Thursday in Easter Week

Date: 
2010-04-08

LUKE 24:36-49

            For centuries the Christian church has celebrated Easter Sunday as a joyful event.  For Christian believers all over the world Easter Sunday is the time to celebrate, remember, and glorify God's victory over death manifested in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The empty tomb is empty only in so far as it does not contain the body of Jesus Christ.  But the empty tomb is full of God's expression of reconciling love, radical forgiveness, and a new era of being in relationship with the world and with God's people. 

As a Christian believer I can say this because I lean upon the faith and tradition of the Christian church that has articulated, interpreted, and taught the joy of Easter for centuries.  However, for the women at the grave, the disciples, and all other followers, the joyous reality of Easter morning and the empty tomb was not so obvious.  The scriptural account of resurrection in Luke tells us about the shock and bewilderment of the women, and about the doubts of the disciples upon hearing the news from the women.  The empty tomb presents us with the real tension of the resurrection event: on the one hand the empty tomb shocks and bewilders.  On the other hand it fulfills God's promise, grows hope, and revives memory.

            When we joyfully celebrate the Easter season, we are not quite in solidarity with the sad, bewildered, and fearful women at the empty tomb.  Their joy over Christ's resurrection is not spontaneous; their understanding is not automatic; and their mission is not clear, much less accomplished.  The angels by the empty tomb remind the women to remember what Jesus taught while he was still alive.  The reality of the empty tomb calls the followers of Jesus to remember the order of salvation, to proclaim it, and to hand it down.  It also challenges these followers to find a life-giving purpose to their lives after Christ's death.  The empty tomb calls all followers of Christ-whether those at the empty tomb or those of us who remember and celebrate the empty tomb today-to an exclusive task: the task of imagining the shape of our faith.

When we lose a family member or dear friend to death, we are faced with an extraordinary task: What shape will we give to the memory, to the spirit, to the voice, and to the presence of the person who is no longer among us?  We may walk to this person's house, to her or his bedroom, we see a bed which can still preserve the contours of the body.  We open our beloved's closet, touch the clothes and shoes; we smell the fragrances and perfumes, we browse through the books, we feed the lonely pet, and we look out the window.  We see the street life as usual, and while all the material objects might still breathe life, the emptiness of house presses upon our minds the most painful sting of death. 

Such an empty house and the empty tomb call us to a task: What shape will we give to our memories and to our faith?  When the body is not here to touch, to interact with, what shape will we give to the bodyless reality; how will we reconstruct the form, how will we put flesh on the spirit?  Jesus' disciples are confronted by this task of reconstruction: they need to have a vision for their faith.  Before the crucifixion, Jesus was physically present with them, eating with them, healing them, journeying with them, even calming nature's storms.  Thus, in a paradoxical way, the resurrection event shook the frame of their faith: Jesus died and was resurrected-and his body was gone!  And the empty tomb called disciples to construct a new frame of their faith, of their relationships and practices: a frame that will be able to hold their faith and the faith of the generations that come after them.

            So, what is the post-resurrection frame of faith?  The passage from Luke tells us that there are three shapes for this faith: the shape of the body, the meal, and the catechesis.  When Jesus appears to his disciples in this narrative, at first their hearts are filled with fear at seeing the apparition of Jesus.  Jesus sees their fear and doubts and asks them to look at his arms and legs.  "Touch me and see;" he says "for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."  The bodily presence of Jesus conveys to his disciples the first clue about the shape of their faith.  Faith in Jesus Christ is an embodied faith.  Jesus Christ encourages us to embody our faith in his body-in his flesh, in his wounds, in his arms.  The theologian Sally McFague reminds us that when we talk about the body of Christ in its spiritualized form only, we can easily forget the needs of our hungry, naked, or wounded brothers and sisters.  This means that we can easily ground our human interaction and relationships in the abundance of rhetoric.  And in doing so, we might create relationships that surf on the waves of theological language, but do not take a deep dive into the reality of brokenness, loneliness or estrangement from one another and ultimately from God.  The resurrected flesh of Jesus Christ denies us an escapist spiritualized faith.  The resurrected flesh instead grounds us in the embodied and palpable shapes of our faith.

            The resurrected Jesus asks his disciples: "Have you anything here to eat?"  The disciples offer Jesus a piece of broiled fish.  Jesus takes it and eats it.  Having a physical need such as hunger, Jesus shares with his disciples and all human beings the real needs of the body.  As Christ's body has become the universal body, it is morally normative: it shows us what hunger, thirst, pain, cold and heat feel like for us and for all other human beings.  The body is formational: it prompts us to offer each other practices such as hospitality, forgiveness, or sharing resources through which we can soothe and alleviate the various needs of the human body at large.  And the body is mystical: through breaking the bread as the fellowship of disciples with Jesus Christ, we join in the sacramental union with the Trinitarian God and foretaste the eschatological banquet of divine hospitality.

            When Jesus eats with his disciples, he also teaches them.  He repeats his teachings and the interpretations of Mosaic law, prophecy, the order of salvation and makes his disciples understand.  He opens his disciples' minds so that they can understand and indwell the Word of God.  In Luke's account, the meal and the teaching are not two separate, disjointed functions of the body.  Rather, having a meal and teaching combine as a sacramental catechesis that initiates believers into the true understanding of the Word of Scripture.  The disciples' or our understanding of the Word is not mainly the matter of intellectual assent; it is the matter of God's transformative grace through the Holy Spirit.  The Trinitarian God dispenses God's grace through the body and its life-giving rhythms such as proclaiming the Word, administering the sacraments, teaching, and other ministries.  The third shape of faith that Luke's narrative offers is that of teaching, of handing down the faith as a practice that is always accompanied by instructing clearly, interpreting truthfully, and imparting faithfully in the paradigm of table fellowship.

The shape of faith that we are called to form is neither exclusively theoretical nor practical.  It is not exclusively what we think or what we do.  It has to do with forming the body, drawing the corporeality of faith so that it becomes a joined property at which everybody has an equal share.  It is about togetherness and creating the circle of faithful friends in Christ.  When we sit down together to have our meals in the Weeks Center, when we come together to this place of worship, when we sit together in the classroom, we embody and draw the shape of the resurrected body of Christ.  We experience, teach, and reenact the life-giving and life-sustaining beats of this body.

First, we experience the sacramental transcendence of this body in Eucharist.  

Second, the meal and the Word unify us with creation and the commonly shared tradition of the Christian church.  Our shared meals become catechetical tools.  Through them we hand down tradition and cement our rootedness in divine praxis of sustenance and hospitality. 

And finally, our practices such as chapel time, community hour, composting and recycling, pizza nights, or faculty picnics create embodied expressions of our faith.  Through them we reenact God's act of befriending us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus will ascend to heaven but not before he tells his disciples that they are witnesses to the event of the resurrection, that they have a unique mandate to tell and proclaim the Gospel, and that they will be filled and equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit.  The resurrected body of Christ is embodied in the fellowship of disciples and fifty days later solidified as a spiritual and physical entity called the church.  The post-resurrection faith is God's oikos-or house-in which we break bread together, share stories together and till the garden together.  Life in God's house is a life abundant in the fullness and richness of our relationships with God, with God's creation, and with one another.  Making God's house full, however, begins with the emptiness of another space.  It is this reality of empty tomb that is bewildering, hopeful, and joyful because it calls us to imagine-as faithfully as we can-the life with and in the resurrected Jesus Christ in the household of God.