Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 26, 2009

2009.04.26 “We’re the Witnesses!”

Central United Methodist Church

Pastor David L. Haley

“We’re the Witnesses!”

3rd Sunday of Easter

Luke 24: 36b – 48

April 26th, 2009

      “While they were saying all this, Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” They thought they were seeing a ghost and were scared half to death. He continued with them, “Don’t be upset, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over.  Look at my hands; look at my feet — it’s really me. Touch me. Look me over from head to toe.  A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.”  As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  They still couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was too much; it seemed too good to be true.

       He asked, “Do you have any food here?” They gave him a piece of leftover fish they had cooked. He took it and ate it right before their eyes.

       Then he said, “Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this:  All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.”

       He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way.  He said, “You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations — starting from here, from Jerusalem! You’re the first to hear and see it. You’re the witnesses.” (Luke 24: 36b – 48, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

By now everybody in the world has seen Susan Boyle’s stunning performance on the British television program, “Britain’s Got Talent,” which turned the 47 year-old Scot into an overnight singing sensation and international celebrity.

When she first appeared on stage, the crowd – judging her upon her appearance – began booing and hissing. But in a matter of seconds, as her voice soared over the auditorium, the crowd turned from cynicism and disbelief to wholehearted support, embracing this woman and her dreams. Millions around the world have viewed it over and again, perhaps not able to explain what happens in their hearts and minds as they watch it unfold. In a moment everything changed, even though nothing had changed: the woman who walked off the stage was the same woman who had walked onto the stage.

On this third Sunday of Easter, it’s the same with regard to Jesus’ resurrection: everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

We’re two weeks past Easter, and our thoughts have turned toward Spring – the flowers are blooming, the trees are budding, kids are hurtling toward the end of the school year and we’ve got graduations to attend and vacations to plan. We’re moving on from Easter, and for the most part, nothing has changed. 

Once again – as last Sunday – you might be surprised to find that in our Gospel reading for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, nothing has changed!  For the third week in a row, we find ourselves on the day of resurrection, this week according to Luke rather than Mark or John – hearing with Jesus’ disciples the reports that the tomb is empty and the Lord is risen, wondering if it could possibly be true, and if so, what that means.

Just before today’s reading is the story of the mysterious stranger on the road to Emmaus, recognized as Jesus in the breaking of bread. But he then just as mysteriously disappears.  Astonished, the two disciples hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

As they recount their story, suddenly, Jesus appears among them.  Thinking it’s a ghost, they are scared half to death.  And Jesus says:

“Don’t be upset, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over.  Look at my hands; look at my feet – it’s really me. Touch me. Look me over from head to toe.  A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.”  As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  They still couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was too much; it seemed too good to be true.”

To convince them it was him, and not a ghost – sounding more like a hungry teenager than the Risen Christ – he says:  “Do you have anything to eat?”  They produced a leftover fish, which he ate before them. (This death and resurrection stuff gives a person an appetite – maybe we should put sack lunches in caskets?)

What are we to make of this? 

Don’t think that if we had been there, it would have been any less frightening, strange, and ambiguous. Says Cynthia Lindner, in a commentary on this text:

“The first disciples experienced Jesus’ resurrection – and their own rebirth as the church – not as some single triumphant fait accompli, but by fits and starts, in hours of doubt and moments of exhilaration, with days of numbness and mourning punctuated by brief moments of holy presence and powerful certainty.”  (Cynthia Gano Lindner, Living the Word, The Christian Century, April 21, 2009.)

        In other words, a lot like we do.

In fact, Luke’s story of Jesus’ resurrection addresses questions thoughtful people have always asked after the “Hallelujah Chorus” has faded.  What was the risen Jesus like, and how was he experienced? Even more importantly, how is Jesus experienced now?

In Luke’s Gospel, the answers to those two questions are the same.  And that answer is that – now, as then – Jesus is experienced in Sacrament, in Scripture, and in Mission.

The first might be called a Sacramental Encounter with Jesus.  There’s a reason there’s a Holy Meal at the center of the church.

For his first disciples, it was an answer to the question, “How do we know it’s Jesus?”  They knew it was Jesus because he did the same thing he always did: he came eating and drinking.  Just as on the road to Emmaus, the two disciples recognized Jesus only in the breaking of bread, so the disciples recognized Jesus when he asked, “You got anything to eat?”

And so the church continued this practice, even sacramentalized it, except that now we don’t do it with real bread and wine, but with grape juice and styrofoam wafers. (Personally, I doubt Jesus would approve!). In reality, we know that this occurs not just here at the altar, but whenever we eat together: in the fellowship hall, in the cafeteria at work or at school, or at our kitchen table, we acknowledge Jesus’ presence with us.

Then Jesus did something equally familiar. He not only ate with them, he taught them, in what some have called the world’s greatest Bible study:

      “Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this:  All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.” He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way.”

You might call this the Evangelical Encounter with Jesus, something that we Protestants and Methodists have been big on, or at least ought to have been. If Catholics have emphasized Christ’s presence in the Sacrament, Protestants have emphasized our encounter with Christ in and through the Scriptures, the Bible. 

For Luke, the cross and empty tomb make no sense apart from the Biblical story, and at the same time, the crucified and risen Jesus becomes the key for understanding the Scriptures.

I give thanks for the serious study of the Scriptures in churches such as ours, in Bible Studies and Discipleship Bible Studies and Companions in Christ. As I’ve said before, in our tradition we do not take the Bible literally, but we do take it seriously.  Once you understand that the purpose of the study of the Scriptures is to find in the Word of God the WORD OF GOD, then you experience the freedom to read the Bible as a human book, in which the divine may be encountered. I’ve come to appreciate those churches where the invitation to the reading of the Scriptures is announced with these words: “Listen for the Word of God.”

But that’s not all. If those were the only two ways we experience Christ, we might never make it out of the church building, and the church would not only be irrelevant to the world, but die.  So, in Luke not only do we encounter Christ in the Sacrament and in Scripture, but also in Mission. In Luke’s Gospel, that was the last great thing Jesus told them:

He said, “You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations – starting from here, from Jerusalem! You’re the first to hear and see it. You’re the witnesses.”

You can call this the Missional Encounter with Jesus.  In fact, all the ingredients of what’s to come for the nascent church are here: the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, the move from Jerusalem to all nations, the disciples as witnesses, the promise of divine power.  Verses 47-49 read like the table of contents to the book of Acts, Luke’s Volume 2, the story of what Jesus continued to do through the Church. 

The mission of our own church, as a United Methodist Church, is reflective of this: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  We can’t hear this often enough.

What it says to us is that this missional encounter with Jesus begins not somewhere far away, but where we are, “beginning in Jerusalem.”  What is says to us is that just as those first disciples – and the four Gospels – chose not to “explain” what they had seen and heard, but rather to “witness” to it, that’s all we’re asked to do, to share what we’ve seen and heard, no more, no less.

A few years ago, Kristen Bargeron Grant, a United Methodist pastor in Minnesota, spelt out what it means for us to be a contemporary witness for Christ:

 

      “We are witnesses when we can invite someone to look into our homes, our families, our friendships, our work, our checkbook, our daytimer – and find Jesus there. We are witnesses when we allow ourselves to be touched by folks who are lost and afraid.  We are witnesses when we live in a way that defies any explanation other than the presence of the risen Christ within us.  Look, touch, see, believe!  It isn’t a ghost.  It’s the living God.”  

Like many preachers, I often turn to the writings and sermons of author Frederick Buechner for insight and inspiration. But I found myself being preached to, in an interview with Buechner, when he confessed that he rarely goes to church because he so often hears the same old thing, which after a while become “flat and deadening.” 

And he goes on to say this about preachers in particular:

“Not only does the preacher have to find some new way of saying it, but the preacher has to get in touch again with the reality of it in his own or her own life. In other words, not just talk about the resurrection then, but also, in what way has this man or this woman who stands up there in a black gown experienced it himself . . . . They somehow think of themselves as having to get up and present something that is presentable to the congregation, whereas what the congregation wants to know is, “How about you? How can you believe all this? Do you still believe it? Tell me the truth about yourself. Do you really think God exists, and if so, why? Why do you think that when there is so much reason to think there is no such thing?”

And what he then says applies to all of us:

“I’ve often said in churches [that] the best thing that could happen is if the church burned down and all the computers were lost and all the bulletins were blown away by the wind, and the minister was run over by a truck, and you’ve got nothing left except each other and God. That would be the best thing that could happen to you, because that’s where it all began, and that’s what it’s all about.” (Interview with Frederick Buechner, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, April 18, 2003, Episode no. 633)

According to Luke, Jesus put it this way: “You’re the witnesses!”  And you will meet Christ, not only in the Sacrament, not only in the Scriptures, but in your witness, in mission.

      For Susan Boyle, everything has changed, her life will never be the same. For the disciples, everything changed, their lives would never be the same.

      The question for us, on the other hand, might be, not what is or isn’t changed, but when is it going to, and what will it take?

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