Grace Presbyterian Church
April 18, 2021, Easter 3B (recorded)
Of Opened Minds and Empty Stomachs
There are some awkward things about having this particular reading from Luke’s gospel scheduled in the lectionary for this particular Sunday, the week directly after the perennial reading from John’s gospel on the faithless Thomas. Part of the challenge is that this story is rather dependent on the account that has come directly before it in Luke, the account of the two disciples who unwittingly encountered Jesus as they walked from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus. They don’t recognize him (despite his impressive unfolding of the scriptures to them) until he breaks bread with them at table (and promptly vanishes). You end up either having to include all those verses in your reading, which makes for a very long scripture reading, or provide some sort of recap of the Emmaus road story in the text of the sermon, as I have just done.
The other challenge is that the Luke account as given here is awfully similar to last week’s reading from John, aside from the Thomas part of that reading. Jesus shows up in the closed room in which the disciples are meeting, says “Peace be with you,” shows them the scars of his crucifixion in his hands and side, and does just a little bit of commissioning:
- John 20:21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
- Luke 24:47-48: “…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
There are differences, though, and perhaps that’s where our attention should go.
While Jesus, in John’s gospel, does show the disciples his hands and side as a means of verifying who he is, the same Lord they had seen crucified days before, this effort at convincing takes up much more space in Luke’s account. Verses 38 and 39 mostly consist of Jesus’s challenging the fearful and disbelieving disciples to see, and even to touch, the very evidence of his crucifixion – the scars in his hands, feet, and side. Here, though, this evidence is presented not only as a form of identification, but also verification.
The disciples, according to Luke, thought Jesus was a ghost. That’s not exactly a common term in the Bible. There is a curious and tragic story in 1 Samuel 28 of King Saul seeking out a medium to conjure up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, and a few random references in the prophets. In the New Testament the only other appearances of the word “ghost” besides this one are in the parallel accounts of Jesus walking in water in Mark and Matthew, when the disciples thought Jesus must be a ghost because, well, people don’t walk on water.
There may also be an allusion here to prevailing Greek philosophical thought about what happened to a person after death. Much Greek thought presumed a type of duality between soul and body – indeed, some such thought sounds as if the body was nothing more than a prison for a soul that yearned to be free. With that idea in the background, the disciples might have jumped to the conclusion that what they were seeing was Jesus’s spirit cut loose from his crucified, dead body, and Jesus was taking great pains to debunk that thought.
Let’s be fair, though: the disciples had reason to wonder. Remember that those two disciples who had just returned from Emmaus had finally recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, only for Jesus to vanish from their sight (v. 31). Then, back in Jerusalem, just as those two had been relating their story, Jesus “stood before them.” No knocking on the door, no climbing through a window just “Jesus stood before them” where Jesus had not been standing before them a moment ago. That isn’t normal behavior for a human body.
Nonetheless, here Jesus was showing the crucifixion scars on his flesh-and-bone body. Finally, one more piece of evidence came about, one which also possibly served a practical purpose.
Jesus asks, “Have you anything here to eat?” Y’all got any food around here?
Someone comes up with a piece of broiled fish, and Jesus eats it. Ghosts don’t eat human food. After all, it’s been a few days since that Last Supper. If the flesh and bone didn’t convince them, chowing down on a piece of fish seems to do the trick.
It matters very much here that Jesus isn’t a ghost, not some kind of disembodied spirit roaming about and walking through walls. It’s a human body, but obviously not merely a human body. It is, in short, a mystery, appropriate to the appearance of a crucified yet risen Messiah. And Luke’s account is deeply interested in making sure that the disciples, and Luke’s readers, grasp this. The resurrection is no mere spiritual thing.
The other difference between the Luke and John readings has to do with what Jesus says to the disciples. You may remember in John’s verses, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Luke will get around to the outbreaking of the Holy Spirit, but not until his “volume two,” the book we call the Acts of the Apostles. Here, though, there is another matter that Jesus needs to address with the disciples, still reeling a bit from the fear and uncertainty that had overwhelmed them at Jesus’s appearance among them.
See verse 45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…”
This seems to be a great concern of Luke’s in recording Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances to his followers; the two who had seen Jesus on the road to Emmaus remembered in verse 32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (emphasis mine). It is also spelled out in verse 44, when he tells them that the things that he had taught them – “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the psalms, and the prophets” – had to come to pass.
Again, Luke will give his account of the outbreaking of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. But first, before the Holy Spirit was to come, Jesus needed the disciples to have their minds opened to understand the scriptures.
Note also that this could only come after the disciples’ fearfulness had been dispersed. It’s worth putting as directly as possible: a mind surrendered to fear is a closed mind. It’s one thing to be afraid in a particular moment; if a car is careening out of control and you’re trying to get out of the way, yes, fear is appropriate. However, if you are paralyzed by that fear, if you have surrendered to that fear to the point of incapacity, you’re not going to be able to get out of the way of the reckless car. To live with a mind always conditioned by fear, finding reason to fear in everything, is to have a mind that cannot possibly be opened to hear what the scriptures have to say to us. A mind surrendered to fear is a closed mind, and no amount of Holy Spirit can do much of anything with that.
You might have noticed that we live in a society today with a lot of minds surrendered to fear, and a lot of leaders (in the church and otherwise) who are more than happy to stir up lots of fears to keep those minds surrounded and surrendered and paralyzed by that fear. Take for example one frequent “news” story of late, the “surge” of would-be immigrants at the country’s southern border. Never mind the pandemic, or violent radicals attacking the US Capitol building; no, the gravest threat to our nation is a bunch of people trying to migrate to the US because their homelands were devastated by not one, but two major hurricanes last year. You’d think being wiped out by hurricanes gave people evil superpowers the way some politicians go on about this threat, but as long as there are people, or potential voters, who are looking for an excuse to be afraid and to blame someone else for their fear, such fearmongers will keep stoking those fears.
But those who give in to those fears and fearmongers will not be able to hear the scriptures or understand what Jesus is calling us to do in those scriptures. They’ll be great at cherry-picking those scriptures to find reasons to hate people and to exclude people and to demean others as somehow not loved by God (as if such a person existed), but that thing about following Jesus and telling others the news, as the women were instructed on that Easter morning? A mind surrendered to fear can’t do that.
That leaves us in an uncomfortable place. We often get quite comfortable in those fears. Being able to label and to “other” those we fear makes us seem somehow superior or more significant at least. But that is nothing less than closing the door to Jesus, who is waiting there in “the least of these” for our ministering and reaching out in God’s love.
We are left to lift up that fear and give it up to Jesus, the one who seeks to open our minds so that we can see and hear and learn the life of our Savior in those words. Let go of the fears that the world around us encourages and promotes, and let Jesus open our minds, so that we might follow where Jesus leads.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today; #251, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia