3. Easter: From Wonder to Witness

Third Sunday of Easter

22 April 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Based on St. Luke 24: 36-48

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            This week when I returned from my trip to Washington, DC, I came into the sanctuary and smelled the wonderful aroma of our Easter lilies and was glad to notice that more had bloomed since I left a few days before. I think it’s quite appropriate that there were only a few blooms on Easter Sunday, and a few more each following Sunday – because Easter is not just a one-day event. In the life of the Church, we celebrate the season of Easter, or Eastertide. It is appropriately longer than the forty day journey of Lent, celebrated for 50 days until Ascension and Pentecost. Like the lilies still blooming, Easter is something that has to be lived into – and isn’t just a big joyous, raucous celebration for a few hours one Sunday with the chocolate and jelly bean-fueled sugar crash following. Our readings in this time of Easter remind us of that, each telling of Jesus’ appearances after being resurrected.

            What I find interesting about these appearances is that so often the initial response is not celebratory joy we associate with Easter. On Easter Sunday, from St. Mark’s gospel we heard that the women were seized with terror and amazement, so much so that they ran away. Last Sunday, you heard from St. John’s gospel about the initial disbelief of St. Thomas. This morning we move to St. Luke’s gospel account. Luke says that when the women found the tomb empty, they didn’t know what to think, that when the women told the others, the male disciples thought they were making the whole thing up, calling it an “idle tale”, Peter is shocked and puzzled when he goes to see the empty tomb himself, and in our passage today, when Jesus presents himself to the disciples “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”[1]

            Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter evening. The women had found the tomb empty, a few of the men went later and were shocked to find it true. So there they sit in shock and confusion, not knowing what to think. They sit there questioning if it could really be true. And in the midst of this, Jesus, bodily risen with scars of the crucifixion, appears and says, “Peace be with you.” Could it be real, is what they are experiencing true, they ask. They are so blown away they think they are seeing a ghost. Who can blame them after all? Resurrection is a brand new thing – they had no previous experience of it. Despite some nonreligious people calling the resurrected Christ, “zombie Jesus,” we know that he’s not a zombie either because he asks for a fish, instead of brains. Michael Jinkins, president of Louisville Theological Seminary says that “Seeing a ghost in a dark corridor might require some shifting in our conventional thinking. The appearance of a specter, although surprising, can be explained in all sorts of ways. But when Jesus appears, bodily risen, bearing the scars of his crucifixion, hungry for a nice piece of broiled tilapia, then we have to do more than merely rearrange some intellectual furniture. We have to move into a whole new mental and spiritual dwelling place – and the first disciples were as unprepared as we are to make the transition.”[2]

            But yet, the disciples do make the transition. Despite their initial disbelief and shock to their system, the disciples thinking gets turned on its head once again and they come to believe. Jesus says to them, “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.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.” Seeing this the disciples realize that it must be true – it is not a ghost or zombie, but Jesus risen to life among them.

            We often overlook what Jesus does next – he asks for something to eat. It’s such a human act, and understandable after what he’s been through the past through days! I find it just a bit ironic that the one who taught the disciples to be fishers of men, asks for a fish. It’s also completely in character for Jesus who shared the loaves and fishes with thousands, shared the Passover meal with his disciples and broke bread with those he met on the road to Emmaus. It provides spiritual grounding for our own inclination to celebrate or mourn over food in the faith community. When we have our Easter breakfast, funeral dinners, barbeques, sausage dinners, and the lunch I share with the quilters each Thursday, it is in the tradition of Jesus eating with his disciples on Easter evening.

            After Jesus and the disciples have had their bodily nourishment, Jesus reminds them of what he told them before. We read from the gospel writer that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” What they could not understand before, starts to make sense, it starts to click. Whereas before they couldn’t even consider the subject of Jesus dying, now they see why, and how he really did rise again on the third day. Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” and they hear it as if it is the first time. They now have ears to hear.

Once they are finally able to discern what it all means, comes the most important thing Jesus tells them that night: “You are witnesses of these things.” This was of vital importance to the disciples then, and to disciples of Christ today. They were to witness to all that had happened, to proclaim all that they had seen and heard – of their journey with Jesus throughout the Galilee and Jerusalem, his crucifixion and resurrection and what that all meant. The Risen Christ would not appear to everyone, so it was now up to them to continue the work to spread the news that Christ indeed was risen. Today, we are not fortunate enough to have Christ right before our eyes showing us the wounds in his hands and feet. The closest we come today are the few mystics who claim visions of Jesus Christ. So we rely on the witness that the early disciples passed down to us, the stories of how Jesus appeared to many after being raised from death to life. We cannot explain the resurrection, what we can do is point to the manifold stories of peoples’ experience of the risen Christ. According to Larry Broding, “As witnesses, the early disciples were charged to tell others what they saw. Not only did Jesus command them, the Spirit impelled them to preach to all nations as the Father desired. Hence the missionary activity of the early disciples, as it is now in the Church, stemmed from the activity of the Trinity. As Father, Son, and Spirit are now working in the world, they desire that we, the Church, lead all people into union with the Holy Trinity.”[3]

Just as the first disciples made sure to tell the story and documented it for future generations in the books of the New Testament from Sts. Paul, Peter, Timothy, James, John and others, it is imperative for us to share the Good News as well and continue the witness. I often say that you have to know from you have come, to know where you’ll go. We have to know the story ourselves to be able to witness to it. It’s important to know that those early disciples didn’t have it easy and faced much persecution. So we ought not to worry too much about a little bit of insecurity and discomfort when being witnesses. Not only do we witness to the fact that God become incarnate among us, taught his people to love God and one another, sacrificed his very life for us, and in so doing, destroyed and conquered death, rising to new life and raising us with him – but we also witness to how this has impacted and changed our lives. Resurrection changes things. When you’ve lived all your life thinking death is the end, and then all of a sudden it isn’t – and there’s new life, not only at the end of earthly life, but each and every day, well that changes everything. That’s what the disciples witnessed to and what we are called to as well. I can think of no better news than that.

 

+To God be the glory. Amen.


[2] Michael Jinkins, “Living by the Word,” in The Christian Century, Vol. 129, No. 8, 18 April 2012, p.20

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