Sermon on Luke 24: 36b-48 for April 15, 2018, Easter 3 B
Jesus’ Mysteriously Real Presence
Luke 24: 36b-48
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do thought arise in your hearts? 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.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. 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.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 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, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
One of the reasons we are here is that we care about the big questions of life. The big three questions for me, and I think for almost all of us are: Who am I? Why am I here? and What am I supposed to do?
The first thing that probably needs to be said is that now we know that most of what we mean when we say the word “I” is that “I am who I am” to a large extent because of “we.” I am formed, significantly, by the culture and community I am in. So really the three big questions involve us in other questions: Who are we? Why are we here? and What are we supposed to do?”
We humans have always been asking these questions. The way we have been trying to answer them is by telling stories. Our stories are the biblical stories. So how are we supposed to take biblical stories? This is a huge challenge for us who live on this side of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.
Reading Ancient Stories
One of the most common mistakes we moderns make, when we are approaching ancient stories, is that we make incorrect assumptions. We often assume that ancient storytellers were trying to do what modern journalists are supposed to do – simply reporting the facts, as a video camera would have recorded them. But that is anachronistic. Ancient writers were not fools, but neither were they modern journalists. They did not think their job was to merely report objective facts.
There is a clue in the story we read that shows us that Luke is telling this story, in this way, to tell us things he thinks we need to know, but on a level far deeper than the objective facts that a camera would have recorded. In fact, he is dealing with the big three questions of life. The clue comes in verse 44, in which Jesus, who, in the story, is standing right in front of the disciples says,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…”.
“While I was still with you” is what you would say looking back at a time when you were with someone who you are not presently with. We understand it to mean something like:
“Remember what I said while I was still with you – now that I’m not with you any longer.”
So is Jesus present to the disciples or not? Yes, Luke is saying, Jesus is present, but mysteriously so.
For lack of time we jumped into the story here, but if we were reading The Gospel According to Luke as he probably intended us to, we would have just finished reading the story of how Jesus appeared to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Luke said they were sad because of everything that had happened to Jesus. Their hopes had been pinned on him, but he was killed.
Jesus was walking with them and talking with them – but they did not recognize him. Finally, their eyes were opened when he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. They saw Jesus in the four verbs of the Eucharist: took, blessed, broke and gave. The message is that we do not recognize Jesus until we gather at the Lord’s Supper and break bread together. That is the story that precedes the scene we read.
So, if Jesus is somehow present in the Lord’s Supper, how is Jesus present at the Lord’s Supper? There was a raging debate 500 years ago, in the time of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, about how, and in what way, Jesus is present at the Lord’s Supper.
The Roman Catholic view was that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ: transubstantiation. The Lutheran view is that Christ is present on the table in around and through the bread and wine: consubstantiation. The Reformed (Presbyterian) view was that Christ is spiritually present, not on the table, but at the table. This view became known as the “real presence” view. Christ is “really present” spiritually.
What is my view? That I do not pretend we are able to know such things. We can make guesses and use logical inference if we wish, but all we end up with is speculation. I am quite happy with the Reformed view of real presence, but I would never pick a fight about it.
I think this is what Luke is struggling to write about. The risen Christ is present to the church. How? It’s hard to say. Let’s say, really present, mysteriously present. So how does this story, told in this way, help us with the big questions? Let us look at it together.
Scholar and author Diana Butler Bass recently observed that:
“Almost all of the post-resurrection appearances involve eating and food.…Jesus shows up at meals and at tables, even in some cases, asking for food!”
According to scholars of the historical Jesus, one of his primary innovations was establishing communities of open table fellowship. Jesus’ feasting got him in trouble, but it was an important part of his agenda to have open table fellowship.
“Open” is the key word. Open to both men and (astonishingly) women too. Open to people who were able to keep the religious purity regulations, and (scandalously) open to those who were not. Open to Jews and (unbelievably) open to non-Jews too. Open (unusually) to children. Open to people with bad reputations, excluded people, and to marginalized people.
This radical openness was part of what it meant that the kingdom of God was present. When God is king, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, all people come to know themselves as beloved children of God, and therefore are welcome at the table. If you look down your nose at anyone, it shows that you just don’t get it.
Jesus gave us a practice, a ritual, that we enact every time we gather at the Lord’s Supper, taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to each other. By this practice, we make real to ourselves as a gathered community that the risen Christ is present.
So, to symbolize this gathered meal, according to Luke’s story, Jesus said,
“Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Who are we and what should we do? We are people who beloved children of God, who seek to follow Jesus by his practice of radical openness and inclusion.
Community, Forgiveness, and Scripture
There is more. We observe that in Luke’s gospel, the risen Jesus never appears to lonely individuals, but always in the context of a gathered community. I think that is significant. Jesus gathered people together knowing that we need each other. If we are to embrace the vision of the kingdom of God, of radical openness, then we are going to need support. We live in an exclusionary world of us vs. them. Well, we are different, because we are followers of Jesus. We need each other, so we need community.
But this community of Jesus and the disciples, in human terms, should never have happened. Those people that Jesus appeared to had just abandoned him three days earlier. When the authorities came for Jesus, those people all left him high and dry. Instead of protecting him, they deserted him. So they should expect that he has a lot to rebuke them for. But one of Jesus’ central messages is forgiveness. Instead of coming with condemnation and judgment, he comes saying “Peace.”
Who are we and what are we to do? As followers of Jesus, we are a community of forgiveness. We do not hold grudges. We do not allow resentment in our hearts. We do not seek revenge, and we are not passive-aggressive. These are our aspirations – and when we fail, we seek forgiveness.
What do we do when we gather, besides breaking the bread of Eucharist? This story also embeds other community practices: when we gather, we tell our story.
[Jesus] “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.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…”
We gather to tell the stories of Moses – who led the Israelites out of bondage and oppression into liberation and dignity.
We read the Psalms to learn how to sing songs of gratitude and praise for our justice-making, liberating God.
We read the prophets who spoke truth to power, called for non-violence, for swords to be beaten into plows, who railed against income disparity and the oppression of the poor 99% by the rich 1%, and who were able to imagine a future in which all people would gather around a common table at a banquet of equality.
As we gather, we remember our scripture-stories that tell us who we are, what kind of God we worship, and what to do in our world. We are, as the prophets say, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Hands, Feet, and Bodies
There is something else that is going on in these oddly mysterious resurrection narratives. There is great attention to the body. In John’s gospel, as we read last week, attention focuses on Jesus’ wounds – his hands and his side. In Luke’s version, Jesus wants them to see his hands and feet. He does not draw attention to wounds or scars, but merely to the signs of his humanity: hands that do work and feet that have walked the many miles of his itinerant ministry.
Christians proclaim the goodness of the body in the context of a world that undervalues bodies in two ways. Our culture undervalues real bodies by making photo-shopped versions of beautiful, healthy young people the ideal that we all, universally, feel bad about, by comparison.
We despise our bodies in our culture because we do not measure up to this Photoshopped ideal. There is a huge amount of money to be made from you and me by convincing us that we need products and services to compensate for our imperfect body.
As Christians, we say “No!” The body is good. God made our bodies. We are not models and we have not been photoshopped, we are real. We have hands and feet, and they are rough with work and with walking, but they are good. We do not tell the culture’s stories of body shaming; we gather to tell our stories of the goodness of creation, including the goodness of being embodied, just as we are.
There is another way that our culture devalues bodies: we tell stories that separate the soul from the body, as if the non-physical part of us is the good part, the spiritual part, but the physical part is the bad part. Again, we gather to say “No!”
We are embodied. There is no self that is not an embodied self. God created us, loves us, and redeems us in our entirety. We are children of God right now, here, in our bodies. It is our bodies that eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord’s supper. It is our bodies that get wet at our baptisms. It is our bodies that work for justice, and give bread to the hungry.
So, this resurrection appearance story is huge for us. When we ask the big questions: who are we? why are we here? and what are we to do? this text helps us.
The Big Questions and our Answers
Who are we? We are a beloved, embodied community of Jesus followers.
What are we to do? Gather together as a community, practicing forgiveness, reading scripture, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and welcoming everyone to the table.
Why are we here? Not for ourselves, but to continue the ministry of Jesus on behalf of a world of real humans in real bodies who need to be accepted, loved, welcomed, fed, clothed, housed, and who need to know that Jesus is real for us, as we follow him and enact his practices.
Luke’s message is that when we live this way, Jesus is truly, mysteriously present to us. Christ is risen! Alleluia!