(Readings online here and here)
[Delivered at the Easter Vigil, but the same Gospel lesson (Luke 24:1-12) can be used on Easter Sunday]
You know, what’s really disconcerting about tonight’s Gospel lesson is that nobody actually saw the risen Jesus—at least not yet. Did you notice that?
The women hear news that he’s risen from two messengers “in dazzling clothes.” The apostles hear the news from the women, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Peter sees some cloths lying around in the tomb, and that amazes him. But he didn’t see the risen Jesus, at least not yet.
Now don’t worry. Luke goes on to tell us two stories where Jesus does show up. But … they’re tantalizingly odd.
The first time anybody sees Jesus, it’s not clear what they actually saw. They see a stranger who doesn’t look anything like Jesus, at least not yet. The moment he starts looking like Jesus, as he breaks bread, he vanishes. And then the next and last time anybody sees him, he’s just inexplicably, suddenly there while his followers are talking about him, so they still aren’t sure what they’re seeing—a ghost, maybe? Jesus says he’s no ghost and offers to let them touch him, but if anybody actually took him up on that, Luke doesn’t mention it. He does mention that they still wondered just what they were seeing.
So yes, says Luke, people did eventually see the risen Jesus. But what exactly did they see? Could they have gotten him to pose with them for a selfie? Luke doesn’t say. Maybe he doesn’t say on purpose.
Decades before Luke or any other Gospel writer wrote, St. Paul hinted at what he saw when Jesus showed up to ruin his promising career. Paul assured us that Jesus appeared to hundreds of people, including, finally, Paul himself. But he also told us that Jesus’ risen body is not a flesh-and-blood body. It’s a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-50). So it’s some sort of body, but it’s a tantalizingly odd sort, almost a contradiction in terms—a spiritual body. Paul says it’s also a body we share every time we bless and share bread and wine (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). And as we heard him say tonight, it’s a body that can be joined to our bodies in baptism, so that we can live Jesus’ death and resurrection in our own lives, actually becoming his crucified/risen body with him (Romans 6:3-11). So yes, it’s some sort of body, but not the sort anybody would have expected.
So what exactly did people see?
We may never know.
And I think I might know why.
You see, they weren’t just observing Jesus as if he were a lab specimen. They were being inexplicably overtaken by Jesus’ all-embracingly risen life, and they were beginning to realize that this life is also the life of the all-embracingly risen God. That’s a mouthful, so I’ll say it again. They were being inexplicably overtaken by Jesus’ all-embracingly risen life, and they were beginning to realize that this life is also the life of the all-embracingly risen God. So in other words, they weren’t just having “Jesus sightings.” They were having “God sightings!” Both at once! They couldn’t be disentangled.
And they weren’t just sightings. All of their senses were engaged—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling—all of them. (That’s another reason I love worshiping the way we do here—engaging all the senses.) And just as surely, whatever they did see, hear, and so on, was too much to describe with a pretense of detachment like a police report—“Subject was observed breaking bread and vanishing.” It wasn’t that they didn’t see enough; what they saw was more than enough. Too much. Sensory overload.
It was too much. And it still is. We’re having this celebration tonight because many of us here—and all over the world—have known moments like that. Usually they weren’t as dramatic as what we heard about tonight. But I know so many of you who have told me of moments where you were overtaken by an awareness that life itself, and your life in particular, was surrounded and filled with mystery and wonder and meaning that can’t be pinned down by a bunch of detached observations. When you try to describe a moment like that, you realize that no description can even begin to convey all that was happening. But around here, I hope you know that nobody will laugh at you if you try to convey it. To us it won’t seem “an idle tale,” because here too many of us have seen and heard and touched and tasted—and, yes, smelled—a life that nothing contains.
What did they see? We’ll never pin down the details. It was too much. It’s still too much—overtaken, inexplicably, by an all-embracingly risen life. Jesus’ life. God’s life. Our life.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen.