Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
Nativity, San Rafael
what would it be like seeing a ghost? The disciples thought Jesus was a ghost – he just appeared, and he was supposed to be dead, they knew he was risen from the dead – but they didn’t know what that meant… what does Jesus ask them to do to help them calm down and know that it is him? “touch me and see…do you have anything to eat?
How do we know what is real? We have 50 days of Easter to hear again the stories of how Jesus rose from the dead and what that means for us…
What would it be like to have the supernatural confront us in our natural setting? Judging by the runaway popularity of movies and TV shows on vampires, zombies, ghosts, I’d say, as a culture, we love the idea of there being more than meets the eye around us. My kids grew up reading Harry Potter (or actually, having it read to them) – and flying around on brooms, translated into the collegiate sport of quidditch – is a very tangible expression of the possibilities of the supernatural – of not only the ability to hope for more, but that what is seen may invite us to see what is unseen.
What is so ironic about this fascination in the larger culture is that we also live in a society that is, for the most part, terrified of actual death. The perceived finality, the inevitability of death for all of us, the reminder of our own mortality – these are realities that American culture, and other cultures, have tried to mask or hide; for many decades simply reading through the promotional material of the funeral business was an exercise in never speaking truth. Since September 11th, 2001, there has been a shift in this country, however, and it has been analyzed and written about and expressed as a growing openness to preparing for what was known for centuries as a “good death” – for our society, this is a beginning, but we still have a long ways to go.
Thank God then that as Christians, as church, the body of Christ, we can talk about death. Not because Christians are alone in knowing deeply the sorrow, the loneliness, the pain of the death of those dear to us and fear for our own death – we have no monopoly on death – but because of Easter we know something, we profess something that changes everything.
We have already died – in the waters of baptism – we now live post-death, not for ourselves, but in Christ. At every baptism we pray, “Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory…” We bless water by professing that “in it we are buried with Christ in his death…by it we share in his resurrection.” We are on the other side – journeying through this life into life, following the promise of the first born from the dead – Christ – not the only, the first.
Today Luke’s gospel is the second in a row of Easter Sundays centered around the physical ‘proof’ of Jesus’ resurrection. Last Sunday it was Thomas, who needed to touch in order to believe – this week Jesus has to overcome the disbelief of his terrified followers by not only appearing in their midst and speaking to them, but by inviting them to see his hands and feet, and saying: ”touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” That must have helped a bit, because Jesus adds to that – “give me something to eat” – I’ll eat it right here in front of you – I’ll prove to you that I am resurrected – all of me resurrected, not an apparition, a holograph, an illusion, but humanity, flesh, risen. Everything that Jesus assumed in the incarnation, now rising from the dead – not done, but continuing…the resurrection goes on and on, it’s why we need 50 days of Easter every year to remind us that this is not a one-off, this resurrection business is a process.
Theology is all very well and good, but how do we know this for sure? How do we know truth? Today’s gospel is poignant in its humanness – touch me, watch me eat – that will prove it, right? We are sensible creatures – we know by sense: if we see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it – well then it’s true…but senses can lie…there are optical illusions, our senses can fail us. I think we often overlook some interesting (and contradictory) theology in our hymn texts. There’s a very famous text by Thomas Aquinas that graces one of our Eucharistic hymns, #314, and circles around this very issue,
“humbly I adore thee, truth unseen…taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail, faith, that comes by hearing, pierces through the veil, I believe whatever the Son of God hath told; what Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold…”
Six centuries later, the text at hymn #209 approaches the same issue based on last week’s gospel:
“we walk by faith, and not by sight; no gracious words we hear,
from him who spoke as none ever spoke, but we believe
him near. We may not touch his hands and side,
nor follow where he trod; but in his promise we rejoice,
and cry ‘my Lord and God.’ Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound, to call on you when you are near,
and seek where you are found…”
We walk by faith – and our Easter prayer is most likely – after “thanks be to God for the victory of the resurrection” to be “help then, O Lord, our unbelief…” Help our unbelief, no matter where we are in a journey of faith into union with God. We cannot pretend that we understand this supernatural part of our natural world – we don’t even completely understand our natural world. So it’s no surprise that we certainly do not know the details of physical death and how our journey continues.
The second reading today from the first letter of John is part of a baptismal catechesis – it was written as instruction for the newly baptized. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We know we are God’s children now – what we will be has not yet been revealed… We walk by faith – not by sight…
None of this erases the reality of grief – the ache that comes and goes, even long after a loved one dies. But thank God that we are church, that we can talk about death and about life – thank God that we know both in the midst of life we are in death, and in the midst of death we are in life. Thank God that we are here to support each other, to pray for each other, to lament together and to cry together and to rejoice together. Thank God for becoming one of us, for allowing creation to reveal God to us, for giving us the desire to know truth and see God in all things, and for the heart of what the church does in the sacraments – things that we can touch and see and hear and taste and smell – and know are more than our senses can behold – they are the meeting place of heaven and earth, encounters with God who gives us life.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”