A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter
Text: St. Luke 24:36-48
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord. Amen.
We have spent the past three weeks confronting a radical new ordering of the world recorded in Saint John’s Gospel – beginning on Maundy Thursday with the Last Supper and the new commandment to love one another, followed closely by Good Friday and the entirety of the Passion. Then, on Easter morning, everything changed as we read how Christ appeared in the garden to Mary Magdalene, and then in the upper room to Peter and (most of) the other disciples and, a week later, to Thomas before sending the apostles out with the gift of the Holy Spirit (which we read last Sunday).
Today, we rewind just a little bit and change angles.
We’re reading from Saint Luke rather than John’s Gospel, and we pick up the story late in the day on Easter evening.
Up until now, in Luke’s telling, Mary Magdalene and other women have gone to the tomb and were greeted by angels, saying, “Why do you look for the Living One among the dead?” The women went back to the rest of the disciples and told them, but, as the Evangelist notes, “these words seemed to [the men] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Peter alone ran to investigate but found nothing, and he “went home, amazed at what happened.”
That same day, two disciples left Jerusalem for Emmaus when the Risen Lord appeared to them on the road and traveled with them – but the disciples didn’t recognize him. They said to Christ the stranger, “…we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” and related to Jesus how the women had seen the empty tomb but no one has seen Jesus yet. As they walked and talked, Christ unpacked all that has happened, interpreting “to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.” It’s only when they sat down to eat on the road that Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” that they recognized the Risen Lord.
Christ vanished and the two ran back to Jerusalem, bursting in to the room to tell the other disciples, “The Lord has risen indeed!”
And that’s where the lectionary drops us off: “While they were talking about this…”
While they’re talking about this, processing the news, Jesus appears in the room – and, as the text says, they were startled and terrified. (I can’t help but imagine a few of them screamed.) Even after hearing the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the other women, and even after hearing the story of the two disciples who had been traveling to Emmaus, they eleven still think they’re seeing a ghost – a spiritual apparition with no body.
There was a movement that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries among some literary and biblical scholars to doubt the bodily resurrection. Some, like James Frazer, looked at the development of other religions in which deities died and rose again, and these scholars drew the conclusion that Christianity was one of many belief systems to adopt the metaphor of the dying/rising god. Others, including Episcopal bishop Jack Sponge, attempted to “demythologize” Christianity, seeking a meaning behind the story of resurrection, some core that might be left if the supernatural elements were stripped away.
Like Luke’s depiction of the disciples in the upper room, these modern interpreters see the Risen Christ as something like a ghost, something less than real. And, if the Risen Christ is less than real – if the resurrection is not literal, historical, physical, bodily, then why bother? A faith in Jesus without a resurrection is a faith not worth having.
If the Resurrection is not a historical event, what are we doing here?
What need do we have for a myth about an empty tomb when we have rich, dark soil nourished by decaying leaves which, in turn, gives birth to sprigs of green grass?
Why come to worship we could simply look out our windows on a fine spring day to behold budding flowers emerging forth from long-dormant trees?
Why wake up early when we could instead behold the night sky, dotted with cosmic furnaces birthing stars from the remains of novae past?
If the Resurrection of Christ is mere metaphor and myth, then our weekends are better spent in the mountains, taking in the awe of nature, rather than before an Altar enacting silly rituals.
But blessed be the Lord our God and praised be Jesus Christ, the firstborn from among the dead! Not as mere myth, not a metaphor, but really, fully. Jesus Christ is where myth meets history! The Body of the Risen Christ is something to touch and to be touched. Even risen from the grave, Jesus still eats. Though alive, Christ still bears the wounds of nail and spear.
When we behold signs of new life emerging from places of decay – the seed emerging from the soil, the flower budding from the limb, the radiant star emerging from cosmic debris – these glorious realities are metaphors for the ultimate reality of the Risen Christ, the moment at which all of history turns. The cosmos and the Scriptures join together in testifying to the Risen Christ, and we are witnesses!
On the third day, Christ rose again – really, bodily, physically. On that day, sin and death were defeated and the world was changed.