multicolored quilt in pastel colors representing the Cross

April 15, 2018

“Meeting Easter Jesus Again for the First Time”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Put your hand on our shoulder and point us in the right direction.  Put our hand on someone’s shoulder and let it matter.  Amen.<<

Reverend Quinn Caldwell tells a funny story about the children’s time in his former church.  “There’s this great five-year-old in my congregation,” writes Caldwell, “who [gives] the exact same answer to every question anybody’s asked during a children’s message.  ‘Children, do you know what baptism is for?,’ [asks the person giving the children’s sermon].  ‘Zombies!,’ [says the five-year-old.]  ‘Does anybody remember [anything about the season of] Lent?’  ‘Zombies,’ [says the five-year-old.]  ‘Can anybody tell me what this is I’m holding in my hand [for today’s children’s sermon]?’  ‘Zombies,’ [says the five-year-old.]  It’s become a fun inside joke in my congregation and we love [this child] for it,” says Caldwell, “but it does make me a little nervous about how Easter will go.  ‘Kids, does anyone know what Jesus was after he rose from the dead?’”

Today’s gospel reading from Luke is one of those stories in the New Testament – and there are several – where the no-longer-dead but living-in-a-new-way Jesus appears to his small group of followers, not as a “zombie,” but as something difficult to classify.  In today’s story, the resurrected Jesus surprises and startles the disciples by appearing in their midst.  Luke says they were “terrified,” thinking they were being haunted by a “ghost.”  And then, in one of the gospels’ strangest stories about the post-Easter Jesus, Jesus quells their fears and questions by showing them his body with its crucifixion scars, and then eating a piece of broiled fish.  There are many similar “appearance” stories of the resurrected Jesus in the gospels.  The gospels speak of Easter Jesus passing through locked doors, yet materializing in such a way that people can touch the scars on his hands and feet.  Easter Jesus can converse with his disciples, as he does with Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the empty tomb, or in today’s story when he asks the disciples if they’ve got leftovers from dinner.  Easter Jesus can appear and disappear, yet eat food like a flesh-and-blood person.  He can also a cook:  at the end of John’s gospel, the disciples meet him on a beach while he cooks breakfast for them over a charcoal fire.  St. Paul notes in his letters that post-Easter Jesus appeared to over 500 people; and Paul himself claims to have personally met the resurrected Christ on the Damascus Road years after the tomb was discovered empty.  The light that shown from Christ was so bright, according to the Book of Acts, that Paul temporarily lost his eyesight.  And two disciples met the resurrected Christ as they walked on a road toward the town of Emmaus, in the story that precedes the one we heard a moment ago.  They had no idea it was Jesus until he revealed himself to them in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup.  Once they recognized him, he “vanished,” writes Luke.

The resurrected Jesus in the gospels is spiritually ghost-like, passing through locked doors, yet bodily present, eating fish and chatting, able to be touched and embraced.  In his letters, St. Paul calls this strange resurrected form a “spirit-body,” using an odd construction in Greek; it’s the same sort of form that Paul believes we will all eventually take:  “spiritual bodies.”  The chorus that is the New Testament sings with one voice about post-Easter Jesus:  his many appearances are a mystery; he doesn’t fit neatly into known categories; he can be brilliantly ablaze with divine light or shrouded behind a peasant’s cloak; his is a ghostly-body, appearing and vanishing, yet bodily in form.  Not quite the “zombie” in that story Quinn Caldwell tells, but certainly different, numinous, strange, scary, gentle, surprising, and present in ways no one expects.

On one hand, though, such appearances of Jesus are not that out-of-the-ordinary.  There’s a long history in popular culture of the dead appearing in some form to the living.  The film Ghost comes to mind, as do the many appearances of dead Jedi Knights in the Star Wars films.  Coldplay’s album Ghost Stories riffs on this theme in places, as does their song 42 on the Viva la Vida album:  “those who are dead are not dead, they’re [still] living in my head,” sings Chris Martin of Coldplay.  In his book The Birth of Christianity, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan draws from research in psychiatric literature on grief and bereavement to point out that having a powerful sense of a lost person’s presence can be part of the grieving process.  Crossan writes, “‘Review of well-conducted studies of the past three decades shows that about one-half to eighty percent of bereaved people studied feel this intuitive, sometimes overwhelming “presence” or “spirit” of the lost person.’”[1]  So maybe it wasn’t so out-of-the-ordinary for the grieving disciples to experience the presence of post-Easter Jesus.

And maybe it wasn’t so out-of-the-ordinary, because there are several stories in ancient literature that tell of dead heroes appearing to the living – stories that resemble those of the resurrected Christ in the gospels.  The Hebrew prophet Samuel in the biblical book of First Samuel was called up from the underworld, embodied and robed, to give advice to King Saul.  In Homer’s Iliad, Patroclus appeared to Achilles in a dream.  Patroclus was, “in all things,” writes Homer, “like his very self, in stature and fair eyes and in voice, and in like raiment was he clad withal.”  And in Virgil’s Aeneid, the dead Hector appears to Aeneas, embodied and bearing the scars of war, with “puffed-out feet,” writes the poet, “his beard all filth, his hair matted with blood, showing the wounds … received outside his father’s city walls [at the hands of Achilles.]”  Our ancient ancestors thought nothing of bodies appearing and communing with them, giving them advice, and even eating – there were several religious groups in the ancient world that ate with the dead.  Appearing in flesh, bearing the marks and wounds of life and death, communing with the living – none of these were considered out-of-the-ordinary for the dead in antiquity.

What makes post-Easter Jesus different – and stunningly so – was that he was a crucified Jew from Nazareth, crushed by the imperial state – an oppressed victim, a nobody.  It was one thing for the great prophet Samuel to appear, or for the great Trojan hero Hector to appear, but quite another for a carpenter from Nazareth, a country Rabbi, a champion of the poor and oppressed, a non-elite, to appear.  And not just to appear a handful of times to grieving disciples, but to continue appearing in the faces and bodies of people who are easily forgotten in our world:  the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, those targeted by bombs and bullets; appearing in the faces and bodies of two African American men arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks yesterday; appearing in the faces and bodies of the undocumented, the victimized, the people we pass on the street, or who sit next to us in the pew.  In Matthew’s gospel, Easter Jesus says to his followers:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and cold and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. … As you did it to … the least of these,” he says, “ … you did it to me.”

Those words of Christ call to mind for me two stories.  The first is about a man named Norman Baker.[2]  The story is told by writer Erin White.  She writes, “[A few months ago,] Norman, an 89-year-old congregant at my rural Massachusetts church, stood to make an announcement.  On this morning his white hair was combed back, his beard trimmed.  His Carhartt pants and flannel shirt looked cleanly pressed.  He took his time rising to his feet, leaning on the pew in front of him as he turned to face the congregation.  ‘This announcement might not matter to anyone but me,’ he said, ‘but in the early hours of this morning my son’s wife gave birth to two tiny daughters.’  His smile was wide.  ‘I got the call just before dawn, [he said.]’  We all cheered and called out our congratulations.  Norman’s announcement mattered to all of us.  Announcements are an important part of life in a small church.  The first Sunday my wife and I attended what has now been our church for fifteen years, a woman raised her hand for an announcement and when the minister called on her she stood, cleared her throat, and said, ‘This morning I saw God in the face of a kitten.’  My wife looked at me in disbelief.  She’d been raised in [a church] where the idea of a congregant actually speaking during a service – let alone sharing a divine feline vision – was unimaginable to her.…

“[In our small congregation, Erin White continues,] church isn’t about order or quiet or even ritual so much as it is about showing up.  For yourself, for God, and for the people around you who need to feel – just as you do – that the blessings and burdens of being a human are not theirs to bear alone. … Just a few weeks after Norman announced the arrival of his twin granddaughters,” White continues, “the plane he was piloting, his 1966 single-engine Cessna, crashed in the Vermont woods.  He’d been flying, alone, to his son’s house for Thanksgiving.  He didn’t survive. … In the days after Norman’s death I thought often of his last announcement.  I imagined that he hadn’t been able to sleep after that dawn phone call from his son, so he’d stayed up, maybe had some coffee.  He’d remembered that it was Sunday, and that he could go to church and [tell everyone].  Because that sort of news isn’t news you want to keep to yourself.  I imagined him combing his hair, stringing a belt through his pants … .  Then pulling on his boots and making his way to church, where he could breathe some life into his quiet joy and announce his relief for the news of a safe delivery, the miracle of two tiny granddaughters.  Where he could join the communion of souls. … A few days after Norman’s death, a Facebook friend of mine … posted his obituary.  When I first saw the post I was confused.  The link wasn’t to our local newspaper, but to The New York Times.  And this was the headline:  ‘Norman Baker, Adventurer, Dies at 89; Crossed Atlantic on a Reed Raft.’  I clicked on the link and read the obituary, then read it again.  I called out to my family, walking into the living room with my computer.  ‘Look at this,’ I said, showing them a photo of a grinning and bearded young man on a raft, ‘It’s Norm Baker!  And the man next to him is Thor Heyerdahl!’  ‘Church Norm?’ asked my older daughter.  ‘Who’s Thor Heyerdahl?’ asked my younger daughter.  I read aloud from the screen:  ‘“[Norman Baker] mined gold in Alaska, climbed the Matterhorn, and lived on a 19th Century Schooner that he and his wife had rebuilt.  In the ultimate adventure, he navigated a treacherous 3,275-mile voyage across the Atlantic on a papyrus raft captained by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl.”’ … [The obituary contained a] picture taken in 2012 at the National Explorers society in New York.  Norman was wearing a tuxedo and two medallions strung on ribbons were around his neck.  His dark eyes shone.  He looked like royalty. … Norman hadn’t ever told me a story about his past, just as I’d never told him a story about mine.  If I’d known about the expeditions, about the Swiss peaks and papyrus raft, … would I have felt shy of him? … Maybe the real reason I didn’t know anything about Norman’s adventures was that mostly we didn’t talk.  We [just] listened.  We sang.  We stood [together in the pews].  We created, along with everyone around us, that thing called church.”

Now for the second story.  It’s about a bodega owner in Brooklyn named Candido Arcángel.[3]  The story is told by journalist Sarah Maslin.  Maslin writes:  “Between the racks of canned beans and rolls of toilet paper in a bodega in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a staircase hides beside the shelves.  It leads to a cavern where, for the past 14 years, the bodega owner has quietly housed scores of homeless men, some with violent pasts and mental illness.  He takes them in, from local park benches and street corners, unable to bear the idea of anyone out in the cold.  Here, beneath the shelves of instant soup and paper towels is an unauthorized shelter in its most primal form – a dank unfinished basement, [that is] cavelike … where the men sleep on pallets amid pools of dark water on the cement floor.  But there is real warmth, the men say.  It comes from behind the deli counter, where seven days a week, stands the welcoming bodega owner, Candido Arcángel. … On a recent afternoon, three men slept in [the] blackness.  One man stretched across 22 neatly stacked plastic milk crates, a pastel blue coverlet drawn up to his shoulders.  Wires and pipes [hung from] the ceiling.  In a corner, a black hose dripped unceasingly into a hole in the ground … .  Arcángel recognizes the limitations of the crude shelter he provides … [but it’s his opportunity, he says,] to find [the least of these], and bring them in, ‘so they [can experience the] love [of] God.’ … ‘This is not a personal mission; it’s a mission for the good of society,’ [he says.] … And for [the] residents … , the basement harbors a [scarce] resource … in [the] city … :  kindness.  More than a roof, more than food, … at night, huddled in the dripping dark, [the men] crave just one thing.  ‘Someone who will say, “Hello, blessings.  How are you?”’.”

……The many appearances of the resurrected Christ in the gospels are not that extraordinary when framed as part of the grieving process.  And they’re not that extraordinary when placed in their ancient context of dead heroes appearing to the living.  What is extraordinary is that a country Rabbi – a carpenter – would appear, but even more, that he continues to appear to us in unexpected ways in the faces and bodies of the “least of these” in our lives:  in the Normans sitting next to us, in the homeless poor on our streets.  And that we are invited by the spirit of God to meet this “Easter” Jesus when he materializes around us.  Amen.



[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity:  Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (New York:  HarperCollins, 1999), xvi.