by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow
Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence; then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “You are witnesses of these things.”
This moment, when the Risen Jesus eats with his disciples and commissions them as witnesses, is the climactic moment, the fulfilling moment, of Luke’s entire Resurrection story – perhaps even of Luke’s entire Gospel. This is what it’s all about. But this moment doesn’t just come out of the blue; this moment is part of a tightly woven, highly constructed narrative. And we can’t understand how much this moment means, unless we go back in fill in the rest of the Resurrection story that leads up to this point.
So this is how it goes: Very early on the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath after Jesus was crucified, Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women go to Jesus’ tomb and find it empty. They have a vision of an angel who tells them that they should not look for the living among the dead, that Jesus is not there, he has been raised. The women run back to tell the apostles what they have seen, all full of joy and wonder and questions. But the men don’t believe them: they think it’s an “idle tale”: they think the women are hysterical. Only Peter thinks there might be something to their story; so he runs to the tomb, and he looks in, and he sees the linen wrappings with no body in them, as if the body that had been wrapped had no need of them anymore – but Jesus he doesn’t see. So far in the story, we hear the word that Jesus is raised, but no one has actually seen Jesus.
The next part of the story comes in the afternoon, when two disciples leave Jerusalem to go to Emmaus. As they’re walking along, a stranger comes up and joins them – Luke the narrator tells us it’s Jesus, but the disciples don’t recognize him, and frankly he doesn’t come very clearly into our view, either. The stranger explains the scriptures to them, and they feel their hearts on fire as he does, but they still don’t know who he is, and we don’t know why he is keeping himself secret from them. It is only when they stop at an inn for the evening meal, and the stranger takes bread, and blesses it, and breaks it – it is then they know who he is, and it is then he vanishes from their sight. The whole thing seems kind of oblique, as appearances go. So at this point in the story, we’ve seen the Risen Jesus slantwise, as it were, but still no characters in the story have recognized him face-to-face.
Mysterious as it is, this Emmaus encounter convinces the disciples they have something to tell, so they run all the way back to Jerusalem – the journey that took them the whole afternoon out now takes them only a little while back. And when they get to the upper room where they’ve been staying, they find everybody else is there already, and they‘re all excited because Jesus has appeared to Peter, and Peter has told them that the Lord is risen indeed. At that point in the story, Peter recognizes Jesus face-to-face; but that whole episode is narrated off-stage, and we the readers don’t get to see it. Luke the storyteller is building up the suspense, working us readers up for the big reveal, the moment when the Risen Jesus and the earthly disciples will see each other with recognition, and the Good News of resurrection can be believed by all.
And that is when today’s story happens. In this moment, when all the disciples are gathered together, Jesus suddenly stands among them. One moment he’s not there; the next moment he is. The apostles and their companions are startled and terrified at first, because they think they’re seeing a ghost. But Jesus reassures them: he shows them his hands and his feet, he lets them touch him so that they can tell that he has flesh and bones; he takes a piece of broiled fish and eats a meal with them. And when that climactic moment comes, then they can believe; then Jesus can open their minds to understand everything in scripture about the mission of God, and how Jesus brings that mission, that they hadn’t understood before; then Jesus can commission them to go out into the world and be witnesses to God’s mission in all these things.
And I think that one little story element – eating the piece of broiled fish – is the key to the whole thing. On one level, it’s a simple demonstration that the Risen Jesus is real, he’s not a ghost, he’s not a hallucination, he’s not a shadowy remnant of his former self, he’s not a collective memory that the disciples somehow share. The Risen Jesus is really there; his hand is really real, it can be touched and held and they can feel the strength in his grip; he can say new things to them and teach them what they’d never imagined before and share their meal with them. On one level, eating the fish is a simple demonstration that Jesus is not an apparition, that he is tangibly and effectively alive.
But on another level, the gesture of eating the fish, sharing the meal, goes much deeper and says much more. During his earthly ministry, sharing meals with his disciples was one of the main ways Jesus shared himself with them. At meals with his disciples, Jesus would teach them about his mission and the meaning of the kingdom of God. At his meals, Jesus would act out what the kingdom of God would be like, when he welcomed everyone to his table – sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees, true seekers, casual bystanders – anyone who genuinely wanted to come was welcome. And that table fellowship was a simple, effective way of breaking down the barriers that usually separate people, so that the last were first and the first were last, and nobody was left out, and Jesus’ meals were little snapshots of what God’s kingdom would be like. It was at a supper with his disciples, of course, that Jesus gave them communion as a sign of his covenant with them. And it was by eating and drinking with them after his resurrection that Jesus showed the disciples that his covenant was true, and his communion was trustworthy, and their own lives could be transformed because Jesus shared his New Life with them. Later on, in the Book of Acts, when Peter preaches to the household of Cornelius, he will remember just how important those resurrection meals were to the disciples, when he says that God allowed the Risen Jesus to appear, not to everyone, but to those whom God had chosen, those who ate and drank with him, those who by eating and drinking were nourished and strengthened to share in Jesus’ life and carry on Jesus’ ministry. It is central to Luke’s theology that eating and drinking in the presence of the Risen Christ is what makes resurrection concrete and believable and a transforming power in believers’ lives.
And the point of Luke’s story for us is pretty clear: it is an invitation to us to eat and drink in the presence of the Risen Jesus also, so that we too can be nourished and transformed and share Jesus’ risen life and be Jesus’ witnesses to carry on his mission in the world. The story of eating with Jesus is an invitation to us to go out into the world and make such meals with others, create real concrete occasions when all sorts and conditions of people can be nourished in body and mind and spirit in the name of the Risen Christ. The story of eating with Jesus feeds us with strength, so that we can feed the world’s hungry: those who hunger for food, those who hunger for justice, those who hunger for joy, those who hunger for love. Sharing a meal with the Risen Christ in this ceremony of Eucharist here today feeds us with spiritual food so that we can go forth and be witnesses – not just passive witnesses who see something happen, but active witnesses who speak the truth and do the truth and make these things happen – and all for the mission of Christ. This Eucharist is food for our witness today.
And how will this Eucharist today feed you, so that you can go out and bear witness to the Risen Jesus in your life? What new insight, what new calling, what new strength will the Risen Jesus put in your heart, when the communion bread is put into your hand, when you share this meal in the presence of the Risen One? What will you receive here today that you can give in turn to nourish the world’s need in witness to the mission of the living Christ?
Jesus ate with his disciples, and opened their minds, and sent them to witness. May the Risen Jesus do the same with us. Amen.