In Joy and Disbelief We Wait

Martha Langford Third Presbyterian Church
April 8, 2012 Luke 24:33–48


LUKE 24:33–48

33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

Then they [Cleopas and his companion] told what had happened on the road, and how [Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 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.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 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.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 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, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”

IN JOY AND DISBELIEF WE WAIT

Nina was our pastor’s daughter. When she and her boyfriend served as substitute teachers in our Junior High Sunday School class, they shone with a kind of Christian conviction and burning witness that set them and their words apart from our normal Sunday mornings.

Nina shared with us that she (and the now anonymous boyfriend) were being transformed into the image of Christ… By the time they hit the “life everlasting” part of the Apostles Creed, she claimed that they would literally bear the essence of Jesus’ face.

It was odd talk for Presbyterians. It seemed spooky and a little scary and I remember wondering if this transformation stuff could possibly be real; after all none of our congregation’s 50-somethings (otherwise known as my parents) looked even faintly like a first century biblical character!

Despite my adolescent apprehensions, I’ve come to realize that this mystery is somehow at the heart of Easter’s themes: transformation and new life.

So this morning, with Easter two weeks behind us, it seems somewhat mawkish to return to the empty tomb, to the fear and anxiety, alarm and shock that held the disciples in thrall in those early hours after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I wonder, what’s here for us?

The story is so familiar—the followers are gathered together, perhaps in that same upper room where they ate that final, fateful meal with Jesus. There is wild talk peppering the room, about the tomb with its stone rolled away, the grave-clothes folded, the body gone. There are women sharing the words of angelic messengers that Jesus has risen from the dead. There is Peter, who had to see it with his own eyes, and yes, the tomb was empty.

Then Cleopas and his partner make their entrance into the room, and enter the verbal fray.

What might we have heard from the fringes of that room?

Wait, wait… they were walking to Emmaus… sad like the end of the world… but there was a stranger… they told him about Jesus… he, oh, HE told them about scripture, beginning to end… they made it okay … there was an impromptu meal… the stranger broke the bread… Jesus, it was JESUS… They have seen the risen Lord!

I imagine the sound of an entire room bursting with noisy conversation, and the startled, frightened silence when Jesus simply appears.

He speaks words of “Peace” to calm their fears, and gives proof of his own physical being when they imagine him to be a ghost.

And Luke is so very careful to dispel this “ghost” thinking.

Jesus tells the disciples to use their senses: to see him, to touch him, to understand that he is more than some supernatural apparition. When they continue to doubt that he is real, that the resurrection is real, he asks for the fish and eats it right before their eyes—for in that first-century landscape, everyone knows ghosts can’t eat.

They come to know, what they have shared with us: Jesus, with his human body died; Jesus with his human body was raised from death.

Luke’s gospel, like John’s gospel, wants to make very sure that we understand that the resurrection was a physical, bodily thing—it is a doctrine that becomes crucial to the early church, taken up in the gospels, in John’s letters, by the second-century martyr Ignatius, by the third-century theologian Origen. It becomes part of the bloody battles of the fourth and fifth centuries as the church hammered out its understanding of Jesus Christ as a physical being fully human and fully divine.1

Stephen Cooper writes, “The insistence on the reality of Christ’s body, both before and after resurrection, corresponded to a central aspect of the faith, namely that something new had occurred in Christ…”

Turns out the new thing, was in fact the restoration of something very old—something that the foundational stories of the Old Testament declared lost at the very beginnings of time as human disobedience separated human kind from the God who loves us.

In that disobedience and sinfulness, we find the root of the world’s brokenness—that self-serving nature of fallen humanity that leads to oppression and injustice, violence and mercilessness, warfare and strife.

We are reminded of this brokenness when we read the morning papers and see stories of arson, DUI, robbery, fraud, racial hatred, assault, bullying, official misconduct, death, and destruction.

We are reminded of this brokenness when we come to know that despite living in a world where there is enough food for every man, woman, and child to have a stable diet of more than 2,700 calories each day, malnutrition contributes to the deaths of more than 13 thousand children in that same day (a capacity crowd at Blue Cross Arena).

We are reminded of this brokenness when handguns become an accepted means of personal security. Or, when the security of a nation is placed in the hands of children forced into armed service. Or, when the economically desperate are impressed into debt-bondage or trafficked into slavery. Or, in our personal encounters with those who lack of access to basic shelter, healthcare, and education.

We are reminded of this brokenness even as we are numbed by the scope of it—when our joy at resurrection becomes doubt that anything can truly change.

Stephen Cooper writes, “Christ’s resurrected body is the object of the church’s faith, not simply as a miracle wrought by God, but as the centerpiece of the proclamation of the new life in Christ.”

This, THIS is why we are here with the disciples yet another week in this season of transformation and renewal. We are here to glimpse, once again, the possibilities of a new and different life for all human kind.

It’s not just a seasonal whim, but the center of the gospel…

Bodies matter. Physical existence matters. Our whole life: the physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual sum of our humanity matters. Our lives together matter. And it is the whole of life—the sum of all our humanity—that Jesus has redeemed and given the possibility of change.

On that night, some 2 millennia ago, Jesus demonstrated to his followers what God was doing in the world. He opened to their understanding the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, which contain God’s purpose and aim for human kind: repentance, forgiveness, and wholeness of all peoples and all of creation.

That is the ground of our hope—tied as it is to Christ’s body and to our own bodies:

That in Jesus Christ, we are reconnected to the transformed and transforming way of living that is and can become the fullest expression of God’s justice, kindness, mercy, peace, love, compassion, and grace;
That in Jesus Christ, we can become God bearers, witnesses to the power God’s love in a fearful and broken world.

This is what Nina was telling us on that singular Sunday in my youth. She believed the witness in Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians and Colossians that in our lives, we will be transformed by the Holy Spirit and come to bear the full image of Christ—that this new look and new life will spread to encompass all of human kind.

We pray each week for the coming of God’s kingdom. Yet, amid the brokenness of this world it can be hard to imagine that God’s reign is unfolding in our midst. Luke tells us that even those earliest disciples were caught between joy and disbelief as they stood in the physical presence of the risen Christ.

So we might ask: What does the transforming power of God’s love look like anyway? Where is the kingdom now?

More than a decade ago, YMCA International worked to bring a group of Sudanese “lost boys” to Houston from a refugee camp in Kukuma, Kenya. The plan for resettlement had gaps—most notably in helping these young men get an American education and to become self-sustaining (the YMCA gave them 90 days). Many were resettled in the area near my home church. They found their way to Braeburn because they were Sudanese Presbyterians and wanted to be American Presbyterians in this new life.

It was a Sunday to remember, when one of these young men stood as we shared joys and concerns; a true “God Moment.”

In front of sixty or so predominantly white, working-class churchgoers, Samuel shared his conviction that this congregation and the refugees needed each other, NEEDED EACH OTHER because—although the refugees’ hands were empty—their hearts were rich in faith.

I will never forget his words. “I come to you with the faith of an empty hand.” His sincerity and simple eloquence sparked a vital connection between people of vastly different cultures and circumstance.

He was right. We did need each other. And, as we shared our resources one with another, God blessed us all with a strong sense of joy and abundance—despite any early apprehensions, missteps, or misunderstandings.

God was in our midst. We could see God’s presence with our eyes and touch God’s presence with our hands; even as we saw and shared the peace of Christ with one another during worship every week.

So look around you. Wonder with me.

How is the kingdom unfolding here, in this place, in this city, in this nation, in this world?

May God give us eyes to see it, hands to touch it, lives to live it, and lips to tell, for—between joy and disbelief —we are called to be witnesses and to bear Christ’s transforming presence to the world. AMEN.

1 Stephen A. Cooper, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA iterates this list of witnesses to the importance of the bodily resurrection in his theological perspective on the Luke 24:36b-48 passage found in Feasting on the Word: Year B, © 2008 WJK Press, Louisville.

 

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