Sunday, April 22, 2012
The Real Jesus
What if...the next time you came to the Eucharist, when it comes time to pass the Peace, you turn to the bearded man next to you, and as your eyes meet his, you suddenly realize that it’s none other than Jesus the Lord? How might you react: frightened? startled? embarrassed? guilty? Would you feel overwhelmed? full of peace? overcome with joy?
One thing is sure: you wouldn’t be indifferent! You’d feel many or all of the same emotions which, as Luke hints in today’s Gospel passage (Luke 24:36b-48), the Apostles must’ve felt.
Luke’s and John’s accounts about what happened the day Jesus was raised from the dead reflects what was going on some time after the Resurrection event itself. At the time they wrote, the average Christian was being confronted and challenged by non-believers with arguments that Jesus’ resurrection had never happened. The original by-word-of-mouth traditions, as well as the later written accounts of the four Evangelists, carefully interweave facts and data about the Resurrection with answers to these challenges and arguments in order to help the early Christian communities to stand firm in faith, “to account”, as the 1st Letter of Peter says, “for the hope that is in you.”
Luke records that Jesus’ followers become “startled and frightened” when Jesus himself is suddenly there among them. You’ll remember Jesus’ greeting, from last week’s Gospel: “Peace be with you!” Whenever Jesus comes and stands among us, which was his usual way of appearing to the disciples after the Resurrection, wherever he’s present, he brings peace. The disciples react as if they’d seen a ghost. They mistrust heir own eyes. Without their even saying a word, Jesus picks up on their anxiety and the unspoken fear and doubt in their hearts. He asks them “Why are you afraid and doubting?”
Perhaps the reason that even those who were closest to Jesus are troubled is that they, like us, get stuck in their panic, their fright, their fear. How can we trust our perceptions, or other people, when we so mistrust ourselves?
One of Luke’s purposes is to refute some specific mistaken ideas about Jesus which challenged the early Church, particularly the views of those whom we refer to as Docetists. Dokein in Greek means “to seem, to appear as”. The Docetists held that Jesus‘ body was a sort of phantom, that he really didn’t eat or drink, or die, but only seemed to do so. For them, matter was evil and, therefore,God’s Son couldn’t have taken on human flesh.
Luke is very clear about how real Jesus is: “Look at my hands and feet, that it is I myself; touch me and see.” Luke then makes a curious observation: “...in their joy they [the Apostles] were still disbelieving and still wondering.” Isn’t it strange how we frequently run around demanding proof from God? Then when God gives it to us, we find it hard to believe! We could imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration and asking, “Do you have anything here to eat?” Maybe this was on a Friday, or perhaps his followers were still abstaining, because what they offer Jesus is some broiled fish! Ever the gracious guest, Jesus eats it while they watch! Surely a phantom doesn’t stand there eating fish and chips, but only a real person. And Jesus is definitely real!
The disciples are stuck, not only in fear, but in shallow faith. The evidence before them seems irrefutable. Jesus is standing there; they can touch him; they can see that he’s eating. Yet we get the impression that their hesitant joy isn’t out of any deep conviction about what his presence means or why he’s appeared to them, even though there’s some sense of security. He was dead and they were left alone and fearful. Now he’s back and everything will be OK...maybe.
You and I, too, can find ourselves “disbelieving for joy”. It’s easy to get caught up, anesthetized almost, in the security of wearing the label of “Christian”; the security of feeling emotionally righteous simply because we go to church and share the sacraments; the security of feeling safe because we say our prayers and do all the right things. All of that, surely, is a start, but it’s not necessarily a very deep level of faith. In fact, it risks becoming a false joy, a false security, a false faith, because like Linus, of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts fame, we can use our Christianity as a sort of security blanket.
Once Jesus‘ followers could accept his real presence, Jesus could move them on to the real meaning and purpose of his visiting them. He says, “Remember what I told you when I was with you, how what was written in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke then observes: “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures...”, and tells them that the suffering, risen Jesus’ repentance and forgiveness is to be preached to all, beginning in Jerusalem. “You”, he says, “are witnesses...” A witness testifies to or attests to a fact or a truth. Sometimes facts or truths are observable; sometimes they’re attained by reasoning or by faith. Jesus presents himself in both ways. His is a complete revelation of who he is, the Risen Lord.
Louis Evely writes: “We act as though we are specialists in bad news, when in fact we have been told by Christ that we are to be the bearers of glad rejoicing.” True joy is the counterpart of firm faith. As Luke records it, Jesus teaches us the real lesson of the Resurrection, of Easter: that the joy which he calls us to share among ourselves is precisely our sadness, our fear, our inadequacy, our shallow faith overcome: overcome by the reality of Jesus the Risen Lord who comes and stands among us.
It’s this to which the Risen Jesus calls you and me to be witnesses. We’re assured that our fear, sadness and weakness is overcome because our faith is anchored in the reality of Jesus who stands with us, here and now, and always. The One who “was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands...” (1 John 1:1) -- that is the One whom we proclaim. This real man who is also God’s Son has taken our humanness, our weakness and evil, and overcome it. Through the blood of his Cross Jesus enables you and me to be whole, complete and sound. To the extent that we accept his reality and presence in our own lives, to that extent we can share his message and his presence with one another. Our mutual witnessing is necessary for the resurrection always needing to happen in each of us, always some human weakness, or fear, or sadness needing to be overcome.
In today’s Collect we asked, “...Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work...” As you and I turn to one another in peace this morning, let it be a genuine sign of faith in Jesus who comes and stands among us, and of our commitment to do our part in fulfilling “his redeeming work”.