a sermon on Luke 24:36b-48 for the Third Sunday of Easter
preached on April 22, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There’s a wonderful word that every Presbyterian needs to know: presbyopia. It’s a strange word, closely related to Presbyterian and presbytery and presbyter, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve been afflicted with being Presbyterian – that’s just general craziness! Presbyopia is also known as farsightedness – the condition where you can’t see things clearly up close even though you can see far away just fine. Presbyterian and presbyopia both come from the same root meaning “elder” – just as we Presbyterians are governed by so-called elders, so presbyopia – farsightedness – sets in with age. But since as of tomorrow we will have four 90-year-olds among us, I don’t dare talk about age today!
I bring up presbyopia because of what it does to us – we can see far away just fine, but everything right in front of us is fuzzy. It’s a bit like what we hear about happening to the disciples in our gospel reading this morning from Luke. The disciples had walked with Jesus for three years, but it took Jesus’ death and resurrection – and a lot of distance from those events – for them to really clearly see what was going on. They were still pretty close to it all on the night of the resurrection that is the stage for this story, but by then they had started to get enough distance to get a sense that something special was going on. They had heard several reports of the resurrection, and according to Luke, at least three people had seen Jesus. So as they all gathered together and started exchanging their stories of that first Easter day, Jesus appeared among them and proclaimed, “Peace be with you.”
This was not what anyone expected. They might have known that something special was going on, but they didn’t have enough distance from things to have clear heads. They knew that some people had seen Jesus that day, but they hadn’t had enough time to really begin to figure out what a resurrected Jesus might look like. And they were understandably a bit afraid of what the consequences of all this might be – Jesus had been executed because at least some people thought that he thought that he was the King of the Jews and posed a threat to the Jewish leadership and Roman rule, and those parties would not respond well to news that somehow the crucifixion didn’t “take.”
So when Jesus showed up among them that first night, they were understandably afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost and had no idea what to do next. But Jesus didn’t run away in fear. He invited them to set aside their fears and to embrace his new presence among them. He showed them his hands and his feet and suggested that such a presence could not be a ghost. The disciples were becoming joyful as everything that they had heard about the resurrection was shown to be real, but they still didn’t see clearly what was right in front of them. They didn’t connect everything that he had taught them along the way with everything that had happened over the last few days. They didn’t know what to do with the experience of watching their friend suffer and die – and then suddenly reappear in their midst.
But Jesus knew just what to do to help them bring things into focus. He kept things pretty ordinary. He asked them for something to eat and had a piece of broiled fish for dinner. And then he started teaching them, just as he had done so many times before. This time as he taught, he tried to help them see things more clearly. He recounted what he had told them before, “that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” He explained how scripture called for the Messiah “to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” He called for them to proclaim this new way to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem. And he instructed them to always bear witness to everything that they had seen in his life, death, and resurrection.
Finally, as they got further away from all that they had experienced, the disciples began to see clearly everything that had been fuzzy and uncertain in the midst of the moment. Their presbyopia finally kicked in, and they could start to understand what they had seen in the resurrection of their friend.
Presbyopia is not usually viewed as a good thing. Nobody likes wearing reading glasses or bifocals! However, a little distance opened up the story of Jesus for the disciples – could it be the same for our own experiences of faith and life? Sometimes distance helps us to see and understand things better, to put different parts of the puzzle into the bigger picture over time, to bring things into better focus just like we do when we move something away from us to see it more clearly.
Now this is not always the case. Sometimes distance can actually make things less clear for us. Sometimes our memory fails us and we aren’t able to remember well enough to see when we get too far away from what we have experienced. Sometimes we are deceived by something that looks like something entirely different when we see it at a distance. And sometimes the past becomes less clear as we move away from it because we prefer to see it all through rose-colored glasses and remember only the joys we have experienced and not the sorrows that were also with us along the way.
Nonetheless, when we find that right distance from our past experience, just the right amount of presbyopia, we can see things more clearly with greater distance, let time bring understanding, and step back and look at how everything fits together.
At some level, I think this is our call as a church – to get far enough away from what we are seeing so that we can see it clearly. It’s all too easy to look back and only see what we want to see, to remember a past that was very different but not necessarily better, to think that the numbers that once defined us should be our mark once again, even to get caught up in the less-than-pleasant details of the present and let them bring us down. But in the resurrection Jesus calls us to take a step back and see more clearly, to look closely at where we have been so that we can see the possibilities for where we can go, to trust that what is ahead can be as joyful as the past we remember, and always to keep the big picture in view whenever things are changing all around us. So I think Jesus calls us to a bit of presbyopia sometimes, to demonstrate the wisdom of the elders that keeps the bigger picture in view, to not be afraid to look a good bit away from ourselves so that we can see all the things that God has done and is doing, and to be open to the possibility that we might just have to step back or even wait a little while longer to see things more clearly.
So may we always be able to look back and see the risen Christ clearly among us so that we can be ready to open our eyes to everything that is ahead and see him journeying with us and going before us to make all things new. Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.