by Daniel Harrell
On Easter Sunday in Luke’s gospel, the focus was an empty tomb. On this fourth Sunday of Easter in Luke’s gospel, it’s the risen Jesus in full flesh and blood. You have to have both. Without vacant grave and a touchable person, Christianity never gets off the ground (not to mention out of the ground). People robbed graves and imagined ghosts and zombies, but nobody claimed to have broke bread over dinner with a dead person now alive with a body you could touch.
Right after Easter, two distraught disciples traveled home to a town called Emmaus. Jesus showed up and walked with them. They didn’t know it was Jesus—though surely the resemblance was uncanny. However, once Jesus broke bread, we read “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” but then poof, he disappeared from their sight. Once you believe you don’t have to see.
Simon Peter got a look too. Lord knows he needed one after all he’d been through and done. The second worst disciple after Judas, Peter ran to the graveyard and the empty tomb. And then he saw Jesus alive. Luke doesn’t try to explain it or make sense of it; he just passes on what Christians reported had happened. Back at the hideout, Jesus appeared to the rest of his disciples. He popped in and said “peace,” like angels did whenever they snuck up on people in the Bible. He might just as well have said “boo” given how much he scared them: “startled and terrified” was how Luke reported it. The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. Only Jesus wasn’t an angel or a ghost. That would have made sense.
On this Earth Day weekend, in addition to the syrup from our trees we boiled down for pancakes this morning here at church, we also make honey. OK, technically we raise bees who make honey. Concerned by the well publicized plight of pollinators, we started our own Colonial apiary, just like the Pilgrims would have done it. Sadly, the first season we lost half our hive. This year we lost it all. Despite our mite management, ample food stores and having tucked them all snug as a bug in their hives last November, when we checked them in February there was no sign of any life anymore. Just a big box of dead bugs. So after worship we’ll go to the graveyard and clean out the empties and ready for the new colonies and queens we’ve ordered trucked in from California.
But what if we went out after worship and found live bees instead? Needless to say, we’d be startled and terrified just like the disciples. And probably stung.
But we’d be happy too—just like the disciples. They felt fear and disbelief but also amazement and joy—that mix of emotions felt associated with something too good to be true. Jesus asked why they doubted in the first place, which had to sting. But who really believes resurrection happens? The best we imagine are disembodied souls floating up like helium to heaven. Years ago I served a stint on a Harvard hospital ethics committee. Among the many issues we tackled was pediatric organ donation after cardiac death. When was it OK to remove a heart for consented transplant from a child whose heart had irreversibly stopped beating? Harvard policy was to wait five minutes, rather than the preferable two practiced by most other medical centers. Why the extra three minutes? Harvard’s policy was to provide the deceased with something called “spiritual wiggle room.” They reasoned five minutes should suffice for a soul to depart its body.
Nonreligious members of the ethics committee were naturally nonplussed. With hundreds of children desperately awaiting organ donations, why risk organ viability by taking extra time for something that, scientifically speaking, we’re not even sure happens? Was this a hospital or a church? The ethics committee turned to me (the minister) for advice.“Reverend,” they asked, “how long does it take for a soul to depart the body?”
All I knew to say was what Christians had always said. I quoted the Apostles’ Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” by which we mean the whole body. No need for the wiggle room. How does this happen? How do I know? I’m just a minister. The apostle Paul says it’ll work something like farming: a natural body gets sown in the ground like a corpse buried, but then gets raised a spiritual body—what theologians imagine as a kind of trans-or-transformed physicality, definitely a new kind of biology and physics surpassing science since the Bible says our new bodies won’t die anymore. We will be changed to be sure, made new, but not necessarily so different. “New creations” the Bible says, testifying to a fundamental continuity with current creation itself. Though jars of clay, our bodies are not throwaway receptacles carelessly tossed aside when we die. To dust we return but from the dust we will rise and be recognizable like Jesus, fully healed and made whole and finally ourselves. Except that Jesus does still have his scars. You’d think if resurrection gets you a changed body you’d at lose the nail holes.
“Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus said. The disciples had seen Jesus’ hands before. They’d seen his hands do amazing things. His feet too, walking across water and getting washed with tears. But this was the first time they’d seen them with holes. The disciples ran away and hid before the hammering started. “Look at my hands and feet” could be have been understood as “see what you did?” But since these are Jesus’ hands and feet, we know his scars to be signs of sacrificial love. As he said, “greater love has no person than he would lay down his life for his friends.” The love of Jesus is strong enough and deep enough and big enough to embrace our worst betrayals and our most wonderful joy, the horrible and the glorious, the tragic and the beautiful and the true.
That Jesus rose from the dead like he said proved everything he said was true. “Lose your life to find it” Jesus said, and that’s true too because Jesus rose from the dead. “Love your enemies and expect nothing in return” is true because Jesus rose from the dead. “You cannot serve both God and money” is true because Jesus rose from the dead.“Faith like a child gets you into the kingdom,” “the last will go first,” “blessed are the poor,” “ask and you shall receive,” “there is forgiveness for all who repent,” all true, because Jesus rose from the dead. “The one who endures to the end will be saved,” the list goes on and on.
Religious experts of Jesus’ day believed only God could say and do what Jesus did. Yet Jesus never directly says he is God in the flesh, preferring instead to refer to himself as “the son of man.” In ancient Hebrew culture, to say “son of man” meant “human being,” and so often in the gospels, Jesus resisted any attempt to be seen as anything other than human. However, by tacking on the definite article, Jesus also hinted how he is not just any human. He calls himself the Son of Man, the difference being that while you and I are only human (an adverbial phrase we use to excuse our bad behavior), Jesus is truly human, the person like whom we will resurrect to be. How does this happen? How do I know? But I do know that in a very real sense it’s already started. As the apostle Paul claimed, “If anyone is in Christ, there is new creation now. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Except tension remains between old and new. Even as redeemed sons (and daughters) of men, we’re still only human and not yet who we really are. This is true for the whole creation too. Harvests abound yet hunger is rampant. Technology designed to make life easier stresses us out. We live longer but fear getting old. Weapons proliferate for the sake of peace. Oceans increase as carbon burns. Saved by grace we still need grace. We love and care and serve and forgive, but we also hurt and harm and resent and envy. Jesus rises from the dead but still bears his scars.
Resurrection has started it’s just not yet completed. No matter how bad it gets, or how hard or even how good, nothing compares to the glory to come because Jesus rose from the dead. “Those who endure to the end will be saved.”
We’ve learned about endurance and patience this April: eleven degrees Easter morning. 20 inches of snow last Sunday. What a difference a week makes! 28 of met out at the Arboretum last Saturday as part of our ReForming Vision Team, working together on whatever it is God is calling us to next as a church. We met at the Arboretum to be inspired by God’s creation. Though beautiful, it wasn’t what we had planned for back in November. As appropriate to Easter, it “startled and terrified” us. The Arboretum crew interrupted our lunch once the blizzard set in and said they were done. They said the state roads weren’t going to get plowed anymore. After much prayer we decided to adjourn and go home. We should have saved the prayers for the drive since we could hardly see the roads. We got home by faith and not by sight you might say.
Meteorologist Paul Douglas (who’ll be here at Colonial for our dinosaur conference in two weeks) writes how historic winters in April are partly our fault. As creatures made in God’s image, we humans have cosmic power. Science shows how carbon burned into the air leads to a warmer atmosphere that holds more moisture and wreaks havoc with jet streams. Cold pushes south and weather fronts stall helping fuel blizzards in April. Jesus and the prophets all warned of environmental catastrophe as harbingers of apocalyptic doom: we reap what we sow. The gospel forecast of new creation provides the only real hope we have left. We’re promised not only new bodies but a new heaven and earth too.
Last Sunday’s forecast was all over the map. Churches canceled services just to be safe: CPC and Wooddale and Upper Room and Good Shepherd Lutheran and River Valley all closed. Cozy up by the fire, they advised, read your Bible at home, stay safe and good luck.
Being true Pilgrims here at Colonial Church, this did not seem right. Our Mayflower forbears endured a horrendous first winter in Massachusetts, so we marshaled our own Mayflower: Debbie Treece on piano, Gus in the sound booth, Josh Steinke on slides, Eric and Bob on the snow plows, Jeff at the coffee pot, Sara with the sermon, Rick Treece with a song, Marie with the kids, and a boatload of you showed up for worship; demonstrating our evident spiritual superiority as a congregation.
Which I’m sure is not the point. Alas, saved by grace we do still need grace. even our best intentions come with mixed motives. Pride is both virtue and deadly sin. Still, as resurrection has already started, there are moments when our truly redeemed and resurrected identities shine through; moments when Christ in us, the hope of glory, gets revealed. As new creations now, we can burst forth like sudden springtime in winter, when gather to worship despite the odds, when we actually love our enemies, when we choose to serve God over money, when we give up for love’s sake, when we believe like little children, and hope and have faith and actually forgive those who wrong us, when we care for poor and care for the earth and speak truth and make peace and do right—whenever we act as the resurrected people we already are, enduring to that day when we finally are fully ourselves in Christ. No matter how bad it gets, or how hard or even how good, nothing compares to the glory to come because Jesus rose from the dead.
Is it too good to be true? The overjoyed disciples still had their doubts. Resurrection can be exhausting. It was enough to make Jesus hungry. Here in Luke Jesus asks whether the disciples had anything to eat. I love this mostly because I like to eat and am counting on there being good food in heaven. The disciples stumbling all over themselves to pass Jesus a piece of broiled fish, cooked over fire—Luke is very specific here. Jesus eats it to demonstrate once again that it is really him. In the King James version, we read that Jesus eats a hunk of honeycomb too. I love this too. Honey is like a taste of heaven on earth, and compared to all other foods, honey has an expiration date of never. Just like resurrection! New creation has already begun.