Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christ Has Arisen! Let us be Witnesses

The following is a sermon I gave on April 22, 2012 in Norwich at the Chenango Valley Home & Apartments where my mother-in-law lives. It was based on the Gospel lesson:  Luke 24:36b-48:

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Christ Has Arisen! Let us be Witnesses

Today’s reading from the Gospel describes Christ’s appearance to the eleven disciples on the evening on which he arose from the dead. This was actually the fifth time Christ was seen on the same day he arose: by Mary Magdalene alone in the garden; by the women as they were going to tell the disciples; by Peter alone; and by two disciples on their way to Emmaus; and now by night by the eleven.
As the scene opens the disciples are behind locked doors discussing the sighting of Christ on the road to Emmaus, when suddenly Jesus is with them. The first thing he says to them is “Peace be with you.” He may have said this for many reasons. He knew they would be frightened and confused by his sudden appearance among them. So, “peace be with you” – calm down, all is well. Or he may have said it to reassure them he was not angry with them for running away when he was taken captive, and that he forgave Peter for denying him three times. “Peace be with you” – I know you feel that you failed me and yourselves, but all is well. I am here. 
The disciples reaction was one of fear. They thought he was a ghost, because how else could he have gotten into a closed room? Even though they had heard and some had even seen him prior to this, they still were frightened. Jesus seeing this asked them why they were troubled and why they had doubts. Hadn’t he already foretold his return? But seeing that they were frightened, he invited them to look at his hands and feet – they could clearly see the nail holes that remained from his crucifixion. Then he invited them to touch him, to verify that he was indeed flesh and blood, and therefor could not be a ghost as they assumed. 
In keeping the wounds on his resurrected body he was telling them, and us, that it is okay to come before God as a wounded person. He was saying see these wounds, feel them and know that it is all right to hurt.  Pain comes to us all. I was hurt as all people are hurt, but that pain and that hurt no longer has dominion over me. I live, as I said I would.  I told you that I would suffer and that you, if you followed me, would also suffer. But I told you too that after passing through various trials and tests that pain and even death itself would lose its power; its power over me and its power over those who believe in me.
They still did not believe because of “joy and amazement.” They didn’t believe because they thought it must be too good to be true. If you think about it, maybe that’s the way we would react if we are present for the second coming of Christ. Haven’t we been told he will return again, just as the disciples had been told he would arise from the dead? We have heard of the Second Coming all of our Christian lives, just as the disciples had heard of his resurrection all of their Christian lives. Who are we to say that we would not also act with joy, amazement and disbelief as well?
But in order to further convince them of his bodily presence, Jesus asked them for something to eat. And when it was given to him, he ate it in front of them. Surely a ghost could not do that. He was truly flesh and truly there!
Jesus reminded them that he had taught them all that was written in the “Law of Moses, the Prophets and Psalms” – in other words, in the Old Testament – and that he was fulfilling all the prophesies. The Old Testament had always pointed to the coming of the Messiah. His suffering was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53; his resurrection was predicted in Psalm 16:9-11: heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. and in Isaiah 53:10-11:  Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Jesus opened the minds of the disciples so that they would understand the scriptures. We, too, can open our minds to understand Scripture through study, through prayer, and through the intercession of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. Jesus had told his disciples that he would not be around forever to teach them, but that he would leave another “Counselor” to help after he was gone. In John 14:16-17 he said:  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. And later in that same chapter, in verse 26 he said: But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
After opening their minds to the scriptures he instructed them to preach among all the nations all that they had learned. He wanted them to teach everyone – the Jews and the Gentiles – of his suffering, his death, and his resurrection. The repentance and redemption of sin should be shared with all the world, beginning with Jerusalem where he had died. 
In his lifetime, Jesus had been seen by many as a pretender and blasphemer. After his resurrection, people had to change their minds and serve him for who he really is, the Son of God. Jesus summarized the mission of the disciples as preaching repentance, calling people to turn from their own selfish ways to Christ, the one who died for them. The content of the disciples’ preaching would center on remission of sins, which is God’s gracious offer of forgiveness to all who would believe. 
Jesus declared that the disciples were witnesses of these things. He was pointing out to them that they were called to testify to his work.
So, what lessons are we to learn from these passages?
We learn that Jesus and God are all forgiving. In Jesus’ opening statement “Peace be with you,” he was assuring the disciples, and us, of this.
We learn that sometimes when something seems to be too good to be true, it really can be true. Jesus really did arise from the dead which gives us reassurance that he will come again as he promised.
We learn that it’s okay to ask for and receive proof from God that what he says is true. Jesus proved his bodily resurrection by showing the disciples his hands and feet and eating in front of them. I have asked for and received signs from God as assurance that He has heard me, and you can too.
We learn that through study, both by ourselves and with others, through prayer, and through the power of the Holy Spirit we can open our hearts and minds to understand the scriptures written long ago.
We learn that we are called to see and believe and to have hope in the face of death. For God is greater than death, bringing forgiveness of sins and newness of life to those who believe.
We learn that even though some people remain closed of to faith in Jesus, our Savior is not bound by closed doors. There is no room beyond his ability to penetrate, no person who cannot experience his touch, and no circumstance beyond the reach of his presence. If you are feeling far from God, remember – He never moves. If we are far away from Him, it’s because we did the moving. He is always waiting for us to return.
We learn that no word is more central to the Christian faith than witness. Many people may think that witnessing is what the preacher does every Sunday. That’s true, preaching is one form of witnessing, but one of the most effective kinds of witnessing is that done by lay members. Preaching is important, but the witness of lay people, like you and me, is more important. People expect ministers to witness, that’s what they get paid to do. But when a lay person witnesses, people really listen. And you witness not only through words, but sometimes more effectively through actions; that of living your life as God desires.
We learn that we are to be witnesses of this basic foundation of our Christian faith: Christ was born, Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ arose, and He will come again.
Hallelujah and amen!  Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, the light of your love shines on, illuminating the places where you are present.  As the bewildered disciples pondered the stories of your appearance, you penetrated the darkness of their fear and doubt with your  word of peace. You showed them the appalling marks of evil pierced on your hands and feet. You opened their minds to understand why you had to die to defeat such evil and death. Increase our understanding, we pray, and open our minds and hearts  to  receive you, Lord. Speak  your word of peace to us and let your love shine on any dark areas in our lives. May this worship which we offer in your name be a worthy response to your love and your sacrifice for us. Amen.

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