Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Third Sunday of Easter
The early church had a problem. They had a dead Messiah. The Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the Savior of the world, was not supposed to die. Other Messiahs had come along from time to time. They would raise the people up in rebellion against the empire. They would try to overthrow the oppressive power of the foreign conquerers. But when they died, their followers generally took it as a sign that they had not really been the Messiah. If they died, they became failed Messiahs. Very few kept on believing in them once they were killed in battle or executed by the state.
Jesus, too, had had his run. He had raised up a following in Galilee. He had marched down with his crowd into the old Israelite capital of Jerusalem. He had confronted the authorities, stirred up trouble. But then, like all the other failed Messiahs he was captured, put on trial, and executed in the most brutal and humiliating manner. He had died like an insurrectionist, a sign to everyone: this is what happens to the enemies of Rome. Everyone knew what that meant. He hadn’t been the Messiah after all. He was not the one who was going to redeem Israel. He was just another failed Messiah. He was just another in the long line who had tried to free Israel, but had not been able to compete with the overwhelming power of Rome.
Not long after his death, though, things started to happen. First, his body was missing from the tomb. Of course, that was explained easily enough. Someone must have taken his body away. Maybe some of his followers had found a better place for it. Or maybe they had stolen it in an attempt to spread rumors that Jesus had not actually died, or that he had somehow been raised from the dead. Even in the ancient world, people didn’t just rise from the dead.
But Jesus started appearing to people. Simon Peter saw him. Those two travelers on the road to Emmaus saw him. And others. But that was easily explained as well. Perhaps they had only seen someone pretending to be Jesus. Or maybe they were so caught up in their grief that they only thought they had seen him. Or maybe they really had seen Jesus, but it was his spirit, it was his ghost. In the ancient world, ghosts weren’t considered paranormal. They were normal. The entire world was filled with invisible spirits: ghosts and angels and demons. It wasn’t inconceivable to think that Jesus’s spirit might appear to his disciples even after his death. That sort of thing happened from time to time.
That is what Luke tells us the disciples thought was happening when Jesus appeared to them. They thought they were seeing a ghost, a spirit, a phantasm. They were frightened and terrified because the ghost of Jesus was appearing to them.
So Jesus explains it to them. He tells them not to be afraid. He commands them to look at his hands and his feet. He tells them to touch him, so that they will see that he is made of real flesh and bone. And everyone knows that ghosts don’t have flesh and bone.
It was starting to work. Luke says that they were joyful, but they were still in disbelief. So he asks them to do something else. He says, “Do you have anything to eat around here?” And they give him something to eat: a piece of broiled fish. Some of the ancient manuscripts of Luke say that they also gave a piece of honeycomb. And he ate them. He proved that he really was flesh and bone. He was a real living being. He could eat. Ghosts don’t eat fish and honeycomb.
Again, some ancient manuscripts record a story that may not appear in some of your bibles. When Jesus had eaten the food that was given to him, he took the extra pieces and he shared them with his disciples. Of course, this recalls the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes. He took fish and bread, and although there shouldn’t have been enough, miraculously everyone was fed. Now he takes just part of a single fish, and some honeycomb, but he has enough to share with everyone who is gathered there. We don’t know how many, but it’s definitely a bigger crowd than just the 11. Jesus shares a meal with them. He invites them into fellowship and communion with him and with each other.
And he begins to open up the scriptures to them. He helps them to look again at the writings of their faith, to look again at the psalms and prophesies. And as they look again at those scriptures, they begin to see that there is a different way to understand the Messiah. They begin to see that there is room in the bible for an afflicted Christ. There is room for a suffering savior. And they begin to understand that Jesus is not defeated. On the contrary, he has conquered death. He has escaped from the grave. He has proved God’s promise of new life and resurrection. He may have died, but he is very much alive. And he is still able to have a relationship with his disciples. He is still able to share communion with them.
2000 years later, we modern Christians have a similar kind of problem. It’s not so much that Jesus died. We have come to terms with how to deal with that. But we still struggle with the question of whether Jesus is alive or not. The people of our time do not only doubt that Jesus is alive, they doubt that even God is alive. They doubt that there even is a God.
For many in our times, it is hard to believe that Jesus and God are anything more than fairy tales. For many, God isn’t felt as a true and living presence in the world. At best God is just some phantasm, some wispy ghost, some manifestation of the fears of our ancestors. As they experience it, God certainly does not have an active relationship with us. God cannot share in our hungers, in our joys, in our fears. God is not with us. God is dead. We are alone.
And besides, if there even is a God, then God has been defeated. Despite the presence of a supposedly good God, there is still evil in the world. Bad things still happen to good people. Evil people still end up prospering with no consequences. Innocent people still die. How can a God who is still alive, still good, allow such things to happen?
What’s more, we no longer need God to explain the mysteries of the universe to us. We no longer need God in order to explain the unexplainable. We have science for that. There are so few secrets and mysteries left in our everyday lives. There are so few things that science cannot explain to us. So why do we need God if things make sense without a supreme being.
As people of faith, though, we understand a deeper truth. We understand, because we have experienced the presence of God. We have experienced a relationship with the risen Christ. We may not have seen and touched his hands and his feet, but we have felt his presence. We know that Christ is raised.
And we know that God is alive, even in the midst of trouble. We know because, in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our suffering, it is God who sees us through it. It is God who makes it bearable, makes it survivable, makes it even transformative.
Particularly in this time of COVID, the importance of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ is all the more evident. When we are deprived of many of the relationships and connections that we normally count on, our need for relationship with God is all the more obvious. We always need our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, but that need is put into higher relief in times like these. I don’t need to be vaccinated in order to visit with Jesus. I don’t need to wear a mask in order to pray to God. I don’t need to socially distance the Holy Spirit. Whatever else may be in the world, whatever barriers there are to human connection, God is always there. Jesus Christ is always right beside us. The Holy Spirit is as close to us as our own breath. God is with us. We are not alone.
We know that Christ is alive, because Christ lives among us. Wherever we are, the Christ appears to us, and says, do not be afraid. It’s me. Look. I am alive. I am with you. I was dead, and I have been raised, just as the scriptures foretold. Christ is alive. Christ is with us. God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.