“When Jesus Shows Up” Luke 24:36b-48
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
April 15, 2018
One of my favorite TV shows of all time is the political drama “The West Wing.” At one point, one of the main characters, Josh, is recovering from an assassination attempt, struggling with post traumatic stress disorder. He talks to another character, Leo, who has struggled mightily with addiction. Leo tells a story:
“This guy is walking down the street when he falls down a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor walks by and he shouts, ‘hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes by and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ the priest writes down a prayer, throws it down the in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, hey Joe it’s me can you help me out, and the friend jumps in a hole. Our guy says ‘are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, “yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”
In today’s gospel story from Luke, Jesus showed up to the disciples after his resurrection. They were a small bunch, still reeling from the crucifixion, still believing their movement had been defeated. When Jesus showed up they were terrified, thinking he was a ghost. Seeking to prove that he was really him, he showed them his hands and his feet.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually identify others by their hands and feet. If I were Jesus – and thank God I’m not – I might say “do you not recognize my face? My eyes? My voice?” Not too many people even know what my feet look like! Things get even more weird when we consider that Jesus’ hands and feet would have been the most scarred, most hurt, most vulnerable parts of his body, after the brutality of execution on a cross. He leads with his wounds, his brokenness, his vulnerability, his defeat, his disability. “This is my body, broken for you.” I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.
I don’t believe it is a small detail that Jesus comes back to life with a broken body, that he presents himself with his wounds to the disciples. Presumably if God can raise carpenters from the dead, God can also clean up their wounds and make them disappear altogether. But that’s not what happened here. Jesus shows up and leads with his scars.
Some people seem to find it easy to see and experience Jesus everywhere. I’m not one of those people. If I’m going to see Jesus, experience Jesus, feel his presence in my life, it takes a bit of work. For me, learning to see and experience Jesus has meant changing my expectations of the kind of places and people and situations where Jesus shows up. That Jesus is just as likely – if not more – to show up in moments of desolation, in people that aren’t thought much of and whose pledge won’t fix the church budget, in the “bad neighborhoods” I avoid, in vulnerability and defeat and disability. In wounds and scars.
Many of us don’t naturally expect Jesus in those people and places. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think part of that is that our culture teaches us to look for God in things like beauty, joy, perfection, blessing, happiness, money, power. It’s a lot easier for me to experience Jesus in a sunset than in a storm; easier for me to feel close to God when I’m happy and carrying a decent bank balance than when I’m struggling. The good stuff. There’s a long historical stream in our tradition that says, for example, that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Plenty of people still decide whether a church is successful based on how people of high social standing attend. And God forbid if it turns out the pastor isn’t perfect.
Nobody taught me those things in Sunday School, not directly. Nobody said to me “God loves rich people more than poor people.” Nobody said “Jesus must be blessing us because the right people are here” or “you have to be happy for God to love you.” In fact, and I’m not just saying this because my childhood pastor is here, I grew up around quite good teaching. But culture is taught informally: these things are in the air. We just pick them up. Children pay attention to who has leadership roles and who doesn’t. Who is on the edge and who is on the center. Who is treated with dignity, and who is given the insult of being pitied. We grow up watching adults tell each other “I’m fine” even when they are despairing. To teach something different than our culture shows it to swim upstream, to say the least.
A woman tells a heart-wrenching story of when she and her husband had to hospitalize their eleven-year-old daughter, who was in danger of death. “I was gutted on the day we checked her into the residential facility and walked away; even now I remember that morning as one of the worst of my life. The next day, still reeling from grief and defeat, I wandered into a Christian bookstore, hoping, I suppose, to surround myself with the symbols of a faith I could no longer muster. After a few minutes, a soft-spoken saleswoman came up to me and asked if I needed help. All I could do was cry. She patted my back very kindly. Then she walked over to a jewelry case, rummaged around for a minute, and came back with a crucifix on a slender silver chain. A tiny Jesus hung on his cross, his face drawn in pain. “Wear this,” she said, pressing the necklace into my hands. “Only a suffering God can help.””
Those words: “only a suffering God can help” were supposedly written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed by the Nazis for resisting their terror, found on a sheet of paper by a prison guard after his execution.
“Only a suffering God can help.”
One of the best things that we do in church to be the kind of place where Jesus shows up, where we each truly wish to reflect God’s love in our lives. Where we learn, like Jesus did, to let go the need to be okay, tell each other that everything is fine, to hide the wounds. At least here, at least in this place where we gather around a table with the broken body of our savior, to allow one another and ourselves to just be. Maybe people outside the church don’t need to see us the good people, the holy, happy people who have things figured out. Maybe people need to see our scars. “Would aren’t pretty,” Debie Thomas writes, “and no, they don’t tell the whole story of the Christian journey. But the stories they do tell are holy. Jesus didn’t hide the bloody and the broken. Neither should we.”
The gift that Jesus gave the disciples that day was not a promise that everything was going to be wonderful and great and happy. The gift he gave was his broken self and the promise that we can lead brave lives of faith even among all of our brokenness. “This is my body, broken for you.” “Only a suffering God can help.” I’ve been down here before, I know the way out.
We need not be perfect. We need only show up as we are. We might just find that’s when Jesus shows up, too.