Sermon: III Easter
22 April 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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It's interesting how we are sometimes able, and sometimes unable, to recognize people, places, and faces. The other day I was flipping through the channels, and as I hit upon a particular channel, as soon as the photons hit the little rods and cones in the backs of my eyes, I said to myself, "that's home!" And it was – it was Polk County, Florida. And even though it was just a weather reporter standing in a non-descript field, and even though I haven't lived in central Florida for 25 years, something in the quality of the light and those particular shades of green and the blue of the sky was immediately, almost pre-consciously, pre-analytically recognizable to me. I knew that place in a nanosecond.
On the other hand, we were guests at a pretty big party last week, an outdoor affair, and I was talking to our hostess who looked up and saw an attractive young lady approaching and said, "Now, who is this?" And then after a beat she said, "Oh, that's Catherine!" As in, Catherine her very own daughter. She was a bit distracted, I guess, and expecting to see a guest, and her subconscious mind had ruled out the possibility of seeing her daughter.
Context, our own level of distractedness, our own expectations – all these things and more affect our ability to recognize even the most familiar people and places.
Well, Resurrection takes some getting used to. Our Gospel lesson takes us back to Easter Sunday in the evening. Jesus' disciples are gathered together and somewhat confused. They have heard the report of the holy women who had discovered the empty tomb and heard the angel's announcement and even encountered the Risen Lord in the garden – a report which the disciples somewhat blithely, and perhaps with a taint of sexism, dismissed as, St. Luke tells us, an "idle tale."
But then this report had been confirmed by Simon Peter, to whom the Lord had also appeared. And now – and this is the immediate context in which this morning's lesson begins – they have heard the report of the two disciples who met the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, yet were unable recognize him, this man to whom they had committed their lives, until "he was known to them in the breaking of the bread."
And it is as they hear this testimony, as the two Emmaus disciples were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But the disciples are unable to recognize him, that it is really him. They supposed they saw a spirit, a ghost – anything, after all, would be more likely, more believable, than that this is the same Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had known and loved, and whom they knew to have been killed dead just a couple days before. They supposed they saw a spirit. Resurrection takes some getting used to.
Despite the testimony of the women, despite the testimony of Simon Peter, despite the testimony of the two travelers to Emmaus, even though they have believed enough to have just made the great Easter acclamation – the Lord is risen!: when the Lord appears, the disciples disbelieve; this is not their expectation, and they are not able to recognize him. Maybe it is one thing to accept the Resurrection in theory, and something entirely different to encounter him in person.[i] They are startled and frightened, and they supposed they saw a spirit.
But of course it – he – was not, is not, a spirit. A spirit without a body is less than a human being. And Jesus "incarnate of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary," and Jesus resurrected and living is a whole and true human being.
Luke is deliberately drawing our attention to this fact by telling us of the disciples' fear and misapprehension. In fact, because Resurrection takes some getting used to, Luke is giving us a lesson in Resurrection 101. So our Lord says to his startled, frightened and confused disciples, Why do questionings arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as I have. And then he takes the point even further: Have you anything here to eat?
Every year in Eastertide, and at many other times as well, it bears repeating just what the faith of the Church is: we believe in the resurrection of the body. Luke is at pains here to show us that Jesus is not somehow alive merely in the memory of his friends; nor is he somehow, sort of, kind of, almost like alive when we his disciples do what Jesus would do; nor is he somehow alive - but on a spiritual, incorporeal plane, his soul having been liberated from the body's prison house and escaped this world of matter and time, ashes and dust.
No, St. Luke is showing us that Jesus, body and soul, is really alive, really resurrected, with the same body, but glorified – which is to say, it really is Jesus – the same Jesus whom they had previously touched, and embraced, the same Jesus with whom they had shared so many meals, the same Jesus who had been nailed to the cross, his side pierced, his body laid in a tomb, – the same Jesus, alive.
It's a scandal, of course. And embarrassing. Completely insane, in fact, and in view of decay and the grave, contradictory to all our experience. But of course it was just as much a scandal, just as embarrassing, just as crazy a thing to say, just as contradictory to all experience in the first century as it is in the 21st. On the subject of dead people staying dead, modern science has taught us nothing new. Resurrection still takes a lot of getting used to.
But there is no reason, absolutely none, that those first Christians would have ever said such a thing, much less gone tortured to their graves for it – except that it happened: Christ was raised from the dead, and presented himself alive to the disciples.
See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see, Jesus says to his friends that first Easter evening. And decades later, it is still the center and heart of aged St. John's witness, as we have heard in this morning's Epistle:
That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it.
Hans Urs von Balthazar, maybe the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century, said bluntly, "our acknowledgment of the resurrection of the body hangs by the thread of this testimony." And yet, he continued, "this thread is an extremely strong rope: nothing can have been less likely to have been invented by men than this report."[ii]
"Nothing less likely." Can we not hear those holy women, and the disciples who ran back from Emmaus, and Peter, and John, and the other disciples, pleading with us down through the centuries: "We know this is nuts. But we saw him. We touched him."
What we have looked upon and touched with our hands. It is the resurrection of the body. That is the heart of this account. And it is the heart of our hope. The Holy, the Divine, the Word of Life is found, manifested, is seen and touched, not primarily in the transcendental ecstasies of spiritual adepts, not ultimately in the intellectual flights of the philosophers, but in the tangible, the solid forms. God finds us, touches us, through this creation, not around it or in spite of it.[iii] And the redemption that Christ has won is for and of this world, and these bodies – of the whole and true you and me.
Resurrection takes some getting used to. Spiritual ecstasies and philosophical insights are wonderful and have their value – I wish had more, or any, of either. But if we are to recognize our Lord, to be ready to greet him when he comes, these bodies, this tangible world of solid forms is the level upon which we will have to train our expectations, the level at which we must learn to look for him: Through a Church, upon an Altar, in the breaking of the bread. And in our neighbor, especially the least of his brethren, with his wounds and with his hunger, and through whom the Risen Lord is saying to us still:
See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
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[i] Jn 22.25
[ii] Hans Urs von Balthazar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed.
[iii] Fr. Thomas Rosica, "Luke's Resurrection Symphony in four Parts." http://saltandlighttv.org/blog/rosicareflections/lukes-resurrection-symphony-in-four-movements