Tonight’s Gospel picks up in the middle of a story, so a little context is in order. It’s evening on the first day of the week, and the disciples are gathered somewhere in Jerusalem, comparing notes about the events of the day.
First, early in the morning, a group of women had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. But instead of a body, they found two men in dazzling clothes who announced that Jesus had risen. When the women reported this, the disciples found it to be an idle tale.
Then two of them, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, had met a mysterious stranger on the road. The stranger had used the Hebrew Scriptures to explain to them all that had happened. When they invited this stranger to dinner, they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
The two disciples had returned to Jerusalem to share the news. There, they found the eleven and their companions gathered with news of their own: Jesus had risen and had appeared to Simon!
This is where we begin tonight, in the hubbub of that room, disciples repeating their stories, trying to make sense of their experiences – an empty tomb, a vision of angels, Jesus appearing in the breaking of bread and then disappearing.
In the midst of the chaos, Jesus appears. “Peace. Shalom,” he says, offering well-being, wholeness, harmony, divine grace and blessing. But the disciples are terrified! How could one who had died be standing before them? Despite reports that Jesus had risen, the disciples think that they are seeing a ghost.
So Jesus offers his crucified body, showing them the wounds in his hands and his feet. The risen Jesus who stands before the disciples is the same Jesus who had lived among them, who taught and healed and fed the multitudes, who was tortured and nailed to a cross. As further proof of his bodily resurrection, the risen Jesus asks for food, and right before their eyes he eats the piece of fish that they provide.
In a similar way, at Emmaus earlier that evening, the stranger had taken bread and blessed it, then broke it and gave it to the disciples. At that moment the disciples recognized Jesus.
In “Supper at Emmaus,” painted by the Italian artist Caravaggio at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we see Jesus seated at a table, his right hand stretched out over a meal that includes bread and wine as well as fruit and a roasted chicken. The two disciples are seated at the table. The one on the left is at the edge of his seat, his hands gripping the arms of his chair, leaning forward in astonishment. On the right, the other disciple’s arms are outstretched, and he, too, leans forward. The energy is palpable. The artist has brought us into the scene at the moment that the disciples’ eyes are opened to the true identity of the stranger they met on the road.
There is another person in this scene: the innkeeper. He stands next to Jesus, his head tilted slightly to one side. In contrast to the astounded expressions of the disciples, the innkeeper seems unaffected, attentive yet oblivious to the revelation right in front of him.
We gather at this table, where bread is taken and blessed, broken and given. What do we see in the breaking of the bread?
Back in Jerusalem, Luke doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to Jesus’s crucified and risen body, or his ability to eat in their presence. Did they recognize Jesus? Or were they still terrified and disbelieving?
The encounter with the crucified-and-risen Jesus continues. As he had done earlier in the day, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus turns to scripture, interpreting his life and his passion, death, and resurrection in light of the law and the prophets. The disciples on the road to Emmaus later recalled that their hearts were burning within them when Jesus opened the scriptures to them. I wonder whether the disciples gathered in Jerusalem also felt their hearts burning within as Jesus taught them.
For the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus does more than teach. He commissions them. They are to be witnesses, telling the world about Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection; proclaiming repentance, forgiveness, and new life to all nations.
In tonight’s reading from Acts, we find the disciples doing just that, bearing witness and calling people to repentance. This reading, like tonight’s Gospel, drops us into the middle of the story. It takes place at the temple in Jerusalem, where Peter and John had gone for afternoon prayer. At the gate of the temple, they encountered a beggar, a man who had been lame, unable to walk for his entire life. Instead of money, Peter offered healing. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” Peter said, “rise up and walk.” Then Peter took the man’s hand and raised him up. Acts tells us that the man entered the temple with Peter and John, walking and leaping and praising God. We enter the story here, as the crowd gathers, abuzz with wonder, staring at Peter and John, trying to figure out what power they have.
It’s a preach-able moment. Peter bears witness, right there in the temple. Everything he says emphasizes continuity with the faith of Israel. Invoking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their ancestors, Peter attributes the healing to Jesus, the crucified-and-risen one. Jesus, says Peter, is the prophet like Moses, the servant who fulfills the servant songs of Isaiah. The suffering that Jesus experienced was predicted by the prophets. Now, God is doing something new, raising Jesus from the dead and calling people to repentance and new life.
“You are witnesses,” the risen Jesus had told the disciples. Not, “you will be,” or “you ought to be.” “You are witnesses.”
The Book of Common Prayer appoints readings for the Eucharist for each day of Easter Week. Each of the appointed Gospels is a resurrection story, culminating on Sunday with the story of doubting Thomas, who insisted that he needed to touch the wounds of Christ, to see and feel for himself. The same Gospel passages are appointed year after year. The fact of resurrection – and I use that term advisedly, in this age of alternative facts – the fact of resurrection is so astounding that we need to hear and remember the accounts of those eyewitnesses who walked on earth with Jesus, who ran away when Jesus was crucified, who struggled to believe when the risen Christ appeared in their midst. Without those eyewitness accounts, told from many perspectives, we might think that the resurrection – the resurrection of the body, as we say in the creed – is but an idle tale. By immersing ourselves in the stories of the resurrection, we remember who God is and what God has done for us, most especially in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
During Lent, at my parish, All Souls in Berkeley, I helped lead an adult formation series on the Baptismal Covenant. Each week, we rehearsed the Apostles’ Creed, our affirmation of what God has done for us in Christ, and then we dug into one of the promises, asking how we live that out not only individually but also as a parish. Our promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” is specifically about witness.
As we explored each commitment, I became newly aware of the ways these promises are intertwined. We proclaim the Good News as we participate in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. Our worship, the breaking of bread in which Christ becomes present among us, the offering of prayer for the world and the church: all of this bears witness to the crucified-and-risen one. Loving our neighbor, striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being: these acts, too, bear witness to God’s love made known in Jesus. We persevere in resisting evil as we work for justice and peace, all of it a witness to the Good News of God in Christ.
Here, today, Christ is risen. In the midst of a sinful and broken world, with saber-rattling over North Korea, catastrophic climate change, and increasing hostility toward immigrants and refugees; in a world in which fear and anxiety so often rule, we proclaim that Christ is here with us, calling us to repentance and offering new life. Here, tonight, in this place, among this seminary community, we celebrate the crucified-and-risen one, and we are witnesses to the Good News of resurrection life.
Image: “Supper at Emmaus” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio