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Life After Resurrection

San Williams

April 22, 2012
Luke 24:36b-48

04-22-2012 Sermon  Some years ago the leader at a preaching conference contrasted the Christian Science Monitor with your typical newspaper.  Most newspapers, he observed, strive to report breaking news.  Their goal is to get the news in print as quickly as possible.  The Monitor, by contrast, writes stories several days after they happen.  The editors’ goal is to bring sound analysis and thoughtful reflection on recent events.  Well, this morning, let’s adopt the approach of the Christian Science Monitor.  A couple weeks ago, we reported the resurrection with great fanfare—gorgeous flowers, even more glorious music and a full sanctuary.  Now that some time has passed and the initial glow of Easter is behind us, let’s turn an analytical eye to Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples.  What are the implications of what happened for us today?

To begin, ponder for a moment the first words that the risen Jesus speaks to the disciples when he appears to them:  “Peace be with you.”  Give that greeting some thought.  Recall that the last time Jesus saw these disciples they were all failing him in one way or another.  These are the men who betrayed, denied, and deserted Jesus the moment their expectations of him weren’t met and their lives were endangered.  When the risen Jesus came into their presence, he would have been justified to say something like:  “Shame on you.  After all the time we spent together, after all I taught you, you scattered like rabbits at the first sign of danger.  You are no longer my disciples!”  Such an outburst of anger would be understandable.  But no.  The one they had failed and disappointed came into their midst, and his first words to them were, “Peace be with you.”  He was saying to them, and to his disciples of every age, “I forgive you.  I still love you.  Peace be with you.”  Amazing!

Of course, the disciples were startled and terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost. But Luke dispels the notion that the risen Jesus is a ghost.   Jesus invites the disciples to touch him, to feel his flesh and bones. He even asks for something to eat. Clearly the risen body of Jesus is neither a disembodied spirit nor a resuscitated corpse. It is, rather, a glorified body, one that is both similar and dissimilar to the body of the historical Jesus.  It is something new and different.  Call it a new creation.

Even so, the disciples aren’t sure what to make of the risen Jesus.  We moderns sometimes tend to think that we invented religious doubt.  Yet Luke acknowledges that the resurrection was hard to believe for the first disciples. In fact, all the Gospel accounts of resurrection contain an element of doubt, disbelief, confusion and fear. Luke pusts it this way:  “…in their joy they were disbelieving, and still wondering…”  News of the resurrection elicits not one, but several conflicting responses.  Joy leaps into our hearts at the very thought that life is more than we’ve calculated, that death does not have the final word, that goodness and truth are not ultimately overwhelmed by evil and untruth.  Yet at the same time, this good news has always been hard to believe, and so, like those first disciples, we are still wondering, still trying to take it in, still scratching our heads and asking “How can these things be?”

And listen to what Jesus says to his sometimes joyful, sometimes disbelieving and still wondering disciples.  He says, “You are my witnesses.”  What a liberating, empowering announcement.  Jesus doesn’t require absolute certainty among his disciples.  He doesn’t  tell his disciples that they cannot be his witnesses until they have resolved every question and put to rest any lingering doubt. It’s as if Jesus said to his first disciples, and to disciples of every generation, “I know you’re having trouble believing. I know you have doubts, but take heart, ‘you are my witnesses!’”

So what does it mean to be a witness to the resurrection?  There’s a line in the play, The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II of England, says, “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”  The resurrection of Jesus shatters our notions of reality. In a world in which a resurrection has happened, anything is possible.

The past week was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and a host of articles and television programs revisited this tragic event of 1912.  On one of these programs, James Cameron, producer of the most recent movie on the Titanic was interviewed. Toward the end of the interview, he became pensive, philosophical. He observed that the Titanic was a great ship, but it had one fatal flaw:  it was so massive that it could not turn.  Those who piloted the ship on that fateful night disregarded that flaw, and when an iceberg appeared in the path of the ship they were unable to steer clear of disaster. Cameron then made a metaphorical link with modern civilization.  “As with the Titanic,” he said, “there is unprecedented greatness in our civilization, but our massive appetites, greed and hubris have put us on a collision course from which we are unable or unwilling to turn.”

Given how unsustainable and environmentally destructive our civilization has become, the fear that we are heading toward some Titanic-sized shipwreck seems reasonable.  Yet as witnesses to a resurrection, we are never without hope. A world in which a resurrection has taken place is not a world locked in an inevitable death grip.  If Christ has been raised, anything is possible.

This week our church hosted the Congo Network of the Presbyterian Church.  We watched a video that featured various church leaders in Congo.  One of these leaders chronicled the massive problems facing the Congolese people—poverty, challenges of education, health care, a prolonged war.  Then he said, “Still we are a people of hope because of the resurrection of Jesus.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks had a column this week titled, “Do-gooder Dreams Don’t Take Reality Into Account.”  Brooks wrote about the service mentality and idealism of many of today’s young people.  While Brooks applauded their service ethos, he wondered if they are naïve, short on realism, and too unwilling to confront the larger political and institutional realities that are so crucial to the well-being of any society.  As usual, Brooks has a good point, but how does our analysis of reality change when we take into account the resurrection?  If Christ has been raised, then working for peace, justice and reconciliation is never foolish naïveté, but rather it is holy work.  And no act of kindness, no matter how large or small, is in vain.

Friends, now that Easter Day is past, Easter living begins.  We are the joyful, sometimes disbelieving, and still wondering disciples that Jesus calls to be his witnesses.  May the resurrection of Jesus fill us with hope and send us out rejoicing.  A resurrection has happened; therefore, anything is possible.