Easter 3 – Sermon – Luke 24.36-48
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.
If there’s one thing the pandemic has reminded us of it is that “seeing” is not enough! More than ever we have come to realise the importance of human touch. Whilst advances in technology have enabled us at least to see our nearest and dearest when talking to them via phone, WhatsApp or over the internet and whilst it can give us some idea of how they are faring, no amount of Zoom or Teams meetings can replicate the experience of being physically present with someone.
Nowhere was the deprivation of physical contact more obviously highlighted than at the funeral of Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh yesterday. I suspect I was not alone in wanting to see someone put an arm around the Queen.
“Simply seeing” others in the same room at times of grief and bereavement is no substitute for the comfort of clasped hands or a warm embrace.
Neither, in the 21st-century, is “seeing” believing! More than ever these days we question what we see. Whether it be the filters used to enhance our appearances on Zoom or the use of Deep Fake videos, we are increasingly cautious about trusting what we see. And any lawyer will tell you the marked difference between hearing evidence given by a live witness present in the same room and hearing an account given through the medium of a video screen.
For the disciples who encountered the risen Christ in our gospel reading from St Luke today, seeing most certainly wasn’t enough and seeing certainly wasn’t believing. Remember they had already received the report from Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus had risen from the dead but chose to discount that as “an idle tale”. (By the way, some scholars suggest that’s a rather gentle translation given the Greek word used by Luke is in fact the root of the word delirious. So it may be more that the disciples were thinking the women were not in their right mind!). Even Peter’s subsequent witnessing of the empty tomb appears not to have convinced them and even though they have just been hearing the account of Cleopas and his companion about the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and his breaking of the bread with them, the disciples, terrified by Jesus’ sudden appearance, still think he’s a ghost!
Jesus, standing in their midst, has to prove himself to their satisfaction, holding out his hands and feet for inspection and inviting them (as we heard last week he did with Thomas) to touch him. We’re not told if they did touch him and I wonder if they were too afraid to do so for fear that an illusion might be shattered (a bit like those films where someone reaches out to touch a loved one only to discover they are not, in fact, really there). I also wonder if touching him was something they were generally shy of. The last time one of his disciples touched Jesus whilst he was living, of course, was in order to betray him. Is it the disciples’ failure to accept Jesus’ invitation to touch him or perhaps him being aware that many Jews doubted angels ate human food, which prompts him to offer more proof that he’s not some ghost or angel but “flesh and bones” by eating the fish they give him?
I pause here to reflect that modern day sceptics are apt to think of Jesus’ followers back then, as superstitious, gullible, and less critical or knowledgeable individuals than we are today, yet the reality here appears to have been quite different. Even after Jesus calls their bluff and invites them to touch him the disciples are still “disbelieving”.
What more proof do they need?
Notwithstanding the growing body of evidence about his resurrection Jesus’ closest friends, those who had been convinced that he was the Messiah, still have great difficulty believing he has risen from the dead, even when he is standing right in front of them.
Whilst Jesus stresses he is still flesh and bones and whilst his body is clearly not a figment of his disciples’ imagination it is clear that it is different. Able to pass through walls into a room to be with them, Jesus is changed. He himself acknowledges this changed state when he says (verse 44) “words that I spoke to you whilst was still with you”. He is no longer with them in the same way. His is not simply a restored human body like that of Lazarus. His resurrected body is immortal. It differs from usual human existence. The resurrected Jesus is a living being. God remains active and alive in the flesh and blood and dirt and brokenness of the material world, not confined to some heavenly realm.
Whilst Jesus’ resurrection and reappearance might defy all conventions of humanity and mortality and be outwith the usual paradigms (or, as one writer puts it, be “a reality not normally predicated by science”) that in itself is not a reason to disbelieve it. If we can conceive of a god who came to Earth in human form, who was born in lowly circumstances, who healed the sick and raised others from the dead, surely we can conceive of a god who shatters all our other preconceptions about Death too?
Like others I see this passage as a warning against over confidence in our own perception of things, whilst at the same time offering reassurance to all those of us, who like the disciples, struggle to comprehend the mystery of the Resurrection. Those who doubt are in good company, sharing in the struggle of Thomas and the other disciples.
In its emphasis on the physicality of the risen Lord’s body the passage serves as a reminder that our spiritual lives are inseparable from our physical ones. I was struck by the observation of one commentator that “ every experience [they] have of the holy is grounded in [the] body”. It caused me to reflect on the physical nature of our liturgy – designed as it is to stimulate the senses – the smell of the incense, the scent of candle wax, the sound of the music which transports us to a different place, the touches involved in blessings, baptisms and confirmations, the taste of the bread and wine, the symbols we glimpse in each service, the lights and the darkness – all sensory experiences which help kindle the fire of faith deep within us. The same bodies which enable us to worship in such a way will, of course, fail us. They will wither and decay. Through Christ’s resurrection we are offered the promise that we, along with the whole of creation, will also be transformed and renewed.
The passage also reminds me that “seeing is not enough” and that to be a Christian is not to stand on the outside looking in. It reminds me that intrinsic to our shared humanity is the ability to touch. To touch is to cradle the babies, to feed the hungry, to nurse the sick, to tend the wounds of others as well as our own; it’s to offer an embrace both in times of celebration and despair. It’s to hold the hands of the dying and to hug the bereaved. And for those unable to offer touch themselves it’s in the ability to receive it.
I pray that we may touch the lives of others as God touches us, with love.
Richard Young (Rector)