O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This prayer comes up every year on the third Sunday of Easter – not the third Sunday after Easter, but of Easter, because Easter, as Fr. Gene reminded us last week, is 50 days long. Easter has 7 Sundays in it, and this is the third, and every year the church asks us to pray these words: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.
We see over and over in the resurrection appearances in the Gospels how difficult it was for the disciples to grasp what was right in front of them, Jesus Christ in his resurrected body. They needed their eyes opened. Remember, Mary Magdalene didn’t even recognize Jesus at first; she thought he was the cemetery gardener. Last week, Thomas simply told the other disciples he didn’t believe them when they said they had met the risen Christ. Just doesn’t happen. No way. And today, the writer Luke piles up adjectives to convey how tough it was for them to see what was right in front of them: “startled, terrified, frightened, disbelieving, wondering.”
Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work. Without the eyes of our faith opened by the direct action of God, what we will behold is Jesus in part of his redeeming work. We’ll see the part we’re inclined to want to see, or the part we already approve of. We can only go so far in understanding God without God’s help, or as a friend of mine says, it takes God to know God. The assumptions we carry and the blinders we wear as we come to the Bible affect how much of what’s there we are able to behold. This may be especially so when the topic is the Risen Christ and what his resurrection means and does.
People often mistakenly come to the Bible, for example, assuming that all resurrection means is that there is a spiritualized life after death, or that human beings die and go to heaven. People come to the text thinking that it’s a given that what we hope for is that when the physical self ends, a purely spiritual self goes on. That was an idea that had some purchase in Greco-Roman culture, and it certainly has purchase in some of the great Eastern faiths, but there is hardly any Biblical material to support it, and it is, clearly, not what the primary texts we have are claiming about the risen Jesus.
Look at the text! He eats fish. He urges them to touch him and verify who he is. His body is still scarred by the wounds of his crucifixion. He has not left his body behind and been spirited off to some non-physical, purely spiritual realm. He specifically tells them: no, I am not a ghost. I have flesh and bones, as you can see. What the text is trying to get us to understand is that Jesus has been raised into a new kind of life in a new kind of body, as the first fruits of the general renewal that God will offer all creation in the life of the world to come. Jesus did not ever, quote, die and go to heaven, unquote, in the sense people casually use that phrase. No, he was raised from death. Jesus was and is the first example of the new creation, the in-person down payment on the final renewal of all creation that we Christians wait and hope for. His new resurrection body belongs, just as the ones he will give us one day will, in both dimensions of the world, the heavenly and the earthly. Heaven and earth meet in his new kind of body - a body that is alive with the life of the world to come. The kind of body we have right now is earthly only; Jesus’ resurrection body belongs to both earth and heaven.
This is the final promise of the last book of the Bible, that earth and heaven will be joined in a cosmic marriage of opposites. That is the final union of which the Christian sacrament of marriage is only the hint and the foreshadowing, although earthly brides and grooms often don’t know enough about Christianity to think of themselves as cosmic symbols. Through Jesus and his risen presence, that union of earthly life and the life of the world to come begins to happen to you and me; through us who say yes to Jesus, it begins happening in small ways in our world, until God brings it to fulfillment for the cosmos at the end of time. That’s the Christian hope.
If you find this hard to imagine and believe, good. It means you are hearing the actual message. It’s not hard to imagine things we make up ourselves, or that our culture has schooled us to find plausible. But it is hard to imagine things God made up. This is what the word “revelation” is getting at – it refers to things we would not have known unless God told us, things we need divine help to understand and find plausible. What God reveals nearly always stretches our imaginations further than we like to have them stretched, challenges at least a few of the assumptions of our culture, and makes more demands on our intellect than we prefer. But that’s one of the ways we know it’s God.
We who live with our thoughts conditioned by this world of sin and death, being formed day to day more by the values and assumptions of our various cultures than by the Gospel, find the idea of God raising Jesus in his body as a foretaste of the future hard to grasp. But don’t kid yourself -- the disciples found it every bit as hard to grasp as we do, just for different reasons. We’re reminded over and over that we cannot possibly grasp it without God’s help. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.
We were studying today’s Gospel passage last week in our adult confirmation gathering, and someone pointed out a phrase that to me is one of the most fascinating throwaway lines in the New Testament. Luke is telling us how the Risen Christ was explaining to the disbelieving, frightened, startled etc etc disciples how all the Bible passages they knew and loved as Jews actually pointed to him. “I told you while I was with you,” he’s saying, “that the Bible was about me and it was all going to be fulfilled in what happened to me.” And then Luke just drops in, as if it was obvious what was meant, this little phrase: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
I’m sorry, he "opened their minds"? How did he do that!? “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” But that’s what we need, every one of us. I pray all the time that God will do that for us here in this parish, that he will help us see the beauty and coherence and power of these texts by himself opening our minds to understand them. Without his doing that, we’ll likely just choose some bits we like and shoehorn them into what we already think. And really, the book deserves better than that.
One more thing I want to point out about this Gospel passage – did you notice that in a sense, it echoes the two parts of the Mass? In the reading from Luke, Jesus eats with them first -- there is a lot of eating in the resurrection appearances – and then he unfolds the scriptures to them. We do that every Sunday, we just do it in the reverse order. The scriptures are proclaimed and unpacked first, and then we eat with the risen Christ. Without his help, we could easily miss this, but that’s what’s going on. Jesus reveals himself both in the Bible and in the breaking of bread – a bread that itself is already shimmering with the life of the world to come, so that we can be fed with resurrection life and find it growing in us, beginning now.
And in fact there’s a prayer in our tradition about that, too. If you ever do the daily devotions in the Prayer Book, a kind of mini-version of the daily office, the prayer I’m thinking of is in the early evening service. It makes the request in today’s collect a little more specific. Today we asked Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work. That other collect, the evening one, asks Jesus to “be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.”
Just like in the Mass, just like in this morning’s Gospel: Scripture and the breaking of bread give us access to what Jesus has done for us, to the foretaste of the New Creation he won for us, but we can’t grasp it by ourselves. Without God’s direct action on us, we will behold Christ not in all his redeeming work, but only in part of it. Without God’s direct action on us, we will know Christ only as we imagine or want him to be, and not as he is revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. May he act on you and me today. May he open our minds to understand. May he show us his truth and baptize us in his power. May it be Easter, today and every day. Amen, Alleluia.