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Terrance KleinApril 10, 2024
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19 1 John 2:1-5a Luke 24:35-48

We do not talk much about death. It just does not fit into our individual worlds: We do not die. Other people do. And when they die, they disappear from the world. They do not return to compare for us the before and after of death.

We know that we are going to die just as we know that there are islands in the Southern Hemisphere. But neither reality really enters the worlds in which we live. We write wills and make due provisions for death, but that does not mean that we own death as part of who we are.

Even people who are clearly near death have great difficulty talking about it. I regularly visit the dying, but they typically prefer not to talk about their approaching deaths. Men are more prone than women to maintain a stoic denial of what is happening. They want to talk of treatment options, even the weather, rather than speak of death.

I am there to accompany their thoughts and to give witness to our faith, not to force them to enunciate the unspeakable. Fear is not cured by terror.

A few years ago, I watched a woman in hospice care pursue a different path. Nancy was always cheerful; she wanted to know how I was, and what was happening in the world around us. Nancy was not denying her death. She could speak of it, even count down her days. She was, however, insistent that death come on her terms. Her life had been joy-filled, and that was how she was determined to die.

Yet I wondered if Nancy was raving when she announced she would host a tea party for her closest friends. Tea comes iced in Kansas. It does not host parties. We have all heard people talk of what they would do if they had more time, but my parishioner hosted her high tea the same week she died. She and her friends dressed up, donned tea hats if they had them. In the photos, Nancy sits at the head of the table, a smile of satisfaction on her face.

Our Lord famously celebrated his last supper, and the resurrection accounts are filled with meals he shared with his disciples. This is curious because we have few accounts of when or where or with whom Jesus ate before his time to die, though there is the slander that he ate and drank with the wrong sort of people. So it is worth pondering. Why is so much attention given to Jesus’ last meal? And why do the resurrection accounts record so many meals?

The two answers may be linked. Perhaps the resurrection accounts record their meals because Christ had made his final supper the sign and promise of his continuing presence.

This is quite apparent in the Emmaus story. Every detail links this resurrection meal to the Eucharist. It takes place on Sunday evening when the first Eucharists were celebrated. Two disciples share Scriptures with a mysterious stranger. They only recognize him in the “breaking of the bread,” St. Luke’s favored term for the Eucharist.

There is a second issue at play. If the post-resurrection meals link the Risen Christ to the last free act of Jesus, they also reveal something about the life that follows death: It is not purely spiritual, far from it. It is quite physical.

 

He showed them his hands and his feet.

 

 

While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,

 

 

he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

 

 

They gave him a piece of baked fish;

 

 

he took it and ate it in front of them (Lk 24:40-43).

 

Outside of liturgy, we speak of heaven as we speak of death: not much and without experience of what we are talking about. Think about it. If someone were to insist that she will never die, how could you prove her wrong? Strictly speaking, you cannot. The regular and the normal do not categorically exclude the irregular, the abnormal.

Yet we profess belief in heaven, in life after death, because in a singular moment in history, some of us experienced, interacted with, one who came back from the dead. And the Gospels go to great pains to reject explanations that would make the resurrection appearances into something normal or understandable.

Jesus and his mission do not simply live on in the hearts of his believers despite his death. This happens often enough in history. It is hard to believe but nonetheless reasonable. But when it happens, true believers do not record themselves as cowering in fear, and they proclaim the fallen one to be a martyr, not a man who comes back from the dead. The latter is nonsensical.

Jesus does not appear among his disciples as a ghost, a pure spirit. Doubtful yet reasonable, this would have made sense to the ancient world, which viewed the spiritual as higher than the physical. It spoke of souls being set free at death from the dross that is the body, but it would have found nonsensical the notion of a liberated spirit eating baked fish.

No, the historical anomaly, which skeptics ignore at their peril, is that the resurrection accounts are truly irregular, abnormal. Both the delusional and the deceptive typically follow expected patterns. They present something that sounds reasonable even though it is not true. A Jesus who lives on in the heart could be anticipated. A Jesus who appears as pure spirit is comprehensible. A Jesus smacking on a fish filet is outrageous, nonsensical.

This should deeply concern the skeptic. Whether you believe it or not, the resurrection is not just unreasonable; it is nonsensical. A deception or a delusion that gains traction must be at least reasonable. How does the nonsensical survive?

And what does it mean for the believer? We have not been to a world yet to come, but someone has! What have we learned from him?

First, in appearing to his loved ones, Christ tells us that the relationships we forge in this life do not cease with death.

Second, Christ’s continuing presence among us is predicated upon community, upon fellowship in the faith. Either he appears when the disciples are gathered, or Christ tells a disciple or two to summon the others.

Third, the world to come does not wipe away the life we know. It transforms it, purifies and glorifies it. Christ tells us to count his wounds, to touch them.

Fourth, heaven has a beating heart. One that began to pulse, more than two millennia ago, in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Heaven is not ethereal. It is more solid, more real, than the life that precedes it.

Does this make sense? That the deepest desires of your heart were vindicated by the risen Christ? The problem for the skeptic is that, as nonsense goes, this madness makes no real sense to the serious historian. If it did not happen there should be a reasonable explanation for why people thought that it did. Sooner or later, the unreasonable gives way to reason. The resurrection ranting refuses to disappear. That justifies the question: Might it not be true? Is it time for high tea? Time for Eucharist?

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