Life After Living
LUKE 24: 36-49
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 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? 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. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, 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.
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. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
This passage in Luke evokes many of the same themes we discussed last week in John. There are three separate stories in which we realize that whatever happened that Easter two thousand years ago, it was not immediately clear to the disciples. In the first episode, the women discover the empty tomb and an angel asks: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?…Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” The focus, however, remained upon the missing body—not what it might mean. The disciples dismiss the women’s story— “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Even when Peter runs to the tomb, he can verify that there was no body but was still clueless as to what this might mean. (“…then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”)
Luke advances their understanding in the next narrative—on the road to Emaeus. On the way out of town, two disciples are discussing the events of the last few days when a stranger joins them on their journey. It was Jesus but they could not recognize him. They report what the woman had told them and what the disciples discovered—the tomb was empty. They were perplexed and confused. Then Jesus, yet again seeks to explain how these events fit into his teaching and into the scriptural tradition: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. Even with Jesus repeating his teaching, the disciples still do not recognize him. It is not until they share a meal and Jesus breaks bread with them do they suddenly recognize the man they loved was still with them.
Finally in the passage for today, the disciples “were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” They could not get their minds beyond the death they had witnessed. In ordinary life, when we first lose someone we love, it is nearly impossible to get beyond the trauma of death. The body blow of loss has to be absorbed. In real life, it is common for people to continue to set the table for the lost one, to feel like they are still present and to have conversations with the lost one. We hold on to what we know.
In ordinary life, the pain never fully disappears but when we experience loss we begin to have new ways to think about death. Eventually we start to see some of the ways the living of our lives changes. Jesus shows the disciples his wounds. His crucifixion really happened. They did not imagine his death. He was somehow different, (unrecognizable) and the same (wounded). This is the nearly incomprehensible paradox of life after death. Resurrection faith calls us to hold earthly opposites in the same space. Humans suffer. Humans die. Yet those same lives live on. Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. Yet he lives.
It takes time to recognize the ways we see death changes how we see life. In the biblical account, words were not enough and eye witnesses were not enough. The disciples had to see the world in ways they could not have imagined. This paradox is wonderfully expressed in verse 41: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” How could it be that death was not the end? Isn’t the point of life to keep living?” Jesus must be a ghost. It is at this point that Jesus reveals his humanness in another way. He asks for food. Ghosts don’t eat.
The emphasis on Jesus’ wounds and, in this case, his hunger, help us and the disciples hold on to the unimaginable—a Messiah who suffers. In general we do not like to think of our God as suffering and helpless—even though our high holy days commemorate his infancy and his crucifixion. We prefer to skip Jesus’s profound vulnerability. (As a quick aside, it was just as hard for the early church to imagine a God who suffers as it is for us. One of the ancient ways to deal with this incongruity is to say Jesus was God but was masquerading as a human. God didn’t really suffer. He was not fully human.) When Jesus asks for food and eats it in their presence, he is demonstrating the reality of his humanness.
Jesus’ full humanity is critical to the Christian faith. When we see that God can be fully human and join us in our humanness, he shows us that every one of us and every part of us can be loved. There are no conditions. If Jesus were not fully human, there would always be a ‘yes, but…’ or ‘yes, except when…’ to the promise of love. When Jesus showed the disciples his wounds, he showed that nothing in life or death could separate them from God. He showed them that the love he promised and the love he lived would prevail in the face of all earthly hardship. That is pretty amazing. It allows us to live the life Jesus taught us— to love mercy, seek justice, show regard and kindness no matter what. We can do that whether we are sick or healthy, whether we are old or young. We can do that regardless of our race, ethnicity or gender. Such a life leads to life.
When I was in seminary, my 20 year old brother died of cancer. Paradoxically, his death led me to stay in seminary. As most of you know, there are few things that I have not or will not question. That was true times ten in seminary. My brother’s diagnosis of cancer and ultimate death had me very skeptical of well meaning biblical assurances. But somewhere in the middle of his funeral, I discovered that though I lived in a world in which children died and in a world that has had a genocide in almost every generation, I still believed that loving mattered. I was surprised to find that faith inside of me—especially in that moment. It certainly did not make empirical sense. The words of scriptures I would usually argue with soothed me. I still didn’t ‘understand’ but I somehow heard the promise that life meant something different than I had imagined. I believed love would prevail—notwithstanding the pain of that day.
I believe that is what happened to the disciples. I believe it is what allowed them to come from behind closed doors and what allowed them to stay in Jerusalem. If you realize we belong to something greater than ourselves, our individual lives take on new meaning. MLK said that he believed “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice”. This is a spiritual statement and it is a faith claim. There have been many times in history when it has seemed to be wishful thinking. We hold to the hope and the promise that each of us can make a difference on whatever stage we live our lives. And we hold to the promise that every bit of kindness and regard contributes to the bending of history. This is the realization that allowed the disciples to engage a dangerous world. It transformed them and us.
The dangers, toils and snares of this life are ever around us. Live in the promise that we are loved and God’s love will prevail. Let it be so.