2nd Sunday of Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you [surprised and frightened]? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It's really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn't have flesh and bones like you see I have." As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. [While in their joy, they were still wondering and disbelieving,] he said to them, "Do you have anything to eat?" They gave him a piece of baked fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them.
Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, "This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, [and that repentance,] a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached, [be proclaimed,] in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I'm sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power, [power from on high.]" (A compilation of the text from the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Version.)
Several years ago, a friend loaned me a short novel titled, Dinner With a Perfect Stranger; An Invitation Worth Considering by David Gregory. I don’t remember if I agreed with it all theologically, but the concept intrigued me! You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The book is about a businessman in his late thirties named Nick Cominsky. Nick, an overworked strategic planner for an environmental testing firm, receives a mysterious invitation among the rest of his business mail. “You are invited to a dinner with Jesus of Nazareth. Milano’s Restaurant. Tuesday, March 24. Eight o’clock.” The opening paragraph of the book reads: “I should have known better than to respond. My personal planner was full enough without accepting anonymous invitations to dine with religious leaders. Especially dead ones.”[i]
After determining, the invitation is not another outreach effort by the church down the street and still wondering if it is a prank by two of his work colleagues, Nick’s curiosity takes over. Against his better judgment, he takes another precious evening away from his wife and new baby girl and goes to dinner. At the restaurant he meets a nice-looking, dark-haired man with unusually piercing eyes, dressed in a sharp suit, a man who looks like he just got off work at Merrill Lynch, a man who seems to know all the wait staff at the restaurant intimately. A man who comfortably discusses everything from world religions to the existence of heaven and hell and who seems to know a disturbing amount about Nick’s personal life, including the scandal that is brewing in his company. A man who introduces himself as Jesus. The evening progresses through drinks to appetizers to salad and main course to dessert and coffee to paying the bill. Jesus picks up the check. Their conversation touches on the meaning of life, God, pain, faith, doubt. By the end of the evening, Nick, like the disciples surprised in that upper room, feels a deep joy he can’t understand, can’t quite believe or trust yet. He has spent the whole dinner skeptical, cynical, wondering, angry, captivated, confused. And now this odd joy. As he says goodbye to Jesus at his car, Jesus gives him a personal message and another invitation for continued conversation. The question hanging in the air for Nick is, will this dinner change his life? And how?
Imagine, being surprised with a personal dinner invitation from Jesus…would you go? What would you want to talk about? In the gospel story from Luke, the disciples gathered on that late Easter evening receive just such an impromptu surprise without the printed invitation. Suddenly Jesus is just in their midst! The very person they had come to grieve. They have gathered for a wake and the deceased walks in the door! They are surprised in their grief by joy – which is deeper and more mysterious than passing happiness. Isn’t it remarkable that when we are surprised by the mystery of joy, we can hardly trust it? We trust sadness, anger, frustration and doubt a whole lot more, than joy.
The gospel writer takes pains to let us know that this is not just a warm fuzzy moment in which they feel the presence of their old buddy, Jesus, as they toast his memory. Jesus shows up saying, “See my hands! See my feet! Still aren’t sure? Then let’s eat!” And after dinner, Jesus gives the disciples an invitation. Jesus says, “Everything I spoke to you has come to pass for the Messiah has to fulfill all that has been spoken about him in the scriptures.” Now remember what the test of truth is in the first century. Does the new truth reconcile with the old truths? Does it further reveal the old truths? Jesus’ message to the disciples is that all that has happened is consistent with God’s faithfulness throughout the scriptures and in history. Then he opens their minds to understand all that was written about him so they can trust in the faithfulness of God.
Here in the resurrected Jesus, the reality of Good Friday is joined to the reality of Easter. And not in a shallow, pie in the sky sort of way. This is not about correct doctrine or beyond a doubt, scientific, historical fact. It is deeper than that. This is about living into the redeeming and reconciling story of the everlasting God, made known in Jesus, a story that challenges the stories of the finite world. Scholar and minister, Barbara Essex writing in the Feasting on the Word commentary says: “In his book, Search for Common Ground, Howard Thurman reminds us that ‘the contradictions of life are not final or ultimate’ and that God is the giver of forgiveness and mercy, ever ready to offer shalom: peace, the possibility and promise that order, well-being, hope, compassion, and love might yet prevail.”[ii]
The Resurrected Christ joins Good Friday to Easter Sunday, pain and suffering, all the “no’s” of this life, stand in that upper room with the joy, the ultimate “yes” and shalom, of God. There in recognizable, yet unbelievable, human form, Jesus the Christ says “Peace be with you. All that has happened is consistent with God’s faithfulness. Now go and proclaim these things to the world, starting right where you are…”
Do you get a little squeamish with this proclaiming, witnessing thing? I can hear you protesting in your minds. “But isn’t proclaiming just for you preacher types? I mean, really. I don’t have any words for that sort of thing.” Do you associate witnessing and proclaiming with accosting people on street corners, handing out tracts with the four spiritual laws? Surprise! As followers of Jesus, we are all witnesses!
Traditionally it is more comfortable in the UCC to put our witnessing into actions for social justice, but not have to talk about our faith, what we trust. Listen carefully. Actions for social justice are most definitely the fruit of our experience with the Risen Christ. But Jesus doesn’t say to the disciples, “Go and proclaim social action!” Jesus says, “Because the anointed One has suffered and died and risen from the dead, go and proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.” Because of the unbelievable joy and peace you have experienced, go and proclaim repentance, metanoia, turning back to God because the ancient scriptures tell us that God longs for us even more than we long for God! As joyfully unbelievable as that may seem! Listen to and live into God’s story, not the world’s story of dog-eat-dog competition, greed and revenge, because God is about mercy and forgiveness.
My friends, I believe we are made in God’s image and born into original blessing rather than into original sin. However, this human journey distracts us. We get fearful, blinded, and we turn away from God. Sin, hamartia, simply means turning away from God, turning away from living into God’s story. We do this is so many ways every day, knowingly and unknowingly. Often the church has encouraged us to make a long list of sins, the ways we turn away. But that leads to judging one another by our own personal lists rather than paying attention to turning back to God! Here is the joyful news! Our lists are unimportant. What is important is that God wants us, longs for us to turn back time and again to live in God’s story as it is fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ. And this is what we can proclaim!
Like those disciples in the upper room, we have witnessed God’s mercy and forgiveness and shalom through the scriptures and through community, the church of the Risen Christ. We can claim Jesus’ promise that we will be given the “power from on high” to proclaim the joy of turning back to the God of love and forgiveness. How? Through the Holy Spirit. A little biblical shorthand: Holy Spirit = Power. Empowering power, not controlling power, power that is life-giving not life-taking, power that disturbs the corrupt systems of this world, the systems we humans put in place we when are not living into God’s story. This is the power from on high that moves the church to social actions and proclamations in risky places that are in need of God’s love and justice. If we want the power to act, we must accept the power to proclaim. They are one and the same. Act for God’s love and justice and proclaim God’s forgiveness and mercy, compassion and shalom.
Living into God’s story brings the power of the Holy Spirit and brings shalom, the peace that Jesus proclaimed as he greeted the disciples in the upper room. Perhaps, God’s peace and God’s power are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, one always comes with the other. I can trust that, disbelieving and wondering, in great joy. How about you? May the peace and joy and power of God known to us in Risen Christ be with you all. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] David Gregory, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger; An Invitation Worth Considering, (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Spring, CO, 2005, 1).
[ii] Barbara J. Essex, “Homiletical Perspective, Luke 24.36b-48, Third Sunday in Easter”, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2008, 429).
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.