Here we are on the third Sunday of Easter and we are being invited, this time by Luke, to probe even more deeply into the meaning of the strange, bewildering, and wondrous thing called “resurrected life.”
A few themes are beginning to emerge as we ponder the different resurrection stories we’ve heard over the last three weeks. The first and most important is that we are no longer in the land of the dead, but the land of the living. From the very first moment the women arrived at the tomb on Easter morning, we have known that the tomb is empty and that our beloved friend whom we were certain was dead is in fact alive. While we’re not sure how this happened or what it means exactly, we know that God has dramatically broken into the course of human history to do something unprecedented.
Second, we also know that this is scary stuff. What God is doing in resurrection is terrifying precisely because it utterly disrupts everything we thought we knew about how the world works. Who can blame the women at the tomb for running away in terror and amazement when they saw it was empty? Who can blame the other disciples for huddling behind locked doors, as we heard last week, in fear and trembling of the implications of this event? Like Moses at the burning bush, it is entirely fitting and right for us to be in awe of the re-creative power of a divine presence that makes things utterly new and that refuses to let the powers of a menacing world have the last say.
Third, we also know that this resurrection business is literally incredible. We can’t quite get our heads around it. Much as we want to believe it, and as good as this news seems to be, like the disciple Thomas from last week’s story in John, it’s hard to shake our old ways of thinking, perceiving and experiencing the world so that we might be open to this new way of being human that is the Risen Christ.
In today’s gospel, Luke underscores this theme of disbelief when he describes the disciples in verse 41 as filled with “joy” even as they are “disbelieving and still wondering.” Far from demanding unwavering certainty, resurrection in fact provokes disbelief and wonder. If you’re bringing lots of questions and doubts with you this morning about what Easter means, you’re not alone. It is in the nature of resurrection to challenge us in these ways.
But, the fourth important theme to emerge from these resurrection narratives is that the risen Christ does not abandon us to these doubts and worries. Jesus keeps coming to us, breaking down the doors of our fears, sneaking up on us unawares as we journey on our own roads to Emmaus, extending his wounded hands and feet so that we know that it is truly him, and assuring us that it is indeed “peace” he brings.
“Peace be with you,” he keeps saying in these encounters. The risen Christ brings the shalom for which God’s people have for centuries been longing. This is not a peace of passive stillness or a simple cessation of conflict; it is rather the peace of wholeness and restoration, a peace that actively seeks out the other with a desire to bring everyone and everything into loving relationship.
In today’s gospel, however, there are three additional themes about the resurrected life that Jesus invites us to consider. They are: the invitation to touch, to feed, and to forgive. Let’s briefly take a look at each.
“Touch me,” Jesus tells his disciples, in verse 39. Apparently seeing and hearing the risen Christ is not quite enough. To know their beloved Teacher, to fully recognize him, Jesus invites his disciples to touch him. How utterly remarkable it is to have a God that is willing to be touched and to touch.
This invitation to touch is, I think, more than just a simple reassurance that the risen Christ is real and not an imaginary or disembodied spirit. With these words, Jesus is also calling to mind the centrality of touch to his ministry.
In listening to the healing stories from the gospels, have you ever noticed how often the power of Jesus’ healing is mediated by touch? When the man with leprosy kneels before Jesus and asks to be made clean, Jesus “reaches out and touches him.” When Jesus sees Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever, the first thing he does is to touch her hand; the fever leaves her. When Jesus is approached by the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, what does she yearn for more than anything? She just wants to touch the edge of his cloak, saying “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”
Jesus’ relationship to his disciples is also defined by his willingness to touch and be touched by their lives. Remember the Transfiguration, when Peter, James, and John are so terrified by what they have seen that they fall to the ground paralyzed. What does Jesus do? Matthew tells us that “Jesus touches them,” saying “Get up [and] do not be afraid.” We remember, too, the scene from the Last Supper, when the beloved disciple, anxious about what the next day may bring, leans over and rests his head gently on Jesus’ chest, looking for some small comfort in that moment of touch. And then, of course, we recall the extraordinary scene at that same Last Supper when Jesus gently takes the feet of his disciples into his hands and washes them.
Christ’s invitation in today’s gospel to be touched recalls for us all of these images from the Gospels and connects the wonderful truth of the Incarnation with the new reality of the Resurrection: namely, that God’s love for us is so unrelenting that it not only compels him to become one of us and to share our embodied life with all its joys and pains, but also that it breaks open the tomb of death, giving new life to Jesus, so that the risen Christ might reach out, touch, and restore us.
But risen Jesus in today’s lesson does more than just invite the disciples’ touch. He also asks them to feed him. Jesus is hungry. How utterly human. Even in the midst of the divine glory of resurrected life, Jesus shows his disciples that his solidarity with our humanity remains undisturbed: he is both touchable and hungry.
Once again, however, there is more going on here than a simple reassurance of Jesus’ continuing reality and personhood. The reference to hunger and feeding recalls for us the centrality of these things to Jesus’ ministry. When was the last time Jesus ate fish with his disciples? It was, of course, the miraculous story of loaves and fishes. In the face of human hunger, Jesus’ response is never indifference or neglect; it is, rather, always a generous outpouring of abundance. By asking the disciples to meet his hunger in today’s gospel, Jesus is reminding them of their sacred obligation to feed and to share, and the power he confers on his followers to meet the world’s hunger through the gift of the Spirit.
The resurrected life into which we are called, then, has these two crucial elements: we are asked to reach out with loving hands to touch the world in all its woundedness; and, we are asked to feed all those who hunger, confident that God’s abundance will make our sharing possible.
But that is not all. The last thing that Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel is that they are to embody forgiveness. In my name, he tells them, you are to proclaim to all the nations my message of forgiveness. Here, too, these words take us back to all those moments in the gospels when Jesus forgives and welcomes back into community those reviled and marginalized by the world. We remember the prostitute the world was ready to stone, but who Jesus gives a second chance; the tax collector, Zaccheaus, who is sure that he is not worthy of Jesus’ company, but who Jesus calls down from his perch in the sycamore tree; the woman at the well with the complicated history of past husbands who no other respectable man would approach, but with whom Jesus shares the living water of his life. And, of course, we remember the prayer Jesus taught us, with those insistent words that urge us to forgive just as we have been forgiven.
To touch. To feed. To forgive. These are three dimensions of the resurrected life into which the risen Christ is calling us in today’s gospel. It can be bewildering and scary to embrace this new way of resurrection, to be sure, in part because these practices are so contrary to the ways of the world. But the joys and renewing power of such a life for us are manifest, as is the need we see all around us for such joy and for such renewal. Let us pray during this Eastertide that we, as Christ’s body in the world, may bring to others the same peace, the same healing touch, the same life-giving nourishment, and the same forgiving hearts that the risen Christ brings to us. Amen.