"WITNESSES" - Psalm 27; Luke 24:36-48
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Psalm 27; Luke 24:36-48
Is it possible to imagine Christianity without Christ?
The novelist, Flannery O’Connor thought so. As many of you know, Flannery O’Connor wrote so many engaging pieces, with great insight and subtle humor. O’Connor loved to poke fun at life and culture using deceptively backward Southern characters. Her writing made the strong point that all life – even the most awkward and grotesque - is infused with grace and with God.
In one of O’Connor’s novels, entitled Wise Blood, she writes about Hazel Motes, “a preacher of the Church Without Christ.” This is what Hazel Motes says: “Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about the church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.” (Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, p.105)
“The Church Without Christ.” That may strike us as both humorous and bizarre, just as O’Connor intended. But Hazel Motes’ understanding of the gospel – where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way – may not be so far from how we experience life.
Here we are two full weeks after Easter. The Easter colors are here. The Easter themes continue with Easter hymns. And our Scripture today comes again from the day of resurrection.
Listen now to Luke 24. Again, this is Easter day, according to Luke, and Jesus is walking along the Emmaus Road, talking to the disciples, but they do not recognize him. Then they arrive at Emmaus, and they sit down at a table to eat. Jesus takes bread, blesses it, gives it to them, then their eyes are opened and they recognize him. But, it says, he vanished from their sight! So the disciples went back to Jerusalem and told the others how they had encountered Jesus, that indeed, he had risen. Then we get to verse 36:
36While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look 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.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then 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.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It appears that on that first Easter morning, and understandably so, the disciples were trying to be the Church Without Christ. They were wandering aimlessly. They were not seeing very well, not even recognizing their beloved Savoir in their midst. And take note of the numerous descriptions in this passage: “they were startled and terrified,” and Jesus said to them, “why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts.” Startled. Terrified. Frightened. Full of doubt. The Greek words here imply much more vividly the state of the disciples – sincerely troubled, emotional turmoil, cognitive confusion, hearts full of conflict and despair.
I think we – you and I - know a bit about this state. Even though we are just two weeks removed from Easter, we can quickly fall into feeling sincerely troubled, into emotional turmoil, into cognitive confusion. And before we realize it, we find ourselves in the Church Without Christ – where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what is dead stays that way.
Here is the deal: When the husband draws up a property settlement and says he wants a divorce, and the wife texts me, saying, “can we talk?” All of that indicates sincere trouble, and emotional turmoil, and plenty of doubts about where Christ might be.
Or, when the body gets so frail, and the voice gets so weak, and the doctor comes in and says let’s keep things simple and keep him comfortable, and everyone knows that time is running short, all of that can generate fears and uncertainty that make you wonder where Christ might be.
When the challenges continue, . . . when the thoughts keep racing through your mind, . . . . when all you can think about is – well – the pain, the illness, the loss, . . . and you cannot sleep, . . . and you toss and turn for yet another night, it is easy to wonder where Christ might be. Sincerely troubled. Emotional turmoil. Cognitive confusion.
And, when every day we have increasing worries about our world. . . . Will the missiles into Syria lead to another World War? . . . . Will the chaos ever end? . . . Can the earth sustain the rapidly growing population and intense climate issues? . . . See, we easily can find ourselves in a life without Christ – where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.
But Luke, the gospel writer, wants to lead us in the ways of faith and life, toward the Kingdom of God. Could it be more urgent for us?
Jesus, the Christ, shows up! And Jesus, the Christ, ushers the disciples, and ushers us, one more time, from fear and doubt toward confident, perceptive faith, AND from wandering confusion, and emotional turmoil to living faithfully in the world.
Jesus, the Christ, shows up and speaks with love and compassion, with a verbal offer of “Peace.” Some scholars think this message – “peace be with you” - was added to earlier manuscripts, leaking in from John’s gospel because Jesus speaks this word “peace” several times there. But he seems genuinely concerned and empathetic to the disciples plight on that morning, asking “why are you startled? Why do doubts arise? It is really me, . . . look at my hands, my feet.” All of this intends to assure them that the risen Jesus is the embodiment of life, the person, the self, the identity that they knew prior to his death. He is no dis-embodied spirit. “Touch me and see – a ghost does not have flesh and bones.”
And to make the point even more emphatically, Jesus asks if they have anything to eat. The verse says “They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he ate it.” Now, the gospel of Luke is full of stories of Jesus having meals with people. He dines with women and outcasts. He dines with tax collectors and sinners. But this is the ONLY place where it says Jesus actually eats something. This is to make the point for real that Jesus, the Christ, is truly in their midst. It also points to the new life of the disciples – they will be hosting others, serving others, sharing his hospitality, feeding his sheep, in Christ’s name, going forward.
And then Jesus, the Christ, encourages them further with his teaching – “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and psalms must be fulfilled.” And the whole message, Jesus says, is about “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.”
Way back at the beginning of Luke, even chapter 1, John the Baptist announces a ministry of “repentance” and the “forgiveness of sins.” Remember that? This is what God is all about – the way of the kingdom. This is what God has always been about – all through the laws of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms – the way of God. It is about turning from our ways – repentance - and turning to God’s ways - forgiveness. It is NOT about serving self, but serving God. It is NOT about doing what we want in the world, but doing what God wants. It is about being released from oppressions and depressions, and living in God’s love. It is about freedom from sins, and living with love. It is about all the things that Jesus did in his life: Jesus welcomed everyone, he forgave sins, he healed the sick, he helped the hurting. He taught us to re-order our lives: if we have two coats, give one away. If someone has wronged us, forgive him or her. If your neighbor is thirsty, give her a drink. If your son is in a far-off land and estranged, welcome him home and have a party. If you are a disciple, you love one another, be kind to one another, offer what you have to help one another. These are all the things that Jesus teaches over and over. “Repentance” – turning from what we have been or tend to be – “and forgiveness” – lead us to new life in God’s realm.
And then on that Easter morning, when the disciples realize he is risen, and he is standing among them, Jesus says, “this is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations.” There it is – the reminder that disciples are to carry on Jesus’ same, loving, caring, healing, justice seeking, peace-building work in the world. And Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things.”
See, everything is to be moving toward the promised and coming reign of God. The promised reign of God looks like gracious acceptance; it looks like wonderful inclusion – not just for a few, or certain people, but everyone. It looks like mercy and kindness. It looks like gentleness and compassion. It looks like peace and building peace near and far. So critical for life! It looks like honesty and integrity. How much does our world need that!? It looks like light, not darkness. It looks like life, not death. It looks like community and caring, not separation and alienation. “You are witnesses,” Jesus says. You are to live this way. You are to embody this message with how you live. God is God. God is always at work. God never leaves us. God wins over illness and tragedy, evil and despair, heartache and death. You are to be witnesses. Live this way. Love this way. God’s promised reign is surely coming. Live into it. That is the message from that Easter morning.
Recently, Ginger and I got a letter from a woman in Wisconsin. We knew this woman from our first church, but she had moved several times in the past 30 years. In the letter were some thoughts written long ago by Ginger’s father. The woman’s current pastor had shared some comments from Ginger’s dad – Randy Taylor - about Jesus, and the resurrection. Those words from Randy Taylor seem so pertinent today. So I quote my father-in-law:
“Christian faith is focused upon a person. Jesus Christ is the central fact of history – his life, his death, and his resurrection. His life appeals to everyone who has heard his story. Even if people don’t like what his followers have done with him they cannot avoid the magnetic allure of his life. . . . But without the resurrection there would be no story. The evidence for the resurrection is not just an empty tomb. The real evidence is the women and men who met the risen Christ and who witnessed to his resurrection with their lives and with their deaths. It is the church which Christ created of those who believed and who through the generations, in tragedy and in triumph, became the household of God, the body of Christ, the fellowship of the Spirit. . . . None of the New Testament would have been written, shared, read, or preserved apart from the resurrection. Its writers were not interested in a Christ who was alive and is now dead; they remembered, thought of, loved and wrote of a Christ who was dead and is now alive. They told his story not because of an interest in biography, or history, or philosophy; they were compelled by a conviction of a new reality: Christ is alive, and, because he is, so are we. These witnesses to the resurrection were absolutely convinced that life is an exciting gift of relationship with him and that death is no break in that bond. That is very different from the popular attitude that life is misery and that death, rather illogically, is an even greater disaster. . . . We are given by God’s grace the biggest news in the whole world. For if Jesus rose again from the dead, that is the most important thing that has ever happened.” (“The Most Important Thing,” J. Randolph Taylor)
“You are witnesses of these things,” says Jesus the risen Christ.
No matter where we are, or what we are dealing with, or our troubled world, may we live with grace and conviction, with integrity and justice, with worship and work that WITNESSES to the God Who gives life and light, Who raised Jesus from the dead, Who rules and reigns forever, and Who will never let us go.
You are WITNESSES of these things. Alleluia. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. And keep claiming us, covering us, calling us, using us in loving service following Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on April 15, 2018. This is a rough manuscript