Sermon for High Mass – Easter 3 Sunday 15 April 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
We’ve just heard Luke’s version of the resurrection story we heard from John last week. Luke gives us the same event but his lens is different.
First, as with the stories around Jesus’ birth at the beginning of his gospel, here at the end Luke is keen to root Jesus in the story of old Israel, by way of the old scriptures: ‘he opened their minds to understand the scriptures’. Jesus was no whimsical fluke, he’s saying, but the climax of God’s whole purpose.
Luke also wants to insist that the risen Jesus was not a mere ‘spiritual’ manifestation but as physical as could be: we heard that they ‘thought they were seeing a ghost’ and Luke then goes to some lengths to show otherwise. Why does this physicality matter? Again this roots Jesus in Jewish traditions about resurrection, e.g. Ezekiel 27, the story of the dry bones. Luke and John, much more than Mark and Matthew, mind about this: God’s restored creation, like the original creation, is physical and material. God makes (and restores) real people. Luke is not interested in ‘spiritual bodies’ like Paul in 1 Cor. 15. For Luke it is more important to grasp the permanent and tangible value, in God’s scheme of things, of our whole created selves; and he shows Jesus demonstrating this. Luke doubtless already knew of Christians who were inclined to underplay or even deny such holistic realism, the originators of the heresy called docetism, which asserted that Jesus only looked like a human being, but was in fact just a deity in disguise, a familiar figure in the story-telling of the Ancient world.
Luke locates this episode in Jerusalem; he doesn’t send us off, like Mark and Matthew, to a vague location in Galilee. The proclamation to all nations is announced, ‘beginning from Jerusalem’. Luke’s book ends where it began (remember the first episode is the story of Zechariah in the Temple), and it ends where Acts will start. Jerusalem is the holy city, now taken over by its true Lord and by the truth of God that he speaks and represents.
Lastly, the assembled infant church consists of ‘witnesses‘ (v. 49). Their task of preaching is understood as testifying to what has been seen and heard, by them. This is not a creative, speculative or interpretative task, but one of relating things that happened ‘in an orderly fashion’, as he promises in his prologue. He grasps and espouses the virtues of realism and down-to-earthness, and the way God is concerned with what is rather than what might possibly be.
Synoptic studies of the gospels place Matthew, Mark and Luke beside one another and observe parallels and differences to help us understand what is being reported. John’s version differs so much in construction and purpose from the other three that this exercise often ignores him. But in today’s passage we can see some significant convergences between him and Luke.
First, there’s that Easter greeting ‘Peace be with you’, a new phrase from Jesus, distinctive to his risen discourse, one sign of the difference the resurrection is to make. ‘peace’. The scene is similarly set by both Luke and John: Jesus suddenly ‘stood among them’. Both tell us that he showed them his wounds (Luke, ‘his hands and his feet’). For John, as we heard last week, this is the story of how Thomas came to faith. For Luke it shows the material quality of the resurrection, which Fr Alan reminded us last Sunday evening is rooted in the essential materiality of the incarnation, the distinctive Christian proclamation.
That down-to-earth understanding of God becoming one of us, not just pretending to be like us, and transforming our humanity, rather than just leaving us some beautiful rules for self-improvement, is the enactment of grace. Grace, the distinctive Christian enrichment of our relationship with God, is also to the fore in both gospels (think of Mary, ‘full of grace’ in Luke; of the Word, Jesus, ‘full of grace and truth’ in John). Emphasis on ‘grace’ is a sign of the authenticity of both Luke and John: ‘the grace of God’ is at the core of the New Testament’s newness; it is the quality of God, the basis of God’s relationship with us, which is not yet known in the Old Testament.
Luke doesn’t just want us to see the wounds; he further insists on the physicality of the risen Lord by reporting that Jesus asks for something to eat, demonstrating his humanity by performing a basic human function and fulfilling a basic human need.
The second paragraph that we heard, containing almost all of Luke’s coda to his gospel, matches but differs from John’s. John, you’ll recall from last week, finishes the chapter, and the original version of his book, like this:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 20.30-31.
Luke’s eye is on the sequel and his emphasis is more hands-on. He wraps up the story, quickly recapitulating the prophecy-fulfilment aspects of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and entrusting that message as a practical task for the listeners:
‘You are witnesses of these things.’
For Luke, believing requires the enactment of experienced belief, not just assent to a theory or idea. This is closer to what we know of Jesus’ own teaching than John’s ruminative style, or Paul’s theorising about faith: you could read them as suggesting that believing the right things is enough and some Christians have done that; but you can’t do that with Luke. In the few remaining verses of his gospel Luke gives us a taster of his sequel, swiftly relating the ascension and the beginnings of the Church, concluding,
And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. 24.52f.
Luke’s account of this resurrection meeting and the ending of his gospel emphasise that this event is not a fantasy ending: he wants us to understand it as a piece of history to hold on to and share; something to which we can confidently testify, as if we are giving evidence in a court of law.
Holiness in daily life is how we are called to offer this ‘witness testimony’. It is neither about access to special knowledge (gnosticism) nor about achieving perfection by the superiority of our efforts (Pelagianism), but about living as the best people we can be in the place where we find ourselves, in what is given to us, in grace. As Pope Francis puts in in his new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate
We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. G&E 14
Holiness is grace enacted, that which is given to us by God, simply done.
And, Pope Francis reminds us, God gives us the means:
When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: “Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better”. In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness. The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love, “like a bride bedecked with jewels” (Is 61:10). G&E 15
God in Jesus tells us that life is stronger than death, that his unconditional acceptance of us when we approach him brings us peace, and that he wants us to share that experience, to be witnesses of it, as people who know the Lord.