a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year B]
One of the pleasures of expanding our in-person worship offerings and the rising vaccination rates in our area has been seeing more people venture back to church for the first time since the pandemic started. Early on I imagined that COVID would be like a big wave and then once it subsided, we’d all be back for the first time together in one big group. We would sing all again and pass the peace and hug each other like the old days.
That’s not how it’s going at all. Our return has been much more gradual, and probably will drag on for months this way, if not years. People are coming back, family by family, individual by individual, more like a trickle and less like a flood. Nevertheless, it is fun to receive them and see them again, and it’s particularly fun to see their reactions to our new spaces. Since construction was completed last summer, in the middle of the shut-down, many folks haven’t even walked through the front doors, but when they finally do, they often say, with a wide smile and opened eyes, something like “This is a totally different church!” And, in some respects, it is. Almost everything about the entrance to the church has radically changed. The parking lot, the sidewalks, the doors themselves, the interior spaces—they’re all extremely different. And you can see those differences on paper and the architect’s plans and construction blueprints, but until you physically walk through the doors and stand by the walls and look through the windows yourself you can’t appreciate the full difference.
And, just so you know, we’re feeling the same on our end, as we sometimes, I must admit, have to stop for a few seconds to identify someone we haven’t laid eyes on in thirteen months or more, especially when a third of their face is covered by a mask. And, let’s be honest, many of you have different hairdos. And if I see you for the first time and you’re wearing sunglasses, don’t be surprised if I need to hear your voice before I can figure out who you are!
Silliness aside, the good news is this is not a different church, and you are not different people. The pandemic may have changed us in some ways, and we certainly have evolved over the past year or so, but this is still Epiphany, the building, and we are still Epiphany, the people.
But this happens in faith over the passage of time. Jesus’ very own disciples have a hard time figuring out what they’re looking at when they see him for the first time after his resurrection. It’s not really his new hairdo, or something about his outer appearance, but the fact that, you know, he should be dead. Maybe he looks a little different, too. Whatever the case, they think he’s a ghost. You would think they’d be excited to see him, but they are scared of what they’re seeing, for who is not a bit taken off guard by the thought of a ghost? This is a common theme in Jesus’ first resurrection experiences, isn’t it? Fear where there should be joy, doubt where we think there’d be faith, misunderstanding where we’d expect clarity. The new can often throw us off, even when it is hopeful and life-changing in a good way.
Jesus wastes no time in trying to put them at ease, however. He meets them in their doubt. Immediately he offers his hands and his feet. He gives them something to grab onto. They could stand back and look at the blueprints of the resurrection, they could ponder God’s mighty acts on paper, consider the plans in the prophets’ words they could envision what the Great Architect’s salvation might look like, but until they touch it, it’s not fully real to them. Ghosts don’t have real bones and skin. This is a real person standing in front of them, a person they saw die an ugly and gruesome death just a few days before. And if being able to touch his feet and hands isn’t enough to convince them, he asks for something to eat. They bring him some fish they’ve just cooked on the fire.
One of the all-time best things I’ve ever had to eat was, in fact, a piece of broiled fish. I was at the beach with my extended family and there was this hut right on the water where a local guy was fileting fresh-caught grouper and mahi-mahi and searing them over some charcoal. It was so tender and light, flaky but juicy. Pieces would sometimes fall off as I was biting on it and I’d pick it them up and blow the sand off just so they wouldn’t get wasted. Maybe that’s how good this fish is that day when Jesus is with his disciples. It’s fresh and delicious, and Jesus is making a subtle statement about how good and rich the resurrected life is. He drops some and blows the dirt off. Savor every morsel!
And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to be eating that day in order to enjoy it. He is eating simply to show them he is fully there. He is eating to show them God’s power of forgiveness and redemption is so real and so true it comes back with flesh and bones. Death has really been defeated. God’s love in Christ is not a figment of our imaginations. We can touch, see, and taste it. It isn’t until this moment happens that Jesus’ identity becomes clear. Once his physical presence with them is demonstrated then he is able to explain who he really is, that the law and the prophets and the psalms all speak about him. Then he opens the Scriptures while he’s with them and the words there start to make sense.
Oh, how we’ve found this to be true this year. Things like on-line teaching and on-line worship are wonderful for what they are—the technology has provided us ways to impart information to students and share the Word of God when we’ve been prevented from being physically together. But things are so much clearer when we are fully present with each other, when we can see lips and eyes and facial expressions. When we can hug. Teachers teach so much better when students turn their cameras on, and I would imagine students also learn better. It’s so much easier when facemasks and plexiglass barriers are removed and we can communicate openly.
The other day a gentleman came into the office looking for a particular book. Through his facemask I thought I heard him say he needed a copy of the roof book. Knowing we had just finished this construction and that this person was one of our building trustees, I figured he was going to help with something regarding the roof. But as we kept talking I realized he was getting ready to join our new Adult Sunday School class and they are studying Ruth. He was looking for the Ruth book, a small but important difference from “roof” that is obscured when you can’t see someone’s lips.
The hands, the feet, the delicious broiled fish—it’s all about getting rid of the obscurity. God is really present with the disciples. These are physical things that serve to prove his resurrection is not just an act. The Christian life can be confusing and complicated, but perhaps our first task in any situation is just to grab hold of those things that clearly communicate Jesus. Grab hold of the lessons, the moments that truly embody Jesus’ selfless love for us, that proclaim grace and mercy and compassion.
By the same token, we are not called just to love people figuratively or metaphorically. Words are important, words create possibilities and give hope and point people in the right direction, but our task as Jesus’ followers is not to be about words only, to make social media posts or be a source of inspiring quotes. Jesus wants us to be people with feet and hands, a presence people can grab hold of in their fear and grief. Jesus tell us to be present for the world, beginning from Jerusalem. When we are witnesses to the new life in Jesus, when we proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name it requires us to be present and hear our brothers and sisters, to see their faces contorted in grief and sorrow, to hand them them a Kleenex to wipe their tears. In many cases, far more than we’re ready to understand or commit to, it will mean sacrificing a bit of our own energy and life. It is saying to our fellow humans as clear as is possible, “God is here for you. This is really me and God really loves you and this life we are experiencing is something we are supposed to do together, even if your suffering affects me and mine affects you.”
Earlier this week I was doing some cleaning out of a file cabinet at home. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had opened those drawers, and I was positive there was nothing in there that was of any use to me. I was just going to get a garbage bag and transfer everything straight to the trash can. Then I ran across a Ziploc bag with some papers and photos in it. I opened it to find some pictures from about 20 or so years ago from the time right after I graduated college. In and among them was a greeting card that I didn’t recognize still in its original envelope. As I opened it, the thing almost came apart. There, on the inside of the card, were dozens of signatures. It took me a second to realize I was holding the card that was sent to me by the people in the first congregation I served in Pittsburgh to congratulate me for my ordination. They were signatures of people I ended up living alongside, some of people I eventually would buried. Many of the names on that card are of people who are now no longer with us.
I had thought about those dear people many times, and still do, but something about physically holding a card that had actually been signed by them made their memory take on powerful new meaning. I could remember details of their stories, their appearances, that I had long forgotten. And I could remember their love and vulnerability, how they ended up presenting themselves to me in ways I could hold on to. I could imagine them passing that card around, signing it, saying “God bless,” before they even had met me. I was overwhelmed with how God had been present for me in their witness when I eventually arrived there. I’m sure you have had similar experiences with objects given to you by your loved ones.
Jesus comes so that God’s real, loving presence is in all the dark and forgotten places where people’s lives get filed away. Jesus is crucified and people all but forget him, going on with their life as normal…or they try to. But the grave is opened and he returns, full of life, full of joy. Jesus comes back, ready to be grabbed onto again, ready to let his love be real. And he has signed his name on you. Now, go be witnesses of these things.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.