A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter

Chris and I went out to breakfast one day last week at a local place in New Hope. It’s the kind of place where they serve a good, hearty old-fashioned breakfast, the kind of meal we used to enjoy back in the days before anybody ever warned us about things like cholesterol and fat and salt. And they’re really proud of that menu. You sit at a counter that sort of wraps around the kitchen, and you can see a sign over the kitchen that says, “If it isn’t bad for you, it isn’t worth eating.”

So I ordered a waffle, and Chris ordered corned-beef hash, which both happen to be the things that our fathers would make for breakfast when it was their turn to cook for us when we were growing up. When the food was served, a woman who was like sitting around the corner of the counter from us said, “That looks great. I’m really glad you didn’t order anything healthy”—because they do have a few healthy choices at this place

She said, “I’m glad that you didn’t go for the healthy stuff, because every once in a while, we really ought to stop and enjoy the good things of life, and that includes eating food like the breakfast that you’re sharing together.” That opened up a whole conversation that went on for most of the meal about food and the place it plays in our lives: how it brings us together in community and fellowship, how it’s one of the good things that God has given us in this life.

So I was thinking about sharing food and all the ways that functions for us, how it does bring us into community, how it strengthens our connection with the past and with our traditions—as we did when Chris and I both had breakfasts that our fathers used to make, about how it strengthens the relationships we have with people we’re close to.

I was thinking about how when my parents were still alive and we would have holiday meals at their house, there would be 14 or 15 members of my immediate family at the table. my mother would go into the kitchen when we were done, and she would look around, and say, “Eating is such a filthy habit.” But you know, she wouldn’t have had it any other way, because that food and the sharing of it was so important.

We share food to celebrate old connections and we share food to make new connections. When we want to get to know someone better, one of the best ways to do that is to sit down with them and have a meal.

So, food functions in a lot of different ways. In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses it as an antidote to fear.

Since Easter morning, we’ve been reading from the Gospel of John. Today we switch to Luke, the wonderful storyteller. This passage we just heard is almost the very end of that Gospel. It provides a sort of bridge to the Book of Acts, which is the sequel to Luke. That seems especially appropriate since the group of us who have been meeting together on Wednesday mornings for the Good Book Club, as the program is called, talked through Lent about the book of Luke, and now we’re going to move on to the book of Acts, starting this Wednesday.

Today’s Gospel comes at the end of Luke. The women have seen the empty tomb, they come back and tell the fellows, and they sort of dismiss their story. But Peter goes and sees for himself, and is amazed. Then Jesus appears with those two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and they don’t recognize him at first. But in the breaking of the bread, they do recognize him, and in that instant he’s gone again. Those travelers return to Jerusalem, and everybody is talking about these stories. And they’re struggling to understand what’s happening, and whether it could possibly be true that Jesus is alive.

While they’re standing there talking about this, all of sudden right there with them is Jesus again. They’re pretty freaked out. They’re terrified, in fact. He says, “Peace be with you,” but it doesn’t stop their fear. It’s clear that they’re afraid he’s ghost, and in those times people did believe in ghosts, and their ghosts weren’t friendly. They were bad spirits, bad actors, we might say. They did bad things, and people were afraid of them.

Jesus sees their fear, and he says, “Look at my hands and my feet. Touch me. You’ll see that I’m flesh and blood, that I’m the one that you knew before, I am the same one, and I am alive. I’m not a ghost.” They’re filled, the Gospel tells us, with joy, and at the same time, they are still experiencing some confusion, some wondering, some disbelief. So, the next thing Jesus says is, “Do you have anything to eat?” They give him a piece of fish, and he eats it in front of them, and they are reassured because surely a ghost wouldn’t eat.

When he’s moved them past their fear, Jesus begins to talk about the scriptures. He unpacks the whole story for them. He explains how he is the fulfillment of all that’s been written, and then he gives them a commission. He tells them, “You will be my witnesses.” You will be my witnesses is a word to them to go and spread the good news across the face of the earth, and it’s a commission that comes down to us to do the same thing. We are the witnesses in our times. We are the ones who are supposed to go out and spread the good news about the love of God and Jesus Christ.

What holds us back from that? So often it’s fear. It’s the same kind of fear those disciples experienced. We’re not so much afraid of ghosts, but we’re still afraid of really living into the Good News in today’s world. Fear has been a problem down through time. The words “fear” and “afraid” appear over 400 times in the Bible. The instruction Do not be afraidappears over 140 times. And no matter how often we hear it, we still seem to have trouble with it.

So this man Adam Hamilton, who as I said in the announcements created that film we saw about Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he’s tackled the subject of fear in a series called Unafraid. He says that we can hardly over-exaggerate what a serious problem fear is in our world today. I know it’s true, because many of you have mentioned fear to me, fear of things happening in the world.

We’re afraid of war, we’re afraid about the economy, we’re afraid of violence, we’re afraid of the impacts of racism, we’re afraid of the divisions caused by political conflict in our society. So many things we’re afraid of, and our fears hold us back. They keep us from living fully the lives that we’re called to live. They keep us from fulfilling our potential as human beings. But also they keep us from being witnesses to God’s love.

As I said, I hear it in things that people say to me about being worried about the situation in the world. Many people commented to me since the gassing in Syria about their concern for the suffering of the Syrian people in this war, and their concern about where it will lead us, and what we should do about it. That’s a kind of a big-picture fear.

Then I think about people like my neighbors. I have neighbors who tell me that they used to go to Philadelphia frequently. They had tickets to a theater series that they used to enjoy but no longer attend because they’re afraid to be in Philadelphia after dark. They’re afraid of what will happen to them, that they’ll be victims of violence there.

One thing Hamilton says is that a lot of our fears are misplaced. But you know I have family in the city. I have a little grand baby there, and I’m in the city every week or at most every two weeks, often after dark. I’ve never been attacked. I’ve never seen anyone attacked, have never been frightened. Obviously, there are places I don’t go in the city, especially after dark, and I’m not saying that these things never happen. But the fear that my neighbors have seems to be unfounded, and it’s keeping them from enjoying something they used to enjoy.

Even more important is when fear holds us back and keeps us from witnessing to the love of God. Hamilton talks about faith as a response to fear. It’s clear that we can’t abolish all the things that are cause for fear, but we can learn to live with them, and faith and hope are part of that. He talks about having the conviction through faith that we will be fine no matter what happens. In God, everything will be okay.

So, what is the food we share to get us past our fears the way watching Jesus ate the fish helped those disciples? Well, speaking personally, I’m glad that it isn’t fish that we share when we come here. But you know what that meal of hope is. We share bread and wine. We come together here just as those disciples did, to be in the presence of Christ, to hear the Word, to hear holy scripture, to have it broken open for our understanding. And then we share the meal that is our antidote to fear.

God, you know our fears even when we can’t find the words to express them. Be with us and make us know that you’re with us, and give us courage and strength to be your witnesses in your world today. Amen.