St Thomas', Salem--Luke 24:36b-48
Let’s look at ourselves. Let’s look at ourselves—who we are and what we’re doing, right now in this moment, and every Sunday at this time. Each one of us has a particular and personal reason for being here. And I suspect that if we were to distribute colored markers to everyone and write these reasons down on newsprint and tack all the sheets along the wall, we would discover that we have a great deal in common about why we’re here. We would see themes like a desire to worship God, a search for some measure of comfort and solace in the ups and downs of life, or an urge to express our faith. And if we’re brutally honest, some of us would say that we’re here just out of habit, or because we’re superstitiously afraid that God will “smite” us if we stay home, and perhaps some are here just out of curiosity about one thing or another. And, from one Sunday to the next, the reasons might vary.
But who are we as we’re gathered here, doing something that, if the people driving by were to stop in and have a look, they would consider at least a little bit odd, a little bit strange, we are quite an assortment, even in this relatively small congregation. Some among us are seriously ill, and some relatively well. Some are quite anxious and others less anxious—I doubt anyone is completely free of anxiety. Some are mentally foggy and some are mentally clear. Some struggle with doubts and fears and confusion about their faith, insecure in their relationship with Christ, while some, most likely, have a well-grounded and lively faith. Even those with a secure and lively faith, though, sometimes experience uneasiness over loose ends, unanswered questions, a sense of not quite having wrapped their minds completely around some aspect or another of the Christian faith. The fact that they’re here is, in part, a testimony to that experience.
In general, we’re probably in better shape than the eleven remaining disciples of Jesus on the afternoon of the first Easter day as they gathered in a room, away from the gaze of both the Jewish and Roman authorities, of whom they were understandably afraid—gathered to take stock of their situation. There was a great deal of doubt, fear, confusion, and anxiety in that room. It probably differed in degree from one to another, but they all participated in some measure of it.
What’s really interesting now, is that the shape of our liturgy—what we’re actually here to actually do this morning—mirrors this experience. We arrive in this church with all of our anxiety, all of our fear, and all of our confusion, along with all of our faithful hope. Right away, we’re asked to sing a hymn that makes all sorts of theological claims and assertions, some of which we might be clear on and some of which we might have no clue about, but we still—most of us, at any rate—we still sing. Then our minds are assaulted by four consecutive passages of scripture—centuries-old literary texts, originally written in ancient languages and in cultural contexts that are very different than our own—and we’re expected to hear and somehow digest and make some sense of these readings. It’s not always easy. It’s almost never easy.
In the midst of the disciples’ confusion and anxiety in that room, then, Jesus shows up. His first word is Peace. Peace be with you. Shalom. Let anxiety and fear be banished. Jesus provides rational reasons to have faith and hope. “Here, touch me, I’m not a ghost.” He then proceeds to “open their minds to understand the Scriptures,” and says to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
In our liturgy—I say humbly and with trepidation—in our liturgy, this is parallel to the sermon. It is the sacred task of the preacher, at every celebration of the Eucharist, to “break open” the opaque and confusing scripture readings, to open the minds of the baptized faithful, to connect the dots between the readings and our creedal faith, and between our creedal faith and our daily lives. It is the job of the preacher to be Jesus in that moment and say “Peace be with you. Fear not.”
Jesus does one other significant thing in this marvelous narrative: He eats with his disciples. He asks them if they have any food and they give him a piece of broiled fish, and he consumes it. Now, I want you to think of another familiar gospel story, because there’s a fruitful parallel here. You probably recall the two hikers—Cleopas and his unnamed companion—making their way from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. We can see the same pattern there: First there’s confusion and anxiety. Then minds are opened to connect the dots. Light bulbs go on. Then, there’s the sharing of a meal, and suddenly, in that meal—recognition. The one who was a mysterious stranger is seen to be a familiar and beloved friend. It happened to Cleopas and his companion then, and now it happens to the Eleven disciples. They fully recognize Jesus precisely as they share a meal with him.
Do I need to spell this out for you? We have assembled with our doubts and hears. We have heard the words of scripture, but with partially darkened minds. The unworthy servant of Christ has attempted—and is indeed in this very moment attempting—to break the scriptures open and shine a light into those darkened minds, to connect the dots. And now we are about to share a meal, wherein we offer God our fear, our anxiety, and our confusion, and God responds by returning the gifts of bread and wine transformed into the very life of the risen Christ, the very life of God. We will once again see and recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.
Because we’re a little dense, and because God is so merciful, we get to do this Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, holy day by holy day. One day we will “get it” completely and permanently, we will no longer see through the glass dimly, but will sing the eternal hymn that we will know all the words to, and understand their meaning, and lay aside all anxiety, fear, and confusion forever. Peace be with you. Fear not. Christ is risen. Amen.