SERMON for the Third Sunday of Easter

SERMON for the Third Sunday of Easter

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 14th April 2024

When several people write an account of a specific event, each inevitably places a different emphasis on both details and even on what the event is about or signifies. Those who wrote the accounts of the resurrection had quite different backgrounds, wrote at different times, used different material, and made different points for their different readerships. Indeed, some of the emphases of the resurrection that the gospel writers offer us contrast quite sharply. The passage we have just heard from Luke’s gospel illustrates this point. On Easter Day we heard of women who were too afraid to believe. Last week we heard about Thomas, who wanted more evidence to believe. In today’s passage, the first we have heard from Luke, we read about the disciples who “while in their joy were disbelieving and still wondering”. Luke seems to be saying that there is almost too much joy about to believe.

So today it may be helpful for us to look at the whole post resurrection story purely as Luke saw it. Luke alone witnesses to the ascension as an event which brings the resurrection appearances to an end: the movement of Jesus’ physical body into heaven, follows in verses immediately after today’s text. Until that point Luke’s account seems to show that Jesus’ followers neither recognize the significance of the resurrection, nor appreciate the full significance of his life. The Emmaus Road story is a link between Jesus’ own life and is a root for the future eucharistic life of the church. Luke is less concerned with a past encounter than with the way in which the eucharist unites us with the living presence of the risen Lord. It was the climax of the Last Supper and it realises and discloses his presence after the resurrection, and to us here this morning. Jesus, still so often unrecognized, travels with his church on its pilgrimage now as then, in all its perplexity and muddle. Its heart is warmed by the scriptures, but for Luke Jesus is discerned in the breaking of bread.

Today’s passage shows Jeus in the most unashamedly physical or materialistic of the resurrection narratives. Though Thomas, who sought to put Jesus’ physical state to the test, is not mentioned, here Jesus answers the disciples’ doubts by eating broiled fish in front of them. If we accept that Luke’s Emmaus story reflects Luke’s thoughts about the later church and her relationship with the Lord, this story reflects Luke’s emphasis on the physicality of the resurrection much more emphatically than the other New Testament accounts. Indeed Luke shows certainty about the resurrection, to emphasise the reports of the resurrection by eyewitnesses. The women beheld his death, burial and the empty tomb. The disciples need more certain evidence, even after appearing to Peter. Jesus is clearly no ghost to Luke, and is the very person with whom the disciples had walked, lived, and engaged with from the earliest days in Galilee. At the beginning of part 2 of Luke’s writing, the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the disciples have to become reliable and convinced witnesses to the resurrection.

Jesus now opens their minds to understand the scriptures. For Luke it is fundamental that Jesus’ whole career fulfilled the scriptures, but it needs the physical risen Jesus to make the real connection, for the disciples have not previously found their commitment in his life. They only find it when the scriptures are read with the prior conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, and, even then, there is more tension between the promise and the fulfilment than Luke mentions.

In verses immediately following today’s, we read that Jesus commands the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until after they have received the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. From Luke’s point of view Pentecost is the eschatological moment of the renewal of Israel, before the universal witness of the disciples and their followers can begin. These people will be clothed with power from on high, which will lead to witness to the whole world.   

For today we have a sense that the disciples are beginning to believe and so beginning to understand something of what has happened. We may remember that Augustine once wrote that “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand”. The disciples are familiar with the concept of resurrection in the Jewish tradition, and will be finding that resurrection is about what God is up to in the world, already changed by the incarnation. It has been said that God has made the future tense into the present tense.

And what about us in this story? For our belief in the resurrection, we too are called to deepen our understanding of the scriptures, and to ponder it. The disciples realized that they were caught up in the mystery of God, through the mystery of the person they had touched and known. Jesus opened their minds to understand scripture, to see how they fitted into the story, and then to go out to proclaim the good news to all nations.

It is for us to pray for a deeper awareness of Jesus’ presence with us, and to ask that we are sustained to serve God. In this way we pray that we shall follow in the footsteps of the disciples. An Easter discipline for us could well be to give some close attention to scripture once again, perhaps with the help of a commentary, to seek the grace to ponder, in order to deepen our awareness of God.