The earliest testimonies to Jesus’ resurrection had difficulty describing what had happened. It defied everyday categories, and it was life-changing.
The only first-person testimony actually comes from St. Paul. In first Corinthians Paul tells us that Jesus forgivingly appeared to him (15:8), not as a flesh-and-blood body (15:50), but as a life-giving spirit (15:45). Jesus’ body was a “spiritual body” (15:44), as different from the body that was crucified as a stalk of wheat differs from the grain that was planted (15:37). It was also a shared body, with Paul and his readers as its “members” (12:27). Imagine trying to photograph any of THAT. The experience changed him from a Christ-hater to a Christ-follower (15:9),from a radical excluder to a radical includer (more about radical inclusion in Romans and Galatians).
The Gospel accounts were written decades later. They were presumably based on handed-down, first-person testimonies. But the way they’re told suggests that they’ve been reworked not just to give “the bare facts” (are life-changing facts ever bare?) but to awaken later listeners and readers like us to Jesus’ living presence.
These handed-down, creatively reworked stories still hint that the risen Jesus couldn’t easily be described.
For example, every Easter Sunday evening we read Luke’s story about the journey to Emmaus. It actually tells us two stories in one (Luke 24:13-35.)
One is a story that Luke had heard about what happened to two people traveling away from Jerusalem on the original Easter Sunday.
The other story is about what happens to us when we welcome strangers, interpret scripture together, and break bread together.
Luke fuses both stories into one story, so we can hear it on two levels at once.
The two travelers are overtaken by a stranger. Luke tells us that, through this stranger, “Jesus came near to them and went with them.” But they don’t know that yet. They don’t see how Jesus is already with them.They talk about the meaning of their Bible. The stranger points out to them that the God of the Bible is no stranger to the suffering that Jesus had undergone. And their hearts start warming up dramatically. They invite the stranger to supper, and when he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them, they get a momentary glimpse of the living Jesus who had been with them all along. That’s the story Luke had heard.
Here’s the story Luke also want us to hear: What happened to these travelers is what can happen to us later listeners when we welcome strangers, interpret the Bible together, take bread, bless it, break it and share it. Our hearts can come alive, and we can have a momentary glimpse of the living Jesus who has been with us all along. And it’s not just Jesus who’s glimpsed. It’s All-Embracing Love, God, raising us to new life in Jesus’ new life embodied in us. It defies everyday categories. It’s life-changing. It’s still happening.
That’s a message we can get from this story at any time or place, whenever we hear it with our hearts as well as our minds.
Speaking for myself though, this is a time and place unlike any other I’ve ever known. That’s where you are too.
Right now we can’t invite any strangers, not even friends, to break bread with us, at least not physically, and we don’t know when we’ll feel safe enough to do that again. We are where those travelers were at the very beginning of this story, before that mysterious stranger even showed up.
But we do know that this form of isolation will not last. And do notice—a smart phone or a tablet or a laptop may not be bread. But like bread, they are totally tangible. And we can use these forms of embodiment, just like bread, to show hospitality, to reach out, to console and to be consoled.
Luke is telling us that even here, though we feel isolated, we are in the company of that mysterious stranger, the risen Jesus, the all embracing, compassionate love of God that will never desert us, even though it may take time to notice that we were never really alone.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!