[April 19, 2015] This is the third Sunday of the 49 days of Easter. You recall that Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days, ascending on the fortieth, and then sent the power of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day, the Day of Pentecost. On the first two Sundays we explored the discovery of the empty tomb and appearances of the risen Christ on the evening of his resurrection in the gospels of Mark and John. We continue this exploration with the Gospel according to Luke.
Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as the exemplar Apostle who sets the pattern for the apostolate of the church, the story of the beginning of which Luke covers in The Acts of the Apostles, which describes how the apostolate of the disciples opened up to the gentile world under the leadership of the apostles Peter and Paul. The word apostle means “one who is sent” and is related to the verb apostellein, “to send.” The Latin equivalent is mittere, from whence comes the Medieval Latin word missio, and hence the English “mission.”
Today’s reading takes place on the evening of the day of Jesus’ resurrection, like the similar account in John’s later gospel. In Luke’s gospel it follows immediately the depiction of Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They returned to Jerusalem late in the day to where the women and men disciples were gathered with the chosen Eleven (Judas was no longer among them) and were telling their story when Jesus suddenly stood among them. Like in John’s gospel, Jesus did not enter the room; he simply appeared, manifesting himself there in their midst. And like in John’s gospel, he announced himself by saying, “Peace be with you!”
“Peace be with you!” was no mere announcement of his presence, a greeting of “Shalom” (which it was, of course). It was also a description of what his presence brings. The peace that he brings is the peace of restoration, recovery and healing, wholeness and health, salvation, and, of course, the end of strife and conflict, a broad theme in the gospel (the word “peace” occurs in 1:79; 2:14, 29; 7:50; 8:48; 10:5, 6; 11:21; 12:51; 14:32; 19:38, 42; and here). Here it is his presence in resurrection that is our peace, which his manifestation at that moment revealed.
The words that follow in verses 37-42 address their doubts. At first they were alarmed and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost. Jesus says they were tarassō, stirred up, agitated, disturbed, or troubled. Thoughts, reasonings or questions, i.e., doubts, were rising up in their hearts. When he showed them his hands and feet (he showed his side only in John’s gospel because only in John’s gospel do we find out that his side was pierced), and asked them to touch him, Luke tells us “their joy was so great that they still could not believe it, as they were dumbfounded.” Literally, they disbelieved from their joy and astonishment (marveling or wondering). He then offered a second proof: he asked them for something to eat. They gave him a piece of grilled fish and he “took it and ate it before their eyes.” If they could not believe that they were actually seeing and touching him, where did the piece of fish go?
Jesus is proving to them that he really has risen from the dead, as he said he would (9:22; 18:31-33; 24:6-7, 19-27). However, he is also making a further point. He is showing something about the reality of his resurrection. He had raised people from the dead, returning life to their dead bodies and resuscitating them in health. His resurrection was different than theirs. Also, there were stories that circulated of holy people having resurrected: even though their bodies remained in their tombs, they appeared as alive to people in visions. Jesus’ resurrection was different than these.
In the first case, there was no external agent that raised him except the direct agency of God, and—it was not apparent yet—he was not resuming the life he had before but had become not only immortal, never to die again, and not only impervious to death, but eternal. This means that he was simply always. He was always present in every present moment in the past and the future: who he was at that moment but also all his “time” from his conception to the moment of his death, and beyond death into hades and the resurrection. This escapes our understanding because a particular time becomes eternal, what is created becomes uncreated, what is human becomes divine. (When I say this, I speak of Jesus’ human nature, not his person—or hypostasis—which was always divine; moreover, I do not mean that the human ceased being human but that it now shared the properties of the divine while maintaining its own integrity, “without change or confusion.” In other words, the kenosis or self-emptying in which his divine nature was hidden by his human nature was over; now his human nature was transparent to the divine.) In our present passage, however, all they see is that Jesus is fully recovered, redounding in health—even though his body had been destroyed by his passion—though he still bore the signs of his crucifixion in his hands and feet.
Nor was Jesus a ghost. This is the main concern of this passage. Jesus had not come to them in the form of a spirit, nor were the disciples seeing a vision. His tomb was quite empty; the body was not there. His body had risen! Moreover, the embodied Jesus that they saw before them, who simply manifested in the room where they were, was quite real in a physical sense. They could see him with their physical eyes (photons from the lamps reflected off of him) and they could touch him and feel his concreteness. It is also true that more was going on than Luke recounts here. Jesus was now omnipresent, ubiquitous, in all places simultaneously throughout creation. He nevertheless was still—as such, that is, sharing this ubiquitous property of divinity—nevertheless as physical as the days before his death. He could still take a piece of grilled fish and eat it. This too is incomprehensible. Even so, it is what is being asserted here: something that exists in space can be ubiquitous. Though human, he is divine—this was always the case, for his one divine person (hypostasis) had two natures simultaneously, one native to him (which he hid) and one assumed—moreover, his humanity has become divine while remaining entirely human. The point is that in this case of resurrection, he rose bodily from the grave—his body was no longer in the tomb—and manifested himself to his disciples as very real flesh and blood, as scientifically verifiable.
There were others who had died, or not, and who were assumed bodily into heaven (Enoch, Moses, and Elijah; and it is believed, the mother of Jesus). Jesus’ resurrection may be compared to these, though the difference, in the telling, is that he appeared to many after his resurrection before he was physically assumed into heaven. The theological way of looking at this is that the others were participating in the reality that was his. They experienced the divinization of their bodies before the eschaton, all others will have to wait. Nevertheless, it is the divinization of his body that makes theirs possible. What they experienced and what all who are redeemed will experience is the redemption of our bodies in resurrection. It is nevertheless, even then, only a partial participation in the divine nature, a participation which will increase “from glory to glory” until time enfolds back into eternity (it would be experienced as endless time: as time “collapsed” it would accelerate indefinitely; internally, this pace would not be experienced as acceleration at all, instead it would be experienced as endless).
Do the disciples now believe? We are not told. It is not until verse 52 that we are told that they worshipped him. Since Luke does not tell us, I do not think this is his preoccupation, as it will be for Mark when he concludes his gospel. For Luke, human experience is more ambiguous than that, more complicated. They believe yet they do believe. In their hearts they knew, for they were filled with joy, but their minds could not catch up to what their hearts told them. Jesus continues to speak to their hearts—to him they are his believers, regardless of the confusion and temporary paralysis of their cogitations.
Is this not our own experience? We believe in spite of our mental confusion, in spite of our temporary (or persistent) heresies, in spite of our doubts. And this faith remains with us through our trials and, by God’s grace and the interior operation of the Holy Spirit, we get through those dark times when we thought we no longer believed, when we thought God had abandoned us, when we thought we had given up on God. We emerge on the other side, strong or weak, with a chastened and humbled faith, but one that is more genuine for all that, a faith that is more mature and capable of real growth (and not the old flights of fancy).
The next part of this passage is the text of verses 44-49. We will save verse 49 for its own treatment another time. Here Jesus tells the gathered that everything written about him in the books that were regularly read in the synagogues—the Torah, the books of the Early and Later Prophets, and the Psalms (is this last a heading that includes the other books of verse and/or the books of wisdom?)—was destined to be fulfilled. This replicates what he told the two on the way to Emmaus where “starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.” Literally it does not say “passages.” Luke says “he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” In other words, he did not have to exegete passage after passage but, since he interpreted “all the scriptures,” he might have interpreted the scriptures using broad summaries of their content. Thus “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” so that after this they could hear the scriptures read from any portion of the canon (which was not yet formalized) and understand how they were speaking of him. This prepared them for the apostolate that was to follow, for we see that this is exactly their method of preaching. They used the scriptures to tell the story (the gospel) of Jesus, showing how he fulfilled their meaning, and how this interprets for us the meaning of Jesus.
“So it is written that the Messiah would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his Name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This is the content of the Torah and the Prophets and Psalms. That might surprise us, but it depends on a particular way of reading those texts. When we read the Old Testament canon in this light, then their light sheds light on our understanding of Jesus; thus they mutually shed light on each other. Understanding the Old Testament from the perspective of its fulfillment, we then understand all that Jesus fulfills.
That the gospel would reach the gentiles and that they would come—interiorly—to Zion to worship the God of Israel, is not something new but is already in the scriptures of Israel.
For Luke, the church exists for its apostolate, to gather all the people of the world to Jesus, who brings them peace. The church is the gathering of those people, but its task is to go out and gather. The church is the gathering of those people to Jesus, to be the social space where they can come to know him—in each other with the help of the scriptures—and where they can love and worship him. But the church, as a living thing, reflecting and imbibing Jesus, must also continually seek out the lost, just as he did. These two aspects cannot be separated. They are merely the two sides of the same thing, the inside and the outside. We exist in the world, both in the exterior aspect of its affairs and its interior sphere, and we exist with each other, both in the exterior aspect of our life together and in the interior sphere of our prayer and adoration and contemplation. We are always in all these “spaces,” we need to occupy them all as Christians.
“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus says to those who were with him. They were witnesses because he was showing himself to them. This witness becomes the basis for the church’s remembrance, to which we are committed as we break bread together, and which is embodied in the testimony of the written scriptures, particularly the gospels, which takes the place of the actual eyewitnesses. When we break bread together, rather than hearing a witness speak of their experience with Jesus, we hear the scriptures read, and in this way we remember Jesus. The purpose of the preaching in our Eucharistic gatherings, then, is to assist in that remembrance.
Today I will be face the congregation for the first time after having “come out” to them about myself in a letter. In a way we need to see all of our lives in the light of his life. We replicate patterns that are in his life and seeing these patterns help us understand the meaning of our lives.
In resurrection Jesus put death behind him. He put what others could do to him behind him. He became liberated from this. We do this when we confess our sin and embrace the new life in Christ. In a way this is what I have done. I am not renouncing my old life, however, as much as recognizing the shame that kept me bound in it. The shame was not on account of sin, but rather was the result of social norms that are heavily imposed on each of us. Sometimes those norms compel us to live in a way that renounces who we are as the creation of God. This, in fact, is the nature of sin. Sin is a renunciation of creation. We create a separate sphere in our minds, a sphere that we share with others—in the social and cultural sphere. In this sphere we attempt to live independently of our creation, and independently of God. Naturally, creation is embodied spirit and is in constant relationship to God who is immanent within it and whom we as conscious beings love transcendentally. That is, God’s presence and activity permeates everything and is the life of all that lives, the presence of all that is present, and though God is our ground, we adore God in relationship, not as ourselves but as Another who loves us. We thus participate in the Trinitarian being of God: as Transcendent Father and Source, as Word and Savior and Lover, as immanent Spirit who loves. Yet in our sin we put all this aside and construct a separate sphere with which we identify and within which we live, becoming blind to reality.
When a transgender person lives in the sphere that others constructed for her and which she learns to help construct, she is living in this sphere of original sin. When she decides to affirm her creation, she is renouncing the world and embracing the truth. This hardly means that she is free of this sphere of sin in which humanity exists. That is the process of our—really the work of the Holy Spirit—saving our souls, the process in which we need to deny ourselves and lose our souls in order to save them. Our souls are not saved until we appear before him when he comes in glory, and even then our salvation (not our redemption, which we already have) may not be complete. When a transgender person is able to embrace her created gender instead of the one that was assigned at birth and imposed (with all good intentions) by medical staff, family and peers, she has to die to a great deal of self, laying it down in death, losing her old soul, in order to experience the freedom of life.
Most transgender people attempt to do this without the conscious assistance of God’s grace. It is a difficult struggle and many (many!) do not survive it. Many to whom God has been seriously misrepresented outright reject the “God” that they understand. They do not love creation as such, with the kind of affection of which a Christian is capable. Perhaps so much abuse on account of their bodily identity, “creation” might even seems inert to them. Only the realm of “spirit” matters. This is unfortunate but reflects their painful struggle to come to terms with themselves in the world. Many transgender people come to Jesus but are so badly treated by believers that they are stumble and fall. I need to remind these believers of the stern words of Jesus, “Anyone who is the downfall of one these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round their neck! Alas for the world that there should be such causes of falling! Causes of falling indeed there must be, but alas for anyone who provides them! … See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:6-7, 10), angels whom Jesus identifies as, not the Hallmark cherubs, but rather those whose task is to “gather out of his kingdom all causes of falling and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 13:42).
When a transgender person transitions with the assistance of God’s grace and the strength of the Holy Spirit within her, her Christian life becomes clarified to an astonishing degree. She has had to wrestle with the “world” and the “flesh” in a way that few others can comprehend. This is a journey that can be sanctified and ought to be, where the grace of God at work in them and in the Christian community can be highlighted and become a light to others who struggle in darkness.
Jesus presented himself alive with many proofs, having shrugged off what was old. He laid down his soul in death and he took it up again, and now the Jesus who appeared to others in spirit, soul and body was possessed of a radiance that was there before but hidden from view. The transgender person can have a faint experience of this, and so can the community of which they are a part (if that community does not want to face the wrath of angels!).
Yet Jesus, in all his newness, does not deny the scriptures but rather shows how the scriptures now come to life along with him. The transgender person who has made that act of obedience towards transition can experience the same thing. More than ever the scriptures point us to Jesus, and paint for us our own liberating journey with him and in him and by the strength of his life within us by the Lady Holy Spirit. More than ever our minds are opened to understand the scriptures as they reveal Jesus and speak to us, revealing our own heart. More than ever we are called to repentance for the forgiveness of sins and to the proclamation of this to others. When creation is again embraced, we have repented of our delusional independence of God, and when our redemption is embraced, we have come to the God who loves us and opens his/her arms to us and enfolds us in the divine embrace. We are free to get caught up in the life of love, the love of Father/Mother, Son and Lady Holy Spirit, love that we are sharing with all those around us, letting us let go of our angers and hatreds and fears, letting our hurts stew in God’s love instead of in our own cauldron of despair.
Jesus, our Lover, and our Lord, how gracious and kind you are, how powerful, relentless and unfailing. We love you and praise you.