The incident I’m about to relate took place more than 30 years ago, so it’s possible I don’t remember some details correctly. But as best I can reconstruct it, this is what happened.
It’s Sunday morning in the midst of a highly liturgical worship service. The scripture has been read, and the choir is singing a response, “Gloria Patri” or something similar. The pastor is standing at the pulpit, ready to begin his sermon.
While the choir finishes singing its response, the pastor leans down around the front of the pulpit, picks up a large ornamental cross that stands there, and hides the cross behind the pulpit.
He does this in plain sight. Everyone sees him do it. No one sees him do it.
Partway through his sermon, he asks people what happened to the cross. No one knows. It was just there a moment ago, wasn’t it? When the pastor explains what he did, and holds up the cross to prove it, there are titters and gasps from the congregation. Wow, you sure pulled one over on us.
I don’t remember what point he was trying to make. The problem with stunts like this is that people tend to remember the stunt and forget the point it was intended to make.
My point, in relating this story, is that sometimes we are incapable of seeing the obvious, we tend to see only what we expect to see, and we are often blind to the truth staring us in the face. Sometimes, in other words, we need to touch before we can see, and even touching may not be enough.
This is the third week of the Easter season. Throughout this season we’re exploring ways of Living the Resurrection in our daily lives. My point today, to telegraph it far ahead of actually making it, is that the Resurrection ought to change some of the ways we see ourselves, our world and our God.
We begin by returning, one more time, to the evening of the first Easter day. Last Sunday we heard the story as told in the gospel of John. Today we’ll hear it as told in the gospel of Luke. The accounts are similar, of course, but they emphasize different things.
Last week, the focus was on the disciple Thomas. He famously declared that “Unless I see and touch” the marks of crucifixion in Jesus’ body, he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead (John 20.25). Seeing was enough for him, though. He didn’t need to touch. Touch is more important in Luke’s version of events.
Both stories begin as a “locked room mystery,” or rather a “locked room encounter” with Jesus. Behind closed doors, the followers of Jesus are discussing what they know about his resurrection.
Luke chapter 24, verses 36-37: While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified. They thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Several of them have already seen the risen Jesus – Mary of Magdala, and Peter, and two who’d traveled to Emmaus and back after encountering him on the road. Yet they all are startled when he appears in their midst, without warning, apparently without even bothering to use the door. And they’re terrified. It must be a ghost, some are thinking.
So, have any of them actually seen a ghost before? Likely not. So why do they think he’s a ghost? How is a ghost story easier to believe than a resurrection story?
Verses 38-40: 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 me. Touch me and see. 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.
Touch me and see, he says. You can’t touch a ghost. He’s not a zombie either, unless they’re in a really bad movie. He doesn’t fit their wildest hallucination, or even wishful thinking. Who could imagine this? They certainly can’t. He’s standing there in front of them. They can see him. They can touch him. They can feel his breath upon them. They probably can smell him if they get close enough. He has to be real. But how can he be real?
Verses 41-43: While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, 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.
Well, that settles it. If he can eat leftovers, he must be real! And that’s his point entirely. He’s not a disembodied spirit, a wisp of fancy. He is a thoroughly embodied human being, just as they are. Sure, he appears to have capabilities far beyond the normal, but didn’t he always? He has flesh, he has bones. He’s real! Touch and see!
I love that phrasing: “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Too good to be true is the feeling here. Have you ever gotten a bit of good news – news so good that you can hardly believe it? It makes you so happy, and yet the sheer unexpectedness of it is enough to make you shake your head to clear it. You worry that if you blink, it will all go away and things will be back to the way they were. You want to savor the moment, but you’re afraid someone will come along and yank the rug out from under your hopes – and, wow, will you feel silly, not to mention hurt and very disillusioned.
So the disciples are joyous and yet cautious. They believe, yet they don’t believe. It’s too much for them for them to take in all at once. I imagine that they would have loved to have hugged him but are fearful that if they do, he’ll just fade away, the way Obi Wan Kenobi fades away in that “Star Wars” movie. Touch him and he’s gone for good!
Well, only when he’s ready to go. Verses 44-45: Then he 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 of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand what the scriptures said about him.
Notice that he’s already distancing himself from them. He speaks of the time “while I was still with you.” I’m here with you now, it’s true, but I’m not with you the way I was before, and soon I’ll be with you in another way entirely. This is a liminal moment, a threshold moment, a time between the times when everything has a shiny quality of hope and expectation. Who knows what lies ahead and what wondrous things may yet happen?
I wish we had a recording of the lesson he gives them. Our problem is that the testimony of scripture is both clear and murky. When you look from Jesus backward through scripture, it all appears so obvious. “Of course, this is what God had in mind all along!” But when you look forward through the pages of the Old Testament, it’s not so obvious that what you’re going to end up with is Jesus. It’s no wonder the disciples don’t get it right away, and it’s no wonder most Jews don’t get it, then or now.
That’s why Jesus has to “open their minds” to understand the scriptures. They have to learn to see the truth about him that’s embodied there. They have to learn to see Jesus in scripture the same way they’re seeing Jesus now, standing in front of them, defying their expectations. They need eyes of faith to see.
We often talk about “seeing is believing,” as if it were always true that we believe in something once we see it. But it’s not always so. Sometimes we see and we still don’t believe. Sometimes – maybe, in fact, most of the time – we have to believe something before we are capable of seeing it.
Scientists who study human cognition say that it’s quite possible for two people standing side by side to witness the same event but perceive it very differently. And haven’t you seen that in your own life, with your spouse or a good friend?
No two of us view things through the same life lens. Each of us is preconditioned through experience and training to see things a certain way, and that’s how we will see things until some important experience shatters our complacency and alters our vision.
Some people continue to believe that the pandemic is a hoax. It’s nothing but the flu, they say. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise. Some people continue to oppose the COVID-19 vaccine, if not all vaccines. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise. Some people continue to believe the cynical lie that Trump won the last election. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise.
Some people continue to believe that climate change is not real, no matter what the evidence shows. Some people continue to follow QAnon and other ridiculous conspiracy theories – and the list goes on.
As I said, last week, some people will believe almost anything, and their unwillingness to repent, their inability to change heart and mind, will mire them in confusion and doubt until some event jolts them into seeing the new reality that stands right in front of them, beckoning them to touch and see.
The Resurrection of Jesus can provide just such an experience. If it becomes the lens through which we view the world, things will never be the same again.
If we believe that God loves us so much that God became one of us in Jesus, and lived with us and among us, subject to all our trials and limitations and hopes and dreams, shouldn’t that shape how we view everything?
If we believe that Jesus stood with us against the powers and principalities that oppress us and make us believe lies about ourselves and others, and that the powers conspired against Jesus to silence him, doesn’t that bring a lot of other things into sharper focus?
If we believe that God would not let Jesus stay dead but brought him back to life on the third day to prove to us that God’s love for us just won’t quit, doesn’t that change how we see ourselves and others and God as well?
And if we believe that this message of forgiveness and reconciliation can heal the wounds of the world, and that God enlists us as ambassadors of healing to the world, how can we not see ourselves differently than before?
We need eyes of faith – Easter vision, if you will – to see the truth and live in light of that truth in ways that truly change the way we behave.
Sometimes we are incapable of seeing the obvious. Jesus can show us the truth. Sometimes we see only what we expect to see. Jesus can widen our expectations. Sometimes we are blind to the truth staring us in the face. Jesus can heal our sight.
Sometimes, yes, we need to touch before we can see, and see before we can believe. Jesus invites us, yes, to reach out and touch him, and be transformed by the experience.
And you’ll notice that the cross that I used earlier to illustrate my opening story is still fully visible, and it’s still empty – because Jesus is alive and Jesus is real! Amen.
This message was delivered April 18, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.