23 April 2023 – Third Sunday of Easter
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
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. Amen.
We’re in this weird phase of the lectionary where it’s both still Easter Day and already Pentecost all at once. Have you noticed that…?
The Acts reading the past two weeks has been from Peter’s speech in Jerusalem right after the Holy Spirit blows into town with tongues of flame and a miraculous reversal of the confusion of languages at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), so in Acts, it’s already Pentecost…but the Gospel readings the past three weeks all (mostly) take place on Easter—the day of resurrection. In other words, we’re in the midst of this non-linear narrative…where simultaneous events are occurring in sequence, and out of sequence events are also being woven in as well.
Now, the lectionary is always different narratives from wildly different time periods that may or may not have anything to do with one another…but this Easter/Pentecost overlap the past few weeks is so pronounced and so relentless in its occurrence, that I have to wonder…is there something here that we’re supposed to see? Because one thing non-linear narratives do is allow you to make connections that would not be possible in a sequential narrative. What is it that we are supposed to see?
There are actually two Pentecost narratives in scripture…There’s the one we are most familiar with in Luke’s second volume—the Book of Acts…the one with the wind, and the tongues of flame, and the speaking and hearing in different languages…but there’s a much subtler one in John’s gospel, which we heard last week…in the story of Thomas. “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week”—so it’s still the day of resurrection—all the disciples (except Thomas) are locked in…Jesus appears…shows them his hands and his side, says, “Peace be with you.” [And then it says] “when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” That’s Pentecost…and in John, it happens on Easter day.
Of course, Thomas shows up a week later, and the scene is repeated—except for the “breathing on them”—instead, when Thomas touches the wounds…he proclaims “My Lord and my God!”
The Thomas narrative is a story about seeing and believing. But not seeing is believing…rather, it’s a story of believing is seeing…Open the eyes of our faith…Thomas’s eyes of faith are opened…and he is able to see…To more fully see…and to recognize…what was always right there in front of him…Jesus, yes…but not only Jesus—his friend and companion—but also “my Lord and my God.”
The same thing happens to our two travelers to Emmaus today…a stranger approaches, “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” They have a jolly time discussing scripture and the news of the day…and then finally over a late lunch (or early dinner) as he breaks bread…what happens…”Their eyes were opened—the eyes of their faith were opened—and they recognized him.” Again, not just as Jesus, but as “my Lord and my God.”
This happens over and over in the post-resurrection appearances. In John, Mary is at the tomb and “supposes him to be the gardener.” Later in John, as the disciples are fishing, Jesus is on the shore giving them advice on where to drop their nets…and they don’t recognize him.
I have to admit, for years, I’ve assumed that Mary is not able to recognize Jesus in that moment because of her grief. She arrives exhausted, and frightened…traumatized…and rightfully panics when the body is not where it’s supposed to be, and so she makes a totally understandable mistake and supposes Jesus to be the gardener…until he calls her name…But what if it’s not a mistake? What if who she sees is really the gardener…but then the eyes of her faith are opened and she can see Jesus as well. Or she can see Christ in the gardener? Isn’t that what we all promised in renewing our baptismal vows…To live our lives seeking, and serving, and seeing Christ in all persons?
What if that’s what opening the eyes of our faith means? That we are able to see Christ in the gardener, and the fisherman on the shore, and the stranger on the road, and the friend at the table.
When Pentecost does come around, we can wonder and reflect on whether it’s a miracle that they’re all able to speak in different languages, or that it ’s a miracle that they’re able to hear and understand all of the languages spoken…Is it a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing? Probably both…
Today, maybe we’re being invited to pause and reflect on whether all of the post-resurrection appearances are miraculous because Jesus suddenly appears…or because we are suddenly able to see…probably both.
Opening the eyes of our faith likely means being able to see Christ in all the places where God has always been but we never thought to look…or where we would rather not look…or where we are too afraid to look.
With the eyes of our faith closed, we see what we want to see…we see what we expect to see…and then it’s easy to mistake Jesus for someone, or something else…a gardener…a stranger…It’s easy to believe that God is absent from the world. But with the eyes of our faith opened, we can see—as Peter says in his speech at Jerusalem—that “the Lord is always before me.” [Acts 2:25, Peter is quoting from Psalm 16]. Or Jesus reminds the disciples in Matthew’s post-resurrection appearance, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20].
Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Christ in all of God’s redeeming work…and may we see, and follow, and become integral parts of that work.