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While they yet believed not…

A sermon by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue given at
All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Thomasville, Georgia
on April 22, 2012

The readings in the liturgy were from the King James Bible as referenced in the sermon

 

While they yet believed not…

Luke 24: 36b-48

What would it take to prove conclusively that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God who died and was bodily resurrected so that anyone and everyone will believe? Try this scenario:

 Next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this world will be knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls, leaves drop from trees, the earth heaves and buckles, buildings topple and towers tumble. The sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light, and just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open, and the clouds pull apart, revealing an unbelievably radiant and immense Zeus-like figure towering over us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays over the features of his Michaelangeloid face, and then he points down, at me, and explains for every man, woman, and child to hear, “I’ve had quite enough of your too-clever logic chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, Norwood Russell Hanson, that I most certainly do exist!”[1]

The Christian philosopher Dallas Willard uses this on an in-class hand-out and then asks his students, if the heaven opened and God spoke that clearly and directly to some guy named Norwood Russell Hanson, what would this Hanson do? Willard’s best guess is that he would explain the whole thing away. Dismiss it all. If not at first, then over time. After all, each of us has encountered God in some way or another, and if we want to do so, we can find some way to explain it all away.

I begin with this question of what proof would it take as the disciples are, in our Gospel reading for today, still trying to decide what to believe about Jesus’ resurrection. In the reading, it is Easter evening. Some of seen the empty tomb, some have even seen their risen Lord, but most of the disciples remain locked in an upper room in Jerusalem for fear of persecution as a follower of Jesus.

Those who had seen the risen Jesus were telling others of their experience, and just then, Jesus appears among them in the locked room and says, “Peace be unto you.” Luke tells us, “They were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit.” Many apparently view Jesus appearance in the only category they have available for a person who has died who now appears in a locked room—they see him as a ghost.

So appearing among them was not enough for all to believe. So Jesus adds to the evidence saying, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?  Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.  And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet.”

Jesus wants the disciples to understand the reality of the resurrection. He will not remain with them always. He will return to the right hand of God the Father. But for now he stands before them bodily resurrected and he wants them to understand the miracle that has just occurred. Yet even this is not enough evidence for all of them. They know that Jesus is dead. Dead. Rome knows how to kill people, of this Jesus followers are certain. When Rome kills someone they are professional about it the people they execute stay dead. These facts are so well established that they are difficult to overcome.

Jesus shows them his hands and his feet. This is the oddest fact of the resurrection, that Jesus still has wounds in his hands, feet and side. Jesus has risen from the dead wounded. This is astounding. After all, Jesus made lepers clean, gave hearing to a man born deaf and sight to one born blind. Jesus fed the multitudes with a little bread and fish. Jesus walked on water, calmed the storm, raised the dead. Jesus healed the centurion’s servant without even stepping foot in his yard. Jesus who in so many ways had shown that his power was unlimited, chose to limit himself.

Jesus didn’t use power to save himself from the cross. And here, Jesus who has been raised from the dead, comes back still bearing the marks—humanity’s marks, our marks—on his flesh. Jesus rises to new life marked by the life he lived for us. This particular form of resurrection is significant. If Jesus rose all healed over, nice and neat, we could claim the cross as an inconvenient accident. We could decide that suffering, particularly suffering and sacrifice for others holds no meaning for us. But Jesus’ return still bearing the marks of the cross mean that we can not dispense with Good Friday.

The one who could heal others with a touch leaves his own wounds raw and open and in so doing gives the disciples yet more cause to understand that this is no apparition. The resurrected Jesus stands before them, yet even this is not enough for all of them. Luke tells us, “While they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat?  And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.”

I love that we are told that they were disbelieving and still wondering. The Bible is the most realistic of books. Luke wants us to understand that the disciples had doubts even at times when we would think they must have been certain. Here they are with Jesus standing before them in the flesh offering the wounds of the cross for their examination and yet there is disbelief and wonder.

If nothing else, this makes room for doubts within the church. We know that the disciples not only had doubts, but they were unafraid to let others know, for it was through their own teaching later and life that these stories of the disciples’ doubts entered in to scripture. Those first followers of Jesus want us to understand that there were times when what Jesus was doing was a bit too much for them to take in as well.

They were amazed when he fed the multitudes, but then thought it was a ghost when he walked out to them on the water. And now they feel joy at seeing and hearing Jesus again but it leaves them with disbelief and wonder for it seems too good to be true. And so Jesus eats fish in front of them as a sure sign of his bodily resurrection.

This bodily resurrection is a central teaching of Christianity, yet many believe in practice in a spiritual resurrection—the idea that only our souls continue. The only problem with the idea of spiritual resurrection, is that it is not what scripture teaches. The Bible tells us that Jesus rose from the grave in a resurrection body and that we too will rise, not to live in an old or wounded human body, but in a resurrected body. Scripture does not describe a resurrected body, but tells us that bodily resurrection matters. The author, John Updike, has a poem that captures the essence of this bodily resurrection. It is his “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

 

Bodily resurrection shows that we do not hold with a Buddhist or Pantheist belief that we join with all that is. Instead, as Christians we proclaim a bodily resurrection for Jesus and for ourselves and in that we show that our own particular existence will continue. We will remain distinct individuals after death and resurrection. Yet, in this we find one more peculiar fact about Jesus’ resurrection. It’s those wounds again.

We don’t believe that we will rise in wounded bodies. The first Christians never feared that those who were killed by lions in the coliseum would somehow be less whole in heaven than those who died peacefully in their sleep. In I Corinthians chapter 15 and elsewhere when the Bible spells out more about bodily resurrection, the state of our bodies at the time we die does not bear on our resurrection life. So why the wounds on the risen Christ?

Jesus rising as a “wounded healer” shows that the joy of Easter makes sense only through the pain and suffering of the cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection, like the rest of his life and ministry reveal that Christianity is not a spirituality that seeks to deny the world. In fact, the resurrected Jesus’ wounds reveal a God who knows our pains and sorrows fully. When we deal with loneliness, betrayal, grief, sickness, and even when we face our own deaths, we see in the risen Jesus how God knows and understands these human experiences as one who has lived them in Jesus who was fully human and fully divine.

This matters to our day to day lives, as we are called to live our bodily, daily existence, transformed by the presence of the risen Christ within us, transformed by Christ who is present with us in our suffering, and loss.

And it is this presence of the risen Christ within us that is the true evidence of the resurection. The proof of Jesus’ resurrection is not something distant. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is that if you are open to Jesus and honest with yourself about what you experiencing, you will find that Jesus can and will touch your life. Jesus, who felt the pain of abandonment on the cross, will never abandon you. Other people may come and go in your life, but God is ever present.

The real proof of the resurrection comes in those experiences of God’s presence, that are way more reliable than our feelings. It is true that you will not always feel Christ in and with you. When we face obstacles in life it is easier to see the obstacle than our Lord’s abiding presence. That is looking at the windshield. Yet, when I look back at my own life through the rear view mirror as it were, I see the fingerprints of God all over my life, even in times when I felt alone.

Whatever it is you are facing, ask Jesus to touch your wounded life with his hands that still bear the marks of what we humans did and yet remain open, reaching out in love. Let the wounded feet of Jesus walk beside you as you come up to the altar this morning and as you go back out into the world, wounded as you are but carrying within you the healing words and hope that bring life. If the pain is not yours, but someone else you love is hurting, bring that in prayer and lay your concerns at the foot of the cross, trusting that as God will not abandon you, so our Lord will be present with those for whom you pray. Patiently trust God’s abiding presence in these times of loss and sufering and when you look back over time, you will see all the evidence you need of the presence and power of our Trinue God.

Amen.

 


[1]     This illustration is quoted on page 254 of The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel.

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