Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Third Sunday of Easter + April 15, 2018
Reading: Luke 24:36b-48
Our culture shares a lot of stories of people coming back to us from the dead in one form or another; maybe they are born out of our longing to feel a connection with the people we miss. Many of the most common stories tell of someone coming back in a spiritual, non-physical form: the voice of a loved one speaks through a medium; see-through spirits remain in the places that were important to them. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi continues to appear after his death in a bluish ghost-like form, giving Luke Skywalker guidance. In all these “spiritual return” stories, a person’s body is gone, but they are still able to reach the land of the living in non-physical ways.
Other stories of the dead returning are more physical. Stories of zombies or vampires seem to tell us of people whose bodies have remained, but whose spirits or identities have gone. In Game of Thrones many characters come back from the dead, bodies and all: some are changed or empty (or ice zombies); but others are raised to be essentially the same person they were before their death. The land of the living gets them back again.
The Bible actually contains a lot of stories of people coming back from the dead; Jesus is not entirely unique in that regard. Lazarus might be the most famous of the people who came back: Jesus raised him from the dead after Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, and even though the people warned him — in the elegant language of the King James Bible — “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” (John 11). Jesus also raised a couple of other people that we know about: a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and the daughter of a synagogue leader (Matt. 9:18-26). In the Old Testament, both the prophet Elijah and his protégé, Elisha, raised children from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37), and King Saul used a medium to talk to the dead prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28). My favorite of these biblical stories is when St. Paul preached and preached late into the night, and a young man sitting in the window fell asleep “while Paul talked still longer,” and the young man fell out the window, down three stories, and died. Paul went downstairs, raised the young man back to life, said to the people, “don’t be alarmed,” and then went on preaching (Acts 20:7-12).
The story of Jesus’s resurrection doesn’t really fit into any of these models, though. We can divide these other stories, mostly, into either “spiritual returns” or “physical returns.” Jesus’s resurrection messes up that boundary. In today’s gospel reading, the disciples are gathered together in a room when suddenly Jesus appears among them. And in the story that came right before this one, the resurrected Christ sat at a table with a couple of other disciples before suddenly “he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:28-32). That’s behavior we usually associate spirit-types. And yet in today’s reading we also hear how Jesus ate a piece of fish — something the resurrected Christ also does in other stories (John 21:9-14) — and something that requires a working, physical body.
I don’t know about you all, but that is hard for me to wrap my brain around. Was Jesus’s resurrection physical — did his body return to life? Yes — he even told his disciples to touch the wounds left by his crucifixion. Could Jesus appear and disappear at will, whether or not walls were in the way? Apparently, yes to that, too. How can all those things be true at once?
I decided to check in with the commentary we’ve been reading in our Monday Night Bible Study group. In that book the biblical scholar N. T. Wright suggested that Christ’s resurrected body, which is physical enough to digest fish and yet not entirely bound by the normal rules of a physical body…that resurrected body was at home “in both the dimensions of God’s world, in both heaven and earth. […] If our mental pictures of ‘heaven’ need adjusting to allow for this startling possibility, so be it.”
Christ’s resurrected body was one more, even bigger way that God showed us that in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, heaven and earth came together. That resurrected body was both totally earthly and totally miraculous, revealing to us the nature of Christ. God’s perfect realm and the broken worldly realm, the eternal and the mortal, the divine and human — these things were united in Christ so that we, too, might be restored to unity with God. As the ancient Easter Proclamation says of Christ’s resurrection day: “This is the night when heaven and earth are joined, things human and things divine.”
People experienced this unity of the divine and the human in Jesus’s life too: they saw this man, dusty from travel, bitten by bugs, hungry like they were, and maybe even he stanketh sometimes too…they saw him heal people and multiply food. In his teachings they heard the clarity of God’s truth. Through his anger at those who mistreated others, they glimpsed God’s justice; through his compassion and forgiveness they felt God’s love and grace. In Jesus they saw God at work.
Jesus’s arrest and humiliation and crucifixion must have called all of this into question. Suffering usually makes us question whether God is on someone’s side, or whether God is there, or whether God is real. The disciples must have questioned if they’d had it all wrong, if they’d been foolish to think that God was there with and in that carpenter’s son from Nazareth. The first thing the resurrected Christ does when he sees them is explain, from the scriptures: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” Of course God had not abandoned Jesus: God had shown over and over, throughout the history of Israel, that God is able to work through the horrible things humans do to one another, that God can bring new meaning and new life out of suffering and even death. Yet this can be so hard to believe — for the disciples, and for us.
When God resurrected Jesus, God showed once and for all that Jesus was sent by God, was God’s messiah, was God’s Son, was even — as Christians soon came to confess — God made flesh, fully divine and fully human. And the resurrection was a sign that Jesus’s work was not done; death had not stopped it. He rose to pass his mission on to his disciples. He not only explained to them that he was the messiah; he also taught them “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Now the Church was to be Christ’s Body, the people through whom God would continue to touch the earth.
Christians today — we — are still baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and into his mission; we are baptized into the divine-human connection. This morning we welcomed Zack, Keala, Kaydence, Rylan, and Luke “into the Body of Christ and into the mission we share.” With them we remembered that, we too, inherited the purpose Jesus passed on to those first disciples: “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”
The work we do as part of this mission may not be as out-of-this-world as a resurrected body that can both eat fish and disappear. But we do seek to practice repentance and forgiveness; we fill fuel bags to help the hungry children in our community; we support one another in our troubles; we help with Habitat for Humanity builds and make quilts to be distributed around the world; we share our faith with our children and our neighbors. In all these ways that God works through us, the divine continues to touch the earth, just as it did in Jesus Christ. Amen.
 N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), pp. 300.
 From Thomas Pavlechko’s transcription of the “Easter Proclamation: Exsultet.”
 From the liturgy for Holy Baptism in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) pp. 227-231.