A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021. Read the day’s scripture here. Click the play button above to listen along.
Today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus is revealing himself to the larger group of disciples, comes immediately after Luke’s telling of the Road to Emmaus, a story which we only hear every third year, when we are reading through Luke’s Gospel.
On the Road to Emmaus, the disciples are walking along toward a town… interestingly enough, called Emmaus… discussing what had just happened in Jerusalem, how Jesus had died and how some of their friends – the women, actually – were talking about how he had risen from the dead.
And as they were walking and talking, a person came along walking beside them, listening to their conversation. And this person started asking questions. The disciples invited them to join them and stay with them for the night.
So when they were all sitting at dinner, this person broke bread and gave it to them, a gesture that reminded them of the last supper and the self-emptying love that Jesus shared with the whole world. It was at this point, that the disciples suddenly realized… it was Christ who sat at their table.
They had offered hospitality to this stranger… a place to stay, some food to eat, tending to the needs of the flesh. They had opened their hearts to this person so that they had become a guest amongst them. And because of that, because they perceived with their heart and not their mind, when they broke bread together, they realized this stranger was Christ.
When these disciples returned to their friends in Jerusalem, they were telling the others about this miraculous moment in Emmaus. And that’s where today’s reading picks up. Jesus appears again – this time, out of nowhere – and addresses them all with a greeting we know so well: “Peace be with you.”
But they were terrified of this knowledge, their minds could not make sense of it. They were so terrified they refused to believe what they were seeing. But Jesus says: No… look. Look at my hands. Look at my feet. See my flesh. Touch my skin. I am real.
But seeing isn’t enough. Luke’s Gospel says, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.
And in response, Jesus asks them for food. And they give him a piece of broiled fish. And he ate it in their presence. These people who had lived on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, many of them earning their living by providing fish for others, giving from their own yield to this person standing before them simply because he asked. They shared themselves with him. They opened their hearts to him and began to see him for who he was. And who he is.
Today’s image on the front cover of the bulletin, comes from a cartoonist named Emily Flake and it appeared in the New Yorker the day after Easter. In the second frame, Flake names so clearly what is, I think, a very common concern for so many of us.
As we become vaccinated and as we start to think about how to be with one another again physically, we’re all facing anxiety. “How do I… people?” How do I interact with people? How do I talk to people? How do I walk beside people? How do I do anything with people? How do I function with people?
I chose this image today because this gospel passage is so much about physical reality – how we see each other, how we see ourselves, how we choose to interact with the people in our lives, how we determine what’s real and how we bring ourselves to that. Today’s gospel makes it very clear that Christ is not just an idea, but a physical reality. Someone you can see. Someone you can touch. Someone you can smell.
And here we are after over a year of physical distancing. A time when we haven’t been able to touch other people. We haven’t shared hugs or, as Flake describes in her cartoon, “put our faces into all the other faces” because we’re so happy to be able to touch one another again. It’s like we’re rebuilding trust. Rebuilding the belief that the presence of other people is not something to get anxious about.
I suspect it’s something like today’s gospel story: While in our joy we will also be disbelieving and still wondering.
I know I’ve spoken about this before that now when I watch movies or tv programs, I sometimes experience anxiety when the characters are in crowds or get to close to people they don’t know… even though they were filmed long before the pandemic.
And I’ve noticed a new emotion crop up alongside the anxiety – jealousy. And it’s not a jealousy of those people, it’s a jealousy of my former self. And how I took for granted the ability to dance with others, or sit in a theatre and watch a play, or attend a crowded festival, or be in a packed church, or invite people over to dinner.
I talk about this not as an opportunity to become maudlin, but because of the simple truth that flesh matters. Our blood, our guts, our flesh, our breath is what God created along with all the other flesh of all the other creatures on our planet and every other planet in the entire universe. It all matters. Our physical presence matters.
You see, it wouldn’t have worked for Jesus to appear as he did in the Transfiguration – on top of a mountain with the pantheon of Jewish leadership, Moses and Elijah. I think a part of us wishes it were that simple – to worship a far-off, remote god who lives in the sky. It was Peter who wanted to erect buildings in the Transfiguration story… as if that were the point of Christ, the limits of Love. As if that were the end, as if that was what God is about.
For the Resurrection to mean anything to us, to have any impact on our lives, it had to be much more personal, much more physical, much more human. It had to have flesh. It had to be real. It had to be directly connected to who we are as human beings, creatures of God, who breathe and eat and sweat and give birth and die.
The risen Christ is not in a cloud on high. The risen Christ walks among us and is the essence of who we are as creatures of God – created to connect to one another and to care for one another. In fact, created to Love. When we open our heart to another, it is Christ who lives through us. When, as a community, we come together to lift up the oppressed, it is Christ who lives through us.
This story from Luke’s Gospel demonstrates that the Resurrection is personal and communal. That we are brought back to life, into the Resurrected life, when as individuals and as community, we open our hearts to the strangers among us and we care for them, not as an idea, but in real, tangible ways.
Because nothing is more real than this flesh that breathes and smells and has needs. This flesh that feels awkward and anxious about being around other flesh sometimes. This flesh that eats and drinks and laughs and cries. This flesh that lives and dies.
Christ is alive because we are and because God has created us to love. And this love is endless, truly endless. There are no bounds to God’s love made alive through the risen Christ because this power to love has always been and will always be.
Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
This is Love incarnate. This is Christ.