Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 15, 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter—Year B
1 John 3:1–7
My Friends: If we post-moderns often find it difficult and challenging to appreciate and to understand fully the events described in the New Testament’s narratives about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, imagine the astonishment and consternation of those first witnesses to these things. Our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is made even more pointed and dramatic when we recall the incidents that immediately precede and follow it. When Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, he finds them already in excited conversation around his earlier appearances to a handful of them on Easter morning and subsequently to two of them on the road to Emmaus that evening. Then, following the incident described in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus brings his motley band of followers to Bethany—just beyond the Mount of Olives—blesses them, and, to their great astonishment, is taken up into the full presence of God before their very eyes, no longer restricted by time and space and matter. Imagine the massive assault upon the ordinary hearts, minds, and imaginations of these disciples as a result of these unprecedented events and all of this extraordinary talk about what came to be described as Jesus’ “Resurrection” and his “Ascension”!
And who can blame them? While the foundation of the Christian faith is—and always will be—the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, thoughtful witnesses and apologists for this same faith have recognized for over two millennia that the accounts in the four canonical Gospels of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are carefully crafted, highly symbolic accounts of the absolute conviction among Jesus’ earliest followers that God had vindicated his “suffering servant” and triumphed over death by raising Jesus “from the dead.” Human language strains to express the reality of God’s great triumph over our last great enemy: Death has been “swallowed up in victory.” These bold theological narratives go beyond the bare facts to serve deeper truths that can only be expressed by analogy, metaphor, and story. No one witnessed the Resurrection itself; in most of the post-resurrection appearances, Jesus is not even initially recognized by his disciples. And yet, these disciples were absolutely certain on reflection that Jesus had made himself really and truly present to them following his Passion and Death, often through actions and circumstances similar to those of his ministry among them. And such “real presence” often happened as they grappled with their sacred Scripture—the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible—and gathered together for the “breaking of the bread and the prayers,” (BCP) all the while continuing to worship in the Jerusalem Temple as faithful and observant Jews. Like us, they may have prayed, in Saint Paul’s words, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, that if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” And Jesus seemed keen to oblige them!
So, is it any wonder that Jesus’ first word to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel is “Shalom,” “Peace be with you”? I think that I can safely say that all of us here this morning would be relieved and reassured by such words if Jesus were suddenly to appear—in his “spiritual body” and bearing his physical wounds, no less—to us gathered in this church on this morning. It would not be very long before each and every one of us were to experience the whole range of emotions cited by Saint Luke in today’s Gospel: fright, terror, doubt, perhaps the conviction that we were seeing a ghost, and maybe—just maybe—some joy and wonder mixed with sheer disbelief. Then again, thoroughly modern epistemological skeptics that we are, so steeped in the narrow thought-patterns of our culture and the social and behavioral so-called sciences, we would likely conclude that we were just having a severe and hallucinatory “grief-reaction” to the traumatic death of a beloved friend. “How can this be,” we might ask concerning our altered state of consciousness in the “real presence” of our risen Lord.
Now, before we slide too quickly down the slippery slope of fruitless guilt and self-deprecation over our own doubts and confusion concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us remind ourselves that Jesus knows these things about us just as surely as he knew that most of the disciples to whom he appeared in this morning’s Gospel had run just as far and as fast as they could, in several different directions, following Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane because—we are told elsewhere in the Gospels—they very much feared their own arrest and execution as the devoted followers of an alleged Roman criminal. Jesus knew exactly where to find them afterwards: cowering and silent in their fear and doubt and confusion. Even though these disciples had actually lived with Jesus for as many as three years; had witnessed his “signs and wonders” firsthand; had heard his teachings from his own lips; and had seen every one of his dark forebodings concerning his Passion and Death “according to the Scriptures” come to pass, they were still not expecting the Resurrection “according to the Scriptures” of what looked to them like a very dead Messiah. Doubtless, these disciples also knew all about the long-held Jewish messianic expectations and Pharisaic teachings concerning the “resurrection of the dead,” but they simply could not imagine that this Jesus, this charismatic and itinerant Jewish sage from Nazareth, might actually be God’s “anointed One”; the “first-fruits of those who had fallen asleep”; the innocent and vindicated “suffering servant”; and “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world,” fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham that he would “be blessing” to the whole world and become “the father of many nations” through God’s covenantal love for God’s people Israel. Had these Jewish followers of Jesus forgotten, in the words of Saint Paul, that “salvation is from the Jewish people”?
And yet, Jesus, the compassion and “salvation of God” incarnate, disregards and forgives all of this fear and doubt and betrayal. He comes to this obtuse band of deserters huddling together in fear and despair and silence, not to scold or to criticize them, but to forgive and commission them to extend his ministry of reconciliation that, according to Jesus in today’s Gospel, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in [my] name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” The “good news” of today’s Gospel is that Jesus appears to them not in anger, but with a greeting of “Shalom!” “Peace be with you!” And just as he did with the two despairing disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus once again opens their minds “to understand the Scriptures” and to eat “in their presence”—just as he does every time we gather together in his name with thanksgiving at the Holy Eucharist “in memory of Him.” In the narrative of this morning’s post-resurrection appearance, Saint Luke is reminding Jesus’ disciples—then and now—that the risen Jesus does these very same things—forgiving us, opening the Scriptures to us, sharing a sacred meal with us, and sending us out into the world—whenever and wherever “two or three are gathered in his name.” We are living in communion with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ at this very moment, during this sacred liturgy. If we do not experience the “real presence” of the risen Christ right here and right now, we will not encounter him anywhere else!
My sisters and brothers in Christ, these are the “Great Fifty Days” of Eastertide: the time of the great forgiveness, the season of reconciliation! Those sins of which you and I have repented are now forgiven because, on the far side of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s mercy and divine commission are always waiting for us. But we also know from hard and bitter experience how very difficult it can be to accept God’s forgiveness and to rise to the great vocation of our Baptismal Covenant by going to that new and different and often frightening place to which God is always calling us for transformation, individually and as a Christian community, into missionary disciples and evangelists, even with all of our doubts and limitations. It’s worth noting that in the passage following today’s Gospel lection, Jesus takes his disciples right from their table fellowship to Bethany to where he blesses them and ascends “to the right hand of the Father.” (BCP) They then return to Jerusalem and the Temple “with joy,” which is where we find them this morning in the Acts of the Apostles: filled with the Holy Spirit; healing the sick; offering forgiveness and reconciliation in the name of Jesus; and proclaiming the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ until he comes again.
So, during these Great Fifty Days of Easter, let us continue to pray for the wisdom to discern the new and different life, and the new and different places, to which God in Christ may be calling us as forgiven sinners. Let us pray for the strength and courage and faithfulness to go there, following in the bold and risky footsteps of that first small band of forgiven executioners and deserters, always declaring with them “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, and what we have seen with our eyes, and what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life….” (1 John 1:1) We can do this if we are willing to embrace what might be described as Jesus’ first “beatitude” for this new eon in salvation history, a beatitude addressed to Thomas in last Sunday’s Gospel according to Saint John: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” AMEN.