Sunday, April 26, 2009

Three Easter
Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

He said unto them, Have ye here anything to eat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish. And he took it, and ate before them.

Last week’s Gospel lesson ended with this statement, “Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name.”

Now, John writes of seven very specific signs that help us to see Jesus clearly. In chapter two we hear the story of Jesus changing the water into wine. This helps us to see that Jesus has control over the creation. In chapter four Jesus heals the official’s son. In that story Jesus’ word keeps a child on the verge of death from dying. In chapter five, a paralyzed man is made able to walk. In that story we see that Jesus is even able to offer His grace while we doubt. Chapter six gives us the stories about feeding the five thousand and Jesus walking on water. In these stories we see that Jesus provides all we need to live in faith and that He is able to reach us in our need wherever we are. In chapter nine we have the story of the man born blind. Here we see that suffering is not necessarily anyone’s fault and that God is glorified in the overcoming of our burdens. Finally, in chapter eleven, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. This shows us that Jesus is indeed Lord over the living and the dead.

If we only consider these seven signs, we can see that Jesus is different from us in some incredible ways. When has any of us been able to accomplish these miraculous things? We might be able to make wine, but can we do it with only water? We can pray for God’s healing in the lives of those we love, but have our words ever miraculously brought anyone off the verge of death? We might be like those people who are with our loved ones at the edge of the pool waiting for the healing touch of heaven, but has anyone been healed with a word from our mouths? We can feed thousands, but can we do it with seven loaves of bread and two fish? I don’t know anyone who can walk on water, not really. Medicine and technology can provide a blind person with ways to see, but a man born blind is a challenge even for modern science. Though there are stories of people being raised from the dead, none are raised by our words or gifts.

If we consider the stories found in all four of the Gospels, our identification with Jesus becomes even harder. Could we live as He lived? Could we forgive our enemies? Could we stand against the injustice of our day or provide people with the things they really need? Could we miraculously heal the sick or break down the walls that divide people? Could we teach the whole world about God in a way that might bring them to life and light and hope? Yes, we can do these things, but do we? Do we actually live as Christ calls us to live and do what Christ calls us to do? We are comforted by the fact that Jesus was different. He isn’t like us. He is God’s Son. Yet, we learn from the scriptures that we are also God’s children. We live in His light, the light that overcame the darkness of this world.

One of the advantages we have in our modern age is the light bulb. With the invention of electricity and light bulb, we extended the time we are able to accomplish our work. Perhaps this isn’t really an advantage. Instead of going to bed when it is dark, we stay up late into the night. We’ve extended our day which used to be limited by the daylight. Stores can be open twenty-four hours a day. In our world there is no darkness, which for our human bodies means that there is not enough time to rest. In an article from the Washington post by Rob Stein, Najib T. Ayas of the University of British Columbia is quoted as saying, “We’re shifting to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week society, and as a result we're increasingly not sleeping like we used to. We’re really only now starting to understand how that is affecting health, and it appears to be significant.”

The light bulb ‘tricks’ us into believing that we do not have to sleep. There is light, so we must have time to continue our work, to enjoy our hobbies, to read a good book. The light bulb ‘tricks’ us in other ways, too. A well placed light will provide a certain atmosphere and create an emotional response that other lighting might not be able to produce. Lighting can draw the eye to a certain person or object. This is especially apparent in theater or film, where lighting is used to both emphasize something the directors want you to see and hide the things they do not want you to see. I’ve noticed, also, that lighting is used to make things look better to our eye. Take, for instance, the produce department of your local grocery store. Have you ever noticed the special lighting hanging above the fruits and vegetables? Those lights are designed to make the fruit look better, riper and more delicious. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by tomatoes that looked great in the store, but not so great when I got them home.

This is not to say, of course, that light is a bad thing. I’m not against the light bulb! I’m as guilty as everyone else of using too many hours in every day, working into the night. I probably wouldn’t read very much if it weren’t for the time I spend in the evening with my nose in a good book. But we fool ourselves if we think that the light we create is miraculous. Our life is not necessarily better than it was hundreds of years ago, before the advent of modern conveniences. It is better in many ways. But what have we lost in the process? I wonder if we’ve lost a sense of the darkness because we have conquered it by our own hands. Do we really understand Jesus as the Light of the world, whose light is real and not tricky or manipulative? Or do we rely on our own ability to create light, both physical light and spiritual?

The light which is Christ is different than the light we use in our world today. It is different even than the natural light of the sun. Christ is the light that overcomes the darkness of the spirit, the darkness of sin and grief. His light is the light that the bears all truth, that reveals all that is good, that provides true hope to those who are lost. In His light we see the reality of our life and the world, but we also see the reality of His grace. We see how the created world was meant to be. God did not create the world, or our lives, to be bad. He said, “It is good.” Yet, we have gotten lost in the darkness, not only that which is without light, but in the false light we create. In His light we see the truth, confess our sins and receive the forgiveness which He offers.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear another version of the same story we heard from John’s Gospel last week. In this story, the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus have just returned from that extraordinary experience. They told the disciples that they had met a man along the road. There was something different about him that they noticed as they walked and talked. He explained the scriptures in a way they’d never heard before, not even from Jesus. They did not know that this was their Master and friend. He was different. His words were somehow new. They were beginning to understand the things Jesus had said before He died. Then, when He broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they saw Him clearly. Only then did they know it was Jesus.

They ran back to Jerusalem, to the upper room, to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them what they had seen. Imagine the scene: two disciples run in breathless with the biggest news the disciples have ever heard. They, of course, had heard the same news from Mary, but no one really believed the women. Now, they heard it again from the two men, but it is still unbelievable. They were discussing it as Jesus appeared. What do you think they were saying? “You saw Jesus? But He’s dead!” “Was it a ghost?” They were probably arguing about what the disciples had seen and experienced. They were probably even arguing about what they had heard. “What do you mean that he said that he was the one that Moses and the prophets were talking about?” Religious debate can be heated even when those arguing have had similar experiences. Imagine how hard it must have been for those two disciples to explain the unexplainable to those who had not yet experienced it.

In the middle of this discussion, Jesus appears. Now, I can see those two disciples saying, “See, we told you so!” And yet, they were probably as startled and frightened as the rest of the group. After all, they had finally recognized Jesus, but He just disappeared from their sight. They didn’t know where He went. I wonder if those two disciples were trying to get the other disciples to run back to Emmaus with them. “Come with us and see!” But there He was, in the midst of the disciples, appearing as quickly as He’d disappeared after breaking bread at their table.

“They still disbelieved for joy,” says Luke in today’s passage. The New Revised Standard Version words this phrase, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” This is such an odd statement. How can they be happy about something they can’t believe is happening?

Yet, haven’t we all experienced that at some point in our lives? Have you ever been so joyously in love and yet at the same time questioning how that glorious creature could possibly love you too? Have you ever received an award or a gift that seems way beyond what you deserve, and even while accepting the award and gift with joy can’t believe that you are actually the recipient? Have you ever gotten a test back, thinking that you must have failed only to find that you did very well? Your examples might be different, but I’m sure each of us can remember a time when we’ve received something with the same joy but also disbelief that the disciples experienced when Jesus came again.

The circumstances the disciples experienced on that first Easter were extraordinary. Emotions must have been running high. They were grieving because the Master whom they followed for three years died just a few days before. They were angry because the people who should have stood up for justice and Jesus were among those who cause His death. They were afraid because they did not know whether or not those same leaders might go after them. They were probably tired for lack of sleep and hungry for lack of appetite. Then, when the women and the disciples from Emmaus came into their presence with the strange news that Jesus had been raised, they were probably confused, doubtful, curious and perhaps even anxious for it to be true.

In John’s story, Jesus simply tells them to touch His wounds. By feeling His body they would know that it was true. Luke makes it even clearer that Jesus was not a spirit or something else: He had a human body. Jesus asked the disciples for something to eat. Though they touched His body, there was still left room for doubt. People who have had paranormal experiences tell stories about solid looking apparitions and the feeling of a physical presence. People talk about feeling the touch of a hand or even physical force. But ghosts do not need to eat.

Though we see something unique in Jesus, Luke is very careful to show us that the Jesus the disciples met after the resurrection was very real and very human. There were already some who were trying to diminish the events of Easter to nothing more than a spiritual rebirth. Others were claiming that the body had been stolen. Luke, by noting the meal Jesus ate, firmly establishes that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. We still do not understand exactly the type of body He had, but despite those odd differences, it was still like ours. Since Jesus is the first born of the dead, we see that our resurrected bodies will also be very real and very human. From this, N. T. Wright suggests that we should rethink our understanding of Heaven. It won’t be a place, he says, where disembodied spirits hang out on fluffy clouds and we never become angels. Our eternal life will be spent in a new earth with a new flesh that is very real and very human that does not perish but has everlasting life. This is the true hope of our faith that we received on that first Easter.

We join with the disciples in their joy and disbelief. After all, the idea of Jesus being raised from the dead is as ridiculous (perhaps even more so) for us in this modern age. How would we have responded to the loss of our Lord? Those first disciples were probably in the upper room trying to figure out what they would do. Who would be their new leader? Or, the more likely possibility, they were probably deciding to drop it all and return to their lives. Joy and disbelief is the natural response to this circumstance. “Yes, He’s back! But how?”

We may not be asking the same questions as those disciples on that first Easter day, but we continue to question what we know and what we experience when it comes to the things of God. We have their witness and we know that we’ve been called into a new life of faith. We have been given the stories about Jesus so that we can see the kind of work we are called to do. It is daunting to think that we are expected to heal the sick and feed the hungry the way Jesus did. We do not think it is possible. Jesus was not like us, after all. Yet, we see in the story from Luke that Jesus was like us and He did this so that we might be like Him.

Did Peter expect to go out and do the things Jesus did, especially on that first Easter when they didn’t even understand what was happening? Somehow, as Jesus taught during the forty days He stayed with them, they began to see more clearly and understand what Jesus had come to do. They continued to do the Jesus’ work when He left them, by the power of the Holy Spirit that He gave them. He even healed a paralyzed man. Yet Peter knew it wasn’t by his own power or ability that the man was able to walk. He hasn’t done anything in this story except stand as the face of Christ in the world. The power of healing came from Jesus. The transformation of lives comes from the grace of God. Peter is just a front man, willing to confess his inability to do such things while lifting up the story of the One who can. He tells the story of Jesus, the One they destroyed, so that they might know that He did not remain destroyed. He then calls them to believe and repent so that they too might know the transforming grace of God through Christ Jesus.

That’s what we are called to do: to stand as front men for Jesus in the world. We are in fellowship with Him so that His work will continue in this world. We are the light bulbs that shine His light. We aren’t the light, we share the light so that others might believe. We share the stories so that they will see that Jesus is Lord over all. Modern conveniences have made it more difficult for some to believe, especially since we seem so far removed from the world in which those first disciples lived. Yet, it is as important for us today as it was for those who experienced Jesus first hand. We live in a stress-filled world, but faith can help us see beyond our troubles to the real hope found in Christ.

Recently I saw this saying, “I don’t suffer from stress. I’m a carrier.” Stress is definitely a part of our lives. Problem after problem pile up on our shoulders, giving us plenty to worry about. Some people are responding to the stress in extreme ways. The news seems full of more stories about people who have turned against other people. There seems to be more stories about shootings, robberies, arson and abuse. Domestic violence is on the rise and even animals are suffering from the crisis. People who lose their homes have no place to keep their pets. Animals become punching bags that can’t complain. One of the first expenses cut is often care for our furry friends.

We could name a million other ways the stress is affecting people in our world today. It is a wonder that anyone can say, “I don’t suffer from stress.” Of course, the joke is in the fact that the writer is the carrier, causing stress in others. Is it funny in this day when so many are responding so violently against their troubles? Yet, this is a very optimistic point of view. When we are faced with such difficult circumstances, we have to ask ourselves whether we are defeatist or optimistic. Will we continue to suffer or are better times around the corner? The answer to that question is what drives our response. If we believe that tomorrow will be a good day, we’ll do positive things. If continued suffering is our fate, then nothing we do, good or bad, will make any difference.

David was always facing some enemy. We see in the psalms his songs of lament and worry. But we also see that he faced those times of difficulty with faith. His God was trustworthy, so he had nothing to fear. In today’s psalm, he cried out to God, asking God to answer him, to have mercy and to hear his prayer. Yet, even in that cry he spoke to God with confidence in God’s saving hand. “You gave me relief in my distress,” he said. He then turned his words to his enemies. “Let go of the battle because my God will not let me lose.” He faced his difficulty with faith, knowing that God is trustworthy.

We shouldn’t be a carrier of stress, since so many people are already dealing with problems that seem beyond their ability to handle, but we need not suffer from it either. We can, in our faith, have the same attitude as David: that we need not be concerned that our neighbors have plenty of grain and wine. Hope in the Lord gives us something that they can never have: a greater joy that gives us the peace to sleep well at night, despite the difficulties we face.

So, we go forth in faith, doing the work Jesus has called us to know. But we don’t walk alone. We know that we are accompanied by a Lord who knows what it is like to be human, who was very real and who overcame the things that frighten us most. We go forth with the knowledge that we stand as the face for the One who is able to do everything He promises. He has been revealed to us; our eyes have been opened just like those disciples on the first Easter. Now we go out into the world to proclaim the message of repentance and forgiveness to those who are still lost in the darkness, trusting that God does wonders for His faithful people.

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