Jesus is Sensational!

Luke 24:36-48
© Stacey Steck

I would imagine it’s pretty easy to come to agreement about the statement that Jesus is sensational. After all, he was raised from the dead. His teachings have been followed by billions of people for nearly two thousand years. Several libraries of books about him have been written. More speeches have been devoted to him than any other figure in history. That’s some pretty sensational stuff. You can’t really understand the history of western civilization without understanding the role this simple carpenter’s son has played in the development of government, law, economics, art, literature, and music, not to mention acts of charity and creativity as we as violence, and savagery. You don’t have to believe he is the Son of God, fully human, fully divine, and all that doctrinal stuff, to admit that he’s got a pretty high profile. But none of that is why Jesus is truly sensational.

No, that my friends, is because Jesus of Nazareth, the author of salvation, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, the king of kings, the Lord of Lords, the crucified and risen one, loved a good snack. It says it right there in our Gospel reading: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Dudes, got anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” Yes, the Savior of all humankind stops in the middle of explaining God’s divine plan and purpose so he can grab a bite to eat. I guess the menu options in the tomb and down there in Hades were pretty limited. And if that weren’t awesome enough, he’s a mooch! The guy who created heaven and earth, who could whip up something truly tasty just by snapping his fingers, begs a piece of fish off of his friends. Yes, Jesus is truly sensational.

What has no eyes, ears, tongue, fingertips, or nose, but senses all? If you think the answer is God, you’re close. It’s actually your brain. Your brain does all that sensing, and then makes sense of it too. Without the brain processing the data coming in through your eyes, it’s just waves or particles of light. Without the brain processing the data coming in through your ears, it’s just air vibrating on your eardrums. Of course, the brain needs those sense receptors found in each of those body parts before it can give meaning to the world around you. But God has given us brains to let the natural phenomena say something to us. And what the brains of the disciples were taking in when they saw the risen Jesus reaching out for something to eat, when they felt that fish in their hands as they passed it over to him, when they heard it crunch while he was chewing it, and maybe even when they could smell it on his breath, was that this man they had seen hanging on a cross, and heard saying, “It is finished,” and smelled beginning to decay, and touched as they wrapped him in linen cloths and laid him in a new tomb, was alive and well and standing before them. Yes, Jesus is sensational, because he uses our five senses to proclaim that God has defeated death.

Helen Keller, someone who knew a little something about sensory deprivation, having been both blind and deaf, once wrote that, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.” Yes, Helen Keller knew that our senses connect us to our experiences, good, bad, and ugly. They let us know if we are in danger or if we are safe, if we are among friends or enemies. They help us orient ourselves to our surroundings, to our history, to our needs. You know what it’s like to be real hangry? You know, so hungry that you get grouchy? Well, for me, hungry becomes hangry when I smell something really great that I know I can’t have just then. It’s one of my senses triggering me, telling me something. Our senses are so very important for our surviving and our thriving.

Jesus was sensational since birth, wasn’t he, that baby wrapped by his parents in swaddling clothes, held in their arms, laid in a manger? Those three kings brought their gold, frankincense and myrrh, things that delight the senses. He sweated as a carpenter’s son, walked miles in the Galilean desert, touched unclean people’s bodies, smeared mud on their eyes, heard them calling his name from the side of the road, smelled the stink of Lazarus in his tomb, saw lepers keep their distance, tasted bread broken with his disciples. And that real life, that incarnation, that God made flesh, himself endowed with senses he used among them, was what connected him with the people around him. He was one of them. Their senses told them so. He was no ghost, no apparition, no sheep in wolf’s clothing. He was the real deal, a guy who could mooch off his friends for a snack, and turn around and drive a demon out of someone. Not only did his followers see the incarnation, the humanity, but they saw the miracles, the compassion, the integrity, that divine stuff, and their brains made meaning of what their five senses received.

And Jesus knows that the disciples need that sensory experience when he comes back from the dead too. Maybe even more than before. After all, they’d seen rabbis come and go, but they’d never seen the dead raised. And so he lets them touch him, and he eats in front of them, and he helps them reconnect with him as he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures and to prepare them for what comes next: that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Yes, he uses their senses to reach their hearts and minds, because that’s how we learn, by taking it all in, and letting our God-given brains sort it all out. Yes, Jesus is truly sensational.

So we’re in this season of resurrection when we celebrate the very real risen Jesus who has come promising us abundant life. It’s the season to celebrate his first century resurrected body, yes, but also the body he has bequeathed to us upon his ascension to God’s right hand, his own body we call the church. We are now his body in the world, called now to do what he did then. And so this season of resurrection is the perfect time to remember how sensational we are now as his body, and to claim the charge he has placed upon us. It’s a big job, this proclamation of repentance and forgiveness in his name to all nations. We’re gonna need a snack for the journey don't you think. Wait, what’s that I smell? Leftover donuts from the Happy Place. OK, now I’m getting hangry. Y’all got anything here to eat?

If you’ve followed any of the religious surveys done in the United States over the last few years, you know that although a lot of people say they believe in God, fewer and fewer people are going to church. This growing group has been called the Nones, because they mark “none” when asked their religious preference or affiliation. They say they are spiritual, but not religious. They cite the church’s hypocrisy, and claim that it doesn’t accurately depict the Jesus they’ve all heard about, the one who changed the course of Western civilization, the one with all those libraries and speeches to his credit. They say we don’t practice what we preach. And maybe they’ve got a point. Libraries and speeches didn’t get Jesus very far, did they? Mere words didn’t connect him with the masses. He didn’t only talk about spiritual matters, he got down and dirty to teach about spiritual matters. He wasn’t a ghost. He was a mooch. He was sensational.

The Nones want good news as much as anyone else. They hear the same bad news we do. They have the same aspirations we do. They want abundant life too. We can’t just put their absence down to bad parenting or the influence of school sports on Sunday or violent video games. Maybe their absence has something to do with what their eyes, ears, tongues, fingertips and noses are, or aren’t, perceiving as they make their way through the world. Maybe what they’re not seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling is the body of Jesus Christ moving among them. Are we really with them in their lives, filling their senses with what abundant life looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, feels like? How sensational is our witness? Have we mooched a little fish off of anybody lately?

As much as the Nones, or the nations as the Bible calls them, need to use their senses to perceive Christ’s body in the world, Christ’s body needs to use its senses too. That’s where Jesus started, right? He took it all in and let his divine mind figure out how to share what the kingdom of God was all about. In his parables, in his stories, in his examples, he was always using the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches familiar to his people. And when we can do that, we’ll be better able to share ourselves with those in search of good news, and healing, and forgiveness. So, let’s be a sensational church and,

Let us hear the cries of the lonely and the forsaken, the abused and the heartbroken, and take heed, bringing their voices to the halls of justice;

Let us see the malnutrition and neglect of those affected by famine and make others see until every hungry person is fed;

Let us smell the stench of poverty and pollution, poison and pestilence until we can no longer stand it. and we make it stop;

Let us taste the bitter tears and the brackish water of communities pushed to the margins by our society’s pursuit of wealth, and open up the floodgates of hope and healing instead;

Let us touch old, papery skin and thin, aged hair as we make all our elderly and infirm comfortable and cared for.

Friends, we are no more ghosts than Jesus Christ was a ghost. Spiritual beings, yes, but not ghosts. We are his body. We are his heart, his hands, and his voice. Let us be as sensational as we can be, so that we may bring the same good news to our friends that he brought to his friends when he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” Amen.

Roll Back My Stone, Lord!

Mark 16:1-8
© Stacey Steck

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that as the sun set on one day and rose on the next that Jesus’ disciples were demoralized, beaten down, really and truly afraid. Even if you didn’t hear again in church this week the awful story of Jesus’ death, you’ve probably heard it before. It may be the best-known story in human history, for a little while longer at least. It is, of course, a little distant from the life most of us have experienced. Our present day public executions are just a little more sanitized, our trials and verdicts take a little longer to conclude, our appeals last for years; by the time it is all over, there is a considerable disconnect from the original event. The public figures we adore usually turn out to have clay feet, which are only made more visible when they retire or die. Few of us have really, really given up everything to follow anyone, much less Jesus. But let’s try to imagine ourselves as those disciples who had just seen such horror, and let’s see where that takes us.

If it is true, as the Gospel accounts suggest, that many had given up everything to follow Jesus, these faithful ones faced the prospect of returning to their homes and villages and families with their proverbial tails between their legs, or, deciding that there would be too much shame in that, to figure out how to start over again, starting with nothing but broken hearts and shattered dreams. I don’t know how soon after Jesus breathed his last and gave up his spirit that they would have begun to formulate these thoughts, but if it were me, it wouldn’t have been long. I’d already have been thinking not only about what was next, but also about what was not next. Maybe that left them in a kind of limbo state, not quite ready to give it all up, but also knowing it wasn’t going anywhere. And maybe that is how the two Marys and Salome found themselves as they made their way to the tomb on that first day of the week, asking themselves, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb.” Yes, they had the spices. Yes, they went with the intention of anointing Jesus’ body. Yes, they went there together to mourn his loss. But it wasn’t really his tomb they were talking about.

You see, it wasn’t really Jesus sealed up in that tomb at all. Well, it was him, but what I want to suggest to you is that what was crucified, what was dead and buried in that tomb, what was wrapped up in a linen cloth, were the hopes and dreams of his disciples and family. Yes, there was the normal grief people experience when someone they love dies, but there would also have been all the expectations of the coming kingdom, all the longing for yet more wisdom from his mouth, more healing from his hands, more life from his life. All of that was shattered, all of that hung on the cross too, just as the Romans had planned, for that was the purpose of a public execution such as a crucifixion. It is a lot less work to simply separate a man’s head from his body, a la Herod and John the Baptist. The executioner’s blade easily does the job of fulfilling a death sentence. But to make an example of someone, to put the fear of the Emperor into someone’s friends and followers, something more is needed, something like a preemptive strike at witness intimidation, something like a crucifixion. And so, even though it was Jesus who took the nails to his hands and feet, it was the family and disciples of Jesus who received a stake right through the heart.

We all have fantasies about how good life should be, but we also all know the reality that life can be pretty hard. Even if we have not suffered as severely as some others have suffered, we still know pain and loss and loneliness and jealousy. People we know and love die. Dreams from our childhood go unfulfilled. We are subject to disappointment and heartache and trauma, and for some of us abuse and abandonment. We know well our own failures, and we can recount quickly the times others have failed us. If any of this is a surprise to anyone in this room, praise God for you and that blessed life the rest of us look at in envy. But for the rest of us, at some level, there is a tomb somewhere in which part of us is trapped behind a stone too large and too heavy for us to move on our own, especially from the inside. It may be depression, it may be an estranged relationship with a parent or child. It may be an addiction, or a too-strong desire, or burning shame. It may be a grudge or a secret or a wound. It may be shattered hopes and broken dreams like the Marys and Salome, and all the other disciples that day. At the very least we can say that we are trapped daily in that tomb by sin, for none of us is perfect. Christ may not be in that tomb any longer, but we are, and we long to get out, and we wonder, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”

And this, of course, is the question Easter answers, and no, the answer is not a young man, dressed in a white robe, as the women found sitting there. It’s God, of course, who rolled away the stone from Jesus’ tomb, and the Marys’ and Salome’s tombs, and the disciples’ tombs, and the Apostle Paul’s tomb, and Saint Augustine’s tomb, and John Calvin’s tomb, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb, and your tomb and my tomb. The power at work in the historic resurrection of Jesus is the same power at work in our resurrections, in the freedom granted us from our tombs. God does for us what no power on earth can do – not psychology, or medicine, or genetic engineering or even art and music – God does for us what no power on earth can do, to free us from whatever binds us, because God loves us, in some inexplicable and blessedly divine way that shines forth on Easter more brightly than on any other day. God broke God’s own rules to move that stone, to answer the women’s question, to open up the door of life for you to pass right through, to grant you the freedom to really, really live the life we were intended to live. That’s the answer Easter offers to our never-ending question, “But who will roll away the stone for us?”

There is an interesting aspect to the resurrection story in Mark’s gospel, and that is, that in the earliest, most reliable manuscripts, the entire gospel ends where our reading this morning ends. They call it the “shorter ending of Mark” and it ends on this abrupt, fearful note we heard earlier, with the women fleeing from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. That’s how it probably originally ended until someone centuries later felt like it lacked a little closure, oh, and an appearance by Jesus to kind of prove that although the tomb was empty, that he was also actually resurrected. But I rather like the unresolved ending, because I think that it is a little more true to our lives today. You see, we don’t really get to see Jesus, do we? At least not face to face. No, we, like the women that day, we see the empty tomb, and we hear that Jesus is going on ahead of us, and that we will see him one day, but still the future is kind of uncertain. Our lives could still go any which way. Certainly that was the case for Peter and James and Paul and Barnabas and all the rest, who were carried along by this story to places they never could have imagined. This is not a happily-ever-after, let-the-credits-roll kind of a story, this Gospel of ours, but a finding-true-joy-and-contentment-in-whatever-situation-we-may-find-ourselves-in-as-a-result-of-following-Jesus story. It is a dream-come-true story, but with the dreams God dreams for us. Even when we are set free from our tombs, we don’t really know what awaits us, either among whatever friends and family to whom we may return, or to a new place, meeting new people, getting settled into a new life. Only God knows, and God invites us to find out what happens after the shorter ending of Mark, or Mary, or Salome, or Peter, or any one of us. I could call out any of your names too, not because I know of any skeletons in your closets, but because God calls your name too, like Jesus did when he called Lazarus out of his tomb, into life and life abundant.

The glory of Easter is not just that the tomb is empty, but that Jesus goes ahead of us, not to Galilee, but to each of our futures, rolling away the rocks and opening our tombs, releasing us, and our hopes, and our dreams. We may find ourselves seized with terror, for freedom is a strange and scary thing, but it won’t take long for God to lead us into the peace Jesus promised. May God bless us as we take those first steps out of our tombs, and into freedom. Amen.