Homily for Easter 1 at Christ Chapel, 11 April, 2021
Rev’d Dr. T. Y. Hiter
Our lesson this morning, taken from the Gospel according to Luke, deals with the first actual encounter between Jesus and his Disciples after the Resurrection. Before this, several of the followers, Mary, his mother, Salome, Mary Magdalene, among the women, and Peter and John, among the men, had been to the tomb, and even been inside, and some of them had encountered an Angel, but until this part of the story, they had not encountered the risen Christ, themselves. This is not the first time we’ve seen this part of the story, this season. We spoke a bit on Easter Morning about the meeting. Then, we were looking at the Gospel according to John. Luke’s account is not very different from John’s, but Luke gives us a bit more detail. This is not unexpected. As we’ve discussed before, Luke was writing as a scholar, trying to set straight the various versions of the story that were circulating about the middle of the First Century. John was writing as an old Jewish priest, then serving as a Christian Bishop at or after the end of that Century. Their points of view and their literary objectives were very different. Let’s look at some of those differences.
John told us that when Jesus came to them, locked in the upper room, Jesus said “Peace be unto you”. Luke tells us the same thing. It seems almost certain that that is, in fact, what Jesus said, and what he meant. That’s why it is so important to us that he gives us peace, as well. John tells us that the disciples were locked in the upper room for “fear or the Jews”. Luke doesn’t mention any such fears; he tells us that the appearance itself terrified them! I’ll bet both are true.
I think it is worth noting that when Luke wrote, little if any Jewish persecution of Christians had taken place. In fact, Christians were not even being called Christians, yet. They were Jews, for all intents and purposes. Paul was still working, evangelizing Greeks, but the Church, the vast majority of Christian believers, was in Jerusalem, and it was made up almost entirely of Jews. When John wrote, not only had the first, violent wave of Jewish persecution swept through the Jerusalem community, the Roman armies had destroyed the Temple itself, and the Jews were in the process of reinventing their worship, itself, via the Synagogues. Synagogues were actively trying to root out Christian ideas all around Asia Minor. John remembered the disciples being afraid of “the Jews”, but what he was thinking of was probably Caiaphas and the Temple ruffians, more than the population. Of course, we do have to remember, though, that those twelve or so Galileans were just about all there were. Peter had not preached his magnificent sermon at Pentecost! What Luke believed they were most scared by was the appearance of Jesus, himself!
Look at the text: “And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.”
I think it is a shame that our Gospel has been so dumbed down by the modern world that we have lost so much of the wonder and the mystery of the resurrection. I regret, too, that it is our mother church that has done perhaps the most to make it so. Many, too many modern so-called “Christians” will happily tell you (and too many of them are priests and even Bishops) that when Jesus returned, he was no longer in a solid body; that he was an “embodied spirit”, and that what we can expect, when we arrive, is to be something like that. Not a ghost, exactly (the text makes it pretty clear that that is not the case), but that any rational, science-believing person knows that our bodies cannot “come back”. What about the ones who are cremated? What about the ones who are drowned, and eaten by the fishes? Well, folks, I’m here to tell you: His did! Look at the words! That’s the real point of this lesson. It was not some sort of spiritual phenomenon! It was him! And, he handled it the way he always did: he met it head on. “Touch me”. “Handle me”. He told Thomas to stick his finger in the nail holes! To stick his hand in the spear-thrust wound in his side. Do you suppose Thomas took him up on any of that? Would you have?
And then, as Luke has a way of doing, he gives another example. Not only did Jesus invite them to see and feel his physical wounds, he asked them for something to eat. “And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.” And, as he so often did during the three years he had spent with them, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to trach them a lesson. He had their attention! “And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,” That’s what he tells us, too. The Old Testament is all about him coming. The New Testament is all about what he did, while he was here. It’s all there for us. All we have to do is study it.
Easter Sunday has come and gone. All the chocolate bunnies have been eaten and all the dyed eggs either discarded or left to rot under the leaves where we hid them. We now have the glorious Spring Easter season to live out, and we will. We’ll celebrate Pentecost and Trinity and then we’ll settle into the long, green six-month period that most modern Churches call “ordinary time”, but there’s nothing ordinary about it. At least now, during Easter, we can say it: He is Risen! He is risen, indeed.
Homily for Easter Sunday at Christ Chapel, 4 April, 2015
Dr. T. Y. Hiter
It’s hard to decide where to start on a sermon for today. We’ve pretty much read all the Gospel accounts. We all pretty much all know the stories. What is there that’s new, that can be brought to bear on this of all days? Not much, I’m afraid.
But, by the same token, this is, by any possible measure, this is the most important day in the Christian calendar! One has to say something about it! And, so I will. I’m going to refer to the Gospel as related by John, though for no particular reason. The news is good, in all of them. I like John’s verbiage.
As for the day, itself, it’s been being celebrated almost literally right from the first. We have written accounts from the mid-2nd Century that assure us that celebrating Easter was already an old tradition among Christians. Most Christian holidays were very early set on the solar calendar, but Easter has always been celebrated as it occurs in relation to the Jewish Passover, and so it is celebrated based on a Lunar calendar. Celebrations are a bit different, east and west, but both emphasize one thing: the deep emotional impact that the resurrection had on the people who were there, at the time.
So, that’s what I’d like to talk about, this morning: emotion. Real, human emotion. The facts of that day, and the several days afterwards, may become clear to all of us, someday, in eternity. I don’t think they’re likely to do so before then. I don’t think they need to. I don’t think that’s what the Apostles and the Evangelists were trying to do, even though they certainly give us a lot of them. Mostly though, they describe feelings. Look at the way John’s text opens:
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews…,” Fear. Fear is a powerful emotion, indeed. Let’s think about that. It’s Sunday evening. Your leader; the man you’ve invested three years of your life in following, has, just slightly more than three days ago, been forcibly arrested, causing you and your friends to run off in so much fear that one of you lost all his clothes to get away; he’s been subjected to a kangaroo court, beaten bloody, humiliated and hanged on a wooden cross to die! You know you’re as guilty as He was. You know that “guilt by association” is a regular part of the court system. You are well aware that you are a hundred miles from home, in a strange city full of people who hate you. You know you’ve been hiding for two days, and you know that now, on top of all this, his body has disappeared. You’re worried. You’re scared. Shoot, you’re terrified! Not one of us here has ever been that afraid. That’s what John was trying to communicate. And then comes the next sentence:
“Jesus came and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.” Can you imagine? Peace. Well, unfortunately, a good many people have imagined quite a lot about this passage. I’ve heard it preached at considerable length that Jesus could walk through walls, based on this passage of scripture. And, maybe he did. Certainly, the doors were locked. John has just told us that. I’ll bet they had a chair pushed in front of it, too, just to be sure! But that’s not the point. If we start talking about “glorified bodies” and “materialization” and a lot of other magic stuff, we miss the point. The point is that Jesus came to them and greeted them as He always had: “Shalom”, probably, or the Aramaic equivalent. In the New Testament, it says “eirene”, but that’s in Greek, like the rest of the book. What’s important is that He stood among them and He spoke to them. One recalls some of the opening lines of Charles Dickens”s A Christmas Carol: “Old Marley was dead to begin with…dead as a doornail…this must be understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” That’s pretty much what John is telling us, here.
Jesus was dead. Of that there was no doubt. And they were in grave danger of being so themselves at almost any moment! And, Jesus came to them and said “Peace be with you.”
He went on, of course, to show them his wounds and, perhaps, as John relates, to give them the great commission. Thomas, called “the Twin”, didymus seems to mean “twin” in koine Greek, didn’t believe them when they told him about it, but a week later, He came again, and Thomas was there that time, and Jesus teased him a bit, and challenged Thomas to put his fingers into the wounds. For this Thomas has come down to us as “doubting” Thomas. Evidently it worked; Thomas believed so strongly that he later went to Persia and started the Mar Thoma Church there, and to India, where he was himself martyred for preaching Christ. The Syro-Malabar Church still exists in India, and honors Thomas not for his doubts, but for his faith. For those who care about such things, the Gnostic heretics thought highly of Thomas, too, and attributed a couple of their non-canonical books to him. Some of them even believed that the “twin” name meant that he was the twin brother of Christ, himself. The Gnostics thought very highly of Thomas, indeed.
John doesn’t tell us any of this, though. He simply tells us that Thomas, in addition to his fears, had doubts. And that Jesus gave him peace, too. And, comfort. And, then, John tells us something that ought to give us a good deal of peace, when we start worrying about things like why the Gospel stories don’t exactly match one another. He tells us that Jesus did a lot more, things while He was with them. Things that are not listed in the book. And, he tells us why, too: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Of course, you all know me, and knowing me, know that I can’t let anything stand as is, so I need to close this morning by taking another look at that final line, too. Michael Gorman, who wrote a textbook on Biblical exegesis says that our preferred version of the Bible isn’t fit for interpretation, at all, because the English language has changed dramatically since it was translated, and also because modern translators have access to older and better manuscripts. If that is so, and it may be, then even if the original Gospels matched perfectly, we might not know it because of translation errors. So, what does that last line say in some more current translations? Well, in the NRSV, Professor Gorman’s preferred text, it says “ But these are written, that ye may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God; and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Not quite the same, is it? Notably, several words are reversed. But then, in the ESV, a version that Gorman likes with a few cautions, it says “ But these are written, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Small differences again, but again perhaps significant. What does the original Greek say? “ but these have been written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that believing, life ye may have in name his.” It says it in Greek, of course; that’s why the word order is kind of messed up, but this is the literal translation, word by word.
Does it matter to us, this Easter season, that there are small differences in the accounts? You decide. As for me, I have decided that it does not matter to me. What matters to me, here and now, is that John did the best he could to write the truth. The copiers of his manuscript did the best they could do to copy it correctly. The various translators did the very best they could do, to get it right. And every single possible translation is close enough for us to get the point. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and if we believe that, we can have eternal life in his name.” Now, that’s good news.