While they were still speaking about all this, he himself stood in their midst [and said to them, "Peace to you.”] In their panic and fright they thought they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you disturbed? Why do such ideas cross your mind? Look at my hands and my feet; it is really I. Touch me, and see that ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do.” As he said this he showed them his hands and feet. They were still incredulous for sheer joy and wonder, so he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of cooked fish, which he took and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, "Recall those words I spoke to you when I was still with you; everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms had to be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to the understanding of the Scriptures. He said to them: "Thus it is written that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In his name, penance for the remission of sins is to be preached to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of this. See, I send down upon you the promise of my father. Remain here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
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Entering the Scene
Let us consider where this episode happens. The two from Emmaus hurried back to Jerusalem "where they found the Eleven and the rest of the company assembled” (vs. 33). There is a parallel version in John which comes immediately following the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden. In John, it reads, "the disciples had locked the doors of the place where they were for fear of the Jews” Jn. 20:19. So, where is this place where the disciples and the rest of the assembly were? It is only in Acts 1:13 that the location is more specifically identified. The disciples return from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem and "when they arrived, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying.” This is the "upper room” tradition names as the scene of this appearance. It is also the place where tradition places the Last Supper and Pentecost. As such, it has taken on special significance in the story of Christ.
As early as the 4th century, a building was constructed to venerate this site. While a series of structures have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, the present Gothic-style building, known as the Cenacle, dates back to the late 12th or early 13th century. These pictures show how it looks today. Archeologists believe that the building that pre-existed the Christian era, may have been a Jewish synagogue which became a Christian church. In 1552 the Ottomans took possession and it was a mosque until 1948 when the new State of Israel claimed it. To this day it remains one of the most popular destinations for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem.
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As followers of Jesus, we want to know more about all the places of Jesus’ life—thus, the pilgrimages that have been around for centuries. But much of Jesus’ ministry, outside of Jerusalem and his last few days, eludes location because as noted last week, he was on the road a lot. This would be normal for a first century Jewish sage or rabbi. While it was only after 70 A.D. that the term "rabbi” became the formal title for a teacher in Judaism, Jesus clearly acted in that model and was recognized by others as a teacher of Scripture. Recall how Mary Magdalene called out to him, "Rabbi,” in the garden. Such rabbis and sages more often than not, traveled throughout the land of Israel teaching in even the remotest villages. There is an existent saying from 100 years before Christ that instructs Jews how to welcome these travelers: "Let your home be a meeting-house for sages, and cover yourself with the dust from their feet, and drink in their words thirstily.” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in their home in Bethany perfectly embody this advice. So to have traveled from place to place and to have depended on the hospitality of the people, including those women "who supported him from their means,”(Lk. 8:3) would have been perfectly normal and appropriate.
Getting into Character
This week’s scene begins with, "While they were still speaking…” which comes immediately following the closing lines of our last Station, "Then they recounted what had happened on the road and how they had come to know him in the breaking of the bread.” (Lk 24:35). Presumably then, the two from Emmaus, the "they” who are speaking, are among those to whom Jesus appears. They returned, in fact to not only the eleven but, as seen a few verses earlier, to the "rest of the company assembled” (vs. 33). Bibles frequently, however, title this section, "Jesus Appears to the Eleven,” or "Jesus Appears to the Disciples.” This is an important reminder to us that the text names who is there, but not always everyone who is there. In other words, there may well have been others, not of the same significance, who are not mentioned, rather like the line in Matthew, "not counting women and children,” (Mt 14:21, 15:38).
When this same room is returned to after the Ascension, Acts tells us: "Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:13-14). This is the same group presumed to be present at Pentecost. "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). Thus, you often see pictures of Pentecost with Mary among those receiving the Holy Spirit. So, who is gathered in this room when Jesus suddenly appears in their midst and eats fish with them? We can imagine as many or as few as we choose. John’s Gospel, recounting the same story, notes that Thomas is not present and thus sets up the scene we will consider next week.
Regardless of the numbers, these are Jesus’ closest followers. They are the ones most affected by all that has happened—in their years spent with him, in the tumultuous days that spanned Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and now, the news of his resurrection. These are the ones most in need of seeing Jesus alive and these are the ones to whom he now comes. This time, it is a decidedly communal experience. They are all together in their fear, confusion, uncertainty—are they yet believing or joyful? Perhaps they are all in various stages of all of these. It often happens that those closest to us experience grief in a way different than ourselves. It would be no different for this diverse group of followers. Family Systems would remind us that we are like the mobile that hangs over a child’s crib, each of us balanced by the others. Were we to all fall apart at the same time, all experience the same intense feeling together, the mobile would tilt and fall.
So here they are, bonded in their love of Jesus, sharing the full gamut of emotions—those who have already seen and believed, those who have not, cannot, will not believe, those relieved and joyful and those still in deep shame and guilt, those seeking to console and those harboring judgement. It is into this maelstrom that Jesus comes.
Of course Jesus’ first words were, "Peace be to you.” Even that, however, caused distress for "they thought they were seeing a ghost.” Even as we can readily imagine Mary Magdalene’s impulse to reach out toward Jesus, we can appreciate this very human reaction of those in the upper room. The one thing they knew unequivocally was that Jesus was dead—dead and buried, dead three days, dead in the most gruesome of ways, dead and some of them had betrayed him. Really dead.
Jesus’ coming to them is first, to allay their fears and to assure them that it is truly him, in the flesh, the one they know and love. He immediately shows them his wounds, confirming all that has happened, but then asks for food as proof of his bodily-ness. And he eats. Here we are confronted with the same impossible contradiction that were his followers. This Jesus is the same Jesus, the one to whom this tragedy had happened, the one who assuredly died and yet he is now with them, not in spirit or as a spirit, but as his embodied self. Here we see Incarnation brought full circle. The scandal of God in human flesh was one thing at the manger; it is even more scandalous and bewildering now. Christianity is a profoundly incarnational religion. We are not allowed the escape clause of spiritualizing this away. What to do with a Jesus who does not remain dead? Could it be because he is precisely whom he claimed to be and as we had only dimly begun to grasp was true? We knew, we know that he was human. But if he was also God, he could not, did not cease to be God and death could not hold him.
This is where it all either comes together or breaks down. We believe or we disbelieve. This may well be Jesus’ second reason for coming to them—for us. All these centuries later, we are in the same position as were they. We do not have the option of a sort-of or half-way resurrection. Jesus coming to them in their shock and disbelief was also about his coming to us who stand in their place. The impossibility of the resurrected, embodied Jesus confronts us across the years. From the vantage point of centuries, I find the most compelling argument for Christ’s bodily resurrection in precisely this decisive movement within his followers. They are not changed until they receive the promised Spirit, but here we see what they were before that Gift. Here we see exactly what we would be in their shoes. There is no explanation for who they later become except that they moved from profound disbelief to radical belief, a belief that impelled them to proclaim boldly this resurrection and to willingly die for it. It is only in the light of their present state in the upper room that we can fully appreciate the transformation that is made.
The third reason for Jesus’ coming to them is, I suspect, simply because he loved them. He wanted to be with them every bit as much and more, as they longed for his presence. These are the ones with whom he most fully shared his life and ministry. These are the ones among whom he was most at ease, to whom he’d said just nights before, "I have called you friends” (Jn. 15:15). In the upper room and throughout these resurrection scenes, there is an incredible tenderness in the way Jesus assures, an overwhelming sense of presence in each compelling encounter, and a gentle, insistent turning toward the future, a future still to unfold.
Bringing it Home
Read the lyrics below as you listen to this choral rendition of Philip Stopford’s Do Not be Afraid:
Do not be afraid, do not be afraid for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name; you are mine, you are mine.
When you walk through the waters, I'll be with you; you will never sink beneath the waves. When the fire is burning all around you, you will never be consumed by the flames. Do not be afraid….
When the fear of loneliness is looming, then remember I am at your side. When you dwell in the exile of a stranger, remember you are precious in my eyes. Do not be afraid…
You are mine, O my child, For I am your Father, and I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you with a perfect love, a perfect love. Do not be afraid… (Lyrics by Gregory Markland)
Take some time to consider these various reflection questions. If you are a part of a small group, share your responses with one another.
1. Pause and consider one of the great fears in your own life. Listen again to this song as Jesus addressing this specific fear for you. (Stopford was commissioned to write this piece by Andrew and Kathryn Radley for the occasion of the Baptism of their daughter, Sophia Elizabeth, on October 24, 2010.) Though envisioned as a baptismal song, it clearly has multiple possibilities throughout all of life’s moments—even as a song to welcome one home at the end of life.How might you make this song your own?
2. It has been said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but fear. Do you find this to be true? How might the words, "Do not be afraid,” be an invitation to believe? If the greatest of all fears is the fear of death, how does the Resurrection confront this?
3. Returning to our earlier task of taking on a point of view, remember that there are two sets of brothers among the followers of Jesus: James and John as well as Andrew and Peter. There were also among them three mothers: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Salome, the mother of James and John, and Mary, the mother of the other James. Some of these we know scattered at the arrest of Jesus. Others we know were there at the crucifixion and at the tomb. What might it have been like, their coming together in the upper room? How do we as families, interact in times of crisis or grief? How might we experience Jesus in our midst assuring all of us, regardless of role or state of mind?
4. How important to you is place? Have you ever had the experience of a certain place that elicits a deep, prayerful response from you? The Upper Room has become synonymous with a sacred space, a place of prayer. For many people it can be the familiar place where they most often pray or state of mind or place in their heart. It may be portable or it may be fixed. How would you define it?
5. What do you think is significant or important about Jesus’ bodily resurrection? What difference does it make that Jesus is in his body—touching, eating, bearing the scars?
Lord Jesus, you were dead but came again to life. Laid in the earth, you stirred and rose. Improbable, impossible but undeniable, you are once again with us and it is truly you—whole hearted, whole bodied. Lord, feed the hope that rises within us. Give us faith that we may dare to believe your message of love’s triumph over death and darkness. May we go as your confident witnesses into a wounded world to show that no shut door of the human heart is stronger than your love to unlock it, and that no fear or evil can ever stand against your Resurrection. Amen.
A personal note from Kathleen
Bivin, David, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, Holland, MI, 2007, p. Ibid.