On Easter Sunday this year we heard the good news of the resurrection from St. Mark. Last week, the second Sunday of Easter, we heard St. John’s account of the risen Lord’s appearances to His fearful disciples and especially to Thomas. On this, the third Sunday of Easter, we hear from St. Luke’s perspective many of the same things—the Lord’s greeting of peace, the disciples’ fear and doubt, the Savior’s invitation to touch Him. But Luke includes this, that though the resurrected body of our Lord does not need food, He, nevertheless, eats a piece of fish before them as further proof that it is He with His 100% human body intact.
From the very beginning, and from those first to believe in the resurrection, fear and doubt and unbelief has been the universal response, at least initially, to the fact of the resurrection. The first half of today’s Gospel shows that, and means to emphasize that the resurrection is not an hallucination nor a fantasy but is the reality, and not only for the Lord Jesus but is what is also in store for you and me and for all mankind when the Lord returns, no matter how long it has been since you died to and in this world, that he will raise you and all mankind up from the dead.
The second half of today’s Gospel then has to do with how a fearful, doubting unbeliever becomes a bold, committed believer in the resurrection and the risen Christ, and a witness to others of the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.
First, the resurrection is real. Certainly so far only One human being has ever been raised again from the dead and is still living, the Lord Jesus Himself. Still, people doubt and disbelieve. That the resurrection of Jesus is true and not just a story or a fantasy is highlighted by the fact that the first disciples were startled and frightened, thinking they were only seeing a spirit; doubting and, as the text says, “disbelieving for joy and marveling.” For if the Gospels were only propaganda aimed at covering up the truth and promoting something that did not actually happen, it would not show weakness and doubt on behalf of the disciples but only positive marks like joy and happiness. But as it is they themselves feared and were the first to doubt what they were seeing.
They heard Jesus speak, “Peace to you!” He invited them to see his nail-pierced hands and feet and to touch him. “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then, to demonstrate that it was really Himself with His body, he ate a piece of broiled fish in front of them.
All of these proofs are to answer the doubts and objections of skeptics through the ages. Today, because of the mystery of the future life, the details and things we do not know yet, even Christian believers are tempted to think of “heaven” in terms of an ethereal, un-earthly, spiritual, meaning non-physical, place or existence, possibly floating among the clouds and playing harps. And certainly there is the mystery of where the soul goes at death when we can see plainly that it has been separated from the body which we have put in the ground. “With the Lord!” “With the Lord” St. Paul has us comfort one another with these words (1 Thess. 4:18). But the day is coming when Almighty God who created us, soul and body in the first place will recreate or reunite us, soul and body, to be the human beings he originally intended us to be, yet even better. We do not “turn into” angels or any other being. We know and believe this because of the resurrection of Jesus, as we heard St. John say in his first letter, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him…” (1 Jn. 3:2)
And so are the skeptics and unbelievers of all ages when it comes to the historic witness of the Church that Christ is risen from the dead. Many try to explain away and dismiss this witness as, at best, some sort of hallucination or hopeful thinking on behalf of the disciples; or that the resurrection is some sort of religious idea or concept. The main problem with all the attempted explanations of the resurrection as a fabricated story is, no one has ever found the deceased body of Jesus! But now here we have to move directly to the second half of today’s Gospel, for there is no convincing unbelief except from the point of view of faith.
Pointing to the Old Testament scriptures Jesus said to His disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, (namely) that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” The skeptic, when he looks at the Old Testament scriptures does not and cannot see that there is anything there written about Jesus! “What does he mean ‘that everything written about me…must be fulfilled’?” And that’s true, you know! In our own times we have heard and read the theories of the supposed learned experts on the Bible deny at almost every turn almost everything that presents itself as a miracle or as a prophecy concerning God’s plan of salvation in Christ. Note, for instance, the “suffering servant” passages in the prophet Isaiah. Unbelief says the author (whoever he was!) was writing about some unknown person back in his day. Faith says that the prophet Isaiah was writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, about the coming Christ who “was wounded for our transgressions” and with whose “stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5), proclaiming in these words the vicarious atonement, the work of salvation the coming Christ was promised to do.
Now, the problem is that you cannot talk anyone into believing or force faith on anyone. The difference is in the next words of our Gospel, “then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:45). As with everything else dealing with our relationship with God and the gift of faith and salvation, all human beings have the so-called “freedom” to say “no” to God. It is only as we open ourselves to hear His Word, as we allow Him to speak to us, that the Holy Spirit grants the miracle of faith, of this spiritual understanding, when and where it pleases God in those who simply hear the Gospel. The neat thing is that when He opens our minds to understand the Scriptures, the Gospel of Christ actually makes sense. Though it includes also certain miraculous mysteries that cannot be explained to human reason, these do not contradict at all that which can be put into words and proclaimed as truth. We can say with the apostle Paul:
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles….
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
(1 Cor. 15:3-7, 12)
Finally, the Lord ends his words by saying, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in (Christ’s) name to all nations. Beginning from Jerusalem, you are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” The first disciples were, indeed, witnesses of these things. Their witness has been transmitted through the ages by means of the Spirit-inspired New Testament scriptures. And it is on the basis of that witness that we today are commanded to continue their proclamation in our day and to each succeeding generation; the witness that Christ is risen and, because of that, repentance and forgiveness of sins and eternal life is possible for all people.
We all have learned, or should learn, to watch out for promises that sound too good to be true, for usually they turn out to be false. This is one promise, however, that, though it seems too good to be true, nevertheless, is true: that Christ died for you, that He is risen for you, that because of Him your sins are forgiven and you have the promise of resurrection and eternal life. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).