Sunday, April 19, 2015

Phil Kniss: Witness and With-ness

Easter 3B: The Living Christ makes us witnesses
Luke 24:36-53

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The only way to understand this morning’s Easter story,
    is to read it through the lens of the Christmas story.
    You may well wonder why I say such a thing.
        I’ll tell you at the end.
    But let’s start with the Gospel story from this third Sunday of Easter.

Luke 24, beginning in v. 36:
    “While they were still talking about this,
        Jesus himself stood among them and said to them,
            ‘Peace be with you.’”
    So what were they “still talking about”?
    In Luke’s story, the two disciples from Emmaus,
        had just run back to Jerusalem,
        to their friends hiding out in the locked, upper room,
            and told them what just happened to them,
            how they walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus,
                without recognizing him,
                but then how their eyes were opened,
                when he broke bread with them.
    This, and another surprise appearance to Peter,
        had them all talking, and bewildered, and afraid.

That’s the spot in the story where Jesus suddenly “stood among them,”
        and said, “Peace be with you.”

There wasn’t much peace at that moment.
    Luke says “They were startled and terrified,
        and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”
    Not surprising in the least.

Given the depth of their disillusionment,
    given the unspeakable scandal of their presumed Messiah
        defeated and executed by their Roman oppressors,
    given the fact that they were now shamed, in danger, in hiding,
        and suddenly very alone,
            without their charismatic leader . . .
    it’s not at all unexpected
        that they were not quite ready to embrace resurrection.

Last week we had the story of Thomas, the supposed doubter.
    But when you look at all the Easter stories—
        every single character, in every single story,
        was first of all, filled with doubt or fear.
        The post-resurrection Jesus was always, always,
            met with surprise, fear, and/or deep suspicion.
        There was a consistent barrier to belief,
            in even his closest disciples,
            who had heard Jesus talk about, and predict, his resurrection.

    No matter now, whatever Jesus said back then,
        now . . . in the upper room behind locked doors,
            only one thing seemed true to them.
            They were alone.
                Alone in a hostile world.
                And they didn’t have a clue what they were doing.

This story is about Jesus meeting the disciples
    exactly where they were,
    in their fear and disbelief and mistrust,
    and doing what he could to nudge them along toward faith.

We read the story, and often, see something different in it.
    Some folks today read this story,
        and see a story of Jesus providing the necessary empirical data
        so the disciples can come to believe
            (that is, intellectually grasp and affirm)
        the real, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.
    They may have doubted before this moment, but now,
        once they see the scars on his hands and feet,
        and once they see him take
            that piece of broiled fish he asked for,
            and put it in his mouth,
            chew it up, and swallow it,
        now they have the rock-solid evidence they were looking for—
            he had really, truly, physically, risen from the dead.

    It’s not that this aspect isn’t in the story.
        It is, sort of.
        But it’s hardly the main point.

    I think we see that in the story,
        because of the modern rationalistic questions
            we ourselves are asking from the start.
    Is the resurrection a physical reality?
    What kind of body does Jesus have?
    What kind of physical properties does his body have?

It’s that way a lot of the time with scripture.
    We come with certain pre-formed questions,
        and so we read the Bible like a textbook,
        looking for answers to help us pass the test,
            and lo and behold, we often find what we are looking for.
        Packaged answers to packaged questions.

But when I read Luke 24 as a gripping narrative,
    as the story that it is,
    I don’t find any evidence in this story,
        that the real concern of the early church,
        or that the concern of the Gospel writers,
        or that the concern of the disciples in the upper room,
    was whether or not Jesus’ body
        was a complete physical restoration of his body
            to its pre-crucifixion state—
        or that all his systems worked,
            including (as is apparent in this story)
            his gastro-intestinal system.
    That concern is one that we rationalists of the modern era
        have foisted upon the text.

This story, I believe,
    is Jesus reassuring some disciples who were terrified to the core.
    They thought they had just been left alone
        to fend for themselves in a hostile world.
    That, my friends, is exactly what this text tells us is going on here.
        They were “startled and terrified,” according to Luke.
        And they were disbelieving and full of doubt.

The question is what, exactly, are they disbelieving?
    Are they not believing that Jesus is standing there,
        in actual, physical flesh, with working biological systems?
    Or . . . are they not believing
        that Jesus is going to be there for them again,
            when they need him?

I think the clue lies right there in the story,
    if we are open to see it.

Isn’t it interesting,
    that to increase their faith in his real resurrection,
        he chose to eat?

There were any number of other things
    that his physical body could have done, in an instant,
    if his point was to reassure them that he had a physical body
        that existed in time and space.
    He could have rapped his knuckles . . . hard,
        on the still locked door he just came through.

    He could have lifted up the corner of the table,
        or just picked up an empty plate.
    He could have tapped one of them on the shoulder.
    Any of those things would have been easier and quicker,
        and would have been just as convincing that he was embodied.

But no, he asked for something to eat.
    And he waited on them to bring him a piece of broiled fish.
    And he stayed there, with them, eating as he had always done.

To demonstrate his real presence, Jesus chose to eat with them.
    Which is exactly what he did with the two disciples in Emmaus,
        earlier in the chapter.
    It was when Jesus accepted their invitation to stay with them,
        and to sit at the table with them,
        and to break bread with them,
            that their eyes were suddenly opened to see him.

    That is not a coincidence.
        That is an important piece of the story.
        Else, it wouldn’t have been specifically mentioned—twice—
            that their eyes were opened when he broke bread with them.

    Now, again, at this point in the story,
        after they had run quickly back to the upper room,
        and were with the rest of their friends in this space,
            Jesus’ appearance was reinforced by food.

Because table fellowship means something far more than we realize.
    All throughout the Gospels, and indeed,
        deeply embedded in the culture of that time and place,
        sitting around a table and eating,
            was rich with significance, and meaning, and symbolism.
    Nothing offended the religious elite more,
        than Jesus’ decision to eat with tax collectors and other sinners.
    Jesus sat and ate with his closest friends.
    He sat and ate with his harshest critics.
    He sat and ate with those most cut-off from their community.

Whenever he wanted to people to know he was really with them,
    either to listen to them,
        or to teach them,
        or to heal them,
        or to forgive them,
        or to confront them . . .
    whenever he wanted to demonstrate his with-ness,
        he pulled up a seat to the table with them, and ate.
    It spoke volumes.
        It showed presence.
        It showed respect.
        It showed love.
        It demonstrated hospitality and humility.
        It because a trustworthy platform,
            from which he could then challenge and even confront
                those at the table with him.

And never did Jesus’ promise of with-ness matter more,
    than it did right now for the disciples,
    huddled and hiding behind locked doors.
        They needed to know . . . really know . . .
            that Jesus would be with them.
        They weren’t asking for biological proof of resurrection.
        They wanted, and needed, a deep knowing,
            that they would not be thrust out into that hostile world,
            without the real presence of Jesus accompanying them.
        And what better symbol could Jesus offer,
            than sharing a piece of fish?
        It would happen later, by the lakeshore,
            in another Gospel account,
            that Jesus would again eat fish with his disciples,
            in order to restore their confidence in him.

    I just think Jesus’ choice to appear in that room,
        among them,
        and to eat with them,
        is not an insignificant piece of information in the story.
        It’s not an oh-by-the-way bit of trivia the author dropped in.
        It’s the point of the story.
            Jesus is with us.
            Jesus will be with us.
            Of that, the disciples were witnesses.

The witness of the first community of Jesus-followers,
    would be a witness of with-ness.
    They would soon be able to declare, with boldness,
        the with-ness of God.
        All over Jerusalem and Judea, and beyond,
            to a people still under oppression by Rome,
            still wondering whether their God had forsaken them,
            they would soon be giving powerful witness,
                God has chosen to be with us.
    They would preach, saying,
        “The salvation God has always had in mind for us,
            has come,
            in the person of Jesus,
            who remains alive and with us, through the Holy Spirit.”

I wonder what this story has to say to us,
    about how we give witness to the resurrection.
    The world today, I dare say,
        is not altogether different than the world of the disciples.
    We are still surrounded by people
        who long to know that God is with them.
    People still wonder whether God has abandoned them altogether.
    People are still disillusioned by life,
        and all sorts of oppressions that seem to be part of their lives.
    They need some witnesses of God’s with-ness.

The burning question of the human race is not,
    “what kind of body did Jesus have?”
    It is rather, “Have we been abandoned by God,
        or is God still with us?”

So we, too, need to pull up to the table,
    and eat with the world.
    We need to be at the table with them,
        to show presence,
        to show respect,
        to show love,
        to demonstrate hospitality and humility.
    We must build a trustworthy platform,
        from which we can give witness,
        from which we can support, care, challenge, or even confront
            those at the table with us.
    We need to be willing to put our ordinary lives on display,
        without pretense,
        and without a false humility.

    As a church, and as households, and as individuals,
        we need to do what disciples of Jesus do.
    We open up the table.
        We extend hospitality to others.
        We accept hospitality when it’s offered to us.
        We risk opening our lives to the outsider,
            and invite them in,
            for a look around to see what living Christianly looks like,
                seven days a week.

Hospitality is a spiritual practice.
    Jesus showed us how.
    We are invited to follow Jesus in it.

Jesus ended this little appearance in the upper room with these words,
    “You are witnesses of these things.
        I am going to send you what my Father has promised;
            but stay in the city
            until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

    Then, according to Luke’s account, he left them,
        ascending into heaven.
        Then they worshiped him,
            and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
        And they hung out at the temple, praising God.
        Until such time as the Holy Spirit overtook them,
            and they were thrust out into this hostile world,
            with the message of “God is with us. Emmanuel.”

That’s what I meant, when I said we have to understand this Easter story,
    through the Christmas story.
The message of this story,
    at the end of Jesus’ earthly sojourn in the world,
    is exactly the same as it was at the beginning of the story.
    “Emmanuel. God is with us.”
        For real. For always.
        Thanks be to God!

And of that we are witnesses.
    Let’s proclaim the good news.

—Phil Kniss, April 19, 2015

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