At the end of a major holiday, or even a minor one like this strange Massachusetts thing called Patriot’s Day I’ve been hearing about, I am often left with a profound sense of “Well, now what?” I think that emotion is heightened after Easter and Holy Week, the climax of our faith, come to a close. On Easter, the empty tomb is filled to the brim—with joy, triumph, meaning, and new life. But after the day itself fades and the lilies from the altar are given away one by one, the emptiness of the tomb begins to weigh heavy on my heart. Christ is risen, but now what? The truth is that Jesus is still gone to me, in so many ways.
The Gospel passage from Luke today brings Jesus’s presence back to us. It is the second appearance of the resurrected Christ in Luke’s Gospel. In the first, Jesus walks alongside two men on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, although they do not recognize him. It is only after he stops to share food with them and breaks and blesses the bread that their eyes are opened and they recognize him. Luke writes that he then vanishes from their sight.
In this second story that we read just now, Jesus suddenly appears among them right as they are discussing the miracle of his first appearance. Though they knew him immediately, Luke writes that they first thought they were seeing some sort of ghostly apparition. Jesus is compassionate toward their doubts and offers them proof that he has truly been resurrected among them, holding out his hands towards them, saying, “Touch me and see.” It is a tender and intimate moment between a beloved leader and his followers, filled with emotion. And then, Luke writes, in the middle of their joy and disbelief and wondering, Jesus asks for something to eat.
What is the deal with the fish? Is it another “I told you so”? Another “but would a ghost be able to do this?” Perhaps that’s simply how Luke meant it. And yet, here in the shadow of the empty tomb, Jesus’s repeated gesture of consuming food in the midst of his friends takes on a second layer of meaning for me.
When I first moved to Jordan, I was told to never refuse any cups of coffee that were inevitably offered to me whenever I met with any Jordanians in their homes or at their places of work. It was good advice. In many Middle Eastern cultures, accepting a cup of coffee is a symbolic gesture of trust that ties you to the place and the person you share it with. In some traditional circumstances, drinking the offered cup can even symbolize the acceptance of a betrothal, eternally linking two families together. This isn’t unique to the Middle East, though—it’s an act we celebrate every Sunday when we come forward to take the wine and bread together. We accept God’s invitation and declare through a communal feast that we belong in this place, in this community, and to each other.
In demonstrating the physical act of consuming food, Jesus reassures the disciples that he belongs to this world. In eating the disciples’ broiled fish, Jesus binds himself to their community and to them.
I think that in both resurrection appearance stories, Christ’s sharing of a simple meal addresses another layer of human doubt. Jesus’s actions are a response to the disciples’ need, to our need, to know that we have not been abandoned, that we are still loved. Reassuring them of his physical, tangible presence, yes, and also his emotional and loving presence. I really am here. Sometimes we need that just as much the declaration that resurrection is possible. Sometimes we are yearning for healing for the ways we’ve felt hurt, or disappointed, or abandoned by God. I like to think Jesus is reaching out to touch our wounds in this story as well, acknowledging the profound pain of loss and betrayal the disciples must have felt.
So did the resurrection mean that the disciples received a get-out-of-grief-free card? That it was all okay again because Jesus was back, no harm done? Were they saved from having to deal with the tragic loss of their teacher and friend? If we read on in Luke’s Gospel to its end in the next chapter, we find that Jesus does leave them again when he ascends into heaven. They still need to find a way to rebuild their lives without their leader. The difference is that this time he leaves them reassured and filled with new kind of hope.
Recently I read a New York Times opinion piece written by hospital chaplain and pastor dealing with a dying, elderly woman who felt spiritually lost in the healthcare system. Spiritual end-of-life care is an issue close to my heart and the hearts of many in our parish, as well the work we have been doing at the nursing home down the street. The author empathizes with the discomfort medical teams often feel around discussions about faith with the terminally ill, knowing all too well that words like miracle, cure, and hope can get in the way of the best and most realistic treatment path forward. Yet the chaplain points out that for this woman, hope didn’t mean pretending that her life wasn’t ending. Hope for her was a spiritual need—it meant finding a way to express her faith, share her story, and spend her final moments as a human being who had lived a vibrant and meaningful life. “For some people,” the chaplain writes, “hope is not looking for a way out, but for a way through.”
This kind of hope deepens the meaning of resurrection for me. Yes, Jesus comes back. But not permanently, not to fulfill whatever revolutionary dreams the disciples had for him, and not even to erase his death. He comes with a dual purpose. He comes and binds himself to this broken world and its people yet again. He comes and shows us not a way out of grief and disappointment, but a way through.
Returning to us in the breaking of the bread, returning to us when we gather in his name, Jesus responds to our deepest doubts. Yes, I really am here. I have not abandoned you. Opening their minds to true understanding, Christ gives the disciples new purpose and meaning for their lives, a way through the emptiness. Go out into the world and find your voice. The story you have witnessed belongs to you, but not only to you. It belongs to the whole world. Go and love and spread the Good News, and I will be with you.