Testament Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
Testament Reading: Luke 24:13-35
want to start this sermon with a pair of thoughts from two thinkers who
have shaped my own thinking to a great degree. The first is from New
Testament critic and theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Somewhere, possibly in a
review of Karl Barth's book The Resurrection of the Dead, I forget
now, he said that as far as the events of Easter morning were concerned,
the historian can go only so far and no farther. He or she cannot get
behind the Easter faith of the first disciples.
Gogarten were surprised that any so-called believers in the resurrection
felt the need to go farther. It seemed perverse that these great
believers would insist that there was an in-principle verifiable event
prior to and outside of the faith of the earliest disciples, and outside
our own as well.
Does this mean you
are planning to set aside your faith to find out what that event is? Or
have you already set it aside when you serve notice that the kerygma, the
preaching of the gospel is not good enough for you, and you want to get
out your video camera and find out for sure, like the child who plans to
stay and see Santa for himself?
Bultmann was saying
in effect that our faith is grounded on that early faith. Faith on faith.
Now it may be that that first, fundamental faith is faith in fact. That's
your interpretation. But I am saying, and I think Bultmann was saying,
that you have no immediate access to the historical facts of the matter,
whatever they may have been. We do indeed have immediate access to the
Risen Christ himself, whom we encounter in the preaching of the church and
in the sacraments.
Here is my second
thought for the morning. It comes from the pen of Jacques Derrida, father
of Deconstruction, as if you didn't know that by now. Derrida borrows a
term from the technical language of heraldry and speaks of the
Mise-en-Abyme, the scene in the abyss. It refers to the occasional
practice of depicting on a coat-of-arms the arms themselves, a miniature
inside the larger design. And if you could get out your microscope, you
would expect to find a still tinier miniature within the miniature, and a
tinier one within that one. And so on.
Infinite regress, we
call it. You've seen the effect plenty of times, when you've been in
restaurants or stores with mirrors on both facing walls. It gives the
impression that the place is much bigger than it really is.
Derrida applies the
idea to literature. He is thinking of instances where a narrative or essay
about a certain phenomenon, perhaps inadvertently or perhaps on purpose,
contains an example of that phenomenon. Whether that would count as life
imitating art or art imitating life I don't know. But I think Bultmann
clues us in to the fact that we have just such a case of infinite regress
in the resurrection narratives of the gospels. In the very attempt,
apparently, to ground our faith in realistic-seeming narratives of the
resurrection of Jesus, they betray the fact that the faith of the
characters in the stories is just as irreducibly based on faith as ours
resurrection stories seem at first to be stories of people being convinced
by irrefutable evidence, but on closer inspection, they depict people like
us having to rely on the preached message. They really had no advantage
over us. And this is because the stories were told by people like us. Let
me try briefly to illustrate this.
In Matthew 28 we
have a story in which the disciples gather on some mountain in Galilee to
get their marching orders. "Go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
In fact it is evident that Matthew has created this scene as a parting
word to the missionaries for whom he has written his gospel as a handbook.
As far as we know
the original disciples stayed in Palestine governing the Christians
belonging to the 12 tribes of Israel. They weren't missionaries. And
something else: some present in this scene "doubt." Surely this is
possible for people like us, with no direct access to the Risen One, but,
I should think, out of the question for the original 12. And look at the
baptism formula: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Not likely on Easter
morning. That Trinitarian formula only came into play much later.
Or take John 20.
There we read that Thomas rejoins the disciples one day and hears the
incredible news that Jesus is risen from the dead. He will not credit it.
In other words, he is like you and me, dependent on the supposedly
superior testimony of the original disciples. But it isn't enough. He
doubts. Jesus then makes a special appearance for his benefit, but this is
really an exception that proves the rule: the whole point seems to be that
Jesus has shown up simply to rebuke Thomas' craving for more: "Do you
believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet
believe." That is, you and me, people who weren't there.
I will try your
patience with one example more: the story of the Emmaus Road, my favorite
by far among Easter stories. You have just heard it. I won't repeat it.
But I will read another, related story. This is the story of the
evangelist Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. [Acts 8:26--40]. (Don't you
realize that we are doing just what Jesus and the disciples, Cleopas and
his wife Mary, did on the first Easter day? Examining the scriptures?)
And come to think of
it, that's just what Philip and the Ethiopian were doing, too! Scholars
have noticed how similar this story is to that of the Emmaus Road. Richard
Dillon has pointed this out. In both stories we have someone headed home
from Jerusalem after a feast there. The traveler(s) is (are) joined by a
mysterious stranger who begins unraveling the puzzles of scripture with
reference to Jesus of Nazareth who has turned out to be God's messiah.
Then we seem to have the observance of a sacrament, the Lord's Table in
Emmaus, the baptism of the Ethiopian, and then, just at that moment, the
mysterious stranger vanishes into thin air, only to reappear somewhere
Do you remember the
Mission Charge, when Jesus sends out the disciples to preach? He says,
"Whoever hears you hears me." Dillon suggests that this is the origin of
the Emmaus Road story, and its meaning. The story grew out of that sort of
encounter between a convert and a Christian evangelist or prophet who
spoke in the name of the Risen Christ.
The point of the
story is something like what 1 Thessalonians 1:13 says: "And we also thank
God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you
heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it
really is, the word of God."
That is the point of
the last minute recognition of the stranger at the communion table in
Emmaus: faith arises that what this Christian prophet has said is really
the word of the Risen Christ, and it becomes real precisely in the moment
of partaking of the Lord's Supper. In the Eunuch's case, the
identification became real in baptism.
On this reading, it
wasn't literally Jesus of Nazareth the pair of disciples met that day. It
was someone like Philip. This is hinted at in the strange detail of their
not recognizing him at first. In other words, it didn't look like the
Jesus they had known before, because on a physical, literal level, it
wasn't. But on a spiritual level, it was.
Where does it leave
us? Exactly on a par with the Emmaus disciples, with the disciples on the
mountain in Galilee, with Thomas, in short, with the characters in the
You know, I used to
secretly approach Easter with an inner sense of disappointment, as if what
we were doing were mere play-acting. The real thing was long over, and
what we were doing was some kind of poor charade. But I no longer think
that. Nobody ever had it realer than we do. This is it. This
is the real thing. There never was a realer one! This is the way it was
the First Easter.
disappointed? I wonder if that means you, too, have been resigned to
celebrating a pale shadow of Easter. Is the belief that the First Easter
was so different important to you because the only Easters in your
experience are so dismal? So vapid?
Listen to me,
Thomas, Thomasina: is it an encounter with the Risen Christ you want? Will
that satisfy you? Well stop despising the place he may be found, the same
place the Emmaus disciples found him, here at the Lord's Table. Open your
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