Year B, Easter 3 Luke 24:36-48
There is a theory that every 500 years or so, the church goes through a major upheaval and changes dramatically. We know what happened in the 1stcentury. That is when Jesus was born, crucified and resurrected. 500 years later, the Roman Empire collapsed. This had a huge effect on the church and caused it to shift in many ways. 500 years later, the church experienced “The Great Schism” and split into Eastern and Western branches. 500 years after that, in 1500, we had the Reformation. Since we are at our 500 year mark people have been predicting another major transformation for a decade or so.
How will the Christian Church change this time? There have been a lot of theories—many have even predicted the end of the institutional church. Then came COVID when most churches completely stopped worshipping in person. This led to further speculation about the demise of the traditional church or even institutional religion as a whole. This speculation didn’t start in the 21st century. People have been increasingly negative about the institutional church over the years. They like the idea of Jesus. They might even love Jesus, but the church—not so much.
I get it. It is a lot easier to love someone who lived 2,000 years ago, than an institution that survives to this day. It’s a lot more convenient to love a man who was perfect, than an institution that is maintained by flawed human beings. But in my opinion (and I know I am a tad biased), you can’t separate Jesus from the church. Jesus gave us the church. That was his last gift to his followers. He didn’t say, “I give you the church.” It was a little more subtle than that. Plus, it would have been hard for him to give them something they had not yet created. What he did say was this, “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to these things.”
Often in the church, we describe Jesus as the head, and the church as the body. That is why we refer to ourselves as the body of Christ. For a long time this metaphor was a little lost on me. I had heard it so often, that I never really considered what it meant. A few years ago, I came across a sermon by Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians in the history of our church. He wrote that the disciples could see Jesus, but they could not see what he was promising. What he was promising was not just his presence with them, but a church dedicated to him that would extend throughout the world and throughout all time.
Jesus was asking his disciples to take his message and the story of his life, death and resurrection to all nations….the world. They could not do that with just the 11 of them. He was aware that. Therefore, they would have to spread the word. They would have to create networks. They would have to create doctrine. They would have to complete a canon of scripture. If you put that all together, it looks a lot like a church. I am sure it seemed a little overwhelming to the disciples. No wonder they were joyful and disbelieving at the same time.
I believe they knew what and who they were looking at. They were looking at the resurrected Christ. They were looking at the very man who they had followed for years and worshipped. They were looking at the man who had died and rose again. While I am sure all of that was shocking, more than anything it was joyful. The truly frightening thing was what it meant for them and their lives. Think about it—he did not ask them to touch his face. He wanted them to touch the places where the scars were, where the pain had been. This was not just so they could recognize him, but so they could recognize their own place in the future of the church—a future that would include tremendous joy and pain at times. He wanted them to not only believe in him, but believe in their own potential as witnesses to him, as leaders of this church that they could not yet fathom.
In many ways, we have the opposite faith crisis than the disciples did. They were able to see and touch the resurrected Christ. They were able to watch him eat, and hear his familiar voice. However, there was also something they had to take on faith, and that was their future, their future as leaders of a church that had not yet been created. For us today, the problem is quite the opposite. We have seen the proof of the resurrected Christ in the existence of the church, but we have not seen the resurrected Christ in the flesh. We have not eaten with him. We have not heard his voice. We have not touched his scars.
Or have we? Do we not eat with him every week when we share the Eucharist? Do we not hear his voice every week when we hear the scriptures read? Do we not touch his scars when we witness the injustice and the pain that surrounds us? That is what the church (the flawed and sometimes hypocritical church) is trying to do, help us all experience the resurrected Christ, and live out the commission he gave to his disciples. It is up to each one of us to carry out this mission that Christ gave his followers.
We have a much bigger head start than the disciples in that we have this long history of the church. This is both a help and a hindrance. Because along with all the good the church has done, it has wounded many as well. It is our job, not to walk away from the wounded, but to help them find healing, help our church find healing. There might always be scars, but if Jesus could live with them, so can we.
While the pandemic brought more pain and strife than I have the capacity to fathom, it has also given the church an opportunity. Being online, we have a greater mission field than Jesus and his disciples could ever imagine. And I think losing 9 months of in person worship has shown many of us how incredibly precious this community is. We can see ourselves and the church with new eyes.
The last line of our Gospel reading is Jesus telling his disciples, “You are witnesses to these things.” He was referring to his life, death, resurrection and the forgiveness he showed to his disciples. We have not witnessed those things directly, but we have witnessed so much in the last year. Let’s take this time of regathering as a time of renewal. We could go back to the way things were a year ago, or we could do better and go back to what Jesus asked of those disciples after his resurrection. Spread the Gospel to all nations. Be the church that Jesus asked his disciples to create. It’s not too late.
 Phyllis Tickle is typically associated with this theory as she wrote about it in “The Great Emergence.” However, I don’t believe the theory is unique to her.