Grace Presbyterian Church
April 15, 2018, Easter 3B
In case you’re wondering, yes, today’s reading from Luke feels awfully similar to last week’s reading from John.
They’re not the same story, not at all (Thomas doesn’t even merit a mention here), but much of the same territory is covered; Jesus appearing to bumfuzzled disciples, showing the scars of his crucifixion while they get all goggle-eyed in disbelief and joy and yet wonder if they are seeing a ghost (and yes, that’s really a correct translation of verse 37). But there are differences, too; in this case, even while exhorting the disciples to see and believe, Jesus also manages to ask if they’ve got anything to eat around here (I guess he didn’t eat any of the bread he broke with the two followers at Emmaus?). Nowadays moderns might get a bit agitated about such a request, conditioned as so many are by TV shows like The Walking Dead and any number of zombie horror movies, but all Jesus wants is a piece of fish; no zombie here, just your average human being in your average human body, that just happened to be dead a few days ago.
OK, obviously not just your average human.
But Luke, in this account that happens just after the Emmaus Road story we heard on Easter Sunday, does have a different agenda than John does in his gospel. He wants us to hear a slightly different message than John does. While John has Jesus breathing on the disciples and invoking the Holy Spirit, Luke points to a different moment; Jesus unfolds, much as he had to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, how everything that had happened was written in the law and the prophets, and then he blows their minds.
That isn’t actually a bad way to capture the force of what Luke writes here, in contrast to the oh-so-bland “opened their minds” the NRSV translation uses. There’s a sense we need to understand of how transforming, how completely mind-twisting this moment is. Have you ever looked at one of those visual illusions that looks like nothing more than a circle with a bunch of differently-colored dots in it, until all of a sudden you see the number 6 right in the middle of it? Or maybe the one that looks like a silhouette of a vase, until it suddenly looks like two lovers about to kiss? Take that sensation, and multiply it by about a thousand, and you might be getting close to what the disciples experienced at that moment.
They had heard Jesus teach these things more times than they could count, and yet it never really did sink in, until this moment, when it all made sense, finally, with the risen Jesus standing before them. This is what it all meant.
But notice how there’s a little piece of this revelation that’s not quite like the rest. It’s one thing to talk about the law of Moses and the prophets, and what had to happen to the Messiah. Then comes this: “…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
It’s all well and good to talk about what happened, what was done, what led to this moment of the crucified Jesus now resurrected and standing before the disciples; this is different. This is about what happens going forward. It is, in a way, in how we answer the “so what” of the story. Jesus is resurrected from the dead; so what?
Clarence Jordan, a Baptist pastor, put it this way in a sermon titled “The Substance of Faith:”
Jesus’s resurrection is not to convince the incredulous nor to reassure the faithful, but to enkindle the believers. The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not in the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not in a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.
Jesus’s next sentence makes it explicit; “You are witnesses of these things.”
You are witnesses of these things. You are witnesses of these things.
It’s a present thing. It’s also an ongoing thing; “are” never does become “were.” It’s not about what you saw and heard in the past remaining part of the past; it’s about what you saw and heard becoming what you see and say. You bear witness.
[For Clarence Jordan, that “being a witness” led to the founding of Koinonia Farm, a deliberately interracial farming community outside Americus, Georgia, in the deepest of the Deep South, at the height of Jim Crow.]
That’s a word – “witness” – that scares us, or maybe many of us, I’m guessing. It’s not hard to summon an image of people going door-to-door with gospel tracts in hand, endeavoring mightily to save people right there on their front doorsteps. Presbyterians in particular can be a bit reticent about such outward, even brash behaviors, no matter how much scripture might be encouraged among us. But my friends, the truth is much scarier.
You’ll notice that Jesus says “you are witnesses.” Jesus doesn’t say “go be witnesses.” This isn’t an imperative or a command: this is simply a statement of fact. You are witnesses of these things. In whatever you do, you are witnesses of these things.
Here in this sanctuary, you are witnesses of these things. But also at Publix, you are witnesses of these things. At a concert or play, you are witnesses of these things. When your neighbor starts saying ugly things about immigrants, you are witnesses of these things. When you share or “like” things on Facebook, you are witnesses of these things. When our country starts firing missiles that accomplish nothing but killing civilians, you are witnesses of these things.
There is no moment or place or act in which you, by taking the name “Christian” or “Presbyterian” or “Grace Presbyterian Church,” are not witnesses of the all that was said and done by Christ, and especially that repentance and forgiveness of which Christ speaks.
You are witnesses. The only question is, what kind of witness are you?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #234, Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain; #240, Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks!; #526, Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ; #249, Because You Live, O Christ