Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 3:12-19+Psalm 4+1 John 3:1-7+Luke 24:36b-48

In the early days of the Church, there was a lot of debate about Jesus’s body. Was it a real body or did it just look like a real one? When he came from the tomb, was it in the same body he had before the crucifixion or was it different? If you were with us last week, you heard John’s account of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples first without, and then with, Thomas. He points to his wounds as if to prove that he is for real. In Luke, he not only tells them to look at his hands and feet, but he asks for something to eat. Surely an apparition would not be able to take a bite of fish.

The controversies over the physicality of Jesus did not end with the gospels. There were a number of beliefs that were declared heresies in the first few centuries of Christian history. Some of them persist even to this day. There are plenty of people calling themselves Christian who do not believe that the resurrection was an actual event, that bodies do not come back to life, that such dogma is a barrier to God.

The Apostle Paul addressed this in some of the earliest writing that we have:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Cor. 15:12-14)

In Luke’s telling, Jesus explains that he is the fulfillment of God’s plan, that the crucifixion and resurrection were foretold, and in his name there is forgiveness of sins for those who repent. And here’s the kicker, “You are witnesses of these things” (24:48). He isn’t asking them figure out what it means or what it’s all about or what they are to believe. He is telling them that they have seen, they have witnessed, and that is the story they are to tell.

In some ways, we get caught up in all the particulars and soft-pedal the challenging parts, trying to somehow make God and God’s love for us explainable or manageable. If we can domesticate God, then we won’t be compelled to say and do things that otherwise sane people would not: turn the other cheek; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; lay down your life for your friends. It is tempting to try to explain what it’s all about, but a God we can fully explain probably won’t be able to save us in the end.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” John tells us in his first letter (1 John 3:1). Who can explain what love is? We know it when we have felt it – felt it from within and from outside of ourselves. To be witnesses to that love is not to try to explain it. It is to say, “this is what I have seen and heard and have come to believe. Let me share that with you.” We are witnesses to these things!

The incarnation – God’s taking on human flesh – is not just some theological premise. God in the person of Jesus was born and lived and died just as we do. But, he came out of the tomb in his body to show us that death does not win. Evil does not triumph. He does it with his body.

If we can’t value his body, his enfleshment, then how are we to value anyone’s body? If accounts of Jesus death were written today, they might read more like

  • He was an undocumented immigrant.
  • There was alcohol on his breath.
  • He was born out of wedlock.
  • He caused trouble in the temple, very violent.
  • Just look at who his friends are.
  • He should have just complied with the soldiers’ orders.

This has been a hard week. The trial of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd has been gut-wrenching as the defense tries to pin the blame for the death on Floyd rather on the fact that Chauvin’s knee was on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. And in the midst of this, 20-year old Daunte Wright was killed when an officer “mistook” her Glock for a taser. He was pulled over for air fresheners hanging from a rearview mirror and found to have an outstanding warrant which had not even been sent to the correct address. Why did his body deserve tasing, much less killing?  And what about 13-year-old Adam Toledo who stopped and put his hands up when he was ordered to by a Chicago police officer? Was that child’s body not worthy something? Why did Floyd deserve to be executed in the street for passing a bad $20 bill? Why was Philando Castile killed for carrying a licensed firearm, and Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes, and Breonna Taylor for sleeping in her own bed?

Some bodies clearly matter more than others.

But if there is one thing we know about Jesus, it was in a body that he died and in a body that he rose again and this is the Good News to which the disciples are witnesses, and they are to proclaim this to all nations. Maybe we – you and I – can’t prove any of this. But if you have encountered the living Christ, you know it to be true. If you have felt love even when you least deserved it, you know it to be true. If you have been forgiven for the seemingly unforgivable, you know it to be true. And if we know all of this to be true, then we, too, are witnesses. And as witnesses, we cannot stand by and allow the injustices to continue against the Black and Brown bodies created as much in the image of God as yours and mine. In case you hadn’t noticed, Jesus was not White.

So yes, I have been grieved by all the news this week, but I am a witness. I am a witness to the Good News of resurrection, of the power of God to defy human expectations, bigger than anything we can imagine. And so, this Eastertide, I believe that we can change this country. We can end White supremacy and the extrajudicial killings of Black men and women in this country.

We are witnesses of these things.         

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas