Friday, April 24, 2009

Sermon: 3 Pascha (3 Easter) 2009

Sermon: 3 Pascha (26 April 2009)
(Acts 3:12-19/Psalm4/1 John 3:1-7/Luke 24:36b-48)
A Case of Mistaken Identity

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

The gospel accounts of the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are all a-jumble; it is very difficult to construct a consistent timeline from the various narratives – which is exactly the kind of reporting you might expect from eyewitnesses overwhelmed by a eucatastrophe[1] – a good catastrophe – a cataclysmic event of great, good news. Of course, the basic truth of the story emerges clearly and intact: Christ is risen from the dead! – though exactly how that happened and what that means is much less clear.

Certainly, the disciples and apostles seem confused in the Gospel accounts. Take Mary Magdalene, for example, the first to see Jesus. She mistakenly thinks Him the gardener. Of course, Saint John, who records this encounter, does so with a self-conscious, theological eye toward the Genesis account; he wants all to see the greater reality behind Mary’s mistake. It is the first day of the week and we find ourselves in a garden, in the presence of the Gardener. In an obvious parallel to the Genesis creation account, John pictures Jesus as God walking in the cool of the day in his new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of the re-creation of the cosmos. (In a similar parallel, Saint Paul considers Jesus the new Adam in whom all mankind is reborn, again a garden reference.) But these insights await decades of theological reflection. All that Mary knows on this great morning is that Jesus is missing and this “gardener” might know where he’s been taken.

Later that day, Jesus appears to Cleopas and a companion as they return home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Once again, these disciples fail to recognize Jesus. He walks with them a few miles, close enough for an intense conversation, and still they do not know him. And yet, as he opens the Scripture to them on the road, explaining all things about the Messiah, their hearts burn within them, until finally, in the breaking of the bread – a clear reference to the Eucharist – their eyes are opened to see Jesus. Here, too, the Gospels contain a great truth hidden within a case of mistaken identity: it is in Scripture and the breaking of the bread that Christ always becomes present to us and always known to us if faith gives us ears to hear, eyes to see, and hands to touch.

These two disciples immediately return to Jerusalem and the apostles.

They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’
37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:34-43, NRSV).

A ghost: that is the best explanation the apostles have to offer for the apparition of Jesus standing in front of them. It would be easy to dismiss them as primitive, superstitious people – easy, perhaps, but not accurate. These men – and perhaps the faithful women are there, too – are realists, struggling for a reasonable, rational explanation to this event beyond their experience. They saw Jesus crucified; they are certain he is dead. And yet, here he is, appearing behind – and that means through – closed doors. If this is vision or delusion, then it is shared delusion – and how is that possible? No, a ghost offers a much better explanation. Many cultures – including our own, modern, enlightened one – have a concept of the persistence of the dead among us. Spirits sometimes linger. Spirits sometimes make contact. Even the very skeptical often speak of sensing or feeling the presence of a recently deceased loved one; some even report visions. Like people of many cultures, the apostles knew of ghosts; what they did not know of was resurrection – the bodily return of the dead in the present moment. And so, they mistakenly identified the risen Christ in his glorified body for a ghost, an immaterial phantom.

Three cases of mistaken identity in the course of a single day: Mary and the “gardener,” Cleopas and the “stranger,” the eleven and the “ghost.” We could see these simply as “human elements” in the reporting of an otherwise divine account, or even “comic relief” in the most serious – though joyful – story ever told. In short, we almost could dismiss them as quaint additions to the real story: almost, but not quite. Mistaken identity is part of the real story because it is still part of our real stories.

This issue of mistaken identity, this gospel account, is captured almost perfectly in a song by Eric Bazilian, though I doubt that was his intent.

If God had a face what would it look like

And would you want to see

If seeing meant that you would have to believe

In things like heaven and in jesus and the saints and all the prophets

What if God was one of us

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Trying to make his way home

He's trying to make his way home

Back up to heaven all alone

Nobody calling on the phone

Except for the pope maybe in rome (Eric Bazilian, One of Us).

If recognizing God in the face of Jesus meant “that you would have to believe in things like heaven and in jesus and the saints and all the prophets,” might it not be easier to mistake him for someone else? Recognizing Jesus – seeing his true identity – is costly. When Peter recognized Jesus he was forced to confront his denial. When the ten recognized Jesus they were forced to confront their cowardice. When Thomas recognized Jesus he was forced to confront his doubts. And me? Sometimes all the above and more. Sometimes it’s just easier to mistake Jesus for someone else: a myth maybe, or an unfortunate religious zealot; a teacher and perhaps a very good man – anyone but the now risen Lord of all creation for whose crucifixion I am responsible; anyone but the now risen Lord of all creation before whom every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and to whom every tongue will confess “Jesus is Lord,” to the glory of God. Maybe it’s better that he remains the gardener, or a stranger, or just a slob like one of us. The trouble is he keeps appearing behind our closed doors[2], confronting our fears and showing us his wounded hands and side. “What will you make of these?” he keeps asking. It is hard to mistake those wounds for anything but signs of sacrifice and victory. It is hard to think they belong to a gardener or a stranger or a slob like one of us.

Well, if not a gardener or a stranger or a slob like one of us, then maybe we can mistake Jesus for a ghost, a temporary visitor from another realm, “trying to make his way home, back up to heaven all alone, nobody calling on the phone, except the pope maybe in rome.” This is a two-storey universe, as Fr. Stephen Freeman[3] describes it: man on the first-storey in the real world and God – perhaps – up in heaven on the second-storey, minding his own business and not interfering in ours. Ancient stories tell us that some of us may one day make it up to that second-storey – and here we may have to amend the metaphor to include a basement, also – but in the meantime God and his story/storey are functionally irrelevant to us and to our stories: Jesus as ghost – not quite real, not quite welcome here. The trouble is, he keeps showing up whenever there’s a meal – broiled fish for the apostles, bread and wine for us. It is hard to deny the reality of Jesus – his presence in this world – when each Sunday we eat his flesh and drink his blood. These pesky, post-resurrection appearances of Jesus destroy the myth of a two-storey universe. So does the prayer that opens many Orthodox services:

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life, come and dwell in us and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

These “quaint stories” of mistaken identity are anything but “quaint stories.” They are instead profound revelations of truth: Jesus is not a gardener or a stranger or a slob like one of us (and more about this later). Nor is he a ghost trying to make his way home, somehow lost and irrelevant in this real world. No, Jesus is the risen Lord of all creation before whom the angels and living creatures and elders and ten thousands of ten thousands say with a loud voice:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength,
and honour, and glory, and blessing.

And yet again,

Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power,
be unto him that sitteth upon the throne,
and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. Amen (cf Rev. 5:11 ff, KJV).

Given this, it’s hard to mistake Jesus for a gardener or a stranger or even for a slob like one of us: the gospel accounts just won’t let us. But neither will the epistle let us mistake our own identity in Christ. It will not let us see ourselves as “slobs.”

Behold what manner of love the Father has given us that we may be called children of God – and we are. Therefore, the world does not know us because it did not know him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be. We know that if he is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him like he is (1 John 3:1-2).

I don’t know what your self-image is or where it comes from. I don’t know how others may have damaged it or else over-inflated it. I don’t know if you have been told lies about yourself or if you have lied to yourself. Regardless, it is time to hear the truth and from this moment on to live that truth: Beloved, you are a child of God now – right now – and, if you are abiding in Christ, you are on your way to being like Jesus – not the gardener or the stranger or the ghost or the slob – but the glorified, risen Jesus. There is no room for pride here – amazement, yes, and overwhelming gratitude, certainly – but no room for pride, because this is gift, this is grace.

Our identity as children of God is bound inextricably with Jesus’ identity as risen Lord. If Christ is not risen, Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, then our faith is empty – futile – and we are still in our sins (cf 1 Cor 15:17) – not children of God at all, but strangers and aliens, dead in our sins. But – thanks be to God – Christ is risen and we are risen with him.

4 [But] God, who is abundant in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. By grace you are saved! 6 He also raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavens, in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace in [His] kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God's gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are His creation—created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them (Eph 2:4-10, HCS).

Children of God, raised with Christ, seated with him in the heavenly realms, and future recipients of immeasurable riches of God’s grace: this is who we are. This is our identity through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, through the power of his resurrection.

So this day continues the good and very good news of Pascha. Christ is risen and has appeared to us, not as gardener or stranger or slob like one of us, but as the risen Lord of all creation. And because of his resurrection, we are no longer slobs, but children of God. That’s who Christ is and that’s who we are. Thanks be to God!


[1]A term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears,”
[2] This image of Jesus appearing behind the closed doors of our lives is taken from a sermon by Fr. Laird Bryson, 19 April 2009, Apostles Anglican Church, Knoxville, TN,
[3] Fr. Stephen Freeman is the priest of Saint Anne’s Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN and author of Glory To God For All Things blog and Glory To God podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, and, respectively.


Father Robert Lyons said...

Another wonderful homily based on one of my favorite Scriptures... thanks John+!

John Roop + said...


Thanks for your kind words. And thanks especially for resuming your own postings; I have missed them of late and have been blessed by their return.

Christos anesti!