May 5, 2019

This is Personal

Sunday, May 5 at 8 a.m.

God, to whom shall we go?  You alone have the words to eternal life. Quiet in us any voice but yours that in hearing we may believe and in believing live as your son taught.  Amen. 

Although it is the 3rd Sunday of the season of Eastertide, our gospel lesson continues to narrate events of the first day of resurrection. At dawn, the empty tomb changed everything—or rather fulfilled everything.

According to Luke that day Jesus appeared to two of his disciples as they walked on the road to Emmaus. He recounted the promises of scripture and was known in the breaking of bread.

Listen to Jesus’ encounter immediately following that experience when he appears in Jerusalem among all his disciples.

Luke 24:36b–48

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 startled? 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.

Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, 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 a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

When a toddler reaches for your cell phone or hot coffee, to say “no” does nothing to forestall his persistence. Instead of denying this little one’s desires, you offer something more satisfying…a toy or book or cookie.

We may mature but our desires still dictate how we behave. When we are hungry, we need to eat, or do something to distract us from our stomach’s pangs. When tired, either sleep or caffeine is the antidote.

When faced with the reality of a life-threatening or unimaginable experience fear is a rational response. To be told, “do not be afraid” without neutralizing the fear is like saying “no” to a toddler. We will be afraid and will likely retreat or build stronger walls.

More than 300 times in scripture when people were threatened, an angel or spirit tried to calm them with, “do not be afraid”.

After his death Jesus never denies the fear that crept into every fiber of being for the first women, a pair of disciples, or the wider group. Fear accompanied them to Jerusalem, had intensified since the crucifixion, and was as thick as the air they breathed.

The risen Christ knows minds cannot be opened when trapped by fear. The only antidote to fear is love. Scripture promises, “Perfect love casts out all fear.”  So Jesus begins with “Peace be with you” as he reminds them of the love they shared.

In first century Palestine, resurrection from the dead was unfathomable.

The pervasive Greek philosophy of the time professed the immortal soul floats away at death, no longer imprisoned by the body, which rots in uselessness. Bodily resurrection was beyond belief, physically and philosophically. This remains a common belief among faithful Christians today.

At the dawn of the century a fear of ghosts also was endemic. Yet imagined ghosts are not confined to the ancients since the wildly and widely popular Game of Thrones trades on the fear of the Night King.

This warrior possesses the ability to animate the bodies of the war-torn dead—including dragons—to his malevolent purposes. These undead were marked with searing blue eyes and zombie-like movements. Game of Throne fans are all a twitter, wondering since the Night King has been killed, if he will remain dead. I digress. GOT is captivating.

Jesus was not a zombie or an undead…his appearance was not to provoke fear of death, but to arouse joy of life. He reminded his disciples of the grand arc of God’s love conveyed in scripture. God created us out of divine love from the dust of the ground, instilled a divine image in everyone, and fulfilled God’s promises throughout. Remember! Remember and know is what Jesus pleads.

The risen Christ meets the disciples where they are. By showing his scarred hands and feet, inviting them to touch him, by speaking to them…he appeals to all of their senses to experience his risen body. It was Jesus’ personal invitation to each disciple.

Were they satisfied? Probably not since he employs another tactic. Let’s return to the story. Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ continuous eating, and drinking, and celebrating with all sorts of people angers the authorities to label him a “drunk” and a “glutton.” Jesus did enjoy a good dinner.

When he asked; “do you have anything to eat?” It was kind of a wink, wink—“it’s me, remember!” At that moment, Jesus was not an ethereal spirit, philosophical concept, or dead carcass.  He was the risen Christ, alive in the flesh, enjoying some grilled tilapia.

British theologian N.T. Wright has written extensively on the decisive change that resulted from Jesus’ resurrection. I quote, “the Jews had language for forgiveness, for great experiences of knowing the love and forgiveness of God, for continuing the work of a great prophet and even for believing in a world after death. Jesus’ followers did not use such language.  They spoke of the resurrection. They knew dead people don’t get up again and it blew them away.” [1]

No one pretended the crucifixion did not happen; it was real, evidenced by the wounds Jesus carried. Crucifixion and death were the very worst they feared possible and Jesus died on the cross.

The best anyone could imagine, resurrection was also true. God’s love continued its long triumphant journey and overcame the grave. Such love in the flesh was and is the only thing that could drive away their fears.

Resurrection challenged the most faithful 2,000 years ago. Today, it remains fodder for scrutiny on the national stage, is debated within faith traditions, and persists as a nagging voice within each of us asking, “really, what do I believe?”

Resurrection is personal. No one else can answer this for us.

On Easter Sunday, The New York Times published Nicholas Kristof’s interview with Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. It set off a firestorm—probably just as intended to generate clicks and conversation.

At the start of the interview, Kristof asks several questions about the resurrection. Is it necessary to believe in a “literal flesh-and-blood resurrection”? In response Jones focuses on the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb.

But Mr. Kristof pushes her on the question: “Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome?”

Jones responded:

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.[2]

For some, Jones’ response assured them of the rationality to be educated, theologically astute, faithful, and sidestep Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

Others condemned her personal belief as “unchristian.” Doubts are dangerous.

And so we have another binary argument. At one end, we want our minds to remain in control with rationality and at the other extreme, we are to shield our intellect from thoughtful questions.

Perhaps we are not in control in either extreme or along the continuum. It is absurd to believe we can grasp the power and will of God. It is equally futile to wrestle towards certainty about what our creator can and cannot do.

Resurrection and faith, truly, are so very personal, just as for all those disciples. Have you asked yourself recently what you believe? No one else, just yourself? Have you invited Jesus into this conversation with you? What might he say? Might he offer to break the bread and offer a cup for you?

This is personal. You ponder it at sleepless nights at the frozen winter and blossoming spring.

You ponder it at the times your life is shaken to the core with illness or death, while standing graveside or at the morning light.

Don’t leave these questions to theologians. Jesus did not appear to Pilate or any of the authorities as an “I told you so.” His presence pushed out the fear of those who loved him to let them experience a love that lives. It was a personal ascent for them and is for us today.

We may never know exactly what we believe but we may live with love and not fear.

The risen Christ calls us to preach a change of heart and life in his name. It is a joy that consumes and needs to find expression. This too is personal…different for everyone one of us.

On Easter Sunday Davidson College Presbyterian Church, which is just outside of Charlotte, NC, was brimming inside a sanctuary that holds 1,200 worshipers. At the end of their service everyone stood to receive the choir’s benediction of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. It was a perfect punctuation to send people out to live with the resurrection news.

A young girl, perhaps six or seven, broke free of her grandfather’s hand and the stiff pew, where she had undoubtedly been for more than an hour. In a new pink dress as fluid as a tutu, she began to move, dancing in the center aisle. Her pointed toes and limber kicks revealed disciplined ballet training yet her movement to the music could only be from a spirit rising from within that could not be contained. She danced for two and a half minutes to the ethereal music.

It was grace in every sense of the word. Grace of movement. Grace to be free, no longer confined by a fear or doubt, or anxiety or silly rules. Grace to be fully alive. She danced with resurrection.[3]

The body, here and now, is when we encounter the promise of salvation…when we accept the reality of the resurrection, we can accept our present reality as a place where transformations of ultimate significance take place.[4] Make this personal.

Peace of Christ be with you. May it be so.

[1] N.T. Wright, Following Jesus, (Grand Rapids: WB Erdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 111.

[2] Nicholas Kristof, “Happy Easter!  Is the Virgin Birth a ‘Bizarre Claim’?” The New York Times, (Accessed April 25, 2019),

[3] Senore Ricardo, “5-year-old girl dances like no one’s watching during Easter service”, YouTube, (Accessed May 5, 2019),

[4] Stephen Cooper Theological Luke 24:36b–48, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Ed David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 424.