Joy, Disbelief, and Opened Minds -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3B
Luke 24:36-49 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”[a] 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.[b] 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah[c] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses[d] of these things.49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
The season of Easter calls for us to wrestle with things that lie beyond the grasp of our minds. Resurrection is central to the Christian faith. Without it there is no Christianity. We might not agree on the particulars, but there is a common confession that the one who died on the cross is now alive, and because of this we have life. Each of the resurrection stories involves an element of surprise. While Mark ends without a resurrection appearance, which means that in year b of the lectionary cycle we must turn to other gospels for texts that speak of resurrection, he at least gives notice that resurrection has occurred.
In this reading from Luke, we pick up the story immediately following the Emmaus Road experience. In the prior verses Jesus appears to two unnamed disciples, who fail to recognize him until he breaks bread with them. It is in the breaking of bread that the recognize him. This encounter has Eucharistic overtones. Those two disciples have returned to the larger community, and are reporting what they experienced, when Jesus appears in their midst. Despite the witness of these two disciples and the women who had encountered Jesus at the tomb, the community as a whole seems unready and unwilling to believe. This is an important element in the gospel stories: despite the ongoing attempts by Jesus to prepare the disciples for his resurrection, they had no idea what to expect.
So it is with a mixture of emotions that the gathered community receives Jesus’ visit. There is both joy and disbelief. As we watch Jesus reveal himself to them, pointing to his wounds as proof that he is not a ghost, it might be good to remember that this is week three of the Easter season, and this reading follows immediately after we have read the story of “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31). There is no Thomas here, but the disciples are as uncertain of this as Thomas had been. So, maybe Thomas has gotten a bad rap for questioning the reports of his colleagues. In Luke’s rendering, the disciples as a whole are no different from Thomas. They struggle to make sense of what they see and hear. Could this be a ghost? Could this be a dream?
In the previous section, Jesus reveals himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread. In this encounter, Jesus calls for them to bring him broiled fish, which he eats. Why broiled fish? Do ghosts eat fish? Jacob Marley can sit down. He can’t eat. Jesus can! In John 21 Jesus isn’t recorded as eating fish, but he does prepare fish for breakfast (John 21:12-13). Bread and fish—these are important elements in the gospel stories. Remember that Jesus fed the multitudes with these very same elements. What does all of this mean?
The Gospel stories are earthy. These are not esoteric gnostic stories, in which Jesus only appears to be human. Even in his resurrected state, the humanity remains present. Indeed, it is possible that even the wounds from the cross remain present. The wounds aren’t specifically mentioned here, as they are in John, Jesus invites them to look at his hands and feet and even touch them. So here he is, present among them – having flesh and bones and able to eat and drink. But that’s true of his life as a whole. He’s human and even if we posit divinity for him that doesn’t change the realities of living amongst us as one who is fully human. Luke wants us to know that this isn’t just a dream sequence.
It is his presence as one who continues to possess all the signs of his humanity, including his suffering, that he takes on the mode of teacher. Even as he did with the disciples on the way to Emmaus, he opens their minds to understand the scriptures. Now that the resurrection has occurred, perhaps they can better understand what he had been trying to share with them all along the way. This post-Easter vantage point is rather different from the pre-Easter one. Earlier in Luke, we find Jesus trying to convey to the disciples what was about to happen to him, that he would be tortured and executed, and then killed, before being resurrected on the third day. However, according to Luke “they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what he said.” (Luke 18:31-39). Paul points to something similar in 2 Corinthians 5—“even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way” (vs. 16b). Now they were in a better position to make sense of what he had been teaching them prior to Good Friday and Easter.
So what about us? We don’t have the benefit of a physical visitation. We can’t see and touch the body. We can’t dine with him, and watch as he consumes the fish set before him. For us this is all a matter of faith. It means taking a rather difficult step of receiving a word that stands apart from our human experience. Dead people don’t come back to life and eat dinner with us. Yet, this is the basic message. It is this message that Jesus entrusts to the disciples, a message to be carried to the nations. But, they’re not supposed to go on their mission until they were “clothed with power from on high.” Yes, they still have to wait for Pentecost. As for us, Pentecost is both yet to come (liturgically) and has already come (we live in a post-Easter/post-Pentecost world). The call has been given. We have experienced our share of disbelief and joy, but we've also had our minds opened by Jesus and we’ve received power from on high. The question is, will we take hold of this blessing?