Lemme see if I’ve got this straight. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women go to the tomb, where they encounter two “men” – angels, maybe? – instead of the dead body of Jesus. But the men don’t believe the story. Then Peter runs to check out the scene, which essentially confirms the women’s story. Rather than believing the women (no comment), he wonders what seems to have happened. And then – on the same day – two other disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus when Jesus himself sidles up to them. But the two don’t recognize Jesus. It takes sacramental activity – that is, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it – only then are their eyes opened – this is a passive tense verb; their eyes are opened – it takes sacramental activity for these two disciples to recognize Jesus. Even though it is very late – have not these two “constrained” Jesus to stay with them in Emmaus because it was late? – the two hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what has happened. And before they can even open their mouths, the others – the eleven and who knows how many more? – blurt out, “The Lord is risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” Did anyone tell us about Simon?
Mary and the others at the tomb. Peter’s cross country run. Emmaus. Jerusalem late at night. All in one day. You tell me, Do I have this right?
Phew. And now, on that same night, just as the reports are being processed – poof! – Jesus shows up again in their midst. “Peace to you.” And these people, these followers of Jesus who have already – do I need to say, “already”? – been celebrating the resurrection, they freak out. They think it’s a ghost! I’ve had one possible ghost experience, and it freaked me out too. So they freak out.
What is it about the risen Jesus that he can be standing right in front of us, and we don’t recognize him for who he is?
You tell me: is that how it goes?
That was a long time ago. And now we’re in Easter Season reflecting back on that moment when the risen Jesus encounters his followers. Clearly, we’re not in the same space they are. A great distance divides us from them. We know the story, some of it before we read it, and we know how it should end. A good Easter text from the Gospels ends with a commission – and we, who know the story and who have received it – we know to whom the commission is addressed. It’s ours. That’s how we hear Easter texts.
You are witnesses of these things. And, look, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. Wait in the city – okay, that’s not for us; that’s for the disciples – Wait in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.
That’s ours, our Easter commission. You are witnesses of these things, clothed with power from on high. That’s you and me, Jesus is talking about.
But whoa. Wait a minute. “Clothed with power from on high?” Whoa. That doesn’t sound like us. Not at all. Where is that power Jesus is talking about?
Do you feel it, seminarians? Do you feel the power of the Holy Spirit just bursting your buttons, just filling you with fire to get out there and change the world? Is that where you’re at? Just lemme at ‘em! Gimme one of those dying congregations, and I’ll turn that sucker around in no time! Well, me and the Spirit. Lemme at ‘em! Is that you?
I’ll share this: it’s not how you sound to me. I hear some anxiety. I hear a sense of inadequacy, a sense of “What’s it gonna be like out there?” I hear humility, and introspection. I don’t hear a lot of you just riding the wave of the Spirit, itchin’ to be witnesses to the world. And by the way, that’s okay.
But whoa. What about those churches? What’s going on there? A recent article by William Brosend reminds us that half of our congregations barely made it to church in the first place – and those are the ones who want to be there. We look out from the altar or the pulpit, and we see those faces. The drawn faces of the ones for whom every day tastes bitter. The arms folded across the chest of the ones who attend church regularly but who aren’t really buying what we’re selling. The folks who lean in on our every word, hoping for just a taste of vitality because they so desperately need a good word. We look out: hardly clothed with power from on high, are they?
From any objective point of view, our churches are not quite burning with Holy Ghost power. Our religion is in decline in the United States, rapidly so. Maybe one in six persons regularly participates in worship. The church budget soup gets thinner and thinner. Mainline denominations are cutting staff. It ain’t just liberals, and it ain’t just the economy. Evangelical bodies are in decline too. Seminaries, I might add, are closing or “right-sizing” right and left. “Filled with power?” Whoa. I’m trying to imagine most of the church people I know describing their home church to a friend at work or a fellow parent. “Filled with power?” Not what comes to mind. “Filled with power.” Hold on, now. Whoa. Where is all that power? Where?
Often I wonder. I wonder about the things Jesus does before he leaves that Holy Ghost commission. Strange things he does. These arouse my curiosity.
First Jesus engages the disciples with his body. If the disciples mistake him for a ghost, that’ll set ‘em straight. Hands and feet, same ones that had been crucified. Flesh, bone, presumably scarred, “Handle me,” he says. He shares his body with them. I wonder about that.
Then he has a snack. Broiled fish sticks – not fried, but broiled. Is the Risen One hungry? Does he have the munchies? Is the snack for his hunger or for their perception? A piece of broiled fish. Wonder about that too.
And finally a Bible lesson. I’m especially curious about that. I mean, I take my Bible seriously. When Jesus “opens their minds to understand the scriptures,” I know better. We know better. No biblical passage tells us that a Messiah is going to suffer, no passage predicts he’ll rise from the dead, and no passage imagines forgiveness preached in his name. We know, with all our theological education, that early Christians found these things in the scriptures, but no objective observer would have seen them. I wonder.
Hands and feet? A bite of fish? Non-existent predictions? These provoke my curiosity. What’s up with these? Strange, they are.
There’s a guy here in Lancaster, a middle school writing teacher, who gives most of his evenings to volunteer work. He goes to group homes, juvenile detention centers, boys and girls clubs. He visits treatment centers for addicts and alcoholics.
The man takes pens and paper. That’s all. He sits down and invites people to write. They have just one instruction. They must begin, “I remember.” “I remember.” Then they write for ten minutes. When they’re done they’re invited to read what they’ve written. “I remember.” When you’re in prison or a group home, the future looks grim. Sometimes it takes connection with the past, a reminder of where you’ve been and what you know, before you can look into the future in a new way.
This educator visited our United Way board here in Lancaster, and we wrote too. Before he left, men in very nice suits were opening themselves to the group with tears, giving one another – giving themselves – courage from the truth of their stories. Looking at life differently because they had looked back. “I remember.” “I remember.”
The risen Jesus calls us to remember. Faced with a commission we cannot perform. Recipients of a promise we seem not to live up to. The risen Jesus meets us, and – SAY IT WITH ME – we remember. He shows us his body, with which he touched and blessed and bled. And we remember. He enjoys the hint of a meal, this Jesus who took, blessed, broke, and gave for those crowds, as he would for his disciples. And we remember. The Risen One recalls the scriptures of Israel that formed his vision and his message. And we remember. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for the Spirit has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” Do you remember?
We remember. For our hope is not a vain pie in the sky optimism. Our commission and our promise defy mere wishful thinking. We remember the One who calls us, we remember the stories of Israel and the story of Jesus, we remember that long day when the Risen One confronted his disciples. As we prepare ourselves – heart, mind, body, and soul – to gather at this table, we remember. We remember.