- Parish House
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter – Luke 24:36b-48
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
I think there are two kinds of preachers in this world: those who secretly would love to be famous televangelists and those who would not. Obviously, I don’t aspire to that. I mean, what a headache to have an enormous budget, a high quality production team, and the opportunity to reach thousands, even millions more with the gospel. Well, maybe some of those perks would be nice. But I haven’t been all that impressed by the televangelists that I’ve watched. My sometimes morbid fascination with them began when I was a child, and I caught my older brother watching The PTL Club with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. This was adolescent rebellion of a high order in our Catholic home. One time, I think he even gave money to the show. He was told that a donation would guarantee that God would answer his prayer request. I don’t know if it worked. But in a side note to self – if the opportunity ever arises, women televangelists must be able to cry on the spot, and should wear non- waterproof eye makeup for effect.
Of course, there are good and faithful ministers on TV. There are others who are not, those who seem more like master manipulators who get people to send in a lot of money. I don’t mean to single them out, but it sure seems like a lot of them go down in scandal. And while I have compassion for anyone who falls from grace, there is an important lesson to be learned from such scandals. They are cautionary tales about how people can be manipulated by questionable leaders in the name of Christ. I remember a family friend who followed a particular pastor and ended up living on a commune as a result. I don’t know the details, but its members were known for being active in the harmful ex-gay conversion therapy movement. Years later I got to see photos of “success stories.” Picture women trying to conform to a more traditional idea of femininity, looking clearly uncomfortable in long, floral dresses. This was supposed to make them more acceptable somehow. Fortunately, that friend started to question things and eventually left. She saw up close how Christianity, like anything else, can be twisted according to someone’s agenda. It’s nothing new. And the safeguard against it is nothing new either. In fact, it’s built right into the Christian story.
The remedy against various kinds of manipulation is found in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, especially in how physical they are. That physicality of Jesus actually grounds the tradition in an important way. To see it, let’s look at Luke’s account, in which he’s quite insistent that the post-Easter Jesus has a body. “Look at my hands, and my feet,” says Jesus, “see that it is I myself.” And in a wonderful detail, he eats a snack. Clearly, this is not a ghost.
That alone would be amazing. The disciples are starting to figure out that the risen Christ is real. But it gets more amazing, if we zoom in on Jesus’ hands and feet. He wants the disciples to see them, so that they will see the marks of crucifixion. He wants them to know that the risen Christ is the same Jesus who died, the Jesus they followed. This is critical. If the disciples were going to follow some disembodied, eternal idea of Christ, not connected to the Jesus who lived and died, then the Christian message could be easily manipulated and offered in just about any form, totally ungrounded. The physicality of the risen Jesus guards against this. The risen Christ is the Jesus who lived and died. This means that true Christianity will always be connected to the cross, connected in the way Jesus was to the suffering of others. (Fred Craddock). Following the risen Jesus means also following the earthly Jesus and
his teachings. It means such things as loving prodigal sons and foreigners and outcasts. It means learning to forgive more. It means trimming our own egos in pursuit of truths and mercies greater than ourselves. It’s a true path that rejects any manipulation that would lead people astray.
All of which is pretty easy to nod along to, right? Generally, for example, we’re not concerned about being suckered into a cult or parting with all of our money for a TV preacher. We love the life and teachings of Jesus, and we love the fact that ultimately his message can’t be twisted. At least we love it until it gets more personal. We love it until we realize that sometimes we try to wriggle out of the gospel ourselves. It goes something like this.
The physical, risen Christ has a message not only about true Christianity in general, but a message about each one of us, too. Or more technically, about our sins. When this non-ghost shows up and convinces the disciples that he’s the same Jesus, he also gives them a mission. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in the name of the Messiah to all nations.” The risen Jesus has just confirmed and restated the gospel, that sins are forgiven. And not just abstract sin, but concrete sin, the kind of sins and mistakes that you and I carry around. Those are forgiven. This teaching can make us a little uncomfortable.
In her talk at the cathedral last week, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke brilliantly on this point, on our discomfort with being included in the gospel. She described wanting to edit her life, in order to show God only the movie version. She would prefer to present only the shiny, put-together parts of her life. But, she said, it’s the scenes she wants to cut, those on the editing room floor, that God looks at and says, “now those I can use.” Side note to self – try not to be jealous of famous pastors on a speaking tour who say brilliant things. At any rate, the message is clear and it’s gospel truth. Sins that need forgiveness, that’s the stuff of the real journey with Jesus. Easter did not offer a blank slate, a fresh start, an edited version of our lives. The risen Christ, once crucified by the sins of the world, now declares the forgiveness of sin. This is how we heal, not by erasing the past but by bringing our past into the future with hope, a hope made possible by the resurrection (Rowan Williams). Whatever unworthiness we feel, however much we might agree with God’s mercy in general but think we must be the exception, ultimately we cannot manipulate our own way out of the gospel. We are forgiven. If you need proof, just look at those hands and feet.
I suppose there really are two kinds of preachers in the world: Jesus and the rest of us. Whether we are televangelists or famous Lutherans or polite Episcopalians, all of us try to convey the gospel with imperfection. Sometimes we might be tempted consciously or unconsciously to try to twist the message to our own agendas. Which, I think is true of all followers of Jesus. We are awfully quick to work out why we’re not worthy of God’s good grace, or why someone else isn’t worthy. But our original preacher was quite clear on this point. He lived, and died, and rose again always on message, the message of forgiveness. “Look at my hands and my feet,” he once said, showing us once and for all, mercy itself in the flesh.