The lectionary is something rather knew to me, since Baptists where I spent most of my life and ministry have mostly never heard of it. But since becoming Presbyterian I have generally tried to follow it when preaching and encourage the students in my preaching course to do so. I have discovered there are many pluses as well as a few minuses. You never have to scramble for a sermon topic nor plan out a year’s worth of sermons. Each week you are given an abundance of topics and directions. It also prevents the preacher from preaching on his pet topic every week. However, there are some occasions that present the preacher with a challenge; the repetition of stories. The period after Easter is one of those. The gospel texts assigned, understandably, recount the stories of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples, and the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are mixed up with the gospel of John. It means, therefore, that there is sometime considerable resemblance in the stories from week to week. Often Jesus appears to the disciples; they are afraid and unbelieving, he convinces them that he is, indeed their rabbi and hoped for messiah raised from the dead. And that they, believing in him, are to continue his mission in the world.
For biblical scholars these multiple narratives offer significant differences. But for the average listener in the pew, it may sound as though we are repeating ourselves. The challenge, then for the preacher is to help those who come to listen to appreciate that there is always new grace found in all of these stories, even when we appear to be telling the same story once again – so I want to try and do that tonight.
One of the most peculiar things about this resurrection story from Luke is the way Jesus identifies himself to his companions. Look at my hands and my feet he says to his doubting frightened disciples. They are shaking in their sandals. Wondering if they are having an hallucination when he offers them four sure proofs that he is who they think he is: it is I myself. Two hands and two feet, ten fingers and ten toes, which could belong to no one else but him. It is the wounds he wants them to see, but isn’t it a peculiar way to identify himself? Why not say “Listen to my voice” or “Look at my face?”
Could you identify someone by hands and feet alone? I can see it now: wanted images on our television screens with hands and feet on them instead of faces. “Suspect has webbed toes on both feet; little toe on left foot appears to have been broken; turns in sharply. Hands are square with bitten fingernails. Small scar on right thumb.”
Hands and feet are simply not the first things we notice about one another, and yet they are so telling of who we are. One of the things I’ll always remember about my dad is his hands – big and strong, with thick short fingers, calloused and hardened from spending almost all his adult life as a builder in the days before there was much in the way of power tools. It always amazed me when I met other builders that most of them had lost at least a finger or more and he still had all his fingers fully intact which told me a lot about how careful and accurate he was. And my hands – well I inherited his short stubby fingers which makes it difficult for me working with computers and even more smart phones as well as the guitar playing I longed to be better at. But mine, not hardened and calloused, spending all my life pen pushing or now tapping on a keyboard, their softness and ease of blistering when I do do some manual work tell of a very different life lived. One story they do carry if people look closely is two nails and a couple of scars on one finger, the life long reminder of an accident when I was six and my finger was jammed in the door trying to keep up with my older brother and his friend who wanted to keep me out by shutting the door. The doctor at the hospital said the top one would fall off but it never has, and I was always too afraid of surgery to get it removed. It added to my guitar difficulties.
I could tell you the same stories about my feet, only they are more private, maybe because we have acquired the habit of wearing shoes. But when I do expose my bare feet they tell a tell of rather calloused toes and blackened nails, the consequence of many blisters and bruised and lost toe nails from years of running high miles and many marathons, and even more recently still bear the scars of wearing some ill fitting new footwear while I spent 5 days tramping the Routeburn and Greenstone a month of so ago.
What I like about hands is that they do not lie. They can’t. We can usually exercise some control over our faces so that they look the way we want them to look, but our hands give us away every time: nervous hands, clenched hands, damp hands, soiled hands, sweaty hands. I loved those Sherlock Holmes stories where some unsuspecting soul is introduced to Holmes, spends about five minutes in his presence and leaves the room. Then the great detective turns to Watson and tells him what the visitor does for a living, her family status, income level and hobbies – all based on having shaken her hand.
So what did Jesus hands and feet tell. Well first of all they tell them it really is Jesus bodily present. No it is not a figment of their imagination or an hallucination – something in their own minds as some would still have us believe. Nor is it a ghost, an apparition, something outside of themselves but ethereal rather than bodily. No Jesus says see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. A fact he reinforces by asking for and eating a piece of broiled fish something neither apparitions or hallucinations have yet been able to do.
It is difficult for us to imagine what happened that Easter Sunday morning, particularly for we raised in a scientific material world. Been having some interesting conversations recently with a young Chinese student in NZ for two years. Become interested in church and Christianity. Some studies around Easter, and she said do Christians believe that “Jesus was actually raised from the dead, came back to life?” “Yes I said, it is at the heart of Christianity. If it wasn’t for belief in that Christianity would never have come into being.” Of course she has been raised in a completely atheistic system so she responded “But scientifically that is impossible” in an enquiring kind of way. “Yes I said it is, and if you believe science tells us everything there is to know about reality then you could never believe it. But if you think, believe, trust, there is something beyond the material world, believe there is a God, and that God’s world actually sometimes intersects with our world, so science cannot tell us everything that does goes on, then of course it is possible.” And that is the critical question. Is what can be measured by science all that there is? She is still searching, still asking questions.
Now of course exactly what happened we don’t know, and the stories tell us enough to know that Jesus came back in some kind of bodily form, it was a different kind of body, so that people did not recognise him immediately and he could pass through locked doors. The apostle Paul gives us some hints of that different kind of body we too will one day have in 1 Corinthians 15, but nonetheless as NT scholar Tom Wright points out despite all we don’t know we do know something happened in time and space and the early followers knew Jesus was back from the grave, raised to new life.
But if our minds are still reeling from trying to take all this in – and it seems, not surprisingly, as though that’s how the disciples were too – then what Jesus has to say in his last days with them is very practical and points the way to the whole mission of the church. People sometimes ask me, What after all is the point of Jesus dying and rising again? It’s no doubt very nice for him to be alive again, but what does it have to do with us today?
The answer is here in a few sentences which will take a lifetime, in fact all of the history of the church (which has been going on for two millennia so far) to work out. The church is to be grounded in scripture and active in mission. Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled… that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. Grounded in scripture and active in mission.
The Bible always envisaged that when God finally acted in the Messiah to fulfil all the promises he made to Abraham, Moses and the prophets, then the whole world, not just Israel, but all the nations would be brought into the embrace of God’s saving and healing love. That is what must happen now, that is why I was raised from the dead so that this might happen.
“Repentance and forgiveness of sins” are not therefore simply a matter for the individual, though they certainly are that. At the heart of being a Christian is the personal turning away from sins and celebrating God’s forgiveness, which is after all at the heart of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. But these two words go much wider as well. They are the agenda which can change the world.
Today’s world is full of conflict and dispute, alienation and violence, large and small, only a few of which get into the newspapers and television screens. But those that do are a constant reminder of that reality. Nations, ethnic clans, political factions, tribes, economic alliances, religious groups, families, individuals struggle for supremacy. Each can tell stories of atrocities committed by their opponents. Each one claims they therefore have the higher moral ground and must be allowed redress, revenge, satisfaction. “An eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth.” But that is never the way forward and as we know only continues the cycles of conflict, alienation and violence.
The only way forward is the one we all find the hardest at every level: repentance and forgiveness. The application of the gospel, the good news Jesus lived to proclaim and died and rose again to make possible, is the only way forward towards the recreation of the world the way God always envisaged it. Easter is the first day of living in this new possibility.
One of the great stories of this being applied was the extraordinary and totally unexpected turn that events took in South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandella. I don’t know if any of you saw the film over the summer based on his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.” But it is a pretty good and accurate condensation of the book. Mandella was in the end released with no conditions on his freedom, a demand he never wavered from. And the critical moment was his first television appearance, and with the leadership of the white South African government listening intently, he said “You want revenge. I want revenge. We all want revenge. But I have forgiven them and if I have forgiven them then you can forgive them.” And he had paid the price which gave his words such power. And then when he became President he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which paved the way for forgiveness and reconciliation between enemies and meant that although there have been some challenges, South Africa as apartheid ended and the blacks took power did not descend into the cycle of retribution and violence many were sure it would and has gradually been evolving toward becoming the Rainbow Nation that Mandella dreamed of. Why? Because some key people on both sides, particularly Mandella and the strongly Christian former president de Klerk believed the words of Jesus about forgiveness and repentance.
In contrast the most intractable conflict in the world today is in the Middle East. And the major reason it goes on from generation to generation is that neither Judaism or Islam have any really strong doctrine of forgiveness. Christianity is based on it.
But of course forgiveness and repentance come down to what we do in the end more than what we say. Do we act towards people as if we have forgiven when we say we do, and do we change the way we behave when we say we will. And so we come back to Jesus hands and feet. When the disciples touched his hands and feet what came to mind. Of course his death and suffering that forgiveness might be possible. But also the hands that healed by mixing saliva and mud and touching the blind man’s eyes, that touched the untouchable leper, that raised a dead girl up, that signalled acceptance to an unclean woman who had been bleeding for years, that broke bread and blessed the cup he shared with them. And the feet that carried Jesus all those miles to meet with people, that allowed a prostitute to anoint them, that carried him into a Samaritan village to converse with someone who was not just a Samaritan but even worse a woman, and into a graveyard to heal a Gerasene demoniac.
You are witnesses of these things he said, and then he promised he would send them power from on high to enable them to do it. The same Holy Spirit who Luke tells us had filled Jesus and empowered him to do all that he did, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. That same Spirit Jesus has given to empower us to say and do the things that he did.
I find it interesting that the lectionary for some reason finishes its reading at v48 You are witnesses. Doesn’t include in it the next verse, that they were to wait until the Spirit was sent before they began to do this. There is a clear connection between their being witnesses and the gift of the Holy Spirit, as there is in John’s gospel, last weeks reading. The clear implication is that they would be unable to be witnesses without the Spirit. Makes sense, after all if Jesus did what he by the Spirit of God, as he himself said, then how much more are we dependent on the Spirit to do and be what we are sent to do and be.
I was pretty involved in the charismatic movement of the 1970s and 1980s and am currently completing a book on one of the key leaders and churches in that. And I have a great sense of grief over that, as does he. It seems to me that the charismatic movement failed to deliver on the high hopes it promised because many of those involved forgot that the Spirit was given so that we might be witnesses engaged in Christ’s mission for the world and became distracted with all kinds of other side issues. And so the power of the Spirit gradually faded away. But today it seems we have many churches who like the lectionary have stopped at v48 – trying to be witnesses without the empowering presence of the Spirit and so are impotent. I deeply believe that our greatest need today is not for new gimmicks or programmes or structures or music but a renewal of the church in such a way that connects the work of the spirit in our midst with our engagement in God’s mission in Christ in the world.
When the world today looks round for the risen Christ, when they want to know what that means, it is us they look at. Not just listening to our voices, nor looking at our kind faces. But at our hands and feet – what have we done with them, where have we gone with them, how are we using them? As we are empowered by the Spirit so we are witnesses to Christ in both word and deed. We are still the body of Christ in the world, the way in which God’s presence can be seen and heard, but also touched and felt.