Remembering Absent Presence

March 31 - Easter Day 2013 
Gospel: Luke 24: 1-35

The Pressure
Each Easter I feel pressure to write a sermon which justifies my belief in that which I simply assume for the rest of the year. Indeed, I not only assume resurrection of Jesus, I experience it. So why this pressure that I know I am not alone in feeling?

It is true I'm doing philosophy before the text here. But the movement between text and philosophy is circular. How we think about the text from before will affect how we approach it. Some folk seem to think they don't bring opinions to the text, but we all do.  I want to be clear about my assumptions  before I begin.

What is it that can turn this time of celebration into a preacher's nightmare?

  1. We don’t want to skate over the difficult issues surrounding the notion of resurrection in our society.  We want to be honest, and to be honest is to admit resurrection sounds like biological nonsense.
  2. We don't want to unduly frighten the faithful pre-critical believers in our midst who are sure that Jesus is walking around somewhere just like you and me. I am unsure just how many such people exist, let alone if their faith is as fragile as we sometimes imagine, but the mythology is powerful, perhaps propagated by the people I will mention in point three.
  3. We certainly don't want to set off the loose cannons of the congregation who will bring charges of heresy to the Council or the Bishop.
  4. I think point three often correlates uncomfortably closely with our own fears about whether Jesus really rose from the dead, and what might happen to our faith, not to mention our livelihood, if we look too closely at what happened "on Easter morning." It certainly has been so for me!

    And quite apart from all our weaknesses,

  5. we are trying to express the almost inexpressible. Loader says resurrection is "like faith in God: almost inexpressible without metaphor and symbol."  Even with metaphor and symbol our best expression can only ever be "something like...." and "like that, but not that...."

    In a culture which often denies metaphor and symbol we are 'on a hiding to nothing.' In many cases, "he has been raised" is impossible to hear in anything other than gross physical terms. Resurrection is inexpressible; our listeners have lost the linguistic and conceptual framework to hear otherwise.

What to do?
Each  Easter I begin by remembering my task and my calling.

My freedom from each of the constraints I have mentioned has increased in exact correlation with my determination to face the issues head on myself. This has not been to share my doubts and struggles in an inappropriate way with my congregation. It has been to privately work through the questions and remind and remember who I am, and what our Faith is about.

I have decided not (1) to skate over the difficult questions, but to be as honest about them as I can manage. This includes not demanding special privileges for religious evidence; making Jesus' resurrection a 'one off,' for example, but being true to my scientific and philosophical studies.

This especially means facing my own fears (4) and also living with the possibility that a militant conservative in my congregation (3) might cause my eviction because I do not fit their version of orthodoxy.

Facing the difficulties
Physically raising Jesus from the dead is biologically impossible, and philosophically 'on the nose.' Like Lazarus after four days in the tomb, the whole idea stinks in our culture. We live in  materialist millieu, where matter gives rise to consciousness. It cannot conceive how there can be any survival of a person, and their consciousness, when their material basis, or substrate, ceases to be maintained. Such things are impossible. Death destroys the brain, which is the seat of our personality. The physical Jesus of Nazareth could not be raised from the dead after that.

 (We know all too clearly that brain deterioration in conditions like Alzheimer's Syndrome causes severe personality disruption; sometimes a living death.)

This is not a reason to deny resurrection. Resurrection is not resuscitation. It is something else.

Resurrection describes an experience that existed before our current biological knowledge was developed. A real human experience is being described in terms (metaphor and symbol) which no longer work for those of us today who live with materialist presuppositions. In their deepest understanding , those metaphors and symbols did not mean physical in the way we mean physical. (cf 1 Cor 15:35-41, which has its own metaphors!) 

 The biblical language does not seem, at first, a cogent description of our experience of resurrection because of our biological and philosophical climate. But the current inadequacy of the old metaphor, or at least, the way we hear and interpret it,  does not invalidate the experience we have had. Since  the story was not told to satisfy our particular biological insights,  it is not necessarily invalidated by our biological insights.

Our biological objections often assume great naivety on the part of the people of Jesus' and Luke's time. What did the people at the time think? They thought the empty tomb was an "idle tale". (Luke 24:10)  The Greek for this, leros, gives rise to our word delirious!) Resurrection did not have a lot of philosophical respectability then, either; it was controversial even within Judaism.

Luke and his people were not naive about what they were claiming. They were remembering and retelling an experience that contradicted their common sense. To say they were naive and that we are not, is its own naivety, and arrogant.

My conclusion is that our biological objections are only correct if we have made the category mistake of thinking resurrection must mean biological resuscitation. Resurrection is something else and more.

I would expect, if I were omniscient, to be able to take you to the bones and grave of Jesus. I believe in resurrection. When my fundamentalist colleagues say I do not, I tell them they are the ones with the problem. They do not understand that their experience (if they yet have it) of resurrection is beyond the physical. It is not the raising of a physical body which they experience, and to say so is to fetter the freedom resurrection brings. It reduces the Living Lord to a lifeless proposition.This is totally unconvincing to a fundamentalist who is bound to the rational, but for me it is liberation.

Luke is not writing a document to prove the resurrection, or to convince us of resurrection. If we approach our texts as proofs,  we have fundamentally misunderstood them. Luke knows resurrection. He is preaching to the converted! And Theophilus knows resurrection. Luke is writing so that Theophilus and all the lovers of God, having already been instructed, (1:4) might "know the truth." (1:4) (Theophilus is literally God-lover. The name may not have belonged to a real person, but be a cipher for those who loved God.)

"Knowing the truth" does not have the forensic  overtones we see in it. Luke is not writing for CSI. Knowing the truth is about seeing the significance of events and understanding what they mean. This, O Theophilus, is what your experience means:

Whatever triggered the belief and however diversely its message was elaborated, the first disciples were declaring that Jesus was not abandoned and disowned by God, but, on the contrary, raised to God’s presence and is alive with God. (Loader)

 An Australian journalist wrote, years ago, that on reading the gospels he suddenly realised he was reading eyewitness accounts; eyewitness reportage! He could not have been more wrong. He was reading decades of reflection upon, and interpretation of, events that were mostly already lost to direct memory.  He was reading an interpretation and understanding of the current experience of the church of Luke based on their experience of the resurrection.

This is a fundamental shift in our understanding of the scriptures. It directly addresses the second Easter sermon concern (frightening the faithful) with which I began. It is a long term project, which does not begin in Holy Week. I find many parishioners welcome it when approached with gentleness and affirmation of their experience of the Faith.

And it changes the whole way we read the Easter story.

The text
Luke 23:55
The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

Luke 24:1
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 

Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

 Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 

Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 

They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.


The story
One thing does not change across all four gospel tellings of this story: people could not forget the startling fact that it was a bunch of women who first tumbled to what was going on! Peter's primacy is soon established; he runs to the tomb. But in all the gospels, it is the women who hear the message! How can we argue some kind of primacy for men?

The women went expecting to find a body; they carried spices to embalm it properly. (24:1) Despite faithfully going as soon as the Sabbath was over, they are still chided by the men in dazzling white for a lack of faith: "Why do you look for the living among the dead?"

The dazzling white and two men is a prompt for us to remember chapter nine in Luke, and to see that we are again dealing with something outside our earthly realm. It uses the same word for dazzling, and the words for two men, andres duo, are the words used for Moses and Elijah in the story of the transfiguration. cf Petty

9And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

It is important, in Luke, to remember.

He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.

Petty  summarises what  this means.

The women "remembered his words."  This is reminiscent of 22:61 in which Peter "remembered the word of the Lord."  Remembering has to do with more than recall.  The thief on the cross had asked Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom" (23:42).  "Do this in remembrance of me," Jesus had said in 22:19.  Remembering, for Luke, has to do with a re-presentation of a past event in such a way that understanding, insight, awareness, and perception are included as well as simple recollection. 

It is not only remembering that is important, but telling.  In the text they tell the eleven, and then, having been mentioned by name, the same women tell  the apostles. Looking back at Petty's words, we can see that part of remembering is to tell, to re-present.

Peter goes home amazed, but not yet remembering, not seeing. The women have remembered, but not Peter, not yet.

The story then shifts to the Emmaus road. There is another prompt to an earlier story in Luke. I did not see this at all, so I'll give John Petty  all the credit for opening my eyes!

In Luke, people are often on a journey.  Luke takes seriously the great spiritual truth that we are all on a pilgrimage through life.  The Emmaus story, chapter 24, is also a journey story, and one that has certain resonances with another journey story in chapter 2. 

In chapter 2, Mary and Joseph journey away from Jerusalem and find that Jesus is not with them.  They go back to Jerusalem and search for three days.  They are tired and anxious.  When they find Jesus, he speaks of a divine imperative.  He "must be"--dei--about his father's business. 

At Emmaus, another couple journeys away from Jerusalem.  Cleopas and his companion, probably a woman, are sad and disappointed.  In this case, Jesus is with them, but unrecognized.  Jesus speaks again of divine necessity--"Was it not necessary--dei--for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?"  In the meal, Cleopas and his friend discover that Jesus had been with them all along.

Emmaus is "on the same day" as the women's discovery. This story is all one; it would be better if we did not split the lectionary in the way we do. Each part interprets the other.

On the road the travellers remember and retell.

... some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. (Luke 24:22-23)

It is in remembering, reminding, and retelling that resurrection gains some of its traction in our consciousness. Rehearsing the story enables its reality. Taking it from "facts" or dot points we have learned rote, to a story we know, by heart, if you like, allows it to change from theory to reality, and from proposition to being known. It opens us to that deeper reality the story is trying to tell us.

It is when we tell the story to each other that our hearts burn within us as we discover more symmetries, and more significance:

 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

If we only  learn the "facts" rather than play with, and retell, and re-dream the Jesus stories, Emmaus Road conversations don't happen. Why should they? We know the facts. What else is there to say?

Perhaps the key verse here is number 26: "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

Why has this terrible disaster befallen Jesus, and why does such suffering still befall his followers? Where is the glory of God's kingdom of heaven? The Messiah who walks ahead of us to Jerusalem, modelling a different kingdom, enters the glory through the suffering. True glory comes in giving ourselves up to the suffering and horror of a Grim Friday if that is where we are called.

This is not a solitary journey. There is the Church. We travel together on the road.

Where two or three are gathered together, as Matthew put it, there I am in their midst. (Matt 18:20).  When Cleopas and his unknown companion, and the stranger, break bread together,  it is communion they celebrate. We are meant to remember the last supper.

24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
22:19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them...  Do this in remembrance of me...

And then they see him for who he is. Christ is among them. Their eyes are opened and he is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (24 31,35) And vanishes.

Except that he vanishes from their sight. He is still with us.

This is the gift of God.  Even in the shadow of the most evil Friday, one with greater horrors than Golgotha, when we meet as church, two or three, breaking bread, our eyes will be opened and we will recognise him in our presence. We will know resurrection.

And he will vanish from our sight.

This is the supremely realistic and honest gospel, which makes no pretence to some kind of permanent enlightenment.  There is not exalted state of consciousness in this life. We are forever remembering an absent presence, telling each other, remembering, breaking bread, catching glimpses, even knowing abiding healing— but always living with his absent presence in the not yet of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those of us privileged to comfortably in the West in the last 60 or 70 years, blinded by the promises of comfort and good times that will come from a consumer society, may find the Good Friday and Easter Day gospel I have proclaimed from Luke a somewhat grim and unpalatable gospel. This is only because we have lived in a fortunate and most unusual bubble in time; in a dream which is unsustainable, and an imaginary and ephemeral security built largely on the suffering of others.

There is a new wind blowing. America is failing. Life as we imagined it and desired it, is crumbling; we see the emperor has no clothes. Climate change, starvation, pandemic, and war threaten the survival of hundreds of millions, if not our entire species. The old post apocalyptic story A Canticle to Leibowitz may be more correct than we ever thought! Even then, only a privileged few could flee the planet, and we are not even there yet!

In this time, as we wake to find ourselves joining the majority world, the saving, enlivening gospel awaits us. Forever absent, always present, the resurrected Jesus walks ahead of us to Jerusalem, and we will know him in the breaking of the bread.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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