Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter                                             The Rev. Wendy Smith, PhD April 19, 2015                                                        Episcopal Church in Almaden

(Acts 3:12-19, I John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36b-48)

Even though we live in the age of cameras and video recorders, the role of the eyewitness is still important. Whenever something out of the ordinary happens, whether it is a crime, or an act of nature, or a first-time-ever event, people who were there, who witnessed the event, are asked to describe it, to tell what they saw and heard. Our Gospel reading is such an eyewitness account. Today, we understand as well, that witnesses to the same event, see slightly different things — whether because of their distance from the event, or because of poor eyesight, or their attention to details, or their attitudes about the gender or race or appearance of the people involved. This difference among eyewitness reports, is the reason we have four Gospels, which apparently tell the same story . . . Matthew, Mark. Luke, and John had each learned some details that the others didn’t know, and each author organized and interpreted what they knew. This is the reason it is valuable for us to hear today, St. Luke’s account of the same event, (apparently) as we heard last Sunday from the Gospel of St. John. And it is also helpful to hear the two interpretations, from Linda last week, and from me today.

All four Gospels do agree that the disciples were together, discussing the events leading to the crucifixion, and wondering about what Jesus had said to them . . . they were in a private room, when Jesus was suddenly present among them, and said, “Peace be with you”. All four Gospels agree that the disciples were startled, and frightened. St. Luke said specifically that Jesus knew that “doubts were arising in their hearts”. Therefore, Jesus showed them the wounds in his hands and feet, and invited them to touch him, although St. Luke does not say whether they did. The next verse is one of the most unusual statements in the Bible: it is verse 41 in chapter 24: “In their joy, (the disciples) were disbelieving and wondering . . “   The fact that at this central moment of revelation, the disciples couldn’t believe what they were seeing, AND that their disbelief was remembered and later reported by St. Luke and St. John, should give us greater confidence that it really happened.

Just at this point, I want to remind myself, and all of you, that when some unexpectedly good news comes to us today in the 21st century, we often say, “I can’t believe it! It’s too good to be true.” And then I want to point out that Jesus understood how they felt . . . because he immediately showed them the marks of crucifixion in his hands and feet. But even that wasn’t enough, so he asked for something to eat, they provided boiled fish, and he ate the fish. This was evidence that Jesus was not a ghost or an hallucination . . . and they seem to have accepted this, because they listened as Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures . . .”   When you read or hear that verse, have you wondered exactly which scriptures Jesus helped them to understand?

First, He might have been referring to the 12th chapter of the book of Daniel, which says, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life . . .” Second, scholars have shown that the idea that the dead could be resurrected, arose in the second century before Christ, during the Maccabean revolt, when so many righteous Jews were killed defending their religion. Resurrection would be a vindication of their lives and their martyrdom.

In the third place, the theology of resurrection has been traced back into the Hebrew Scriptures by the scholars Levinson and Madigan.

Their starting point is the claim that St. Paul made, that resurrection would take place on the third day, “according to the scriptures”. There are at least 8 places where this reference to three days shows up. The most important one is in the prophet Hosea: “Come let us return to the Lord . . . after two days he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him”(6:1-2). Then there was Jonah trapped in the belly of the whale for three days (1:17), and King Hezekiah who was healed after three days of prayer (I Kings 20).

What is more important than the three days, however, are the many passages, like the one from Hosea, where God comes in judgment, and then raises the dead, giving the righteous new life and sending the sinners to punishment. Hosea lived 600 years earlier than Daniel, in the 8th century BC, along with Isaiah, who said, “God will destroy death forever . . .the earth will no longer conceal its slain” in chapter 25, and in chapter 26, “O let your dead revive! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust . . “ A much later prophecy from Second Isaiah that we always read on Palm Sunday, says that after the Suffering Servant was cut off from the living “he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days . . . out of his anguish he shall see light”(53:8-11).

Levenson and Madigan argue that these prophecies express the triumph of God’s promise of life, over against all the forces of sin, suffering, exile, and death, which so often afflicted the Jewish people. Further, the resurrection of the dead is an integral part of the whole Biblical story which began with Abraham: God gives life, God calls people to live justly in community, the people fail over and over, God redeems them over and over, promising new life and vindication to the righteous.

In the first centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, rabbinic Judaism affirmed the doctrine of the resurrection in the 18 Benedictions, the Amidah, which Jews were obligated to say 3 times a day. The second benediction begins, “You are mighty forever, O Lord, You are the one who revives the dead, powerful to save . . .”This doctrine was not so much about the individual and his or her faith or goodness, as is was an assertion of God’s faithfulness, and God’s love for his people.

Now I want to tell you about a contemporary theologian, who has given me a new insight on these two meetings with the Risen Christ. What theologian Nancy Eiesland has added, is a perspective on the resurrection from her own context as a person with disability

As she meditated on this meeting of the disciples with the Risen Christ, the fact that the wounds in Jesus’ hands, and side were still visible, meant something different to her, than it has to other interpreters. The first thing she saw, was the absence of any connection between holiness, and perfection. The wounds of Jesus did not diminish his holiness. and that led her to see the second thing: the image of God within us is not diminished by our impairments, whether they be physical or mental, whether they be from birth or from injury. And then she realized that because Jesus still bore the marks of those wounds, the suffering and limitations imposed by disability have been mysteriously brought into God. What we must endure as mortal beings, dependent on one another for food, water, and shelter is truly known to God. The wounded hands of Jesus tell us of a God that suffers and survives, a disabled God rather than an almighty God.

Eiesland calls Jesus ‘the disabled God” because his wounds have become part of who he is, as the resurrected Christ: the wounds are not incidental, but tell the story of his ministry, his suffering and the new life given despite suffering. Christ resurrected without those wounds would not be the One who emptied himself of his equality with the Father, taking the form of a slave, and being mortal, vulnerable to all the injuries of life on earth, he humbled himself, accepting death on a cross.

If this interpretation of the wounds of Christ is right, we will have to change our understanding of wholeness, and refuse to identify it with perfection. We may have to recognize that wholeness includes the ability to face loss, adversity and physical limitation without despair. Even more, we may have to recognize that the contingencies of our lives shape us in particular ways: we become the people we are because of the wounds we have been given, as well as the blessings we have received. Most of the people I know who have survived cancer, know this, and are grateful because they have learned what is truly important in life.

In the New Testament book Ephesians, the author urges the Christians of Ephesus to equip the saints for the work of ministry, so that all of us may come to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (4:13). And what is the measure of that full stature? I think it is the choice of the Beloved Son to accept limitation, and disability, and mortality, with full trust in the Father. That is what we are called to: spiritual maturity, in which all kinds of wounds are incorporated into lives lived in faith and hope, trusting that Jesus, the disabled God, walks with us in this life, and will accompany us through the gate of death, into God’s heavenly kingdom.   Amen