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The Third Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2012
The Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48
Sermon: "Dead Man Down Under"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Gospel:

While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "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. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Luke 24:36b-48

Dead Man Down Under

For Michael O’Neill of Middlesbrough, England, death was just a vacation. No, we’re not talking about some elaborate near-death experience here, but a real-life variation on Death Takes a Holiday. On June 2, 2008, Michael decided to take a last-minute trip to Australia to visit a friend. He made his plans without telling anyone. He just took off. When his neighbors, who had seen neither hide nor hair of him for days, grew worried they called the police. The police broke down the door of his flat only to find that he had disappeared, leaving behind no evidence of what had happened to him.

Honest mistake, right? But it gets weird. A few weeks later, a death notice appeared in the local paper for a Michael O’Neill, another resident of Middlesbrough, who was about the same age as our intrepid traveler, and who had brothers named Kevin and Terry. In a bizarre coincidence, the vacationing Michael’s brothers are also named Kevin and Terry. 

Friends and neighbors of the very-much-alive O’Neill figured that their worst fears had been realized. That is, until one of them received a postcard from him, confirming that, while he was indeed Down Under, it wasn’t in the way they had thought. Michael arrived home on August 11th to find his front door smashed in, police watching the flat, and his neighbors, once again seeing him on the street, believing in ghosts.

“Everywhere I am going, people I know are grabbing hold of my hand, saying, I thought you were dead!’” O’Neill told The Daily Telegraph. “They can’t believe it’s me and I’m still alive. I’m a nervous wreck because everywhere I go people keep grabbing me!”

Of course, it is an understandable reaction when someone who’s “dead” returns from Down Under! Jesus himself experienced a similar reception when he, too, returned from the down under of the grave; except that his friends and neighbors had seen him die and it was no vacation. The events of that Friday had left Jesus’ disciples, his closest friends and acquaintances, shocked by the brutal way that Jesus had died on a Roman cross. 

But it wasn’t as if Jesus hadn’t told them where he was going. Unlike Michael O’Neill, Jesus was very clear with his friends that he would be taking the road toward the cross and the grave. In fact, Jesus had given them his fateful itinerary three times, but, as Luke tells us, “they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (Luke 18:34). They were surprised, then, to find the tomb door open, the flat stone of his resting place empty and no indication of Jesus’ whereabouts on Sunday morning. Matthew even says that the police had been watching the place but to no avail (Matthew 27:62-66). Instead of being missing and presumed dead, Jesus was dead and presumed missing. No one needed an obituary to determine which Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth had died, only where his body had been taken. 

Now gathered together in Jerusalem, with the anxiety, grief and wonder of the last three days on their minds, all the disciples and friends of Jesus tried to sort out the evidence. But then, suddenly, there he was among them saying, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Like the perplexed and astounded neighbors in Middlesbrough, the disciples thought they were seeing a “ghost” (v. 37). Death is a trip from which no one is supposed to return, so it’s little wonder that the disciples were “frightened” and that even “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering” (vv. 39, 41). Yet, unlike Michael, Jesus had no problem with people grabbing on to him to see if he was real. “Touch me and see,” he says to his incredulous friends, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (v. 39). Luke makes it clear that this was no projection of imagination or collective fantasy. The risen Jesus was touchable and even hungry, asking his friends for a little fish on the barby (vv. 41-43). 

Here’s a really important point for you and I to grasp from all this: The resurrection means that our faith is not just a “philosophy.” These physical details about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are offered by Luke as evidence of something much more tangible than a philosophical world view. They catalogue the details of the message that Jesus’ disciples would carry into the world. It’s instructive for us to remember that the “good news” the disciples preached was not the teachings of Jesus, so much as it was the pivotal events of his death and resurrection. The risen Jesus, wiping the crumbs of fish off the table, would always remind them that it was not an argument they were dealing with, but a real and resurrected person: a person in whose name “repentance and forgiveness” would be proclaimed “to all nations.” (v. 47).

If we look ahead, in the book of Acts, Luke tells us that the disciples did not go around the Roman world setting up Jesus memorial societies or simply repeating his parables. 
Instead, they insisted that Jesus was alive, that his death and resurrection had ushered in the new age when God would set a fallen world to rights, and that they had been witnesses to the physical facts. They also understood that, after his ascension, they were to personally continue to embody his scarred hands and feet, by feeding a world hungry for the hope of salvation, wholeness and promise of new life made possible by his bodily resurrection. They hadn’t seen a ghost or a resuscitated corpse (two of the most accepted ideas of life after death at the time). They had witnessed something utterly new, surprising and overwhelmingly joyful. No matter how bizarre their story seemed to be and no matter how much the prevailing powers tried to crush their movement, they continued to be “witnesses” to the reality of resurrection. By the way, not coincidentally, the root of the Greek word for “witness” is the same as the root for “martyr” (v. 48). Everywhere they would go their listeners would be surprised at the very least and more often shocked by what they heard: a dead man risen! 

So, what about us…you and me? Can we be shocked by this message? Jesus was the original dead man Down Under, but the passage of time since that Sunday can distance us from the feeling of surprise. Easter has come this year, as it has for nearly two thousand years. Perhaps the repetition has anesthetized us. Surely the shouts of “He is risen!” do move us, and make us glad, but do they still have the power to shock us? What would it take to put the shock back into those words for us; to move us beyond simple happy alleluias to awe and wonder; to make us dare to become witness/martyrs for Christ?

I got to thinking about what would bring that same sense of shock to life for me this week when I came across this humorous old fable. 
A Minneapolis couple, the story goes, decided to go to Florida to thaw out during an icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Due to their hectic schedules, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday; his wife was to fly down the following day.

The husband checked into the hotel and sat down at the computer in his room to send his wife an e-mail. However, he left out one letter in her e-mail address, and without realizing his error, accidentally sent the e-mail to the wrong address.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister who was called home to glory following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her e-mail, expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the very first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen, which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I’ve Arrived
I know you are surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send e-mails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. It sure is hot down here!

Well, that would certainly shock me. What would it take for us; for you and me to become filled with the wonder, the animating awe of it all? Consider this: Our God, in Jesus, has journeyed from heavenly exaltation into our humanity. God has taken the trip into the depths of human pain into death itself, and in Jesus has returned in amazing triumph. Because of what God has done, experiencing death as one of us, death is no longer our final destination. You and I shall live forever with God!

Friends, take time this week, if you haven‘t already, to let your mind get caught up in the wonder of all this. See if you can capture that sense of shock at the News. Let yourself be surprised. It will transform your faith. It will make you the witness you are called to be. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

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