(a sermon for April 15, 2018, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Luke 24:36-49)
It’s fascinating – and more than a little bit telling, I think – that as Luke continues his version of the Easter story, the eleven disciples only really begin to connect the dots where the resurrection is concerned when Jesus asks them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
To sit down and have something to eat, after all, is probably the most basic and human thing that you and I ever do in our lives. But more than merely being necessary for our physical survival, food also has a way of bringing us comfort; and sharing a meal with others creates an opportunity for hospitality for nurturing relationships. There’s a reason that when someone is sick, or if their loved one has passed away, our first response in dealing with grief and loss – especially here in New England – is to bake a casserole; just as I can also tell you that apart from the fundraising aspect of it, the main reason that churches like ours hold Saturday night“bean suppahs” is because food and fellowship go together like… well, beans and ham!
But “having something to eat” can also open our eyes and hearts to something we hadn’t known or experienced before. How many first dates “going out to eat” grew into something more because sitting across the table from someone while eating chicken parmesan not only lessened the awkwardness of the situation but also became the starting place of a whole new relationship! And how often does food serve as an affirmation of who and whose you are? Growing up, there was hardly a gathering of the Lowry side of the family that didn’t include oyster stew as part of the meal; and likewise, we’ve discovered as our own children have grown older that each one of them have favorite dishes that bring back good memories of childhood and which they still ask for when they come home! Food, you see, is real; and it has a real way of help us discern what else is real as well.
Think about how the resurrection story unfolds in Luke’s gospel: first, you have the women discovering the empty tomb and being greeted by the “two men in dazzling clothes” (24:4) who told them that Jesus had, in fact, risen; but not only does the idea of this terrify them, but when they return to the eleven to share this news, the apostles dismiss it as “an idle tale,” (24:11) which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious.” So basically, the whole idea of Jesus being raised from the dead was being dismissed by the eleven as wild, unbelievable crazy talk!
And then you have, later on that day, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who are actually walking with the Risen Christ, but who fail to recognize who he is until… notice this (!)… Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:39) and their eyes were opened, recognizing him for who he was. But still, it wasn’t enough to convince the eleven and their companions back in Jerusalem that what happened had actually happened! Even when in that moment when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you;’” even that was not enough to lead them from fear to belief; nor was the offer from Jesus that they could touch his hands and feet if they needed to, or even the assurance that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (which, it should be noted, brought joy to the eleven, but not yet belief, as, according to Luke, they were “still wondering.” In other words, this is great and all, but how are we supposed to believe this? “It was too much; it all seemed too good to be true!” [The Message])
No; it’s only when Jesus asks if there’s something to eat, and then proceeds to eat that piece of broiled fish in their presence that the disciples finally start to get it: Jesus was alive! He had risen from the dead; and now, here he was with them, just like before! And suddenly, right there in the middle of a fish dinner, all the doubt, all the hopelessness, all the barriers that had previously stood between them – barriers of sin and grief and death – were gone forever. And now Jesus could truly open their minds “to understand the scriptures,” and for the apostles to discover, once and for all, that everything had Jesus had told them over the past three years about the Messiah having to suffer and then “to rise from the dead on the third day,” about “repentance and forgiveness of sins” and about the need to proclaim all of it to Jerusalem and the world; to know it was all real and true would change everything about their lives and living from that moment forward!
Which is what makes what Jesus says next all the more powerful: “You are witnesses of these things… and see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised.”
Now, I’ve always imagined that at this point, the disciples’ reaction was yet another of disbelief; or, if not disbelief exactly, then certainly utter surprise! Excuse me, Lord? We’re just now beginning to wrap our minds around the fact that you’re back from the dead and now you want us to be your witnesses? Give us a moment to absorb this, Jesus… maybe later, but not now… not yet! But you’ll notice in our text this morning, Jesus is very clear regarding the tense of this assertion: it’s not “you were,” or “you will be,” but it’s that you are witnesses, right here and right now; witnesses of the resurrection and everything that represents! And no doubt, in that moment, such a prospect was for the disciples, to say the very least, daunting!
And as I think about that, friends, I realize that if that was the case for the eleven in the immediate aftermath of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – events that they had indeed seen, and heard, and participated in – how much more daunting is it for you and me; the people who, some 2,000 years later are still named and claimed as witnesses of the Risen Savior? If even those who were there still wondered and doubted as to the truth of it all, what kind of witnesses are we ever to be? I mean, it’s one thing for us to sing out those wonderful old words of how “he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own,” it’s quite another for us – any of us, really – to think of Jesus as “a very real person and, through the Spirit, as a very real personal presence in our lives.” (Scott Hoezee) Indeed, from the time most of us went to Sunday School, we’ve been taught about Jesus living “in our hearts” and sharing that good news with others; but what about the real, live, physical fish-eating presence of our Risen Savior? How are we ever supposed to witness to that?
Because that’s an important question, beloved; one, that as Karoline Lewis suggests, Jesus takes very seriously. What Jesus said to the disciples, he says to each one of us: “You are witnesses, here and now, in this moment. In this life. In your daily life. For the sake of life.” Jesus, Lewis goes on to say, is quick to remind us “of who we really are – resurrection people, resurrection witnesses.” But just when we think that this is something impossible for us, Jesus tells us what makes it possible to be witnesses: “the promise of the Spirit.” That’s why Jesus instructs the disciples to “stay… in the city until [they] have been clothed with power from on high,” and it’s why you and I as Jesus’ followers are gifted with the same.
What does all this mean? It means that though we didn’t have the same kind first-hand experience of the disciples to share, we do have their witness to pass on; and, as it turns out, the kind of witness that comes in living out of what we’ve heard, and believed and lived out of throughout our lives.
We are witnesses of these things when we worship together; when we raise up our voices in prayer and praising, and when we sit amongst a community of believers. We are witnesses of these things when we are moved to love others after the same manner that we have felt the experience of divine love and acceptance. We are witnesses of these things when we recognize that life as we live it and the world as we know it does not have to be as muddled and complicated and divisive and hate-filled as it so often appears to be; and we decide for ourselves that we will be the example in making peace, justice, kindness, compassion and true grace and love the new reality of life and living. We are witnesses of these things when we feed others in just the same way we have been fed; because, friends, it’s that wonderfully hearty spiritual food that not only makes us who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s what proclaims him alive forever more!
We – you, and you, and you and me – we are witnesses of these things, and Jesus is sending us forth to proclaim our good news to the world.
One summer day many years ago I went on a road trip with my father to visit a series of flea markets that were happening throughout northern Maine (as was typical of my Dad, he was ever and always seeking out specific things at these sales; I think at the time it was antique oil lamps). We’d made our way way up to Madawaska on the Canadian border; where, as it happened, he’d spent a summer as a young man working playing trumpet in a big band, and where he’d boarded with a French Canadian family there in the town. Well it had been well over 30 years, but my father got it into his head that he wanted to stop at this house and see if that family he’d stayed with all those years ago was still living there; they were very nice people, he explained to me, and I’d really like to say hello.
Well, I’m 22 or 23 at the time, and I’m skeptical to say the least! And I’m thinking that this encounter would be awkward at best, and at worst they wouldn’t remember my father and that would be embarrassing! But my Dad was determined, and while I waited in the truck and watched (!) he went right up to the house and knocked on the door! There was this older woman who answered the door; and from the street I could see them talking quietly for a moment; and then… this woman quite literally shrieks with joy, her arms open wide to hug my father, and next thing I know we’re all sitting in this woman’s kitchen with her husband laughing, reminiscing, telling stories, drinking coffee, and lest I forget, eating the most incredible freshly made donuts and deflecting their insistence that we stay long enough to have a nice lunch… yup, it’s always about the food, isn’t it!
Well, obviously they did remember my Dad, and fondly! But as wonderful as that was, I went away from that experience realizing that though they’d never met me before, it was as though they’d always known me, and in the process made me feel incredibly welcome. There amidst the coffee and donuts, you see, was a witness to good memories, friendship and the many ways that our lives and our hearts are joined together even in the most unexpected kind of ways.
It seems to me, friends, that as believers in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we are similarly joined in heart, soul, mind and strength; and that each and every time you or I make the effort to reach out to others with the same kind of love and care that Jesus has shown us, we are witnesses of a living Savior who continues to change the world – and every heart within it – for the better and forever.
Don’t forget this as you set out into the business of life and living this week, beloved: You are witnesses of these things.
And for this, and so much more, thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry