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3rd Sunday of Easter

05 April 2024

Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36b-48

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I AM struck by the range of responses from those who witness Jesus’s appearances after his resurrection. We can think of sight as our most reliable sense: “Seeing is believing”; “The camera never lies.” But this Gospel says that seeing is not believing.

On Easter Day, Mary Magdalene had met Jesus in the garden, but thought that he was the gardener. When he called her by name, she recognised him. The same was true at Emmaus, where two disciples recognised Jesus in the breaking of bread. Now, he eats a piece of fish in front of them to reassure them that he is not a ghost.

I wonder what it was that convinced the disciples that they were seeing the real Jesus. Was it his eating the grilled fish? Or was it his reassuring, reasoning, reasonable voice? He tells them how to be sure: “Touch me and see.” Luke uses the same, rare word for touching when Paul preaches to the Athenians, speaking of how they have “felt for”, or “groped after”, God — like people who are in the dark, or wearing blindfolds. Perhaps touch is a more reliable sense than sight.

What you cannot tell from hearing only this part of Luke’s Gospel is that it is a continuation of the Emmaus story. That recognition “in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24.35) is the “this” of the first sentence. So we cannot explain the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’s sudden appearance here by arguing that they were surprised at finding him alive.

Or can we? Even before Emmaus, we knew that the disciples were not yet in listening mode. The women had discovered the empty tomb, and had told the disciples about it, and about what the angel had said to them; but the disciples had dismissed that first report of the resurrection: “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24.11).

When the disciples hear the second report, this time from Cleopas and his companion, they do give it some attention. But they cannot have heeded it fully, because, when Jesus makes a third appearance, their reaction is fearful. Admittedly, that appearing happens suddenly. Luke does not say that Jesus walked up to them, but that he simply appeared in their midst. So it must have been a shock. Appearing out of nowhere is what “spirits” do, not humans.

I wonder why Luke tells it this way. One answer is that everyone who came to believe in the resurrection did so only when they saw it for themselves. But, if that were the message, it would make faith impossible for most of us; for we cannot witness the resurrection for ourselves as the disciples did. Jesus’s ascension into heaven has brought the time of his human, earthly, presence to an end.

If this cannot be Luke’s meaning, we can fall back on last Sunday’s Gospel story of Thomas. It tells us what to rely on when making our own leaps of faith: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.29). There is also the fact that, in his Gospel, Luke’s story of the resurrection is only just beginning. We must remember how much more he has to tell, and look to his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.

So, fear was the primary reaction to witnessing the empty tomb. Jesus’s friends and followers have lost even the mortal remains of their loved one. They do not understand what has happened. This condition of not knowing has intensified their fear. Yet, when they encounter the risen Jesus for themselves, their first reaction is also fear.

This is a paradox: to fear death and yet be afraid to behold the dead alive. In the course of a lifetime, we all endure multiple bereavements, and may find ourselves yearning for some degree of contact — however momentary, however vestigial — with those who have died. Fear does make sense for us, because this life is all that we know, and in it there can be no contact between the living and the dead (Mark 12.27; Luke 16.26). All that stands between us and the grimmest form of grief — despair — is, first, prayer; then the known-unknown that is Christian resurrection. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16.16). It is enough.

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