“TOUCH AND SEE”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2016; Easter Day; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:36-49

“Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have
flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Luke 24:39b

When it comes to Bible passages that tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection, we have an embarrassment of riches! Each of the four Gospel writers has more than one facet of the story to display, and the letters of Paul and the book of Acts have their own take, as well.

This is both a great advantage, and a perplexing challenge. None of the resurrection accounts takes precedence over the others. None is the main channel of the river, and the others merely tributaries.

Have you ever been in a darkened room where someone turns on a strobe light? If you’re looking at someone walking, the strobe lights up the moving figure in the twinkling of an eye, before the scene goes dark again. Moments later, the strobe flashes again, and you see the person in a slightly different position. The successive flashes convey the impression of movement, but you don’t see everything.

That’s what’s happening with the scattered, fragmentary accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Each one is a flash of the strobe. None of them captures the entire truth: but somehow, together, they tell us what we most need to know about the resurrection.

*****

This morning, I’d like to zero in on one of the lesser-known resurrection accounts. It’s not John’s familiar story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden. Nor is it the earthquake and the appearance of two angels from Matthew’s Gospel. It’s not Mark’s simple, unadorned account of the empty tomb, with a mysterious man in white telling the disciples to go seek the Risen Lord in Galilee. Nor is Luke’s encounter between Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus, as they finally discover who he is at the dinner-table: at the precise moment when he breaks the bread — before he vanishes from their sight.

Today’s Easter passage also comes from the Gospel of Luke, but it takes place after the Emmaus Road story. The disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem, trying to make sense of all the different reports they’ve heard.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus is standing right there. All Luke tells us is “Jesus himself stood among them.” How did he get in? Where did he come from? If the Gospel-writer knows, he’s not telling. Jesus is just there.

The first thing he says is “Peace be with you.” On one level it’s a perfectly ordinary greeting for that culture — Shalom — but on another, it’s a message the disciples truly need to hear. The next verse tells why: “They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.”

In our culture, twenty centuries after these world-changing events, we’ve become comfortable with the idea of resurrection. We may not understand it, but the idea that Jesus rose from the dead is old news: something we’ve been hearing about from our earliest days.

Not so for Jesus’ disciples. The only way they could make sense of what their eyes were beholding was to conclude that this was a ghost standing before them.

Jesus addresses their fear. “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.”

That proves to the disciples this is no ghost. Just about every human culture has some concept of ghosts, and always they are a spiritual, not a bodily, reality. Ghosts may be visible to the eyes, but they don’t have human form.

Then Jesus speaks this extraordinary line: “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Touch me and see — how does that make any sense? Unless we’re blind and read Braille, we see with our eyes, not with our fingers. But resurrection is such an extraordinary thing that seeing isn’t exactly believing. It’s touching that clinches the deal. It’s touching that confirms for the disciples this is no ghost.

Luke goes on to provide one additional proof. Jesus asks them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

It’s the most ordinary thing in the world to say. It’s like, “Hey guys, what’s for dinner?” Everybody else in the room may be dissolving in perplexity, but Jesus — wherever he’s just been — seems to have worked up an appetite.

Somebody comes up with dinner: a piece of broiled fish. Jesus eats it, before their eyes. If touching him — feeling the firmness of his flesh, the solidity of his bones — has not been enough, this brings it all home. It’s well-known, in a great many human cultures, that the way to tell that someone isn’t a ghost is to give them something to eat. Ghosts don’t eat or drink. They’re apparitions, not physical bodies.

Don’t miss the granular level of detail in this part of the story. It’s important. Luke doesn’t just say, “They gave him something to eat.” He says, “They gave him a piece of broiled fish.” Not just fish I the abstract: broiled fish. Suddenly we’ve stopped watching CNN and have switched over to the Food Network.

What possible difference could it make what Jesus had for dinner — whether broiled fish, or roast lamb, or olives, or a piece of pita bread? It’s one of those gratuitous details the narrator throws in. To me — and to a great many other biblical interpreters — it’s a sign of the fundamental truth of this story.

Think about it. If Luke were writing a fictional story, if he were ginning up a crazy yarn of a man who came back from the dead, he would probably have spoken in more general terms. There was no need to comment on the menu, or how the dish was prepared.

It’s the sort of thing, though, that eyewitnesses typically include in their story. They spill out the details helter-skelter: because that’s what actually happened and that’s how they remember it. Now, Luke himself may not have been there to see it — in fact he probably wasn’t — but he very likely heard it from one or more of them, and it was one of those details that stuck in his imagination.

It’s like the story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. There’s a distinctive description that occurs, in all the accounts of that terrible day, of something called “the grassy knoll.” If you’re studying the details of the assassination, trying to figure out where the shots came from, it doesn’t matter one bit that it was a “knoll,” rather than “a slight rise in elevation,” or that it was covered with grass rather than gravel. Somebody who was there, who was an eyewitness, referred to it as the grassy knoll, and the name stuck. It’s become part of the narrative, and occurs in every book or report ever written on the subject.

So, too, with the piece of broiled fish Jesus ate. It’s a bit of evidence — circumstantial, to be sure, but still evidence — that the resurrection actually took place.

*****

So, we’ve seen two details so far that support the truth of the resurrection, that surely go back to the first eyewitnesses. The first was Jesus’ line, “Touch me and see.” There were people there who did touch him, and who that touch that he was alive again. The second is the piece of broiled fish, and the testimony that “he took and ate it in their presence.”

Now we come to a third detail based on eyewitness testimony. Like the others, it’s not essential to the story, but provides just a bit of color. It’s this line: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

It’s a line similar to one that occurs a little earlier in this chapter of Luke. Remember when those two disciples are walking along the Emmaus Road, and a stranger overtakes them on their journey? The three of them start discussing current events: all the things that have been happening in Jerusalem, about the life and extraordinary death of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. The stranger starts expounding the scriptures, explaining how the ancient prophets foretold how these things had to take place just the way they did. Later on, after the stranger reveals himself to be Jesus, Luke says, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” Just a little further on, the two disciples are recalling what they’ve just experienced and one says, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Those words — so similar to the ones in our passage — have an air of authenticity. They speak to the psychological state of the two individuals who broke bread with the stranger at Emmaus. Again, it’s a bit of a rabbit-trail, a detail off to the side of the narrative’s main thrust. But it’s just the sort of thing you expect to see in first-person testimony.

*****

So, we’ve racked up three details, now, that suggest the truth of the resurrection: “Touch me and see,” “He took and ate it in their presence,” and “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Now, let me suggest a fourth: and this really a composite of all the details we’ve just been studying. It’s the fact that the resurrection is such a strange story, so difficult to grasp: and the reason for its strangeness is the bodily nature of the resurrection.

It would have been so much easier for Luke and all the others — had they been making this up — to concoct a tale that would be easier to believe, that would sound more convincing. There was a philosophy that was very popular in the first-century Roman world they could have made use of. It was a Greek philosophy that would have been well-known to educated men like Luke, or the other Gospel-writers. The philosophy was called gnosticism.

Gnosticism drew a sharp dividing-line between the human body and the human spirit, or soul. When people die, according to the gnostic way of thinking, the soul leaves the body and drifts off to a purely spiritual realm, where it lives for all eternity. This human body of ours, according to gnosticism, is an inferior part of our existence. It’s heavy baggage we lug around in life, but it’s something we’ve got to leave behind, if ever we’re going to move on to the next world that is our true home.

Now, if the Gospel-writers were trying to make up a story about Jesus coming back from the dead, it would have been far easier to get people to go along with it if they just ducked the subject of Jesus’ resurrection-body. They could have had him come back as an apparition, a ghost. They could have made him into a sort of highly-evolved alien being, a la Star Trek who comes from a far-off realm to visit, to instruct, to reassure people there is a better world beyond this one.

But that’s not how Jesus does it. This body the gnostics say he should have shed when he passed from this world to the next, he takes up again. He leaves the tomb and he walks around: in much the same way he did prior to his crucifixion.

“Touch me,” he says to them, “touch me and see.” He still has wounds in his hands and his feet: wouldn’t it have made more sense — if the Gospels were fabricated accounts — to scrub the blood away, to knit together the torn flesh? And then there’s that pesky piece of fish — not poached, not fried, but broiled. What possible interest would a highly-evolved spiritual being have in that?

It’s almost as though these resurrection accounts were written by amateurs!

*****

Exactly. The Gospels were written by amateurs. They bring together a bunch of firsthand accounts that don’t fit together neatly, but all have at their heart this astounding good news: that, after dying on the cross, Jesus experienced a bodily resurrection.

He didn’t just sit there in heaven, sending word back that death isn’t so bad, that this physical existence is just an illusion, that when we close our eyes in death we pass through a tunnel of light and merge with some universal soul-force. No, the crucified Lord came back to physical existence: and as he did so, he blessed and hallowed this material world of ours.

He didn’t so much tell us as show us that this world is something God cares deeply about: that if a child goes to bed hungry, if a refugee huddles beneath a blanket, if a city’s water is poisoned by lead, then faithful believers need to rise up and do something about such obscenities.

Such are the consequences of a bodily resurrection: our bodies matter, our lives matter, our world matters. They matter because God became incarnate in human flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: and after Jesus died on the cross, he came back, to bless this material world with his very presence.

It’s the good news of Easter: the greatest news, news that deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. I hope you will go forth from this place and do just that!

*****

Now, I’d like for us to say a prayer together, but I’d ask that we do it not in the usual way. I’m going to ask you not to close your eyes, but, rather, to open your hands before you and look at them. Let us pray:

Lord, we thank you that you have blessed us with hands:
hands that hold, hands that touch, hands that caress,
hands that work, hands that bless.
We thank you, too, that your son Jesus had hands like these:
hands he used to hold a child,
to heal a fever,
to overturn the money-changers’ tables,
to break bread.
Those hands of his were pierced by nails.
They bled, they ached, they died.
When the stone was rolled away,
and he stepped forth from the shadows
into the light of dawn,
it was with those same hands
that he reached out to his friends
and said, “Touch me and see,
for I am no ghost.”
Amen.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton.