4/15/18: Coming Back to Life, Luke 24:36-48, Bonnie Chappell, guest preaching
Coming Back to Life
Second in the series: The Gospel By Candlelight
Knowing my nerves and my desire to get this first sermon of mine just right, my sweet husband made it his mission to find me the perfect anecdote. He went to each of our children in turn and asked, “What does resurrection mean?” hoping for one of those profoundly simple turns of phrase that only little kids can produce. I wish I could tell you that what follows is the result of that questioning. That my cherubs all offered funny and insightful definitions. In truth, their responses ranged from blank stares to the kind of complete misunderstanding that makes you wonder what goes on in their Sunday school classes. So we will have to press on and hope to find some admittedly less cute insight of our own.
We find Jesus this morning in much the same situation as we did in last week’s reading from John. The disciples have heard of the resurrection, but they aren’t sure what to make of it yet. So they have gathered—confused, scared, hopeful—behind closed doors until they have a little more information.
This is where they are when Jesus suddenly appears among them, and they think they are seeing a ghost. The man they see before them only makes sense as some sort of spiritual presence. He talks like an angel—“Peace be with you. Why are you afraid?”—and the disciples know for sure that he died. Thinking of this person in front of them as a ghost is the only way their tired brains can reconcile what they have experienced with what they see.
The rest of the scene shows Jesus offering what commentators call “proofs” of resurrection. He shows the disciples his hands and feet, which still bear the wounds of crucifixion. He asks for food, and he eats a piece of fish in their presence. Jesus proves that he is really, physically alive. He is not a ghost. He is flesh and blood, raised from the dead.
Jesus also proves to the disciples that he really is who he says he is by reminding them of the things he told them when they were ministering together. He teaches them the meaning of his death and resurrection. He helps them see familiar scriptures in a new way. He gives them a new set of instructions, a new mission.
Here is the evidence, Luke argues. Christ is risen. See? We have proof.
I wonder, though, if this proof-giving is really Jesus’ motivation. What if the showing and the eating and the talking are as much for Jesus’ sake as they are for the disciples? What if Jesus needs to be with his friends to understand what he has just lived through as much as the disciples need to see Jesus to believe it? I invite you to consider this resurrection story from the perspective of the man who has been resurrected and is still navigating what that means.
Amy Butler, Pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City, considers the state Jesus might have been in shortly after the resurrection in an article titled “Resurrection Hurts.” She recalls what it felt like to come back into the sunshine after spending an afternoon at an ice skating rink, how her fingers and toes pricked and throbbed as the warmth returned to them, and she wonders if Jesus’ resurrection might have been something like this. We don’t know too much about that kind of numbing cold here in Middle Georgia, but we can understand what she means. “Surely Jesus’ resurrection hurt,” she says. “Jesus appeared to the disciples with all his wounds still fresh. Presumably, wounds like this don’t hurt anymore after you are dead. Coming back to life, though, must have been a different matter.”
Resurrection hurts. Jesus hurts as he sits among his disciples. He is filled with joy at his new life, at the fulfillment of God’s promises, but he is also dealing with painful wounds and the fresh and disorienting memory of his death. He is risen, but he is still the man who hung on a cross and wondered why God had forsaken him.
So this hurting but fully alive Jesus sinks into the comfort of a meal and conversation with his dearest friends. It’s an impulse we can understand. We see the humanity in the resurrected Christ—the vulnerability and exhaustion and discomfort—because we know how hard it is to get our feet back under us after our worlds have been shaken. We know how painful coming back to life can be.
Almost five years ago, Michael and I lost a baby. Our story is not uncommon—some 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage—but that statistic did not make the grief any easier to bear. We were devastated. The months that followed were the darkest I’ve known.
The next spring, I learned that I was expecting again. Twins this time. Two babies.
I remember telling one friend our news, one who had known of our loss and supported us through it. After offering excited congratulations, she looked at me and said, “I thought I’d seen the light come back into your eyes.”
And she had. My twin girls brought me back to life. The world that had seemed so dark, so desperately sad, was suddenly inescapably vibrant. I experienced a resurrection.
But the joy of mothering two little girls—two twirling and singing balls of personality—doesn’t undo the reality of the child I lost. I still grieve for this person I’ll never know. On some days the pain feels as fresh as it did the day the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat.
But the grief is more manageable now. I know it isn’t the entirety of my story. That story also contains Kathlena and Lucy, my daily proofs of resurrection.
You all have stories like this. To be human is to endure a series of deaths and resurrections. And so I trust that you have experienced loss or trauma or tragedy that tested your faith and made you feel like the sun would never rise again. That changed you. Maybe it was a car accident. A season of unemployment. A divorce. A diagnosis. An untimely death.
I also trust that you have experienced new life in the same way on the other side of losses like these. Maybe new life came in an undeniable form—like Jesus, once dead, suddenly alive again. Like twins after a miscarriage. Maybe for you resurrection came in the form of a new job, a new relationship, a clean scan.
Or maybe new life has come to you in smaller, slower ways, like noticing the grace that gets you through another day or realizing that you feel hope again.
These new things do not erase your pain. Even in your resurrected forms you bear the wounds of your experiences. But these new things do bring the light back into your eyes. They bring you back to life.
Resurrection stories do not belong exclusively to individuals. Institutions also follow the rhythms of death and new life, especially the church. Our church certainly has stories like this, of emerging on the far side of challenging times with a poignant new sense of ourselves. We’re living one now, I think.
Last year was a difficult one for our congregation. We spent much of the year talking openly about how to include all people in the life of our church, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s a subject that most churches—really so many groups, so many people—tiptoe around or avoid altogether. It’s more comfortable that way. But that’s not what we did. We ripped off the band-aid and addressed the issue head-on.
Pulling a band-aid off a wound that needs air, a band-aid that has begun to collect dirt around the edges, is usually the best policy. Removing bandages allows healing to begin in earnest. But, as I’m sure you all know from experience, it hurts!
This has been true for our church. Ripping that band-aid hurt. Having frank conversations with people we love but with whom we strongly disagree hurt. But now that we’ve done it, now that we’ve taken a vote and decided as a congregation to be actively and openly inclusive of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, our wounds are beginning to heal.
We’re coming back to life here at the First Baptist Church of Christ. We’re finding our way back to the easy relationships we had before we learned how differently we think about some things. We’re welcoming new members. We’re attending weddings.
As wonderful as these things are, last year still hurt. We lost some things along the way. We lost people, members of our family of faith. And like Jesus showing the disciples his hands and feet, we can see the wounds of our recent decision when we scan the pews and see empty spots where our friends sat until recently.
Our church is a different place today than it was a year ago. We have been given new life. But we know now more than ever that resurrection hurts.
Holding this balance of pain and new life, we can look back at Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples with fresh eyes. Alongside the proof of Jesus’ resurrection, we find a sort of handbook for how to come back to life.
Step 1 (this handbook might say): Find people you love, and who love you. Spend time with them.
Despite the disciples’ behavior toward Jesus during his last days, these are the people who know him best. He is able to be himself among them. These are the friends with whom he wants to share his joy. To stand with and say, “Can you believe what just happened?”
You have people in your life like this. The ones who can truly share in your joy because they were beside you in times of grief. Reach out to the people, Jesus teaches us, who will recognize your news as resurrection because they know how much you lost. Enjoy their company.
Step 2: Nourish your body. Eat good food with these good people.
Having not eaten since his death, Jesus is hungry. He requests food to satisfy a physical need. And then he eats it in the presence of his disciples. As Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry, the community with which we share a meal is often more important than the meal itself. So much of Jesus’ work happened around tables. Returning to the table with his friends must have been a great comfort.
We sometimes forget about our physical needs in emotional times. Jesus reminds us to pay attention to our bodies and eat when we’re hungry while we draw strength from the people around the table.
Step 3: Talk through your experiences together. Look for meaning.
This is where the really good stuff starts to happen. In the first phases of this resurrection encounter, Jesus is merely present with the disciples. They remain bewildered—“in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,” Luke says—until Jesus begins to speak.
Jesus teaches them about Scripture and helps them to understand what they have all lived through as the fulfillment of God’s plan. Their minds open and they are able to see these events as the starting point for a new season of ministry. Jesus has understood these things on some level all along, but it is when he shares what God has revealed to him with his friends that he truly comes alive.
Talking through our experiences and sharing what we have learned through them is a critical part of the resurrection process. When we pay attention to the ways God has been present with us, we find gratitude and purpose that puts our pain in perspective. We begin to believe the joy we feel.
Step 4: Above all, bear witness.
Jesus knows that he will not be able to tell his story himself. He also knows that it is a story that must be told. This good news—thegood news—has to be shared. And who better to tell it than those friends who watched it all happen? The disciples lived the betrayal and the trial and the crucifixion. They experienced the resurrection. They are uniquely qualified to proclaim God’s work of redemption.
Emily Dickinson describes it this way: “The Science of the Grave / No Man can understand / But He that hath endured / The Dissolution—in Himself— / That Man—be qualified / To qualify Despair.”
We might not have been present for the original resurrection story, but we have witnessed many others. We have lived through deaths and resurrections of our own—we have endured the dissolution in ourselves—and we have watched people we love die and come back to life. As witnesses to these things, we share in the responsibility Jesus gave the disciples to proclaim the good news.
These are simple and natural steps to follow. I imagine that you have adhered to this pattern without realizing it at various points in your life. In my experience, coming back to life has looked like listening to other people share stories of infant loss. It has looked like crying with a room of dear friends who were as willing to sit with my grief as they were to hear stories of my twin toddlers. It looks like watching my children—all three of them—play together and hearing them laugh.
I have seen these new-life rhythms play out here at the church, too. Coming back to life looks like a full fellowship hall on a Wednesday night. It looks like people eating and talking. It looks like admitting how much we miss that member of our Sunday school class who joined another church last month. It looks like starting a new friendship with the couple who recently joined our church.
We have reached Step 4 in our imagined handbook, I think. The first three steps really aren’t so hard. They ease our sense of loneliness and heighten our experience of joy, but they don’t require much effort. Just a little intentionality about who we spend time with and what we talk about. They are important because they prepare our hearts for the work new life requires of us.
As individuals and as a church, it’s time for us to bear witness to one another’s resurrection. To share with our friends and families and community what we have learned through the pain of coming back to life. It’s time to talk openly about last year’s vote so that other churches will know that you can have seemingly unbearable conversations and find new possibility on the other side. It’s time to share vulnerably and generously about how our personal tragedies transformed us so that others can find hope. Our stories will vary as widely as our experiences, but they will share common themes: that God remained with us, that God sustained us, that God brought us out of the valley of the shadow of death into the light of new life.
When we do this, when we bear witness to resurrections big and small, we proclaim the good news. We come fully back to life. Amen.