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Two Stories of Resurrection: Food, Forgiveness, and the Mystery of New Life

The Rev. Dr. William Rich
March 31, 2016

 

Related Forum Video

PDF of Forum Handout

 

Memory Verses 

"Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?" Luke 24:32
"Simon, son of John, do you love me?" John 21:16-17

 

Reflection

The Mystery of New Life

If the Resurrection of Jesus seems to you to be a mystery that you cannot quite understand, and may have trouble believing in, then you have good company. Read all the varied stories of Jesus’ Resurrection in the Gospels, and one cannot help but notice something surprising. The experience of resurrection for Jesus’ first followers was full of mystery, and led some to believe but others to doubt. I think it is not by chance that most of the accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection take place either in the half-light of dawn, or in the softening light of dusk, times that by their very nature seem to say, neither the eye nor the soul can fully take in what is happening. Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener (John 20:14-15), and it is only when he speaks her name that Mary knows it is Jesus speaking to her (John 20:16). The disciples on the road to Emmaus are encountered by someone they take to be a stranger (Luke 24:16), and it is only when he breaks the bread at table with them that they realize this stranger is Jesus (Luke 24:31). The disciples who have been fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee see a stranger in the morning mist standing on the beach, but they don’t recognize him as Jesus (John 21:4).

All of these stories seem to say that the risen Christ moves among us in mysterious ways that we find – at first – hard to take in, and it is only gradually that the one we took to be a stranger turns out to be our risen Lord, mysteriously present in the garden with us, or on the road we are walking, or at the end of frustrating and seemingly fruitless hours of work. In other words, he comes near in countless ways, countless people, but we may not be able to recognize him for some time. Like those first followers, when we do see that it is Jesus himself showing up in our lives, then we have a choice about how to react – with belief or doubt, joy or dismay. And we then get to choose what we will do – go back to business as usual, or let him kindle in our hearts a fire that burns up everything that was usual, and find our ashes have become the humus of new and unexpected life, calling us the new ways of living, loving, forgiving, feeding, and serving.

The Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35)

Three central elements are worth noting in the story of Jesus encountering two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the evening of the first Easter Day. First, in the days of his Resurrection, Jesus encounters his disciples in whatever mood they may be in, and – quite literally – on whatever road they may be walking. These two particular disciples have been traumatized, not only deeply saddened by what has happened to Jesus, but their hopes have been dashed that Jesus would redeem – literally “free from slavery” – Israel. (Luke 24:17, 21) They are walking away from Jerusalem, the center of everything that matters, turning their back on Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ horrific death. They are so deep in mourning and their hopes have been thoroughly trampled underfoot that they simply want to get away. Trauma can do that to people. Their sadness is so deep, and their hopes so crushed that they dare not hope just now, despite the report of resurrection that they have heard (Luke 24:22-24). Just as Jesus meets them where they are, so he meets us where we are. We do not need to hide our hurts from him, or keep a “stiff upper lip” in his presence. He wants to know where we are; he cares about what we are thinking and what we are feeling. Jesus’ first desire is simply to be with each of us in whatever we are experiencing, however bleak or unattractive it may be.

Second, although Jesus begins simply by listening to and caring about what these two disciples are experiencing, he does not leave them stuck in their grief. After listening with care, he begins to invite them into a new way of seeing what has happened during these traumatic events. In modern parlance, we might say Jesus “reframes” what they have been through, in the hope that a new perspective on it might help them. As is true for us, their grief has narrowed their frame of reference. They cannot see anything good, only the bleakness of their own grief and dashed hopes. But Jesus seeks to open their eyes and remind them of the good they cannot presently take hold of. In a way that seeks to give meaning to the trauma they have been through, he retells the events of the past few days – his betrayal, trial, and death – from a wider perspective, the perspective of God’s work in the whole history of the Jesus people – Moses and the prophets is a shorthand for this – and how God has always been at work to bring goodness and life out of evil, sin, and death. (Luke 24: 25-27) These words do not “land” in a way that convinces the disciples immediately. And is that any wonder? Aren’t we like that too? The movement from sadness and lost hopes to a wider perspective that can see meaning and goodness takes time – sometimes a very long time.

Third, since sharing food may be the nurturing place where we begin again to believe in and experience goodness, Jesus shares a meal with them. Those of us whose lives are grounded in the experience of Communion know that the table where we share a meal with Jesus may be the most reliable place of goodness in our week, the place where we can be vulnerable because we know that God in Christ is being vulnerable enough with us to share his very self in bread and wine, Body and Blood. And it is at table with this seeming stranger that those two disciples – the one named Cleopas, and the other one left unnamed so that we can imagine ourselves in that person – finally realize that Jesus has been with them on their entire walk that day. Nurtured by his presence, his acceptance of their grief and hopelessness, his willingness to open their eyes a bit to the hope of a more meaning-filled understanding of their trauma, and now by the blessing of sharing bread, they finally experience that Jesus has been raised from death. He gives himself to them in each of these acts: the accepting of grief, the offering of new meaning, and the offering of blessed bread. And he does the same for us.

Why does he disappear from their sight as soon as they recognize him? (Luke 24:31) He does not want them to idolize him. Or build a shrine to his presence in that house. They have what they need from him, and now he leaves them to be his Body and his Blood in their world. And so they become just that by getting up from the table and running back to Jerusalem – back to the symbolic center of things for all Jews – to share the news of what has happened to them as they have experienced Jesus alive. And so we – who cannot see him most of the time – invites us to do as well in our places in life. So that others may know hope in the midst of their trauma and grief, and may be fed by what we share with them.

The Fish Fry on the Beach (John 21:1-19)

This is the last of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in the four Gospels. In this marvelous story, Jesus appears to some of his disciples along the Sea of Galilee, during a fish fry on the beach. Several things are particularly worth noting about this touching encounter. First, despite the fact that Jesus has poured the breath of new and resurrected life into them and commissioned them to go on a mission of forgiveness (John 20:21-23), the seven disciples in this story have given up on that mission and have gone back to work as fishermen. That Jesus should come to them, despite their unfaithfulness to the mission for which he has commissioned them, speaks volumes about Jesus’ ongoing love and forgiveness of these less-than-perfect disciples.

Second, as in the story of the road to Emmaus, these seven disciples also do not recognize Jesus at first, but simply see him as a stranger on the beach. We might understand this as the Gospel’s way of reminding us that Jesus appears to us in our daily round of life, and in surprising people and circumstances. Although we may not be looking for him at work or home or in our daily busy-ness, nonetheless he comes to us where we are, and in the midst of what we are about. And though we may not – at first – recognize Jesus when he encounters us in others, there he is anyway – in the stranger on the beach, on the street, in the store, in our neighborhood, on the nightly news, or in a Facebook post of someone we have never met.

Third, Jesus prepares a meal for them before they ever encounter him, and he invites them to bring some of the fish they have caught to add to the fish fry. Perhaps we could understand this as a reminder that Jesus serves us first. We receive before we ever give. Before we ever join Jesus in his ministries of service, he is busy – in the background – serving us. But he always invites and welcomes the gifts that we bring – though they may be nothing more than small fry fish – to the meals he is placing before a hungry world.

Fourth, Peter has not had a personal conversation with Jesus since Maundy Thursday night, when he denied Jesus three times. On the beach, Jesus has a tripartite heart-to-heart talk with Peter about love and service, as a counterweight to Peter’s tripartite denial. Despite Peter’s slowness fully to comprehend what Jesus is driving at in their conversation, Jesus demonstrates his own humble love and forgiveness for Peter – and his respect for Peter’s capacity to serve as shepherd, despite Peter’s denial and his lack of full understanding of Jesus’ love. In this exchange, the reader of the text in English can miss a nuance of the original Greek text. When Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me,” the first two times he questions Peter, Jesus uses a Greek word (agape) for love that denotes a very particular kind of love: the divine, no strings-attached, full-out love that God has for us. Peter responds to Jesus’ queries each time by saying that, “Yes, I love you,” but the word Peter uses each time for love is a very different Greek word: philia. We might better translate Peter’s response as, “Yes, Lord, I am your friend, I am fond of you.” A far cry from full-out divine love.

But the most moving thing in their dialogue occurs the last time that Jesus asks Peter about his love. When Jesus says (John 21:17) for the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus abandons the use of the wordagape and takes up Peter’s word philia. It is as if Jesus is saying, Okay, Peter, I get that you cannot love me with no-holds barred, divine love. Friendship and fondness are good enough, and I accept that love as your gift to me.” In this, we can see that Jesus’ heart is a deeply understanding and forgiving one, and that his love for us is so deep, and his understanding of our weaknesses so full, that even when we turn away from him, or through word or action – like Peter – deny that we even know him, still he goes on loving and forgiving us. Even when our love for Jesus falls short of the high calling to love as God loves, Jesus accepts whatever kind of love we offer. And most mysteriously and miraculously of all, despite all our foibles, Jesus still invites us – as he invited Peter – to join him in shepherding and feeding others, thereby assuring us that the gifts we bring – however small or great – will be of use in his ministry to feed and shepherd the world into the kingdom of love and everlasting life that his God and Father has prepared for us and all the world to share in.

– The Rev. Bill Rich

 

Poetry

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” – John Updike (1932-2009)

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

 

Music

“Erfreut Euch, ihr herzen, BWV 66” (based on the Emmaus story)  – J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

 

 

Art

"Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus" – Velazquez (1599-1660)

COM 2016 3 31 Blog Art Velazquez

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