I am appreciative of the stories we have in the New Testament of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection. On the one hand, I appreciate them for the good news they give us. These accounts of Jesus with his disciples show us that the crucifixion was not the end of the story. The fact that Jesus appeared to his disciples and others several times shows that Jesus lives, death has been conquered, and the great gulf of sin that separated us from God has finally been bridged.
On the other hand, I find that I’m also appreciative for these stories because they’re so honest about the way those disciples and friends first respond to that news. They show us, for example, that the disciples never coolly accept what is being presented to them, casually coming to terms with what it all means—“NBD,” as they might text it today. These accounts also never show the disciples and friends of Jesus slamming their hands against their foreheads in a “duh”-like expression. “Of course he’s risen from the dead! What were we thinking?”
|"Christ's appearance on the mountain" Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11)|
Neither do these accounts show the disciples particularly revved up to tell anyone about it. Granted, the Holy Spirit has not yet been sent to help the believers make sense of it all—we get that story in the book of Acts and, boy, let me tell you, they eventually get pretty revved up—but even here, in the days fresh after it’s happened, you might expect the disciples to show some immediate faith and interest, some compulsion to spread this unbelievable news. But the word “faith” isn’t even mentioned, and the disciples are mostly overcome with terror and confusion. Even in their joy they still struggle to believe. Instead of being some biblical version of a rubber-stamp, “happily-ever-after” ending, these resurrection appearances do a good job of showing that the disciples have been presented with something that they can’t quite get their head around, that the whole concept of Jesus’ miraculous and mysterious rising from the dead was pretty hard to grasp...not to mention getting revved up about so as to serve as witnesses.
There is great irony in this because Jesus spends much of his time during these appearances going about trying to show that he is, in fact, something to be grasped. And I’m not talking about grasping just the concept or idea of the resurrection or the theology of it all or grasping the underlying Scripture that tells its story…but his actual body, himself. It can be grasped. “Touch me and see,” he says to his followers, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have By the way…Do you have anything to eat?” The risen Lord spends a good bit of his time after the resurrection finding his friends, searching out community, doing what he can to convince his followers that his body is real and that he is not a supernatural spirit. So Jesus offers, then, what a real human can offer: flesh and bones. Skin, supposedly with wounds. And an appetite.
Interestingly, this story from Luke does not mention Jesus’ wounds directly. We often assume he shows wounds here because he does so in other gospel accounts and we know that the crucifixion would have left marks in his hands and feet, however here the emphasis is on the hands and feet themselves. In the ancient Middle East, men typically wore (and still wear) a tunic that covered the entire body, leaving only the hands and feet exposed. Here he offers them as proof that he has bones and skin, that he literally takes up space in this universe and is not just an image.
The fact that Jesus can be physically grasped may eventually help the disciples understand that what they are seeing is real. He establishes his reality—his graspability—so he can get to the point of his resurrection: that repentance and forgiveness of sins may be proclaimed in his name. The entire gospel story has been working toward this point. Way at the beginning John the Baptist came preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ whole ministry was based on seeking out the lost and least, ensuring them—and others, at the same time—that God’s forgiveness was offered even unto them, despite what the religious leaders were saying. Now that death, the last barrier separating God from creation and creation from itself, has been defeated, full forgiveness in God’s name may be proclaimed and made real to all nations.
In fact, if this is what the community of Jesus’ followers is to be about—to offer forgiveness and embody it with each other—it must be a real community, a physical presence. In being emphatic about his own physical presence, Jesus is, in a way, conveying to them the importance of their own lives, their own bodies, their own flesh and blood, in the ministry of his gospel. That is to say, as witnesses, they will also need to be a community that can be grasped, a group of people that actually takes up space in the universe. They will not just have thoughts about God and God’s forgiveness and the Bible and all that jazz, or just speak words about repentance or theories about binding up the broken-hearted. They will do it. They will practice it. They will exert real, physical energy to attempt it. These followers of the risen Lord will allow themselves to be touched and even wounded in order for it to be made real.
I recently ran across an incredibly uplifting obituary (imagine that: an uplifting obituary!) in one of my favorite magazines for a British woman named Lyn Lusi. I had never heard of her before until her death, but reading about her life made me wonder why I never had. Lyn Lusi was a Christian missionary’s wife who worked almost her whole life in the most remote and dangerous corners of Congo, the country formerly known as Zaire. Her husband was a doctor and a hospital builder; she was his main administrator. There, in one of the harshest and darkest places of the universe, Lyn and her husband took up space, working through the years to train thirty doctors and tending countless sick and injured. When Lyn Lusi discovered that many women in her area had been brutally sexually assaulted by militia men and then disowned by their families, she responded by offering them all the love and compassion that she possibly could. Together, she and her husband founded an organization called HEAL Africa, the letters in HEAL standing for Health, Education, Action, and Love. She died last month from cancer at the age of 62, but not before she and her husband had helped treat, often with surgery, over 5000 of these cases.
|Lyn and Jo, her husband|
One of the most remarkable aspects of their ministry of healing was her recruitment of local “mamas,” women from surrounding villages who would stand ready to welcome the injured, forsaken, often filthy women with open arms as they got off the buses in front of the hospital. It was a ministry of grasping and being grasped: the life of resurrection faith that takes up space in the universe, one that does not just sit around dreaming about things like forgiveness and a world without pain, but puts its flesh and blood on the line to embody it.
The world will dearly miss Lyn Lusi, but she is far from the only example of this grasping, graspable life of faith. I caught glimpses of it yesterday as volunteers here stretched and sweated as they set up the fellowship hall for our CARITAS guests, hooking poles together and unloading sleeping mattresses on a sunny Saturday. We see examples of it all the time here as people lug food donations into the HHOPE pantry and then sort it, weigh it, bag it, and lovingly hand it to real people in our community who need it. Then there’s Cecil McFarland, chaplain to state prisons, physically going to the incarcerated to share the news of forgiveness.
This graspable faith is also put into motion by the tireless volunteers who do their best to make sure that this particular place of bricks and mortar is locked and secured on a regular basis, outfitted with the best and cleanest facilities for our ministries, grass and altarware shined up.
And this same faith is embodied by those who come to sit their real, flesh-and-blood hineys down in pews at some point during the week to hear about this Jesus who has been risen from the dead. These and more are instances of people who are living in their own bones the reality of a world set to rights by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people who are working out what it means to offer forgiveness of sins, repentance to a life of serving others in Jesus’ name.
I often get wind of anxiety, especially in our country, about the future of the church and whether it will be relevant amidst the new challenges of technology and science. I hear of anxiety about how people of faith can or should adapt to changing cultural mores and attitudes about everything from sexuality to politics to economics. There is a sense that we’re losing ground, or that we’re losing influence. While the challenges that face us are real, sometimes I think the anxiety is much ado about nothing. What place will the church have? Will we thrive? Will we be—dare I say it?—relevant?
Friends, the church will always have a place in this world because it has been given to proclaim and embody the forgiveness and repentance in Jesus’ name, because it is the community dedicated to standing there, offering words of healing and real arms of embrace as the world gets off the bus, looking for hope, looking for a new start. The church will always be relevant not because it’s just acquainted with the concept of new life, but because it allows itself to be present, grasped, touched—and, yes, wounded—as it proclaims the forgiveness of sins, as it offers repentance, a life in the direction of God.
And to do so, we must not forget our appetite—our appetite for his meal. We’re going to need some nourishment. Let us be strengthened by the promise that Jesus is somehow still with us, God’s little children, breaking his body and pouring out his blood to bind up the brokenhearted and restore us to God’s heart. And even when we cannot explain it, even when this meal, this moment, this mystery cannot be grasped by our minds, let us at least grasp it with our hands. May the joy of this news—He is risen!—then grasp us and empower us, once again, to take up space here in this universe, to proclaim his forgiveness and serve as witnesses to the life he offers. Relevant…now and forever.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.