Yes, I suppose the perceptive among you have noted that today’s lectionary gospel reading is from Luke – and this year’s Gospel is supposed to be Mark. Last year the focus was Matthew in year A, this year it is Mark, and next year, year C, is supposed to be when we get round to focus on Luke.
So why Luke today? In case you were wondering, this is not a mistake. The lectionary organisers have not made the blunder and nor does it mean I am taking the easy way out and finding an old sermon from a previous year. In fact there are two reasons why it cannot be Mark this morning. The few Sundays after Easter are supposed to have readings on what happened after the resurrection and because the original version of Mark only had eight verses dealing with this, there is no way the eight verses would be spun out over several Sundays.
The other worry with Mark is that for whatever reason he decided not to say anything about Jesus post resurrection appearances – and in fact the Gospel he wrote originally finished at verse 8 instead with the women fleeing in panic and confusion from the empty tomb. ( In my NRSV version of the Bible it calls this “the shorter ending” ). Leaving this ending as the only evidence about the resurrection, recording the evidence in effect as a large question mark was not at all satisfying for the early Church leaders who solved the problem on Mark’s behalf by adding a few more verses about a clearer form of evidence. That this addition happened sometime in the second century does at least bring Mark somewhat more in line with the other gospels even if it does raise serious questions about the status of apparent eye witness reporting.
We can only speculate why Mark appeared so reluctant to discuss details of what happened after the resurrection. Perhaps he didn’t quite believe the reports he must have heard, because remember by tradition he was writing his gospel in Rome and it is popularly thought with the help of Peter.
This brings us to Luke and his post resurrection account. While Luke may well have believed what he recorded, he also is at pains to point out the confusion of the disciples. In some ways this confusion is all the more puzzling when we remember that according to the other Gospel accounts there had already been a number of experiences of the disciples meeting with the resurrected Jesus. Remember a resurrected Jesus calling the disciples in from the boat to share a cooked fish breakfast. Remember Thomas being invited to put his hands in the wounds. Perhaps then the continued retelling of the different versions of the encounters each one starting with surprise and apparent disbelief is at least part metaphor. The disciples’ puzzlement is also even of help to remind us that there will always be questions and uncertainties, even for those closest to Jesus.
Luke is much less focussed on theology than for example is the case in the gospel of John. In an age when our Church services, originally grounded in the gritty realities of the day, have gradually absorbed layer upon layer of religious language and custom, it is good that Luke frequently reminds us that Jesus was discovered in the ordinary activities and day to day encounters with real people doing real things. Think for example, of how Jesus uses the humble meal as a means of making genuine contact. In Luke 14 7-11 he even suggests that the right attitude to approach a meal is with humility rather than seeking to be honoured in the meal. The Last Supper may well be the most famous of the meal encounters but there were so many others that Jesus was accused of eating with sinners. Remember the tax collector seen up the tree called down to share a meal with Jesus, the meal shared with a prostitute, the feeding of the crowd – and then there were the parables Jesus told like those called to the wedding feast, the prodigal son welcomed home with the feast of the fatted calf, the Good Samaritan who rendered aid…so many meals reported that we cannot say that they were incidental to Jesus message. Food was even seen as part of healing as for example with the 12 year old Jairus who Jesus restores to life, then immediately insists she be given food (Luke 8.55). Indeed the story of the two disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus goes further and makes it plain that as long as the disciples were simply talking with Jesus they did not really recognise him – but when they invited him to a meal, it was at table they understood they were meeting the Christ.
This particular meeting of the disciples with Jesus in today’s reading has two features which have relevance for us today.
The first is that the joy of meeting Jesus is sometimes discovered in the context of shared food. In a typical Sunday service the formal part of the service can easily take a form which precludes a genuine sharing and meeting with one another. Even the perfunctory hand shake at the door, the passing comments about the weather or even the complaints about the length of the sermon don’t exactly assist mutual communication. It is strange that we come inspired by one whose practical ministry saw the shared meal as central to his means of sharing and accepting with others, yet we see the cup of tea after the service almost as an incidental extra.
The ministry of hospitality has a good fit with our claim that caring about our neighbours is a central part of Christ’s ministry.
Let me illustrate with the story of a woman who died recently for whom the title of saint would seem deserved by those who knew her. Her name was Kay Wicks and she attended a small Church as a deacon in a small country town called Tuakau. Kay might seem at first sight to be anything but significant. She was not a prominent leader or great speaker. She was not a sophisticated theologian. On the other hand she had a great affection and concern for those who were facing difficulties in life. She had adopted a Down’s syndrome girl, linked a number of unwed mothers with the Plunket baby care organisation, helped organise Sunday school work and ran a music and dance programme for preschoolers. She was a life-line counsellor and a great organiser of church hospitality. At her funeral a few weeks ago we heard about her hospitality. For example on Christmas day her family including grand children would turn up for the meal – but more than that. There were always some extra chairs at the table in case anyone she met at the Christmas morning Church service didn’t have anywhere to go for lunch – and there would be extra presents under the tree for the visitors. Shortly before she died she was visited at the hospice by a young man who had taken the trouble to come from the other end of the country – and why? – because when he had been a troubled young delinquent she had helped him turn his life around. It would have been no surprise to anyone who knew her that the large hall was absolutely packed for her funeral.
In the same way the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus and today’s story of the disciples about to eat when they were gathered together, unexpectedly encountered Christ at table, I want to suggest that something of Jesus was in those encounters with Kay.
But to return to Luke’s closing story of the encounter of Jesus with his disciples. The disciples found joy in the encounter but in part it was a joy rising from confusion. I can relate to the sort of disciples who, despite having met Jesus, and having lived with him and seen his actions in practice might still be confused about what such encounters might mean. This is of comfort because it means there might still be hope for us if we too find ourselves bewildered by what we encounter.
There is mystery in the story, perhaps even that deeper magic present at the beginning of time, but Luke reports Jesus as being insistent that the encounter with him is more with the ordinary, the flesh and blood, rather than the mystery of the Spirit. For me this is a metaphor to remind us that ultimately Jesus will be encountered at the deepest level not in the high blown mystical encounters even those engineered by the finest of liturgists but in the midst of real life. Because real life is not neatly packaged in convenient sections it is almost expected that the disciples, despite having met Jesus, lived with him and seen his actions in practice might still be left with questions about what such encounters might mean.
The fact that there are so many Christian denominations (38,000 at one Wikipedia count) and within those, so many shades of interpretation about the meaning of resurrection, also means that we are unlikely to find statements about resurrection supported by an overwhelming majority. Where however we might find agreement, is to suggest that a tomb is no place to confine the spirit of Jesus.
There is much of metaphor in the New Testament accounts of resurrection and calls to mission. Yet the metaphor rarely directs us to focus on where custom suggests it should be focussed. Like it or not, Jesus is not recorded as focussing on what we might for want of a better term call Church activity.
Jesus calls his disciples at this last encounter to see that their mission should start with Jerusalem which is of course the very city which had sent him to his death. This is a helpful reminder not just to the disciples in Jesus day – but even for us today. Certainly Jerusalem remains a divided and far from peaceful city.
There the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims all make their claim and there have been centuries of unrest to bear testament to the fact that Christ’s message of peace and forgiveness is as much needed today as it was almost 2000 years ago. But it is also in such places where peace is required that our mission in his name is needed. We might well get our inspiration for action in the liturgy and sermons of our Church service but ultimately it is in the situations of urgent need we are called to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the persecuted, to show hospitality to the lonely – and in short – to live the gospel we claim we find in the place we call church.
And more than that, we have Jesus example and teaching to remind us that others will encounter him when those who seek to follow his words, minister in practical flesh and blood situations.
So the question for each one of us….. In our encounters, will others experience the warmth and welcome of the Love of God? In our encounters, will others find the same attention to the place of hospitality and acceptance that Jesus demonstrated? In our encounters, will others get that tantalising and puzzling glimpse of the same Spirit that appeared to be so hard to kill – and yet which always seems a little beyond understanding even by his closest disciples?
Resurrection means life and remember the tomb is a most inappropriate place to contain the spirit of life.
Christ is risen
He is risen indeed!