper or even stir. She just slept in the warm sun of that August afternoon, and we watched until the shadows finally lengthened. Our lives had changed completely, and it was difficult to take in what had happened. Suddenly, we were officially grownups without the first idea of how to play the grownup role.
“Do you think we should do something?” I asked Patricia.
“Like what?” she replied, and I had no answer.
Disbelief, joy, awe. They do go together, and they do make perfect sense when something marvelous and terrifying happens. The disciples felt this emotional jumble, and there wasn’t much Jesus could do to help them with their confusion. Their lives had changed completely, and they had no idea what to do about it. A few moments previously, they had gathered together in their mutual anguish to mourn their dead teacher, but now they were witnesses of an event that defied a neat label. Jesus now sat among them as their teacher and guest, having his supper with them.
More than just relating something that happened long ago, I believe Luke tries to help us deal with our own experience of Jesus’s resurrection as well. Had the disciples been students of the great scholars Hillel or Shammai, they could have mourned his death for the canonical year and continued raising up new students of the great teacher as, indeed, the disciples of both these great teachers did. Had they been disciples of Rabbi Aqiva, who surrendered his life to the cause of freedom in the second Jewish revolt against Rome, then they might have needed refuge for a while from the authorities but would have ultimately continued in their master’s way. But this ghost, this apparition, this fish-eating human being that appeared to the disciples in the upper room made these very human ways of grieving and carrying on impossible for these young men. They couldn’t mourn their living teacher, and they couldn’t just raise up new disciples to follow their master’s teachings and insights. The master, the teacher was still among them as a flesh-and-blood human being. And while they had wanted to believe his words about rising from the dead, once he had suffered Roman crucifixion, nothing about that battered body Joseph had buried three days previously seemed capable of sitting with them at table ever again. They didn’t know what to believe or whether they could believe anything at all, including the evidence of their own eyes! And even if it was all true, what did they do about it?
By the nature of our own faith, the faith we share with those bewildered disciples, that faith that insists that our Lord is a living Lord and not a venerable legend—our own faith makes us share in both the joy and the confusion of that first evening of resurrection. Our Jesus is not the ancient master who taught us a new way of life. He is not the Buddha any more than he is Hillel or Aqiva. We don’t trace our spiritual lineage back to him as we might to Moses or Abraham. He left us no caliph to take his place nor did he ordain an intellectual heir as did the great philosophers. We claim him as our Lord, our teacher, our rabbi now. We belong to him, not to his School and not to his dynasty.
But that’s not the way the world we know works. That’s not the way life and death work. Messiahs die and leave new messiahs, new kings, to sit upon the thrones of their predecessors. Great teachers grow old and die, leaving behind a new, brilliant generation of scholars to continue the quest for truth. It’s the way of the world. For the rest of us who are neither messiahs or great teachers, fathers and mothers die and leave children to mourn them and then pick up life again. We know how the world works, and resurrection doesn’t fit. Consequently, Christians of each new generation must fact the same resurrection puzzle that beset the disciples on that first Easter. What do we do now?
Patricia and I got an inkling of what we were to do when our daughter finally woke up hungry. There wasn’t a blueprint exactly, but new parents either get with the program pretty quickly or go nuts trying. So do Jesus people. The Roman world didn’t stop to give the disciples time to figure out just how real, just how powerful this risen Lord would be in their lives. While they met in their secret place, the tamid offerings continued in the temple, the Sadducees and Pharisees continued to battle it out in the national assembly, the zealots were gaining strength, and Pilate still needed to devise a strategy to defeat them. One crucifixion and even the claim of one resurrection didn’t amount to more than a couple of drops in the bucket of the daily struggle to survive the Roman occupation. The question about what to do now wouldn’t wait for them to straighten out their thinking and conquer their emotions.
Similarly, the world of Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, Kim Jong Un and Ayatollah Khamenei doesn’t allow much leisure for Jesus people to get their act together either. Autocratic states that proclaim their masters as virtual gods are increasing in number while refugees from worldwide terror and poverty find the industrialized nations that could accommodate them awash in racial and ethnic nationalism and hatred and increasingly unwilling to give succor to the helpless. Nor does our own country enjoy any immunity from these terrifying realities. If we believe that Jesus lives and leads us, and if we believe Jesus is someone other than a just another dead hero to revere and then ignore, we shall have to find him among those despised of the world and find ourselves in their service and we have do all this finding pretty soon. We won’t have time to get our theology straight or conquer all our inner conflicts about following our risen Lord. And if we truly believe that our baptism into Christ means that we must, in the words of our liturgy, “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305), then the forty-odd hate groups that now exist in North Carolina won’t let us have time to figure out exactly how our resurrected Lord relates to racial bigotry. Growing up is hard to do.
But if we are to believe the gospel, we not only suffer from the shock and awe of Jesus’s presence but also from the joy his presence brings us. That crucial element, that joy, makes it possible to stand the confusion the world brings us and to do the work of Christ. We may find it all hard to believe, but our joy will make it real.