Every week, Christians say—sometimes stubbornly, sometimes not stubbornly enough—that on the third day he rose again. That’s what Easter is all about. That’s what we have been celebrating for three Sundays now.
And we Christians mean something specific. We don’t mean Jesus’ soul went to heaven. We mean he rose in his body. “Make no mistake. If he rose at all, it was as his body. If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will Fall,” wrote the great Lutheran novelist John Updike in his famous poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter. We encountered the sheer physicality of the event last Sunday when we heard Jesus’ challenge to Thomas. “Put your finger here in the marks; put your hand here in my side.”
Whatever else it involved, the resurrection of Jesus was something that really happened to Jesus. The Jew fromNazarethwho was crucified on Friday was alive again on Sunday morning—alive in such a way as he could be seen, heard and touched.
But where is he now? What is he doing? What difference does it make? These are the questions The Gospel lesson for today invites us to weigh.
As the Gospel lesson opens, it is the evening of Easter Day. That morning, some of the disciples—first the women and then some of the men—went to the tomb only to find it empty. Then Cleopas and his unnamed companion met with a stranger on the way to Emmaus. The stranger who opened to them the Scriptures, causing their hearts to burn, and then took bread and blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. And he ceased to be a stranger.
Now, Cleopas and his friend have gathered with the rest back inJerusalem, late in the evening, and they are talking about what had happened when Jesus himself appeared.
That’s an important point and it is unfortunate that our lectionary reading begins to late to include it. But I’m including it this morning. While they were talking, the Scriptures say, Jesus appeared. We should immediately notice that it’s important because theEmmaus Roadstory begins similarly. It is as Cleopas and his companion are talking that the Risen One appears and makes to journey along with them. It is as Cleopas and his Companion are talking with the rest of the disciples that the Risen one appears and offers to them his peace.
Luke is, through his story making the same point that the Lord himself makes in Matthew 18, when he says, “When two or more are gathered, there I am in the midst.” The disciples have gathered. They are talking. And Jesus appeared.
A second point to notice is the sheer physicality of the event. The Risen One is intent on convincing them that he is standing before them as a body, not a phantom. “Touch me and see,” he says. And while they are still disbelieving and wondering, he says “Give me some fish.”
This is not merely an emphasis on the reality—the weighty materiality—of the resurrection (though it is that). Luke is also making a point about continuity. The One who was crucified on Friday was really raised on Sunday morning. Death is not the final and insurmountable enemy. For he has conquered it. He who appeared on the way to Emmaus, who appeared and ate some fish, is He who forgave his tormentors and who committed his spirit to his Father as he died on Friday afternoon. The Risen one rises as he who was crucified—“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.” The Crucified one is Risen, and is so in his body.
This brings us to Luke’s third noticeable point—the Risen Lord is not there in the room with the disciples simply to be marveled at and worshipped (though, of course, he is). He is there to teach them. “These are my words,” he says, as he opens to them the Scriptures. Think about that! “These are my words!”
And then, Luke tells us, he opened their minds to the Scriptures. And again Luke is making two points. The first is, the Scriptures—the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, or what we would call the Old Testament—find their true meaning in Christ. He is their center; they testify to him. The Old Testament, in other words, is inescapably part of Christian Scripture. And second, Christ is the teacher of the Scriptures. He taught them; apart from his presence with them as the Risen One, they would not understand what they were reading.
There is a third movement, and with this our story ends. Having opened their minds to the Scriptures, to their testimony about him, the Risen Lord goes on to say that the same Scriptures foretell that the Good News of Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to all nations, beginning inJerusalem. And then our lectionary reading ends with the words, “you are the witnesses.” The disciples, in other words, are the fulfillment of this prophecy. They will go, beginning inJerusalem, to tell the Good News of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
We might say, then, that the third movement is one of sending. Having gathered and heard, the disciples are now sent to tell what they have heard. But this message is not something new. The message to which they have been witnesses, is nothing other than the mission ofIsraelcontained inIsrael’s Scriptures, is nothing other than the mission of Chirst, who is the climax of the mission ofIsrael, which is now, the mission of the Church composed of all nations.
Gathering; teaching; sending—a threefold movement, and all centered on the presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of the disciples. With that movement fixed in our minds, we can turn to the questions that we started with today.
Where is Jesus now? He is here with us. Really. Our entire liturgy is structured to remind us all the way along that this is the case. When we gather, we gather in the grace and peace of the Risen Lord. When we read, we end each reading with the words, “This is the Word of the Lord.” Not this was, or this contains, or this might be depending on how you feel about it. This is the Word of the Lord, we say. Why do we say that? Because the Risen Lord appeared to his disciples, opened to them the Scriptures and said, “These are my words.” They still are.
We identify the words of Scripture with the words of the Lord even more when we read the Gospel. We bring the Gospel down in to the nave to remind ourselves that the Lord Jesus has come among us, as one of us. Then the Gospel is announced and we say what? Glory to you Lord Jesus Christ. And when it ends we say, Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. Not, “Thank you Father Tim for reading to us.” But Thank you Jesus for giving us your words again.
We don’t say This is the Word of the Lord or Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ because they are nice flowery words. We say those words to remind ourselves that the Risen Christ is really here. Really with us. Really making these human words his own words. Really speaking to us.
And then comes the sermon. And the sermon is also the Word of God. That is first of all a word of judgment for the preacher! I have been called by God and set apart by God’s church to bring to you the truth of the Holy Scriptures every week. And that is a responsibility that can be—even should be—frightening. And it is a word of grace. My words, however inadequate, are taken up by the Risen Lord in our midst and he says of them,”These are my words,” and he makes them his, makes them vehicles of his grace and his forgiveness to all of us.
To say with the reformer, Heinrich Bullinger that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God is to say two things to listeners, too. And the first thing is a word of judgment. Listen for the Risen Lord! Don’t pick apart the preacher’s grammar. And it is a word of grace. Listen for the Risen Lord, who has in these all-too-human words joined us to announce to us his grace and his forgiveness.
What is the Risen Jesus doing as he takes these words—these human witnesses—and makes them his? He continues to teach us and not simply with a view to mastering content. Rather these human words are taken as vehicles through which He gives us Himself. In these human words, our sins are exposed and judged; in these human words, our sins are forgiven and set aside; in these human words, the promises of God are once again announced, and made real because of he who promises. And he who promises is not the preacher. He who promises is none other than the Risen Lord who told his disciples that he would be present when they gathered; who appeared when they came together; and who opened their minds to the Scriptures to show that they bear witness to him.
What difference does it make? We have talked about gathering in the presence of the Risen One, being taught by the Word of the Risen One. Now to this third question. Why? Why do we do this? Why do we gather? Why do we listen? The conclusion of the Gospel lesson is, so that we might be sent. You are witnesses to these things.
Sure, Peter, James, Mary Magdalen, Cleopas and whoever else was in that room when Jesus appeared. But also, you, Frances and Phyllis and Don and Lamont. You, like the discples in the room, gathered. Like them, you heard from the risen Lord. Now, like them, you are being sent out into the world.
Again we remind ourselves of our sending at the conclusion of every service when the Lay Reader sends us on our way with the command, “Go forth!” We can only go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord, go forth in the power of the Risen Christ, (there are any number of sending sentences we could use), if we have in fact first met with Christ. We can only go if we have first gathered. We can only go if we have first heard. We can only go if we have been sent in the name of the one who himself was sent by the Father.
And so the mission we have been sent on is not our own. It is another’s. It is the mission of him who called Abraham to get up and go to another land. It is the mission of him who loved the world to the end that he gave his only Son. It is the mission of him who now gives us his Spirit that his mission might continue in and through our witness. You are the witnesses.
The disciples gather. And Jesus is present. The disciples listen. And Jesus says, “These are my words.” The disciples were sent. And Jesus’ mission continues. Amen.