3rd Sunday of Easter

April 30, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 4
Reading 3: 
Acts 3:12-19 or 1 John 3:1-7
Reading 4: 
Luke 24:36b-48
By Rick Marshall

Discussion of the Texts:

Generally, all the assigned texts point to some aspect of God’s transforming power. We are still in the shadow, or afterglow, of the resurrection at Easter. As the most dramatic telling of God’s transforming power, we can understand how the resurrection of Jesus Christ story can reverberate throughout the Christian writings, and also reach back to the Jewish writings to bring them into the telling. Narratively, the whole Christian biblical story revolves around the event of the resurrection. After the telling of the Emmaus story in the 24th chapter of Luke, Jesus appears to ten of the disciples “startling and frightening” them; they thought they were seeing a ghost. Given their (and our) thinking about life and death, why wouldn’t they be shocked to see Jesus? After all, it’s after the funeral. Who wouldn’t be shocked to see a loved one days after their funeral? What does one say? How does one act? Casually, as if nothing had happened? Running away in fear? Jesus’ appearance to the disciples presents them with a monumental problem of perception and expectation. This is not how life and death are supposed to work. Sure, Jesus spoke to them often about his suffering and death, alluding to a resurrection. But how were they supposed to process this in their own way of thinking? It’s a little odd that Jesus would ask them “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts?” He then presents his hands and feet, as if this is supposed to be evidence, of what? A resuscitation of a corpse. He says, go ahead and touch me. Ghosts don’t have bodies. He asks, Do you have anything to eat? Presumably ghosts don’t eat, either. Then, while in a state of confused fright and wonder and joy, Jesus lays out the scriptures for them, which point to the suffering and resurrection of Christ. End of story.

The resurrection story presents the reader with an existential problem. The story goes against all our expectations of not only death, but our sense of power in life. We make assumptions about how life and death are supposed to work. Life is good; death is bad. We avoid death at all expense, pushing it to the back of our minds, expecting it to happen at the end of our lives and, even then, fearing it. The unknown scares us: going to the great null and void, the untethered place of nether worlds and mysterious states of being, incomprehensible, vague, threatening our own sense of being. Death is final; it is the ultimate barrier, a one-way trip to God knows where. The flame of life is snuffed out, leaving a wisp of smoke disappearing into nothingness, then darkness and cold. What sensible person wouldn’t fear it? What was Jesus expecting his disciples (and us) to think? How are we even to dare imagine life beyond death? What meaning is there in this contemplation?

Yet all this talk of suffering, death and resurrection invites us to think beyond ourselves, to another power in life. The power of God­­­­, however we might think of who God is, is a resurrecting power. This is a power we have observed in the natural cycles of nature, in our own progression of life. Death and rebirth are observed all around us. Do we really think we are somehow exempt from this cycle? Even though we know this intellectually, in our hearts we fear loss of any kind, especially letting go of our bodies. The fear is natural; faith in the power of God is required to face the fear.

The disciples on their way to Emmaus after Jesus’ death, breaking bread with a stranger, felt something in their hearts: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) When Jesus appeared to the ten, they were afraid. But their fear turned to an odd combination of “disbelief for joy.” He then went on to open their minds to scripture about the Christ suffering, dying and being raised from the dead. He encouraged his disciples to trust the resurrection power of God. Yet, this is the most difficult action to take, trust in God, because we are used to seizing control of our own wellbeing out of fear. It seems too risky to entrust our wellbeing to God. But trust in God’s power is the basic requirement of a peaceful, abundant life. It is the ultimate dilemma for human beings.

And, after his ascension, some of his disciples, Peter and John, used that same power to heal a lame man in the Acts text. A question is put to the amazed people who witnessed this healing: “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we made this man walk?” Peter goes on to ascribe this power to God, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, the same power that is available to all for healing and new life. Suffering is a natural part of life, and so is death…and so is resurrection. Jesus as the Christ demonstrated, harkening back to the Jewish scriptures, how this power works, and why it should be trusted.

Process Theology and the Texts:

Process theology understands that loss and death are a natural part of the unfolding of one moment into the next. We must let go of each passing moment in order to emerge into the next fresh moment. Letting go of parts of life is inevitable. There is an aspect of life called “perpetual perishing.” If not intellectually, we know this rhythm of life and death leading to new life, then death again, deep in our bones. We are subject to the same natural cycle of life and death. If we trust only ourselves, and react in fear to this reality, we create deeper fear and anxiety for ourselves.

Process theology understands that this resurrection power that was evident in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the power of God. It is a transforming power that is active throughout life and can be trusted even under the most hopeless circumstance. God creates life where there is no life. God creates a way where there is no way. This power is clearly evident in many parts of the Jewish scriptures.

Our fear of death is deeply embedded in us, and our reactions from that fear leads to existential problems. We could call this sin; our attempt to secure our own lives, protect ourselves, trusting our own wits.

The 1 John text reminds us that we are not on our own, but that we are children of God. Here is an elegant statement of trust: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.” (3:2)

The issue is simply entrusting our lives into the hands of this creative, transforming, resurrecting power. The trust involves the intellect, but it is ultimately a matter of the heart, coming from the very existential center of our lives.

Preaching the Texts:

It would be easy to go over the same territory of the resurrection story. But dealing with this set of texts, the preacher could bring the story to the next logical step: what are those who follow Jesus supposed to do with this resurrection power. It would therefore be natural to lean on the Acts text. There the disciples heal a man, which throws everyone into a tizzy. Again, the existential gears grind as witnesses take in the unexplainable. It takes awhile to reframe life in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ story. But now we are forced to reframe it once again, because the disciples have the same kind of power. All of this takes place after the arrival of the Holy Spirit, which is meant to empower the disciples (and us) with the same power that was available to Jesus.

The problem is that we see how God’s resurrection power is played out in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but how do we gain access to that same power for our own lives? The coming of the Holy Spirit earlier in Acts testifies to the accessibility of that power to the disciples, but how do we get it now?

It might be difficult to approach these questions directly with obvious solutions. The questions can be reframed with issues of well-being and abundant life that Jesus talks about and alludes to in his life. God wants well-being for all of creation and for every creature. Trusting ourselves to the creative, transforming power of God opens us up to new possibilities, new depths of power and richness of experience. The Way that the first disciples talked about was a choice of a path of trust in God’s power, and disciplines that allowed us to stay on that path, a path that leads to well-being and peace. Hence, we are called disciples, those who follow the discipline of trusting God’s power and not our own to secure our well-being. The more trust we have in God’s resurrection power, the greater the chances for healing and life and peace. In explaining the healing of the lame man, Peter ascribes the power to God evident in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Another sermon could play with the metaphor of what it means to be lame, unable to walk on our own. If Jesus’ teachings were called The Way, then what would it mean to gain power in our legs (and life) to move onto The Way? How are we stuck in our lives and what would it take to get us up and going in a healthy direction? If we can’t find the motivation within, where then must it come from? The command Peter gives the lame man is simply “Walk!” in the name of God’s resurrecting power. If we are living lame lives, what would get us up on our feet? A voice of authority: Get up! Walk! Get off your stuck place! It’s a strange collision of God’s power and our willingness to hear the call. We see the dilemma in the Garden, where Jesus was in deep fear, facing his own death, and pleading with God. Yet under the direst circumstances he says, not my will but thine. The ultimate act of trusting God’s power. Yet trust was the key that ultimately led to the resurrection.

Children and the Texts:

The topic for the children could be the healing power of God. I would bring, in a brown paper bag, a collection of first aid items, especially bandages. Take out the items one by one and ask the children what they are for. Give each one a colored Band-Aid and have them put them on their arms or legs. Be playful. Talk about times we need first aid. Scratches, cuts, bruises. Ask “Does the Band-Aid heal us?” “Does the antibiotic cream heal us? “ No, but it helps. What is it that heals us? Our bodies heal themselves. But how does that happen? It’s the way God made us. There is a healing power in us, that’s already there. We can help it work, by taking care of hurts or we can get in its way by not taking care of our bodies. End with a prayer, thanking God for the healing power in our bodies.

May you be aware of God’s presence as you preach. Amen.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.