A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 24:36b-48 for Easter 3B
It seems like the most fundamental question that shapes both the faith and the influence of followers of Jesus has become: “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?” The premise behind this is simple. The Gospel, we are told, is all about human beings getting to an eternity of heavenly bliss. Since sin stops us from going there, diverting us to the fires of hell, the task of Christians in “witnessing” to people is first to convince them that they want to go heaven, then to convince them that they won’t go because they are sinners, and then to convince them to accept Jesus in order to be forgiven and qualify for “glory”. I confess that the above model of Christian witness feels to me like an exercise in missing the point.
The very reality of resurrection speaks of something different than an eternity spent in disembodied, otherworldly bliss. As Jesus appears to his confused and disbelieving disciples, he has to prove to them that “It’s really me!” (24:39) – not a ghost, not an illusion, and not some kind of undead, resuscitated zombie – and so he eats. Meals had always been significant for Jesus in his pre-crucifixion ministry, and after the resurrection he often used meals to reveal himself to his friends. But, the act of eating, while characteristic of Jesus, also serves to show how very physical, how completely embodied he is. This removes any basis we might have for believing that our ultimate destiny is some disembodied state.
The Incarnation extends beyond the grave and reveals that our physical cosmos – including our own bodies – is an integral part of the eternal reality that we call God’s Reign, and not just some sort of temporary testing ground for the righteous to come to faith. We get saved in our bodies, in this world, and whatever waits for us on the other side of the grave is continuous with that.
But, Jesus takes things even further. In order to show his disciples that it is really their Messiah that has appeared among them, Jesus takes them back to the Scriptures and opens their minds to two fundamental truths. The first is that the Messiah was always meant to die and be raised. It would have been amazing if Luke had given us more detail of the Bible study Jesus led with his disciples, but we can only guess at the content – not least because it would be tough to find any Old Testament passages that specifically and clearly state this about the Messiah. Nevertheless, the disciples are clearly convinced since they soon start using the same method of biblical interpretation in their own preaching (see Philip’s interaction with the Ethiopian Eunuch as an example – Acts 8:26-39).
The second truth that Jesus draws from the Scriptures is that there is a message that is to be preached – to which the disciples are to be witnesses. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent” (v.47). At first glance it sounds a bit like the message of personal, individual salvation that I’ve described above – but that can only be the case when we ignore other places where the same (or a very similar) message has been proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospels.
To begin with the word repentance (metanoia) is not so much about saying sorry for doing something wrong. Rather, it is about a complete change, a total re-orientation of life around the message and mission of Jesus. It is going all-in, along with Jesus, for the Reign of God (See Mark 1:15). In the New Living translation of Luke’s Gospel, repentance is connected with sin and includes turning to God (Eg. 13:3 & 16:30), but “turning to God”, from Jesus’ perspective, must be related to his primary mission statement from Luke 4:18-19. This ministry-defining sermon, based on Isaiah, includes the proclamation of the “day of the Lord’s favour” (which many scholars take to be a reference to the Jubilee). Since the word for “sin” also holds the connotation of indebtedness (See the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:4 where “forgive us our sins” – harmatia: to err or miss the mark – is followed by “as we forgive those who sin against us” – opheilo: to be indebted or to owe money) this forgiveness is not just about being reprieved from punishment for wrong-doing. It is also about being released from indebtedness in the sense of the Jubilee, where slaves were released, debts were cancelled, land was returned to the original owners and a new, equitable, liberated society gave a fresh start for everyone. The elements of justice, peace, inclusivity and grace that characterise the message of God’s Reign elsewhere in the Gospels must, then, also be kept in mind here as Jesus calls his disciples to be witnesses to the message of repentance and forgiveness.
These first followers of the Risen Christ were seeing something unprecedented, and it was overwhelming for them. In time, though, they became true witnesses to what they had experienced. They preached the message of repentance and forgiveness in words, yes. But, even more so, they preached it in action – in building a community that was a reflection of the new, alternative, Jubilee society that Jesus had proclaimed. Theirs was not just a hope for after death. It was a very real, transforming hope for this world as well. Jesus had shown them that enemies could learn to love one another, that the gravest betrayals could be forgiven, and that oppressive empires could not destroy God’s Reign. The resurrection life that they had encountered in Christ, and that they began to experience flooding through them by God’s Spirit (for which Jesus told them to wait in the very next verse after this week’s reading), gave them the hope and the courage to continue striving to live this peaceful, inclusive, just, generous, loving, forgiving, reconciling, compassionate life right up until the Roman Empire executed them. In the face of the resurrected Jesus, and the manifestation of God’s indestructible Kingdom, no human empire held any fear for them any more. And in their dying, their witness – literally, from the Greek martus, their martyrdom – proclaimed Christ’s message such that it has continued to echo through the centuries, and echoes among us still. All that is left is for us to take up the call and add our voices, and our lives, to theirs, becoming witnesses to Christ’s resurrection kingdom ourselves.