This Week’s Sermon – “You Are Witnesses to These Things”

SCRIPTURE – Luke 24:36-48
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

SERMON
You Are Witnesses of These Things
Luke 24:36-48
May 22, 2011

We don’t have any pictures of Luke, the person who wrote this gospel. But I would imagine that Luke was hefty man. “Big-boned,” we say nowadays. I suspect this because Luke talks a lot about food in his gospel. It’s as if he did most of his writing right before dinner, when the savory smells were wafting in from the kitchen. In the 24 chapters of his gospel, Luke records 10 meals that Jesus shares with people. The meal we just read about is one of them, and is preceded by the meal he shared with the travelers on the road to Emmaus, where the risen Christ is made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

For the disciples, however, today’s meal is not your typical Easter evening dinner. For all they know, it could be their last supper together. This story from Luke occurs later in the day after the empty tomb was discovered. I don’t know if we can even imagine what the disciples were going through emotionally. Twenty-four hours earlier, Jesus was dead, and rumor had it that pictures of his followers were appearing on “Wanted” posters in post offices all across Jerusalem.

Then, this morning, they’d heard reports about Jesus’ resurrection. Really? Can that be true? Do they dare believe it? The disciples are astounded and confused and elated and not quite convinced. And as they debate the credibility of these stories and ponder Jesus’ whereabouts, they suddenly realize he is standing in their living room. Just a minute ago they had been wrestling with the fact that Jesus’ body was missing, and suddenly the missing body is standing among them, breathing and talking and offering peace and ordering the fish fillet.

Although the disciples first think they’re seeing things, this is no prank. What took place in that room on Easter night was no spooky séance during which the Ghost of Jesus Past was somehow conjured up. This wasn’t some group hallucination. It wasn’t some metaphor or a symbolic way of speaking about Jesus “lived on in their hearts.” Jesus is alive and real – a risen Jesus who comes to make even a simple fish dinner into a spiritual event.

The point Luke is making here is that what the disciples see is nothing less than Jesus in bodily form. They had not even begun to consider, if Jesus really WAS alive, what his body would look like. Would he glow like an angel? Smell like a corpse? Walk like a zombie? And then they see him, the see his hands and feet, they see him eat a piece of fish, they see that he is real, and that realness helps them understand the true meaning of the resurrection.

The disciples needed this tangible assurance, because the idea of a bodily resurrection was a difficult concept for Jesus’ followers to comprehend. The Jewish faith didn’t have any belief in the resurrection of the body. The debate continued a few decades after the resurrection, because we know the church in Corinth was becoming divided over this issue. Other groups were popping up, like the Gnostics, who believed that the flesh and the spirit would be separated at death and stay separated for eternity, which means the body, which was inherently evil, would stay in the ground, no get up and move around. In I Corinthians 15, Paul addresses this by saying, “But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? And with what body will the come?’” Using an agricultural metaphor, he goes on to say, “when you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed. What is sown is a natural body, what is raised is a spiritual body.”

To me, that says that these bodies we now inhabit aren’t the ones we’ll have for eternity. Can I get an “Amen!” to that good news? A man was standing in front of a mirror, and he complained to his wife, “Honey, my body’s going to pot. My knees ache, my skin is all wrinkly, my back hurts, I’ve got liver spots, I’m losing hair where I want it and growing hair where I don’t want it. I’m falling apart.” The wife looked over the top of her book at her husband, gave him the once-over, and said, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight.”

Paul says that what we have now is not what we’ll have later. While there’s a lot of humor to be had there, there’s a deeper point of joy, as well. That says to me that those who have cancer now won’t have cancer in Heaven. Those who have an illness now, that illness gets left behind. Those who have been disfigured or crippled or made to feel less than fully human, when they get to Heaven, they will exist in all the glory God created them to be. Sandy won’t have cancer, Maude won’t have Alzheimer’s, I won’t have Multiple Sclerosis, you won’t be plagued with whatever infirmities you deal with. What is planted is the earthly body, with all its nearsightedness and tooth decay and arthritis; what is raised is a spiritual body, as God created us to be.

That’s what the disciples saw on Easter evening. They saw Jesus in the body, but not the same body they had seen before. This was not a resuscitated corpse. What the disciples saw was somehow the same, but somehow different. But the important thing, the essential thing for me is this: they recognized him. When they looked at him, when they truly opened their eyes to see him, they recognized him. If God raised up Jesus from the dead in a way that his beloved friends recognized him, there is assurance that God will raise up us and our loved ones in a way that we will recognize each other.

I remember standing at my grandfather’s casket in 1997 and hearing people around me say, “They did such a good job! It looks just like him.” And I wanted to say, “No it doesn’t look like him, because he would never go this long without smiling or laughing or telling a joke.” At the funeral of my other grandfather a few years ago, the minister encouraged us all to close our eyes and remember him at his best moments, fully alive, when he wasn’t nearly deaf and blind and hunched over. That image I have of him is what I expect to see when I get to Heaven. He won’t be the same, but he won’t be completely different, either.

It is that hope, that expectation, to which Jesus’ appearance to the disciples testifies, and it is that appearance that gives credence to the words Jesus shares with them. After eating the fish, he tells them that his resurrection is a fulfillment of all the Hebrew prophecy about the coming of the Messiah, and that from now on repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in Jesus’ name to all nations. In other words, God has done what Jesus said God was going to do: he has raised him from the dead. Now it’s our turn to do what we said we were going to do when we made our confession of faith or were raised from the baptismal waters..

Our charge, as given by Jesus to the disciples, is simply this: “You are witnesses of these things.” We are called to be witnesses, to testify to the work of God in this world. You may wonder how we can witness to something we haven’t seen. In the story about Doubting Thomas, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who haven’t seen and still believe.” How can we believe if we haven’t seen? How can we testify to something we didn’t personally witness?

Because someone did witness it. Once there existed a real, flesh-and-blood group of people who said, “We saw him. We saw his hands and feet. We saw him eat. We heard his offer of peace.” And those people told others, who told others, who wrote it down, who passed it on, and now we hold it in our hands and our hearts. We stand on the shoulders of the disciples, who saw with their own eyes what we know in our hearts to be true.

But it’s not completely accurate for us to say we haven’t witnessed the presence of the living Christ, because we have. We haven’t heard him say, “Peace be with you,” but we’ve seen the power of his reconciling love and his ability to help heal divisions. Although he may not appear in bodily form and share a meal, his presence is tangible in soup kitchens, around the kitchen table, and around the communion table.

We have witnessed Christ in our midst. Father Hugh Burns says, “The place to look for Jesus is in our need. Look for him in our pain. Look for him in the boredom. We will find him right in the middle of our sickness, nestled in the darkness of our depression, in the loneliness and anger of a divorce or a child gone astray. It is only in our weakness that we will ever know the power of Jesus’ resurrection. It is only in the ordinary moments of life that we can experience an extraordinary gift that his risen life can give us.” And when we do, we are witnesses, call to share the good news of repentance and forgiveness with all the nations.

Remember the line from our scripture today? “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’” In the midst of our joy and amazement this morning, and maybe even in the midst of our persistent unbelief, I see a table set with bread and cup. Perhaps we could share this meal together, knowing that as we do, we will once again witness the risen Christ in our presence.

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