Crows Nest Uniting Church
Easter 3 • 19 Apr 2015


Acts 3:12-19
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:35-48


Rev. Chris Udy



Last week we read about Thomas
who, in John’s gospel,
was invited to touch
the hands and side of Jesus
in a test of the reality of resurrection.
We read that passage every year,
and every year we reaffirm
that doubt - or disbelief -
is not so much the opposite of faith
as its shadow -
and sometimes shadows can teach us things
that can’t be discovered any other way.
 
This week we read a parallel passage
from Luke’s gospel.
It doesn’t mention Thomas at all,
but the point of the story for Luke
is clearly almost the same.
The passage comes immediately after
the story of the Emmaus road -
where Cleopas and another disciple,
travelling from Jerusalem to Emmaus
on Easter day - the day of resurrection -
met Jesus without recognising him
and only understood who their companion was
when he joined them for their evening meal
and broke the bread.
 
Luke says Jesus disappeared,
and Cleopas and his partner
immediately ran back to Jerusalem
to tell the disciples what had happened on the road
and with the bread -
and it was while they were telling that story
Jesus stood among them
and said “Peace be with you”.
So far that’s an echo of John’s gospel,
but from here the way Luke tells it
slightly changes.
 
Luke says the disciples were startled and terrified,
thinking they were seeing a ghost -
so Jesus showed them his hands and feet,
and said “Why are you frightened,
and why do doubts rise up in your hearts?
Look at my hands and feet.
See that it really is me.
Touch me - and see;
a ghost has no flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
But - like Thomas -
the disciples aren’t quite convinced.
Luke has a wonderful way
of describing how the disciples feel,
capturing their - understandable -
emotional ambivalence:
he says “while, in their joy,
they were disbelieving, and still wondering”
Jesus then said to them
“Have you anything here to eat?”
So the disciples gave him
a piece of broiled fish,
and he took it, and ate in their presence.
 
It’s significant
that both in John’s gospel
and in Luke’s
there’s no mention of the disciples
taking up Jesus’ offer to poke and probe.
It looks like Luke and John
both want us to see the disciples
taking a leap of faith
that’s not too different
from the one that we,
and all the readers of their gospels
will have to make.
At some point faith moves beyond the proof.
At some point faith involves a trust
that can’t be dependent on touch -
or even sight.
At some level, there will always be a question -
always be some doubt -
but with faith - as in any trusting relationship -
even though not everything is resolved,
not everything is proven and nailed down,
not everything can be verified by touch
or even by sight -
even though there’s a shadow -
we choose to trust,
and we move forward together.
 
Luke and John are writing for people
who have never seen -
and probably never will -
but who belong among the community of faith.
They read the gospels,
because, when they do,
Jesus stands among them -
not as someone to touch or see,
but present just the same -
especially when Scripture is read
and when the bread is broken.
The disciples were witnesses - as Jesus said -
and the written gospels
let the witness of the disciples be proclaimed -
again, as Jesus said -
“to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
 
But, for Luke - and also for John -
there’s still a problem – a problem of evidence.
If the disciples don’t physically touch Jesus;
if it’s a bit unseemly
to have Jesus being poked and prodded for proof,
how do those who read their gospels
know that Jesus wasn’t just a ghost?
How do they know that Jesus,
the man, the human being,
really was raised to life -
not just as a memory, or a story,
or a disembodied spirit,
but as Jesus:
the baby born to Mary;
the man baptised by John;
the one who shared his teaching and his table
with people everyone else had rejected and shunned?
Jesus wasn’t simply an idea.
He wasn’t just a character in a story.
Jesus was a person;
he had a body -
so if the resurrection was real -
and not just some kind of echo of his life -
then Jesus raised
also had to have a body.
 
So Luke adds a detail
to his account of Jesus appearing to the disciples.
The disciples don’t poke and prod at Jesus,
but he does something
no ghost or disembodied spirit could ever do:
he takes some food - a piece of broiled fish -
and he eats it in front of them -
and if you’re a bit irreverent
you might imagine them looking at the floor
just to be sure the fish didn’t fall straight through.
 
When we recite the Apostles’ Creed at a baptism
one of the lines we say is
“I believe in ... the resurrection of the body” -
and it’s this understanding
that Jesus wasn’t a ghost -
that his body was essential to who he was -
that that line in the Apostles’ Creed refers to.
It’s worth noting that part of the reason
for including those particular words in the Creed
was political;
because there were some in the early Church -
in fact a number of significant movements –
(Docetism, Gnosticism)
who said that Jesus never really was a man.
One of these movements – now called Docetism -
said that Jesus was only ever a spirit
who descended on and took over
the human body of the man Jesus
on the day when Jesus was baptised;
and who then left that poor man
dying on the cross
at the point where Jesus said
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This movement then said
that the Christ of the resurrection
was a purely spiritual being,
set free from the bonds and confinement of a body.
As you might imagine,
the idea that God was never really born,
and never really died,
and that God could treat a human being
with the kind of heartless manipulation
that these movements suggested
caused a lot more problems than it solved -
so these ideas were opposed,
and many of these movements
were ultimately declared heretical -
but the Apostles’ Creed was being developed
while that fight was still hot and strong -
and we inherit a line that, for many people,
is also a bit of a problem.
 
If most Christians are asked
what they think happens when they die,
they usually talk about going to be with God
in some kind of heaven.
Almost all modern Christians would say
that going to heaven happens straight away;
we die and we go to the light, they say,
and somewhere in there
there’s some kind of judgement -
and it all happens as soon as our bodies die.
 
There are parts of the Bible
that support that idea of death.
Jesus, for example,
saying to one of the thieves crucified beside him
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”
But there are other parts of the Bible
where resurrection doesn’t follow death so quickly.
Jesus also tells the parable of the sheep and goats,
when resurrection and judgement only happen
when the Son of Man returns at the end of time.
Paul was also expecting resurrection,
not at the moment of death,
but in the future,
at the last trumpet - he said -
when those who have died will be raised.
He even wrote,
in what was probably his first letter,
written to the church in Thessalonica:
“According to the Lord's own word,
we tell you that we who are still alive,
who are left till the coming of the Lord,
will certainly not precede
those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven,
with a loud command,
with the voice of the archangel
and with the trumpet call of God,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
After that, we who are still alive and are left
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
 
So, for centuries,
Christians were buried close to churches -
even inside and underneath them -
in the expectation that when, in the future,
Jesus returned in glory
and gathered all his people to their reward,
there would be a resurrection -
a bodily resurrection -
when the dead would be released from their graves
and be taken home by Jesus
to spend eternity in worship, wonder and praise.
 
Slowly, as the centuries passed,
as graveyards ran out of space,
and as our understanding
of the universe was transformed,
most of those expectations also changed.
We now know
that the atoms that make up our bodies
are constantly changing.
The oxygen atoms we breathe
come and go in seconds;
The atoms in our bloodstream and our muscles
are replaced in days;
those that make up our bones and hair and nails
last just a little bit longer,
but every two years or so
about 98% of what makes us physically who we are
is changed - recycled - replaced and renewed.
Even though we may look pretty much the same,
and even though we may think of ourselves
as being the same person we were as children,
the body we have today
is not the same as the one we had
a couple of years ago.
 
Who we are - who we really are -
can’t be nailed down
to something we can touch and poke and prod.
We have bodies - we are bodies -
but we’re also something more.
As we live our bodies grow and wear;
we carry scars and lines and bruises
that contribute as much to our identity
as the memories we retain
and the achievements we list
and the stories we tell.
So when we think about
and hope for resurrection,
we need to look for something beyond the surface -
deeper than the skin.
 
Who we are - who we really are -
emerges from an amazing and wonderful interaction
between atoms and energies
and persons and communities.
Who we are is shaped and defined,
not so much by stuff
as by relationships.
Certain things come together
at certain times
to make us who we are -
and then the elements that form us
move on from us
into other relationships and interactions.
We are not disconnected and discrete;
we’re conceived in relationship
and born into family.
We live every day
in communion and conversation,
with people who are present and far away,
both in terms of distance and of time.
The words we speak come to us from others,
and we pass them on
in stories to which we add our meaning,
our affirmation - our witness.
The bread we break and eat
is made of sunshine and soil and water and seed
and the effort and expertise of many people
and for us, as disciples of Jesus,
it’s also a sign
that every time we meet around a table
Jesus is also among us,
risen and alive.
 
Everything’s connected - and nothing is lost.
The elements that form our bodies and our bread
were created in the hearts of stars.
Some of them - like the iron in our blood,
or the calcium in our bones -
can only be created
when a star comes to the end of its life
and collapses and explodes and dies,
scattering its substance into space.
Resurrection will always be
both wonderful and mysterious -
and hopefully we’ll always ask questions
that will lead us always deeper into truth -
but our hope for resurrection
isn’t really all that strange;
it reflects the way the universe began,
and the way it grows, and changes;
it says that who we are - who we really are -
is not some kind of stuff
that can be poked and prodded;
who we are comes to us
from the relationships we live in;
and the best that we can be -
humanity at its most significant and substantial,
life at its most enduring and influential,
grows out of relationships
born and nourished and sustained
in trust, and truth, and love.