The Resurrection of the Body

Luke 24:36b-48

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.[1]

 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.


[1] Luke 1:1-4 NRSV

He Is Going Ahead Of Us

Martin Luther once spent three days in a deeply gloomy mood because of something that had gone wrong.  On the third day his wife, Katie, came downstairs dressed in mourning clothes.  “Who died?” asked Martin.  “God,” replied Katie.  Luther rebuked her, saying, “What do you mean, God is dead? God cannot die.” “Well,” she replied, “the way you’ve been acting I was sure he had!”

The thing is, God did die once, and Martin Luther would be the first to tell you that.  God, in Jesus the Christ, was crucified, died and was buried.  And on the third day rose again.  That’s what we’re celebrating this morning:  the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The four gospels each tell the story of the resurrection a little differently.  Those differences really shouldn’t bother us too much.  Each writer was writing to a different audience and relying on different sources.  On the main points, though, they are remarkably consistent.  Jesus was crucified.  He was thoroughly and decidedly dead.  His body was not properly prepared for burial when he was laid in the tomb because the Sabbath did not allow enough time for that.  The tomb was sealed with a large stone.  On the third day the women of his company came to prepare his body and found the stone removed and the tomb empty.  They were addressed by an ethereal messenger (or two?) who informed them that Jesus had risen as he told them he would.  On these things all the gospels agree.

The Gospel of Matthew’s resurrection account is the most theatrical.  There’s an earthquake and an angel comes down to roll the stone away from the tomb which is already empty.  The angel then sits on the stone.  Matthew says that the soldiers guarding the tomb “shook and became like dead men.” The astonished women who had come to prepare the body of Jesus witness all this and later encounter the risen Jesus as they rush to tell the disciples what they have seen.  

Luke’s description of the resurrection is more subdued, but the story continues beyond the empty tomb to describe encounters with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room where the disciples have been laying low.  

John’s account is probably the best known and best loved with its touching description of the encounter between Mary and Jesus when she mistakes him for the gardener then realizes who he is when he speaks her name.  

It’s not surprising that in years when the Gospel of Mark comes up in the lectionary cycle, most preachers opt to go with the Gospel of John instead. The resurrection account in Mark is so haunting.  So uncomfortable.  The angel—or young man dressed in a white robe—is there in the empty tomb.  He makes the announcement we expect to hear: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”  And then he adds, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

So far so good.  But it’s the ending that leaves us off balance. 

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s the original ending of the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark, in fact, it’s the original end of the whole gospel.  

That ending is so disconcerting that by the late 3rd or early 4th century someone decided to add on a section.  These unknown editors wanted the ending of Mark, the oldest and earliest of the gospels, to be more consistent with the other three gospels and, frankly, happier.

But Mark had his reasons for ending the resurrection account and the gospel the way he did.  

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, has come to proclaim that the kingdom of God is beginning, that it is time for it to become a reality and not just a dream of the prophets.  In his teaching, in his sermons, in his healings and his exorcisms, he teaches his followers to confront the social structures, political structures, the religious structure that oppress and exclude people.  More than that he invites his disciples to begin to build an alternative way of life built on inclusiveness, generosity and equality.

When Jesus is crucified, it looks like all this has come to an end.  But now an empty tomb leaves questions hanging in the air.

It’s as if Mark is saying, “Christ is risen!  What are you going to do about it?  What are you going to do with that news?”

He has gone ahead of you to Galilee.  Back to where all this began.  Are you willing to go meet him where he is?  Are you willing to go back to the beginning?  Are you willing to start over?  Are you committed to building the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?

N.T. Wright wrote, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.  The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”  

One of the important themes in the Gospel of Mark is “let those who have eyes, see.”  Jesus, in Mark, is forever trying to get his disciples to understand what they are seeing him do and hearing him say.  Now he wants them and us to understand what it means that he has been resurrected.

If death cannot hold Christ, then it cannot hold you, either.  Not forever.  God is, by nature, eternal.  We were created in the image of God, so we share in that divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  God is love (1 John 4:16), and the Holy Spirit has planted the love of God in our hearts (Romans 5:5, 8:9).  Christ is in, with, and under every fiber of our lives.  Life is eternal, love is immortal.  Because Christ rose, we, too shall rise.  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5).”  That is  what his resurrection means for us.

We have all been through a year like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.  Because of the pandemic, we’ve faced trials and challenges no one anticipated.  Our way of life was radically changed.  We have laid dear friends and family into the hope that springs eternal, trusting in this promise of resurrection.

Now, with the vaccines and the virus numbers going in the right direction, people are talking about getting “back to normal.”  But wouldn’t it be better for us to be talking about resurrection?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to talk—not about resuming our old life—but about new life, and what that will look like and be like, and how we will do it, and how it will be different?

Jesus rose to new life.  We are being invited to rise to new life, too. He is going ahead of us, back to the starting point and inviting us to follow, and to join him in the continuing work of building the kingdom of God.  

Christ is risen!  We have a chance to start over!  What are you going to do about it?

In Jesus’ name.