Sermon: Close Encounters

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Sunday, April 15, 2018
Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, NM
Third Sunday of Easter

Our gospel text for today comes right on the heels of the story of the road to Emmaus, which is one of my favorite stories in all of scripture.  You probably remember the story: two disciples are walking along the road to Emmaus on the day of the resurrection and Jesus joins them, but they don’t recognize him until way later that evening, when they are breaking bread together.  I’ve always thought it was kind of a funny story.  And I see that same kind of humor in the story we read today.  The disciples had literally just been talking about this encounter on the road to Emmaus, and also about an encounter that Peter had with the risen Christ, when Jesus himself appears among them and throws them into a panic.  They were already beginning to believe that Jesus really had been raised from the dead, but when he actually showed up in their midst, they totally freaked out – and not in a good way.

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This story leaves me wondering how I would react – or how any of us would react – in that situation. Like the disciples, we believe and confess that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  We pray weekly – even daily – for the kingdom to come, for Jesus to come, but what would we actually do, faced with the living, risen Christ?  And if we did meet him face to face, would we even recognize him?

That’s something I wonder, too.  In the story of the road to Emmaus and in the story we read today, and actually, in pretty much all of the stories following Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples never seem to recognize Jesus right away.  In the text we read today, Jesus had to tell them, “Look, it’s really me! I’m flesh and bone – look at my hands and feet!”  It takes them more than a hot second to realize that this really is the same savior who was crucified who now stands before them, in the flesh.

Jesus appears to Thomas - John 20:24-29

Last week, Pastor Jared talked about another one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances:  the story of “doubting” Thomas – or “brave” Thomas, as you may recall.  Thomas touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and side in order to see that it really was him.  These wounds are a critical part of how the disciples recognized Jesus in our gospel story today as well – he shows them his hands and feet as proof that he is who he says he is.

Pastor Jared preached that we are also called to recognize Christ through touching the woundedness of others.  This past week, we as a congregation welcomed 20 refugees from Central America and southern Mexico – families of single parents with young children – and we extended to them our Christian hospitality.  These folks have been wounded – in spiritual, emotional, and sometimes even physical ways.  They have faced death threats, the loss of family members and neighbors, the loss of safety.  And even if they are allowed to stay here, they will face the loss of their homeland and the loss of friends and family they may have left there; they will be strangers in a strange land with a government that is openly hostile toward them.  And, as we cared for them and helped connect them with family members around the country, we touched these wounds, much like the disciples touched the wounds of Christ.

Their faces might not be the faces we expect Christ to wear.  After all, it’s not uncommon for the people of this nation – and probably even some in this congregation – to react to their presence with fear and apprehension.  We may not worry like the disciples that they are ghosts or demons, but these are volatile and troubling times.  Some  of us may worry that there might be drug runners or terrorists hiding among refugees, or they may just be afraid or uncomfortable with people from a different cultural background who speak a different language.  We expect Christ to be familiar, to be like us, to be understandable – but, like the disciples, we are almost certain to be surprised and even alarmed by Christ when he actually does show up.

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And as counterintuitive as it might seem, this is actually the good news of Christ!  It is good news that Jesus subverts our expectations of him. If he had been to the disciples who they expected him to be, he would have literally just been a dead body, decomposing in a tomb – another victim of the brutal Roman Empire.  But instead, Jesus shows up among them, full of life, and he gives them his peace – a peace that overcomes the violence of this world.  He shows the disciples that, with God, death is never the last word, but life!  The disciples are overcome with joy as the truth of what has happened slowly dawns on them. This is no ghost, no being to be feared; this is Christ!  Christ is alive!

I saw a lot of that joy over this past week.  We had so many wonderful people volunteer to help with our hospitality ministry, including several members of the congregation.  I know at least some of us were apprehensive about what to expect, especially about how we might communicate with people who seemed so different, so other.  But over the course of just a few days, I saw a lot of that apprehension melt away.  I saw volunteers laughing and playing with the children with puzzles and games and books.  I saw people giving comfort to worn-out parents who needed to rest. I saw delight when volunteers who knew a few words of Spanish got to try it out with our guests and were met with smiles and warmth.  I saw people connecting with each other in the most beautiful ways.  One volunteer made a comment that particularly stuck with me.  She was keeping a 4-year-old boy entertained while his dad filled out paperwork, and she said, “He was such a smart, sweet little boy.   I will never forget him.  He will always be with me.”

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“Look at my hands and feet; see that it is I myself.  Touch me and see.”  We touched the woundedness of Christ in touching the wounds of these, our siblings from Central America and Mexico.  And, like the disciples, we surely expected to find bodies beaten down, broken, and lifeless.  But instead, we found life!  These were courageous, resilient people, people who held onto hope despite all that had happened to them.  And they were people full of faith.  I let several of them know that we would be praying for them by name today – as we will do during our prayers in just a little bit – and they were so grateful for our remembering them and for our caring for them.  And they were also so confident that, through our hearts and hands and prayers, God would work good things for them.  I think that they encountered Christ in us, just as we encountered Christ in them.

And just like in our gospel reading, the story doesn’t end there.  Once the disciples joyfully realize that Jesus really is who he says he is, Jesus still has more to say.  First he asks them for something to eat.  On the one hand, by asking this, Jesus is showing them that he really is alive and in the flesh – everyone knows that ghosts hate broiled fish!and he is also bringing their attention to his need.  We fed our neighbors from Central America and Mexico and we cared for their needs.  And, as we continue to encounter the risen Christ in our neighbors, we will continue to be called to care for our neighbors’ needs.

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The feet of some of the refugees we hosted

Jesus also opens the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures, to see the broader story.  Jesus suffered and died and then rose again on the third day, triumphant over death.  But the story doesn’t end there with just an “and they all lived happily ever after,” no.   This good news is meant to grow and spread and take root and transform the world.  Jesus calls the disciples, calls us, to be witnesses of these things.  He reminds us that it is written that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”  As we care for our refugee siblings from Central America and Mexico, we are also called to name the sin and brokenness of the world that has robbed them of home and safety, to denounce the cruelty and indifference of a broken immigration system that throws them back into danger and death.  And we are called to bear witness to the fact that we have already been forgiven and freed from the ways of sin and death; God’s peace has triumphed over the violence of this world, and we have been liberated to live a better way.

So may God’s peace be with you.  Do not be afraid, but open yourselves, open your hearts, to encounter the risen Christ when you least expect him.  Embrace the call to be agents of God’s life and peace and love in this world.  For you also are witnesses of these things. Amen.

The Ascension - Luke 24:50-51

• • •

If you would like to be part of Peace Lutheran and Border Servant Corps’ hospitality ministry, I encourage you to visit our Amazon wishlist and follow us on facebook for more updates!

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