Squinting: The Easter Mission

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 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. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘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 24.36-48

One of the most underrated days in the Christian Year is the one we call Holy Saturday. It’s that day, which is sandwiched, as it were, between Good Friday and Easter Day. It’s that day, which is all too often overlooked because more often than not, we’re consumed by activity and the understandable need to get everything ready for what we might euphemistically call, “the biggest gig of the year”. But as part of our Christian story, Holy Saturday occupies a place of huge significance.

And this was emphasised for me, once the implications of ‘lockdown’ as we call it, began to impinge on us. Because I heard someone observe that in many respects Holy Saturday serves as a perfect metaphor for much of what we’ve been experiencing over the past year.

We might recall, for instance, that Holy Saturday; a day between death and resurrection, is the day when (as Luke says in his Passion narrative) everyone “returned home” (Luke 23.48). And it’s also a time when death and fear is in the air and many of the familiar signposts have gone. So, what I mean is that the character and tone of Holy Saturday, provide us with a way of prayerfully understanding what we’ve been going through.

Now, if you take my point, it’s not long before we’ll then recall that Holy Saturday is of course succeeded by Easter Day and the news of Resurrection. Which means, without wishing to get ahead of ourselves; (desperate as we are to ’emerge’ from the tomb of social restrictions), we’re going to be asking ourselves what resurrection might say to the days in which we now live and the contours of our new and emerging situation.

Now, it’s not my place to become just one more commentator, attempting to prophesy as to what the ‘new normal’ (as people are fond of calling it) might come to look like. Again, I simply want (as we emerge from the tomb of Holy Saturday) to ask how the accounts of the Lord’s Resurrection can help us in the days that lie ahead. So, turning to our Gospel reading this morning, I think the first thing I took great encouragement from is the simple fact that after so much death, loss and dislocation, the disciples are back together again.

It’s often been noted that the enforced separation that we’ve experienced has been one of the cruellest things about the past year and my sense is that we Christians feel this especially keenly. Even though we’ve discovered that Internet and Social Media have their place; and they have proved a really helpful means of keeping in touch, we still know that the ’embodied’ gathering of God’s people, is the real thing.

But secondly, going beyond what we might think of as the obvious blessing of one another’s company; the disciples discovered that something more was going on than renewed social interaction. Simply put, in their coming together, Christ is present to his people. And more than this, he’s present to that group of people who are “startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost” and who “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”.

In other words, following their Holy Saturday, they are still somewhat perplexed and struggling to fathom out both what’s happened and what might happen next. But he’s there with them in that. He doesn’t wait until they’ve got themselves sorted before putting in an appearance! That’s why I think the choice of this morning’s Gospel reading might seem providential; in that it speaks quite distinctly, doesn’t it, to our current situation?

But of course, to speak of Christ’s ‘presence’ easily runs the risk of appearing slightly woolly. I mean, clearly this was the disciples’ initial reaction; assuming as they did, that their resurrected Lord was little more that some insubstantial or ghostly apparition: “Is there anybody there?”. And so I would want to make a distinction between presence and ‘encounter’.

What I mean is that yes, the risen Christ is present to his people but what matters is the encounter- the engagement with him. You see, St. Luke seems to fall over himself in stressing that Christ is no disembodied spirit; nor is he some sort of feeling or intuition. Instead, he’s a living Lord who comes to them. He comes with compassion; to those who as Luke says are “disbelieving and still wondering” but importantly, he comes, as we might say, with an agenda!

I mean, for example, that greeting of Peace which he gives (and which we may correctly see as a sign of his compassion), isn’t the invitation to some rather warm or ‘fuzzy’ feeling. It’s not spiritual codeine to cover the pain of dislocation and the uncertainties of life. No, in offering the Shalom, the peace of God, Christ is declaring an objective change. He’s saying, “you are now standing on rather different territory ……and a different way of living lies open before you”. Again, Luke makes it clear that any notions of Christ as a somewhat ‘vague presence’ must give way to an encounter in which Christ questions us, he teaches us and enrols us in his mission. That’s what this episode is all about.

So, this morning we’re given a picture of disciples emerging from their Holy Saturday tomb, still squinting at the light somewhat. But, in gathering together, they encounter both a compassionate Lord and one who enters into conversation with them about the future; the new terrain of God’s Kingdom.

Which is why we have to be very clear about the very directness of the things which the risen Christ says. Sometimes he gives the impression that, as we say, “he doesn’t suffer fools gladly”. Which might seem startling but if this is true it only serves to underline the very seriousness of it all. He tells them, “You are witnesses of these things”. Not so much witnesses of some personal, warm, fuzzy sentimental springtime and daffodils optimism but witnesses to the big picture; the story of God’s purposes for us and the world. All of which Christ has now revealed.

Which is why the way to spot an authentic experience of God is not so much the cozy glow but the extent to which it sends us. Because all encounters with God are in this sense ‘missional’- they are for the life of the world; to be shared.

So, as we emerge from Holy Saturday into a perhaps equally confusing Easter Season(!) let’s give thanks that we are (again perhaps providentially) saved from all vague notions of God’s presence by a tangible encounter with him in this eucharist.

Listen to what he says to his people: “Touch me and see”. Well, as you take the Lord into your hands this morning; as you encounter him here, what do you suppose he asking you? What’s he teaching you? And to whom is he sending you?

2021-04-19