Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
This is the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. It is, in his own words, an orderly account. He is reporting what has been told to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” Luke wants you to know that he investigated everything carefully. So if Luke tells you that shepherds watching their flocks at night heard angels singing and that an angel told them to go to Bethlehem to see a baby in a manger, Luke wants you to know that he is reporting the story exactly as it was told to him by at least one reliable person.
Luke likes details. Luke locates the story of Jesus in history. It began when Tiberius was emperor. When Quirinius was governor of Syria. When that first census was taken—you know the one everyone hated so much, the one that stuck us with that annual tax of one denarius per person.
Luke keeps things physical and human. This gospel doesn’t spiritualize practical or justice issues. It’s “Blessed are the poor,” not “blessed are the poor in spirit” for Luke. Yes, Luke does emphasize the presence and work of the Holy Spirit–Jesus is conceived by the Spirit (1:35), and anointed with the Spirit (3:22; 4:1, 14, 18),
people are filled with the Spirit (1:15, 41, 67) and inspired by the Spirit (2:25–27),
God gives the Holy Spirit to all who ask(11:13), and Jesus promises the disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high”(24:49)—but for all that, the Spirit seems more practical than ethereal in Luke.
And then there’s the eating.
Luke’s gospel seems to have an unusual interest in food.
In the Magnificat, Mary sings that the poor will be fed and in Luke’s telling of the Beatitudes, Jesus says those who hunger will be fed. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus talks about table etiquette three times. There are five banquet parables. Jesus is present at nineteen meals. Five times he is criticized for eating too much and with the wrong people. But it is after the resurrection that food plays its most important role in this very pragmatic gospel.
On the afternoon of the resurrection, the risen Jesus joins a couple of heartbroken travelers who are returning to their home in Emmaus from Jerusalem. These two, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, are two people who know Jesus well. In fact, if Cleopas is the same person as Clopas mentioned in John 19, then these two Emmaus travelers might be Jesus’ aunt and uncle. So they know him, but they aren’t aware of who he is as he walks with them and talks with them. It’s not until he sits down with them and breaks bread that they recognize him. Breaking bread, food, becomes the sign of recognition.
Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples huddled in the upper room about their encounter with Jesus. But just as they started to tell their story, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
And here is where Luke, the realist, the reporter, is at his best. He tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Well you would be, wouldn’t you. Startled. And terrified. If you had seen someone killed in a brutal and horrific way, and then seen them buried, but suddenly that person was was standing right in front of you, you would think you were seeing a ghost. Or maybe you would question your own sanity.
Before their minds could be blown too much or wander too far into the fog of speculation, Jesus brought them sharply to the reality of the moment. “He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.”
Once again Luke puts emphasis on the physical. Touch me and see. A ghost does not have flesh and bones. Luke is making a point.
Naturally the friends of Jesus when suddenly confronted with his unexpected, risen presence feel a jumble of emotions. And once again, Luke is the realistic reporter. He tells us they were joyful and disbelieving and wondering all at the same time. So Jesus asks for something to eat and they give him a piece of broiled fish. This is the physical proof that seals the deal and silences all doubts. Ghosts don’t eat.
The realism is important here. This is not merely a “spiritual” resurrection. This is not some metaphor for springtime. This is flesh and bones Jesus returned to life. Luke wants us to make it absolutely clear that Jesus is physically, bodily raised from the dead.
Why does Luke make such a point of this and why does it matter for us?
In the original ending of Mark’s gospel, there are no resurrection encounters. There is an empty tomb and the cryptic message that he has gone ahead of you. It has been suggested that the empty tomb in Mark symbolizes that ultimate love in our lives, the love of God, cannot be crucified or killed.
Well okay. That’s not a bad message as far as it goes. It’s an easy idea to carry in your head. It sounds somewhat sophisticated and enlightened. But does it move your heart? Can that symbolic interpretation carry the full weight of your hopes and fears when you’re faced with a real crisis?
We are called to share the Good News of Christ risen, Christ alive, Christ with us, Christ at work in the world. We are called to bring hope. We are called to bring a real hope that speaks to the real needs of the real people who live in real crisis in our real world. Does “the empty tomb is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering” do that?
And again, that’s not a bad message. It is part of our message. But is it enough?
Seven years ago when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer I found myself rethinking my mortality, especially since both my mom and my dad died of cancer. My surgeon assured me that my chances of coming through the journey okay were probably good. Don’t you love the language doctors use once the “C” word has been spoken? You hear the word “probably” a lot. The point is, once the word “Cancer” has been spoken, it sharpens your focus. Things that had been theoretical either become the life raft you cling to or they get discarded. I realized during that time that, while I’m willing to entertain and discuss all kinds of ideas and theories about resurrection, for me personally a psychological or philosophical understanding isn’t enough to carry the weight of my hopes and fears. I need something with some bones in it, some skin on it. And I’m not alone in that.
I have seen a lot of death in my decades as a pastor. I have accompanied people up to death’s door and held their hand as they crossed the threshold. I will tell you right now that the ones who have gone most easily, most readily, and most willingly have been those who believed in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus.
I will also tell you that those I’ve known who can proclaim their faith most convincingly have also usually been those who have believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Though I’ve read his words many times, Frederick Buechner’s words of faith still move me:
I can tell you this: that what I believe happened and what in faith and with great joy I proclaim to you here is that he somehow got up, with life in him again, and the glory upon him. And I speak very plainly here, very un-fancifully, even though I do not understand well my own language. I was not there to see it any more than I was awake to see the sun rise this morning, but I affirm it as surely as I do that by God’s grace the sun did rise this morning because that is why the world is flooded with light.
The testimony of faithful people is a good and powerful reason to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. That’s why Luke, at the beginning of his gospel, makes it clear that he is reporting events just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
But there is also another good reason to trust the accounts of the physical resurrection of Jesus, a reason that’s both practical and theological.
Jesus was a real physical person who was tortured to death in a first-century lynching. The state and the religious authority colluded to crucify him, to physically destroy him and in so doing to destroy his opposition to their power. His crucifixion was a political statement. What they failed to see and understand, though, was that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” as it says in Colossians. There was a power and authority in him that dwarfed any power and authority they imagined they had over him.
For that reason, nothing less than a bodily resurrection would do to nullify their violence and call their power into question. It was his physical body they killed. It would have to be his physical body that would proclaim their work undone.
The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that violence will not have the last word. Pain will not have the last word. Fear will not have the last word. Anger will not have the last word. Disease will not have the last word. Suffering will not have the last word. Death will not have the last word.
The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that love, grace, forgiveness, hope and faith—these things will have the last word. The resurrection was God affirming that Life will have the last word.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
 Luke 1:1-4 NRSV