Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, year B, April 26, 2009 on Luke 24:36b-48, lectionary text

Luke 24:36b-48sawing

I Recommend the Broiled Fish

This is the best text in the whole bible! It has everything we need, right here, especially for moments like we are in now. These are frightening times. If the world-wide economic crisis were not enough, now we have to figure out what to do with the fact that the Taliban have captured a town within 60 miles of the capital of Pakistan – a country with nuclear weapons! If there was ever a time we needed to hear the first words out of Jesus’ mouth it is now:

36 Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Happy thoughts of peace and pretense

Anybody can say “Peace be with you” as a pleasant wish, like “have a good day.” But when there is a real problem at hand, a real crisis – when the diagnosis is bad, when you hear the words you were dreading, when there is real cause for fear, words are not enough to bring peace. Neither is pretending helpful. It doesn’t help to say, “Well, things will get better” when it is likely that they will not, at least not in time to help you.

That’s the first reason I love this text: it is not about pretending and happy thoughts. It starts with complete honesty: those disciples were in crisis-mode. They felt terrible. Listen to the words Luke uses to tell us how they were feeling:

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? 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,…

If we gathered together just to think happy thoughts, we should be pitied. But if we gathered having to pretend our faith was strong in the face of crises, to try to look good to each other, as if belief came easy, it would be depressing. Part of being a disciple of Jesus – then and now – is facing the fact that doubt is part of our experience.

Faith is not the default position. It never has been. There is just about nothing less likely than that someone would die and rise again. Oh, there are plenty of stories of ghosts and spirits; it seems that most of us are even prepared to believe in angels and demons; spooky things happen to everyone from time to time – but none of us has seen someone rise from the dead.

And here is what I like even more about this text: even when Jesus’ disciples saw him standing there, with the evidence of their own eyes, and heard him speak with their own ears, they still doubted. They had a lot more to go on than I do – so if they could doubt with Jesus standing right in front of them, then my doubts are surely reasonable.

And when the times of fear and doubt come, should I add to my problems a layer of guilt for having such weak faith? No! Because Jesus does not show up wagging his finger at us to shame us or even with a smug “I told you so!” Rather, he comes with understanding and sympathy for our human limitations, and says to us “Peace be with you.”

I don’t know whether or not this economic nightmare and its effect on your future financial security is the kind of crisis that makes you wonder where God is; or whether your health makes you wonder, or the state of your relationships, or even the news of the world – or simply depression cause by the fact that life is not what you had hoped it would be – but doubt is part of the life of faith for all of us at various times. God does not wait for us to muster faith from some inner well, like athletes finding the strength deep down to push on in the face of overwhelming odds. Rather, it is in the moment of doubt and fear that Jesus comes to us, saying “Peace be with you.”

Actions speak louder than words

So what does Jesus do when he comes to his doubting disciples after pronouncing his peace to them? He acts. He offers himself to them to touch:

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. 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.

So this was probably helpful to those doubting, fearful disciples; I’m sure that being able to touch him and watch him eat broiled fish with them did a lot to assuage their doubts. And yet this complicates it for us. We neither get to see him nor touch him today. He is not here to join us at the picnic this afternoon. How does this help us with our fear and doubts?

In this way. Jesus’ hands and feet probably bore the marks of crucifixion, but he did not draw attention to them in this moment. Nor did he say simply “look at me;” rather he focused their attention on his hands and feet. How could they have possibly looked at those hands without recalling the people he had touched with them; the blind people, the lepers, the sick people? How could they have looked down at his feet without thinking of all they places they had been with him – places they never would have gone on their own – to a tax-collector’s house, places where gentiles lived, in fact to Jerusalem itself to confront abuse and corruption right in the face of his enemies? Looking at those hands and those feet recalled his entire life for them in that moment.

Hands and feet today

This is where we are almost on level ground with those disciples. In my moments of doubt and fear, I can recall that there are countless hands and feet in the world, right now, reaching out with love and compassion on behalf of real flesh and blood people because the risen Christ is still at work in his people today.

It’s true that mothers around the world care for their children; fathers do all they can for their families, there is nothing special about people going out of their way to help their own clan, their own kind, even their own nation. The impulse to sacrifice for ones own group is hard-wired into us and indeed is an impulse we share with all species of animals.

But the willingness to put oneself at risk for others – people who are not related, who are not part of our “us” but who are, by every measure “them”, the willingness to respond to human need when there will be no pay-off or pay-back; in fact, the willingness to lay down ones life for ones enemies, that is not simply an achievement of social biology or evolution. It is nothing less than flesh and blood evidence of the presence of the risen Christ at work, transforming human beings into agents of God’s love and justice. This is what we can see around us today.

We see the risen Christ at work when flesh and blood hands and feet show up at the Christian Service Center and distribute food and supplies to strangers in need. We see the risen Christ in the people who build Habitat for Humanity homes for people they do not know from Adam. We see the risen Christ in people willing to prepare meals or host or even spend the night with Family Promise homeless people. We even see the concrete evidence of the risen Christ at work every time we take up a collection for One Great Hour of Sharing to bring relief and justice to people who don’t even look like us or speak our language.

Transformed by the risen Christ

What is the power that could take normally selfish human beings like us and transform us into people of compassion for and solidarity with strangers? It is simply that we have been changed by the power of the risen Christ. We have heard his call to repent of our selfish and sinful ways, and we have experienced his complete forgiveness; we have, in short, experienced redemption.

And our hearts have been enlightened to understand that this was his plan from the beginning. This is what Moses anticipated when he came down from Sinai with the law. He told us to love the lord our God with our whole heart and mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves – specifically providing for the needs of the weak and the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. And this is what Moses meant when he said that in the future, God would raise up another prophet, like him, and when he did, people should listen to him.

This is what the prophets spoke of when they pictured a time in which people would come from North and South and East and West and sit together at a table in the kingdom of God; the time when they would beat their swords into plows and their spears in to pruning hooks, and no one would need to learn war anymore.

And this is why the prophets spoke of the coming Messiah, not as the leader of a revolution, but as the Servant of the Lord, who would suffer, and die, and then be vindicated when God raised him from the dead. And this is exactly what Jesus explained:

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.

Yes, we are witnesses of these things. We who have seen the hands and feet of the risen Christ at work in our flesh and blood world. We who have come to know ourselves as Christ’s disciples, who have repented from the evil in our hearts and have been immersed in God’s complete forgiveness. We are witnesses – even though we are still weak, still vulnerable, still prone to doubts and fearful in the face of crises – we can affirm that we are witnesses of the risen Christ.

This is why we experience peace that Jesus gives. It is not just a pleasant wish, but a powerful calm that comes from Jesus himself, risen, alive today.

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