Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on Apr. 26 2009.
Psalm 4:1-8; Luke 24:36-48
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, spoke in chapel when I was a seminary student. He recounted that as a seminary student himself he became convicted about what he perceived to be our society’s negligence of the poor. So he took a Bible and searched the scriptures for every reference to the poor he could find. When he found a passage that talked about poverty or the poor he cut it out with a pair of scissors. By the time he finished, he told us, his Bible was in absolute shreds.
Throughout God’s word, he explained, God takes the side of the poor, those Jesus referred to as “the least of these.”
I believe it would be just as telling if we did the same with the Bible’s references to food or eating. There’s a whole lot of table fellowship found in the pages of scripture. You can look it up.
I pastored a church near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky when I was a seminary student. Janet and I would drive over on Sunday morning, spend the day with our church folk, then drive back home that night. From time-to-time we had pot-luck meals at the church.
There was one woman in the congregation who refused to attend these gatherings. She felt very strongly that people shouldn’t eat at church. It was a place for worship, she said, for Bible study, for giving witness to the saving claims of Jesus Christ. It was not a place for eating, she explained to me. So she refused to sit at table with her fellow congregants… at least at church. If you were a guest in her home, she would provide you with a spread that was fit for a king, and you could eat in her home any time. She was a very gracious host. But not at church. She just didn’t think church was the proper place for doing that sort of thing.
I told her I didn’t think she would find much support for her view in the scriptures. If she felt that way it was just fine with me, despite the fact that she was a very good cook and we would miss her and whatever dish she would have prepared had she not held so strongly to this view. But she needed to know, I told her, that everywhere you turn in scripture you encounter people eating. It certainly appears to have been one of Jesus’ favorite things to do. You’ll find that to be true in the story we read from Luke’s gospel.
The risen Christ appears to his disciples, offers for them to see his wounded hands and feet, then asks them if they have anything for him to eat. Is this story told in order to justify fellowship meals at church? Don’t think so. It is to send a clearer, more important, message than that. Ghosts don’t eat broiled fish. The risen Christ is not just a spirit; he is fully human, made up of flesh and bone.
You would think that would be obvious. After all, it is not hard for us to believe this. But we’ve had a long time to get used to the idea of a resurrected Jesus. We’ve heard that story, and have believed it, all our lives. But that was not true for those folk in churches like the one to which Luke is writing his gospel. This is still a fresh and new experience for them.
We’ve had two thousand years for basic Christian theology to have sifted down to what we know it to be today; plenty of time for strange ideas to have been explained away and dealt with by trained students of scripture. When the gospels were being written, however, all manner of strange ideas were still floating around and being tried out just about every Sunday at church. Every time you gathered for worship there was no telling what might be suggested when it came to belief in Jesus. They were still trying on this way of life to see how it fit. One week one idea would be floated, another week some different belief might be tossed around. They didn’t have church as much as they had a theological free-for-all.
For example, there was one idea called docetism. It was the thought that Jesus only seemed to have been human, that in reality he was just a spirit and was not truly flesh and blood. In fact, the Greek word from which this belief gets its name means to seem. If Jesus only seemed to be human then it follows that he did not really die on the cross and therefore wasn’t any different after the resurrection than he was before. He was never fully human at any time, so the resurrection didn’t really change anything from the way he had been before.
You never knew, when you came to church, if someone wouldn’t propose this, or some hybrid version of it, as a possibility. It was really quite a popular belief in a number of quarters. The early church leaders spent a lot of time and energy refuting this idea.
Those outside the church were considered pagans, and there was a great deal of influence on the church from these non-church circles. One of the prevailing beliefs among these folk was the immortality of the soul, that upon death the essence of a person slipped into a spirit world. The Greeks particularly liked and believed in this idea, and you could find it being promoted in church quite often. Paul, as you might recall, wrote about this and made a strong and compelling argument against it.
The church had emerged from the Jewish world, and the Jews were divided when it came to the idea of resurrection and an after-life. Some believed in it, others didn’t. Jesus may have had his difficult moments with the Pharisees, but this was one area in which they were in agreement. And, you may remember that he got into a bit of a debate with the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection. They thought they had tripped him up with their little riddle, but he got the upper hand on them. Surprise!
All these outside influences came to bear upon the early Christians, and Luke – along with the other gospel writers – set out to confute them. The original followers of Jesus believed in his bodily resurrection. This was not based on mere belief or tradition or hearsay… what they had been told. They had seen the risen Christ themselves, they had touched him, put their hands in his wounds. They had seen him eat! Spirits and ghosts don’t eat broiled fish! That is the point of Luke’s story.
But it took awhile for their testimony to be believed. Change always takes time and effort. Radical change requires even more, so this was not automatic or easy for many people to believe. Truth be told, it wasn’t easy even for those who did see the risen Christ. “They were startled and terrified,” Luke tells us. Well, who wouldn’t be? They “thought that they were seeing a ghost,” he says. No surprise there. “Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus says to them; “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.”
And a ghost doesn’t eat broiled fish, remember?
We’ve had two millennia to get used to this idea. It is nothing new to us. But it was still fresh and new to them, let me tell you.
We have kind of a good-natured, running debate in our staff when it comes to Easter and our worship planning. Those bells you heard a couple of weeks ago were rung every time we heard the word alleluia. That’s Carolyn’s thing. She prods me to use the word alleluia so she and all her co-conspirators can ring their bells. If she had her way, when it comes to Easter, every other word in worship would be alleluia.
I’m a bit more subdued when it comes to Easter. I know it’s a time of celebration, of rejoicing in the risen Christ. But there is something in me that finds more in common with these disciples for whom the idea of a risen Jesus is still just too mysterious to comprehend, much less celebrate.
Luke expresses it for me perfectly. He says the disciples, when Jesus first appeared to them, were “startled and terrified.” And even after Jesus has shown them his hands and his feet, this is the way Luke describes their reaction: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” That’s me! What an odd, yet realistic, combination! Joy and disbelief, joy and wonder, joy and fear. They don’t seem to go together, but according to Luke, when it comes to resurrection, they do.
Every Easter, while I am joyful in the promise of our risen Christ, I confess there is in me that element of disbelief, of wonder, of fear. How in the world could it possibly be that one who was so decidedly dead can be walking around three days later showing people his raw and bleeding wounds, then asking them to serve him broiled fish?
Sorry Carolyn, there are no alleluias here in this story, not even a single note of celebration… “no shouting, singing, dancing, no trumpets of Hallelujah choruses. Instead, there is surprise, fear and doubt.”1 Now, those are emotions to which I can relate. [ring bell softly]
And confusion. I can understand confusion as well. You know what this story – and the others like it in the other gospels – is about? It has to do with this group of people who have cast their lot with the carpenter from Galilee, who are trying as best they can to figure out something that doesn’t fit with what they had previously come to believe about life and death.2 The disciples are too busy trying to take it in and make some sense of it than to be running around shouting alleluia. Maybe they did after the fact, but I have a feeling it was rather long after the fact.
We find ourselves worshiping today on what is known liturgically as the third Sunday of Easter. If we are truly honest about this whole thing, we would admit that what we’re trying to do is pretty much the same as Jesus’ first followers. We’re still doing our best to figure out what Easter means, and if you think you’ve got all the answers to that, then just go on leave the rest of us behind because we’re not as sure about this whole thing as you seem to be.
One commentator likens it to the birth of a baby. There will be a trip to the hospital, so the couple prepares. The overnight bag is packed and placed in the front hall closet. Provisions are made for the house, the pets, the other children, if there are any. The phone numbers of family members and friends are listed on a piece of paper for the inevitable calls that will be made. Readiness is the name of the game. There may not be much warning when the time comes.
But when the pains of contractions begin there is a complete and utter disruption of life-as-usual. Chaos prevails, not order. Panic, not reason. Other plans have been made; they’ll have to be pushed aside. Something larger and stronger – something inevitable and unchangeable – is now in charge. The birth will occur – not neatly, not logically or in straightforward fashion – but in “messy waves of fear and pain, plateaus of waiting and spikes of recognition and joy that culminate in new life.”
It is not as we expect it to be… when a birth takes place.
Our friend Julie Claybrook was the clinic nurse at seminary. She advised all the young mothers-to-be about what to expect when it came time for them to deliver their babies. For almost all of them it was their first time around, and believe me there were a lot of babies born at seminary.
I remember a conversation with a friend in which I commented on all the babies expected on campus. “It must be in the water,” I said. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “That’s why we drink beer at our house!”
But when Julie was about to give birth herself to her first child, she called Nita Taylor. Nita had had a little girl just a few months before. “Nita,” Julie asked her, “what is it really like?” Julie didn’t know. She had not experienced it herself, so she talked to one who had.
The same is true with resurrection. For us it is just a belief… until someone really, really close to us slips the boundaries of this life, and this world to which we so desperately cling, and enters into… enters into what, enters into where, how? We don’t know! We don’t know! We’ve not experienced it so we’re not that sure. We can only hope. Isn’t that true? We can only hope.
Hope in what? In a belief? God, I hope not. Literally, God, I hope not. Because if the only thing I have left is a belief, I am, in the words of the apostle, most to be pitied. Our hope is not in a belief, it is in a Person, a Person who stands before us with his wounded hands wide open, who speaks to us a word of peace, who asks us if we have any broiled fish left over – or maybe chicken with Kavanaugh sauce – who sits down at table with us and imparts to us his presence… who says to us, “It is I myself who stands before you.”
And when that happens, there is only one thing left to say… [said softly] Alleluia. [ring bell]
Lord, we ask you to stand before us. It is not necessary that we see your hands and feet. It is enough that you simply bid us come and take unto ourselves your way of life. Show us that way, O Lord, and find us faithful in following you. Amen.