Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24)
In the pilgrimage that we made here at St. Michael’s on Easter Day, we took the various episodes recorded in scripture that happened on the first Easter Day, and put them together into one narrative. Turns out, a lot happened for just one day! Not only was there the discovery of the empty tomb, but also Jesus appearing first to Mary Magdalene, and then to the other women who came looking for him; then there was Jesus on the road to Emmaus, stopping to have supper with two disciples; and then Jesus appeared in the upper room, breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples … Jesus was popping up all over the place! It must have been a truly head-spinning day!
And today we read about yet another Easter Day episode, which is Luke’s own account of Jesus’ appearance in the upper room, when he not only gives the gift of peace, but opens their minds to the meaning of the scriptures about him. And if we were to read a bit farther to the end of Luke’s gospel, we would discover that in Luke’s telling, Jesus was not only with the disciples that day, but also led them out of the city to Bethany, where he was lifted up and disappeared from them. All in one day!
The strange thing is, though, that if you flip ahead to the Book of Acts, which is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke and presumably by the same author, you find a rather different story. There, Jesus continues to appear to the disciples over a period of forty days, and is taken up from them only at the end of that symbolically important time. Same author, two very different accounts.
These conflicting stories might remind us of the discrepancy that shows up right at the beginning of the Bible, in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis, which have two radically different accounts of creation. In that case, the rationalization is made that the two accounts are by different authors (the famous Jahwist and Priestly, or J and P, sources), each with a particular theological point of view that leads to a different telling of the story.
But in the case of Luke/Acts, which have the same author, how does one account for the two completely different versions of Jesus’ resurrection appearances and final departure—one on Easter Day, the other forty days later? One could, I suppose, simply dismiss it all as so much gobbledygook: a confused mind telling predictably confused tales. That’s what our modern, rationalist perspective would have us to do.
But scripture doesn’t work that way. When it offers conflicting accounts of the same thing, it’s trying to get us to pay attention to the fact that the meaning of what is being related is larger than any one telling can provide. And so, in the case of the resurrection, the risen Jesus is not any one thing, and he is not known to us in any one way. He will make himself known to us where and how it is needful for us to encounter him. That’s why the stories are all different: they were experienced, and remembered, in distinctly individual ways. They are not linear and consistent, but multiple and divergent.
But there is another dimension to all of this that I want to draw out, and it is the primary message for today. Like the stories of Jesus, the stories of our own lives are also inconsistent and divergent. We human beings are a patchwork of thoughts and emotions and actions that are often at odds with one another, and that leads us to behaviors that are not entirely dependable—far from it. Add to this the fact that over time we change—thank God, more than we expect—so that what was true of us at one time, may be virtually unrelated to who we are now. No one is ever fully consistent or morally coherent. As Father Easter, a beloved retired priest in this congregation now deceased, used to say, “We’re all of us a mixed bag.”
And this, I think, is where the Christian emphasis upon reconciliation and forgiveness is radically at odds with the strident partisanship in our own day with which we are all too familiar. Whether we are on the left or the right, we look for a kind of moral and intellectual purity in one another that human beings simply aren’t capable of. Most of our lives, we’re too immature to know better, and the rest of our lives we’re too old to be able to do much about it. “We’re all of us a mixed bag.” And so out of simple compassion we have to make room for the reality of the mixture of good and bad that we all are.
When the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and greets them with the words, “Peace be with you” (and that’s one thing that remains pretty consistent across various accounts), I hear in that statement two things. First, there is an implicit acknowledgement that the disciples are all guilty of having betrayed him, and therefore have reason to be fearful of his anger.
But second, there is also Jesus’ unexpected forgiving embrace that is ready and willing to move beyond that guilt. If anyone ever had reason to feel a righteous anger, it was Jesus toward his disciples. But the first words out of his mouth are not of anger, but of peace—he seems intent to say, “Let’s move on.”
So he quickly begins to turn the disciples’ attention not toward the past, but toward the future, telling them that they will be his witnesses among all nations to the pattern of forgiveness and reconciliation that is at the heart of what he came to teach and to inspire. That is the mission with which he leaves them, and it is the mission to which we ourselves are heir in our own day: to speak over and over again the gospel words, “Peace be with you.” Amen.