Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 April 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
In the second lesson, the disciples who had recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread on their way to Emmaus, meet him again as they tell their friends about the encounter. As he shows himself to them, we hear that they ‘disbelieved and for joy and wondered’. There is much joy and wonder in Luke, whose Gospel we are reading at Sunday Mass this year.
This gospel begins and ends with joy. The birth of Jesus is an occasion for rejoicing; Mary’s Magnificat is echoed by shepherds and angels (2.13-20). There is rejoicing – strangely – at his departure, the disciples returning to Jerusalem ‘with great joy’ (24.52). And so it is throughout this Gospel. There is joy on earth when the lost sheep is found and joy in heaven when the sinner repents (15.1-7). Yet here at the resurrection the note of rejoicing is curiously ambivalent. Beneath the surge of joy is a contrary current, an undertow of incredulity.
The disciples ‘disbelief for joy’ is noticed only by Luke. The detail is perhaps typical of a writer sensitive to the contradictory feelings we all experience. Luke recognises that the disciples are confused. There is a war going on between heart and mind, the joy that Jesus is once more with them contending with what is beyond belief, that the dead should live again, that mortality should put on immortality, and iniquity not have the last word. The disciples’ confusion is not mentioned again but it is good that is mentioned this once. There is affirmation and comfort here for those who sense, even share, the Easter joy but who still sometimes wonder whether it is all too good to be true.
The joy of Luke is also frequently the joy of lunch. If there is something to celebrate there will be something to eat, as the Prodigal son discovered (15.11-32 – perhaps another character who could said to have ‘disbelieved for joy’). The resurrection calls for a meal, because there is much to celebrate and because bodies, which are not ghosts, need food. So, when Jesus restores the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus to life, he insists that she should be given something to eat (8.55). Luke does not entertain the notion of an immaterial resurrection. The idea that the resurrection is a subjective experience, rather than a concrete event, would have been foreign to him, as to his first hearers and readers.
That is why this episode of Jesus ‘showing himself’ is so important: it is another epiphany. Luke reports that Jesus showed the disciples ‘his hands and his feet’. Within the immediate context of the resurrection appearance this eases the disciples’ alarm at seeing a ghost (ghosts being, if you believe in them, indicators that the person is dead, manifestations that the person is on what some people call ‘the other side’). Jesus is showing that he who had died a violent death on the cross is very much alive, in a way that transforms not only our understanding of life after death but also of our earthly life. The resurrection involves continuity (it is the same person) and radical transformation (it is not resuscitation). Jesus’ gesture is not just to allay fear but also to reveal a new truth and a new reality.
If we consider his gesture within the larger context of scripture we begin to see a little of the extraordinary nature of the resurrection and the massive claims that the Gospel is making. The hands and feet of Jesus bear the marks of his suffering and death, wounds which were inflicted by those who were involved in varying ways in his death: the disciples who abandoned and thereby betrayed him, the authorities and people who called for his death, and the soldiers who eventually put him to death. Crucifixion is a form of public torture: the Roman empire intended that it should demean and disfigure the human being subjected to it; the execution was not just death but a death emblematic of disgrace, a declaration by the state that the criminal was a non-person. But in the resurrected body of Jesus, these wounds are now transformed. As we sing in Advent:
Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers:
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars.
‘Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and rise’ Jesus says to the disciples. The primary reference to Isaiah (from whom we heard first this evening) who writes poetically of a servant who not only suffers, bearing our iniquity, but who is also to be ‘exalted and extolled and very high’ (Isaiah 52.13). It belittles scripture to see such texts as merely predictive, foretelling the crucifixion and resurrection. The poet has seen deeper; he has seen into the heart of things, as poets are supposed to do. There, at the root of it all, it is written that vicarious suffering will, at the last, be vindicated. The risen Christ at once affirms and embodies what is written, both in scripture and in the larger scheme of things. In the dying and living of Jesus a pattern unfolds in history, in which we are included, in which our scars and wounds, self-inflicted and given by the hands of others, are gloriously transformed and in the light of God’s forgiveness and welcoming love.