Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 18, 2021
Luke 24:36-48 Commentary
The end of Luke’s Gospel sums it all up pretty well. In swift strokes of Luke’s quill, we move from Easter Sunday evening directly to the Ascension of Jesus (just beyond the bounds of this lection). We learn from Luke’s other New Testament contribution, Acts, that Jesus lingered in physical form for a good forty days after Easter. But neither here in Luke—nor in the first half-dozen or so verses in Acts—do we glean a single idea of what was said or done across that nearly six-week stretch of time.
Jesus was right here, walking the earth as its resurrected Lord and King and yet Luke (a skilled narrator of gripping and cracking good stories if ever there was one) finds not a single tale worth telling. All we get instead is the revelation that the resurrected Jesus opened the disciples’ minds so they could finally connect the dots and discover that all of Scripture—the whole Bible as they then knew it—had found its Yes in Jesus. Jesus is the Rosetta Stone of Scripture (if not of all reality)—if you know who he really is, you see how within his own person and ministry and now resurrected presence every thread, every strand, every story, every promise, every prophecy winds and wends its way straight to him.
Apparently that is all they will need to know. All that remains is for them to receive the power that will not only solidify this all in their hearts and minds but will give them the boldness to proclaim the truth of Jesus to the whole world. That power (in the form, of course, of the Holy Spirit) would come eventually but in the meanwhile and up until then, what Jesus revealed to the hearts and minds of the disciples on that first Easter evening was apparently thee #1 thing that had to happen during those forty post-resurrection days. Once Luke conveys this to us, he’s finished with the forty days.
Everything that needed to be shown and told and taught had already taken place, apparently, in Jesus’ ministry as narrated in the whole Gospel up to this point. All that remained was for the disciples to understand how all that they had experienced in Jesus’ presence represented nothing short of cosmic history coming to a head. The meaning of the past, the hope for the present, and the content of the future was all inside the resurrected Lord. Once they understood that (no small thing to grasp, by the way!), there was really nothing more for Jesus to say or do.
Let’s be honest as preachers: this snippet of Luke seems a tidge short on drama and content. Yes, it’s wonderful and amazing to note that Jesus popped from out of thin air to be with the disciples that evening and yes, it’s curious to see Jesus pop a piece of broiled perch into his mouth to prove he was a physical being and not a ghostly apparition, but once you’ve pointed those things out to a congregation, the narrative is pretty well finished.
And yet . . . the import and impact of what happens in this short reading is stunning. Think of it: what this means is that we, too, as latter-day followers of Jesus are charged with grasping how all things come together in Jesus (cf. Colossians 1:15-23 to see Paul’s breathtaking summary of this outrageous truth). So often—especially in our soundbite era—we tend to reduce the Christian faith and our practice of it to slogans, to bumper stickers, to four spiritual laws or forty days of purpose or seven basic principles of this or that. But the story is so much bigger than this. Jesus isn’t just our chum, our mentor, our pal, or even just our own personal Master or instructor on life lessons.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. And the reason he is King and Lord and is even now “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (as we casually say in reciting the creed each week in some churches) is because everything there is to know about the universe comes together in him. Yes, that is a big and outrageous claim. It was a big and outrageous claim when Jesus first made it on that first Easter evening as it is reported in Luke 24 and it is certainly a big and outrageous claim given what we now know about the size and age and complexity of the universe.
Easter, the resurrection, who Jesus is and what he means for the cosmos: these are not small, intramural matters that we can easily understand or wrap our minds around in an instant. These are properly jaw-dropping matters that elicit wonder but also a kind of enthusiasm to probe those Scriptures that all witness to Jesus. In some places within the church world it seems that serious sermons and the exposition of Scripture have been shoved aside—or at least downsized a bit—in favor of other things designed to engage and entertain congregations. But this brief passage from Luke 24 reminds us that there can finally be no substitute for the genuine article of reading, studying, pondering, and understanding the Scriptures and how they call come together in Christ Jesus the Lord and King.
This is all big, serious stuff.
Thanks be to God that this is so!
Questions to Ask / Issues to Address
“While they were still talking about this . . . Jesus himself stood among them.”
I wonder how often those of us who preach and teach in the church realize that far from being an isolated incident in Luke 24, this kind of thing happens all the time. Richard Mouw once reminded us that as children, we are often told by adults to watch our language when we are “in polite company.” But as Mouw also went on to note, a key reason why Christian people discipline themselves to guard their lips and monitor their speech is because of our Christian belief that when it comes right down to it, we are always in polite company. “The Lord is near,” as Paul put it in Philippians 4.
Yes, he is.
The truth is that every time we get together—whether excitedly or doggedly or with a hint of boredom in our voices—every time we get together to talk about Jesus, to debate a theological point, or to present some sermon we have worked on, Jesus always comes and stands in the midst of us (whether he is always minded to greet us with “Peace be with you” is another matter . . .). We can never merely talk about God or Christ or the Holy Spirit without being aware that we are speaking in their presence as well.
True, this can lead some people to all kinds of spooky “Big Brother” and other Kafka-esque scenarios of paranoia. But as Psalm 139 reminds us, God does indeed know us right well and from top to bottom and at every moment of our lives—in fact, the psalm claims that God knows us better than we know ourselves! But the good news is that God is the One who can be trusted with such comprehensive knowledge. This is a loving God, not a tyrannical despot who will use what we say against us.
Still, it’s startling to think that when we speak of Jesus, he is always standing right in the midst of us whether we notice him at first or not. And like the disciples, there may be times when, upon realizing this, we too are startled and frightened by his presence. But maybe remembering that we live all of life in the presence of Christ (through his Holy Spirit at least) will have a properly humbling effect on us in terms of what we say about Jesus. At the very least we are reminded that when we preach and when we teach and when we talk about theology or bandy about ideas about spirituality and the like, we can never finally engage in idle chit-chat. We are not talking about only ideas at the end of the day but about a Person, and about a very personal God.
That, after all, is a key teaching about Easter and about the resurrection story that consumes Luke 24: if we believe what we celebrate at the core of the Christian faith, then we do believe Jesus lives. And even if we don’t want to go as far in the direction of pop piety as the lyrics of those songs that claim that Jesus talks with us while the dew is still on the roses or that he walks with us along life’s narrow way, even so we do believe he is alive and is alive as a very real person and, through the Spirit, as a very real personal presence in our lives.
The Christian church made clear long ago that our faith is not first and finally about ideas and concepts only. We’re not Gnostics seeking to be saved through a word of knowledge. We’re not Eastern-like mystics who believe that the key to spirituality is to find ways to transcend this world’s physicalness so as to drift into realms of pure thought and consciousness. No, our faith is gritty and fleshy and tangible and involves nothing short of the renewal of all things: lakes, mountains, tadpoles, tangerines, real human bodies.
Two weeks after Easter, this lection reminds us that Jesus is always present in our midst when we talk about him and that at the end of the cosmic day, we would not want it any other way.
In Luke 24:44 we are told that Jesus’ instruction in the Scriptures included “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” That latter inclusion—and the Psalms—is unique in the New Testament. Although there is a time or two when a specific psalm gets mentioned (Jesus mentioned a psalm in Luke 20:42, for instance) this is the only place where the Scriptures are summarized as not just Law and Prophets but also the Psalms. Taken together, that is the traditional triplet that was used as shorthand for the entirety of Hebrew Scripture or what we often call the Old Testament. Jesus was indeed saying to the disciples on the eve of that first Easter day that his resurrection fulfills not just an individual passage or set of passages but the whole of all God’s revelation to humanity.
My friend and former Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga tells a story of something he experienced while talking to a man on death row at the huge penitentiary of Angola in Louisiana. Neal talked to an African-American man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, spectacles that gave this convicted murderer what Neal called “a professorial air.” Neal asked him how he passed his days there in prison and in reply, the man picked up his NIV Bible from his bedside stand. “I read this, Our Book,” the man replied. “You know, sometimes I realize that on any given day or across any given time, most everything good that happens or is said in this world somehow comes from this, Our Book. The truth of the whole world and everything that happens in this world somehow is in here, and I get to have a copy of all that right here in my cell. Isn’t that something? I just know I will never get to the bottom of it.”
As Plantinga then observed, too often in the church, we have a far too low opinion of just what it is we have in that thing called The Holy Bible—Our Book.
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