Witnesses in Luke 24
This sermon was preached in April 2018, four months after a church had experienced a devastating natural disaster.
Please join me in our First Testament reading, Psalm 4
Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
When you are disturbed,[a] do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
This is the Word of our Lord.
Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here, and I am always grateful for any opportunity I have to share my passion for healing and health. I was graciously invited me to preach this morning, and I find it a great pleasure to dive in with you into one of the more peculiar passages in Scripture today.
This morning we find ourselves actually still on the first day of the resurrection. And what a weekend and a day it has been! Obviously, a tremendous amount has happened. And these passages related to the first hours and days after Jesus rose from the tomb give us a lot of insight into what it’s like to be ping-ponged between overwhelming events in which worst fears and greatest hopes become reality. Some find these passages haunting, others exhilarating and motivational. Some stake the core of their faith on these passages, while others can’t make heads or tails of them and it’s all they can do to hang on to their little mustard-seed size hope that there might be even a sliver of a chance they are real. Still others find they are just too far from the kind of life they’ve experienced – surely they must be myth or symbolic literature. Indeed, these passages take us right to the heart, right to the feet of God, where we can only go alone. They bring us right to the very essence of faith, and ask what do you believe? What will you bear witness to? Will you follow Jesus’ call to bear witness to these events?
This work is not for the faint of heart, and we do well to enter in with some fear and trepidation. As we look to our New Testament passage for today, on this particular day in Scripture, let’s set some context. A couple of disciples have just walked with Jesus along the Emmaus Road. At first, consumed and in the tunnel vision of their grief, they do not recognize him at all. Later, as they eat together, they suddenly realize who he is and, at that moment, he vanishes. They jump up and immediately return to Jerusalem. They gather other disciples, who also have wild stories to tell about sightings of Jesus. And this is the moment where we find them. Let’s listen in . . .
Luke 24: 36-43, 46-50
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them, saying, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; 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.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Even in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering. So he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. He said to them, “Thus it is written, 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, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending you what my Father has promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
This is the Word of our Lord.
It’s fairly safe to say the disciples are traumatized. We’ll unpack this a little more in a minute, but for now, it’s important to point out that a significant sign of trauma – or, the experiences we have immediately following severe loss – is not trusting or accepting what we sense in front of us. What we see, what we hear, what we feel. Just like what’s happening for the disciples here. And it’s one of the greatest challenges of being a witness. Unless you practice presence, any one of our body’s first responses to adversity is in some way to not take it in. To not believe what we see, to not fully hear the information, to not process the information accurately.
Think of significant stories in your own life – or, times you risked the possibility of loss. A close call. Think back on how the information came and went.
I’ll share one example of my own. Years ago, on my daughter’s birthday and when my son was about to turn three, just as we were finishing up dessert, Kaden was in the living room getting off a couch. He mis-stepped and came crashing down, full weight – and he was a little tank of a guy – slammed his forehead on the edge of the oak coffee table. I was by his side in what felt like a millisecond – like I just flew across the room. Instinctively, he had covered his forehead with his little pudgy hand. As I gently lifted his hand away, I was staring straight at that amazing, undeniable color of skull. A flurry of activity commenced, which resulted in a few of us heading to Urgent Care.
I remember walking up to the front desk, and the woman there welcoming me politely and asking me a few initial questions and then for my insurance card. I handed it over. At that was at that moment that I fully saw my arm for the first time, which was covered in blood. I burst into tears.
“It’s ok,” the woman at the desk assured me before I could barely get out, “I . . . I . . . didn’t have a chance to clean up.” “It’s ok,” she said again and took my card.
A lot has been said about Mary Magdalene in the Garden outside the tomb, or the disciples on Emmaus road, or Peter and disciples fishing on the shore, and none of them recognizing Jesus when he appeared to them. People wonder how they ever could have missed something so amazing and so obvious as their beloved Rabbi appearing before them. But it happens all the time, especially after trauma. Our bodies pace our processing, and help us focus in on what is most critical for us. You probably have your own stories of times you could not take it all in, or can’t remember quite how you got from here to there in the midst of it all.
So, here we are, with the disciples in a similar position, unable to take it all in at once. And for good reason. They’ve just been through one of the most tumultuous weekends of their lives. To start, their worst fears happened. The man they believed was going to save them, died. Dead. And they lived with that reality for at least 48 long hours.
Over the centuries, we Christians have conveniently removed ourselves from that part of the story. We often quickly jump from Good Friday to Easter, without a thought given to Friday evening or Holy Saturday. Without any sense of appreciation of what it would have been like for the disciples to really feel utterly forsaken, to really feel like the Messiah was gone and not knowing what comes next.
There’s a remarkable painting that can help Christians today consider what it might have been like for the disciples – another art form that brings viewers right to the feet of God and invites you to come to terms with what you really believe – Holbien’s Dead Christ paining. Personally, I think it’s a painting all Christians should see at some point in their spiritual journey. You can easily google it. Apparently, it haunted Dostoevsky. He’d spend hours staring at it. I don’t mean to be overly morbid. I just hope for you to have a sense of the fact that that’s where the disciples are when we meet them in our Scripture today. They had been facing the dead Christ for the last two days. We do well to try, even a bit, to put ourselves in their shoes.
Then, as this day unfolded for them, crazy rumors began to fly. People are reporting that the body is gone, the tomb is empty. People are wondering whether soldiers have stolen the body, whether zealots of any form have stolen the body, and what to do with the fact that a few trusted people seem to have possibly really gone crazy and are saying they’ve actually seen him and talked to him.
It’s not all processing. Wait, say it again. You’re sure?? They keep talking it through together, trying to make sense of what they are experiencing.
And we know what that’s like. We all have our own stories . . . of births, of deaths, of emergency room visits, of close calls, of heartbreaking loss . . . Wait, what? No. I don’t understand. I’m confused. How is that possible? It doesn’t make any sense. What? I woke up, and for a split second, I forgot it had happened, and then it all came rushing back again. We know these stories. We’ve lived them.
Like us after thoroughly life changing events, the disciples are radically disoriented when we meet them today. And, it’s understandable, that in the midst of this incredible disorientation, Jesus suddenly appears, and they are terrified and believing they are seeing a ghost.
So, what do you do in that moment? Can you help yourself, or help others, come back to your / our senses. To come back online, so to speak, when you feel like you’re going crazy and can’t trust your own sense of things.
Years ago, flight tower attendants received a terrifying message from a packed commercial airplane that had not finished taking off yet. It was mid-take off in New York City, not even a full minute off the ground yet, and the pilot is radioing in to say both engines are down because of a flock of geese and they are needing to land immediately. The attendants struggle to register the information. Wait, what? You can actually hear the exchange online. As I have listened to it, I have wondered whether, at a very guttural level, they did not want to believe a packed commercial airplane might suddenly fall out of the sky in the next moment. Say it again, they tell the pilot. The pilot repeats. Later, the pilot said, he turned to his co-pilot, and he asked, “My plane?” The co-pilot affirmed, “Your plane.” Then the pilot said, he forced calm on the situation. In other words, he forced himself to become immediately present. Within just three minutes, take off to landing, the pilot guided the engineless plane into the Hudson River. Lots has been made of this story, a book, a movie, and extensive investigation and study into exactly what the pilot did and the training that helped him to accomplish this tremendous feat.
Becoming present in an overwhelming situation makes a world of difference, and it’s one of the critical ways we take on the responsibility and calling to be witnesses and agents of healing in this life.
Thankfully, we also do not have to do it all on our own. In this passage, we see Jesus model how to help people who are overwhelmed come to their senses and become present. Being a caring person who helps others become present provides a tremendous gift of healing, and helps people become trustworthy witnesses. Let’s look at what he did.
“Peace be with you,” he starts off. Be calm, take a beat, be content in all circumstances. Peace be with you.
Then, he begins to draw their attention to their senses. Recall the five senses – touch, sound, smell, taste, and sight. He invites them to pay attention to how they feel inside – why are you troubled and have doubts? Trust your senses. What do you see? My hands, my feet. My bones and flesh. You hear my voice. You can even touch me, and know it is me. Then, as he’s commanded their attention in the most relational of ways, he brings his point home. He asks them if they have anything to eat. Over the years, nourishment is one of the most helpful ways I have found to bring someone back to their senses – to bring me back to my senses and sustain me in the work of care. A cool glass of water, a bit of healthy food.
The disciples bring him some broiled fish, hand it to him, and he eats it in their presence.
Now, think about what this last moment would have been like for them. Sure they saw him, they heard him, they touched him. But think about the amount of dreams you’ve had and how very real they have felt. But this, the fish, changed things. There’s no way that can be a dream.
It’s a moment that often reminds me of the scene in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, when Mr. Banks is interviewing Mary for the position of nanny. Mary brings out a single sheet of paper to read the advertised Qualifications for the position. Item 1, a cheery disposition. “I am never cross,” she assures a suddenly very bewildered Mr. Banks. Item 2, rosy cheeks. “Obviously,” she retorts. And now, Mr. Banks has risen to his feet, crossed the room, and is trying to make sense of what feels utterly impossible. This is not the advertisement he had posted. No, this is literally the advertisement his children had created, and he is quite sure he had ripped it up and thrown it in the fireplace. “Where did you get that paper?” He insists, even as he stops listening to her and goes over to the fireplace where he recalls his actions the night before. He sees how none of the pieces are there any more. He continues to completely ignore Mary, and instead continues in his revelry, even going through the motions of the previous evening, reminding himself how he physically tore the paper and threw it away. “I beg your pardon, are you ill?” Mary inquires with concern. “I hope not,” he says, disconcertedly.
I like to imagine the disciples also were hoping they were not ill. Imagine them watching Jesus eat the fish. Imagine the one or two of them who had held it in their hands and handed it to him, or watched this being done, and it disappearing. Right before their eyes. The very substance they knew for sure was real, was now gone, inside him. I like to imagine his smile growing wider and wider, as their eyes bulged.
Fish play a prominent role in the resurrection passages. For example, Jesus famously makes a breakfast of grilled fish on the beach for the disciples and invites them to share what they have to offer. Despite having read and thought about these passages many times, I admit, I’m a little embarrassed to say how long it took me to connect these passages with the Christian Fish symbol.
I had grown up hearing about the Christian Fish in much more analytic and scholarly terms. Even as a middle school or high schooler in Sunday school and youth group, I was taught about the greek word ichthus for fish, and how it was an acronym to help early Christians remind themselves of who Christ was and to teach others. How they would draw it as a form of greeting, a way to identify one another in a highly intense and harsh political climate, and how they used it to spread the Gospel message. That may be. But I wonder if it’s even more than an acronym, if it is at all. See, in my work with survivors and study of trauma treatment, I find most survivors – myself included – aren’t very pithy or scholarly after trauma. In fact, more often than not, it just seems like there’s no words that really do justice for what I just witnessed or lived through. No words could fully encapsulate those real experiences of terror or the fullness of unimaginable joy.
I find the Passion weekend and the days of Christ walking among the disciples after resurrection to be some of those kinds of experiences.
Right there, in the midst of all this bewilderment, disorientation, and jubilation, Jesus says, you will be my witnesses to these things – how does one even begin to describe what’s just happened? They can barely talk about it among themselves and make sense, let alone tell other people. To which Jesus says, you will not do it alone. You will have the power of the fruit of the Holy Spirit with you as you go.
And that’s wonderful to think about. Being filled with the Holy Spirit. Still, it’s hard to know, what do you do next? What’s the actual next step of bearing witness to all these things? How do you really begin to speak of such immense things like repentance – doing a 180, and going in a completely different direction from anything that in the past has broken your relationships or destroyed your health or the health of your loved ones or neighbors – and in stead, to be For. Giving? To take a stand for giving instead of holding grudges and being vindictive? How do you do this when you yourself are still just barely coming to your senses, just barely becoming present to what all that this means? How do you find your steps forward when the real mess of life is still out there, even after the Resurrection? And that’s the radical counter-cultural part, right? That Jesus did not come and lead a revolutionary army, or a governmental coup. He did not come a Western Hero, all herculean. He came as a baby, and he grew to be a man who loved and never exploited any one. He never used his power to manipulate, to finesse, to make things happen and make people do what he wanted. Instead, he always invited, enabled, empowered, and hosted opportunities for the people he was with to rise, as whole people – mind, body, spirit.
How do we witness to that? How do you witness, in yourself? In your home? In your neighborhood?
Maybe, maybe, for the earliest disciples, it started with one first question and one drawing: Do you believe he ate the fish?
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.