April 15, 2018

Luke 24:36b-48

“Witnesses of God’s Peace”

I’ve been in those ICU waiting rooms in the basement at the Royal University Hospital many times over the years. They’re the places where the families gather, and wait, and pray when their loved ones are in crisis due to very serious illness or injury. There’s a lot of pacing that goes on in those rooms, as well as tears being shed, food being shared, and hands being held as loved ones hover on the brink between life and death.

Usually only one or two visitors are allowed into the ICU to visit the seriously-ill patients at times when their presence won’t get in the way of the work that is being done. And the rest of the time, family members, friends, and often clergy spend time in the waiting rooms or the hallways… waiting, worrying, hoping, and praying.

I can only imagine what it has been like in those waiting rooms over the last week since the Humboldt Broncos’ bus accident. But I’m praying for all the people who are spending their time there in these days. Certainly, those families have experienced an outpouring of support from the people of Saskatchewan and from others further afield – people putting their sticks out, wearing hockey jerseys to indicate that we’re all on the same team, and financially supporting the families through the Go-Fund-Me campaign.

But even all of that won’t change the stress, and strain, and worry of those who still wait in those rooms. And it won’t erase the pain of those whose loved ones have died.

We all felt our hearts wrench again on Monday when we heard the news that two of the young men had been mis-identified. One who was declared dead was discovered to be alive. And one thought to be alive was actually dead. What a roller coaster ride of emotions for those two families! And imagine the doubt and fear that mistake might have raised for some of the other families as well.

I wonder if thinking about this recent tragedy might help us to understand what Jesus’ disciples were experiencing in today’s Gospel story also. I think, perhaps, that since we’ve heard the Gospel story so many times over so many years we may sometimes lose sight of the fact that what Jesus’ friends were going through was an absolutely tragic horror. There was no community putting on hockey jerseys to show their prayer and support for Peter, Mary, John, and the others. But they were nonetheless gathered together in a little room too… waiting, worrying, wondering what was going on and what would happen next. And they were on an emotional roller coaster ride also.

They are still shocked and horrified by what has happened. The leader of their community has been falsely accused and executed. Now there are suggestions that he may not actually be dead (that some have seen him) but they aren’t sure. Was he really dead? They were told that he was. Is he really alive now? Or is it just someone else who looks like him? They are frightened. They are confused.

And that’s when Jesus comes and stands in their midst. He appears right there in the room with them, and says “Peace be with you.”

I love that greeting. It could just be a greeting, like “Hi. How are you?” But I imagine Jesus saying it more like a prayer or a blessing over his deeply troubled and confused friends. “Peace be with you,” he says as he asks for God’s Spirit of peace to surround, uphold, and comfort them.

And then he gives them the good news. His presence there is the first sign that the news is good, but they are not sure whether to believe it or not. Like a parent whose child was on the Humboldt Broncos’ bus, they would need to see, touch, and hold their loved one in order to really believe that he was actually okay.

So, Jesus shows his friends that he was dead and now he’s alive. First, he invites them to see and touch his body. Yes, it’s really me, and I’m not a ghost or a figment of your imagination. Next, he asks for some food and he stands in front of them eating fish. It may seem like a strange detail to include, but the normal everyday act of eating makes it all the more real that he is truly alive and present.

After that, Jesus talks to them about the Scriptures, reminding them of their expectation of a Messiah, pointing out that he told them this would happen, encouraging them that death and resurrection were expected, even if it feels like the most tragic thing that they have experienced in their young lives.

And finally, Jesus makes them the witnesses of these things. He provides them with all the evidence that they need, and he instructs them to go and tell others what they have seen and heard. He appoints them as witnesses so that God’s power will be proclaimed and God’s love will be shared throughout the world.

As I talked about with the children, those earliest disciples were good witnesses. They told about their experience. Someone wrote it down. Others copied it and translated it, and passed it along to the generations.

But they didn’t just recount what they saw and experienced on that one particular day. They witnessed to their broader experience of Jesus’ ministry and his continuing presence in their lives.

Most of us haven’t literally seen Jesus, but we have experienced his presence in various ways, and we have come to believe that he is alive now and active in our lives and the world.

That is a huge thing to claim, especially given all the evidence of evil and hatred and tragedy that we see around us. I mean, it’s easy to witness to the troubles and problems, but it’s not so easy to witness to Christ’s presence and power when bad things just keep happening and happening!

When tragedy strikes, you may wonder if witnessing is what Christians are called to do. Somebody quoting Scripture at grieving or angry families probably won’t be helpful. And claiming that God is present and loving may sound trite in the context of such overwhelming sadness.

But Jesus showed the disciples that he was truly raised in three ways – not just by quoting scriptures that said it was going to happen. He showed up and let them see and touch him. He stayed with them and did the most ordinary things, like eating some broiled fish. And then he explained the scriptures to them so they could understand why this could be true – that it is what they should have been expecting.

If we are to be witnesses, as the disciples were sent to be, then perhaps we can follow the pattern that Jesus gave when he appeared to them.

The first step is showing up when there is a need. Like Jesus appearing in the room where his friends were gathered in grief, doubt, and confusion… we need to show up in the lives of those in our community who are struggling also.

The recent tragedy provides us with an example of how that can be done… people showing up to vigils, providing financial support, and offering prayer and support in both symbolic and practical ways. And we are invited to consider how God calls us day-by-day to show up wherever there is sadness, grief, confusion, or fear and to “be with” those who are suffering.

There has been a lot of criticism over the last few months about the phrase, “sending thoughts and prayers,” noting that we need to do more to make our world a better place instead of just living with the violence and tragedy and sending our “thoughts and prayers” when bad things happen.

And while practical things must be done to make our world safer and more peaceful through advocacy and policy changes for the better, as people of faith we believe that showing up and praying from the depths of our hearts does make a difference too.

Jesus shows up where his friends are in crisis and says, “Peace be with you.” And somehow, I think it was more than just a “pat” phrase. It was a heartfelt prayer that actually blessed their troubled hearts with the gift of peace that surpasses all understanding. And I want to pray that for all those directly impacted by the terrible bus crash also.

Although it hasn’t been our role to be physically present with the people of Humboldt, other Christians have been fulfilling that role over the last week. I’ve been praying for clergy and lay church leaders in Humboldt and area this week. I know a few clergy who’ve been involved in the vigils and now funerals. And I know others who have been in the Humboldt schools this week providing listening, support, and prayer.

Sometimes being present doesn’t feel like you’re actually doing much. I’ve felt that sometimes when staying with families in ICU waiting rooms. Maybe they don’t need me here. Maybe I’m in the way, and they just want some privacy, I wonder. But I’ve learned that being available and just being present can make a big difference. And it has less to do with the person who is present and their great abilities or skills in pastoral care, and it has more to do with the fact that when we are present (when the church is present) that Christ is present through us. It has to do with the fact that people will experience the love and peace of Christ through his disciples who are witnessing to him through their physical presence with those who are suffering.

A well-known quote from Teresa of Avila comes to mind, an encouragement that our physical presence can be the embodiment of Christ’s presence today:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Of course, after showing up and praying for peace, Jesus does the strangest thing with his disciples. He asks them for some broiled fish, and he eats it in their presence. I suppose the act of eating might have served to further confirm the fact that he was alive and physically present because we all know that ghosts don’t eat fish!

But what we might learn from Jesus’ example is that in the midst of tragedy and trouble, we can we present with those who are suffering in everyday ordinary ways. We all know that people aren’t inclined to make food or eat it when they are grieving, but they still need to do so and go on with living. And so we can bring food. We can share it, and eat some ourselves. We can clean up and do the dishes.

The tragedy may cause people to feel as if the whole world has come to an end. But their lives will indeed continue. Food will be shared and eaten. Indeed, it must be. And we can help by making the tea, sharing the casserole, and helping them to go on.

After eating the fish, Jesus does go on to talk about the scriptures and God’s ultimate power to bring life out of death, to shine light into darkness, and offer hope in the midst of despair. And so, we must consider whether we also can witness in that way to those in our lives and communities who are in crisis.

Probably we shouldn’t jump in too quickly with Scripture quotes and bold assurances that people may not be ready to hear. But very often in the midst of crisis or a little later, questions will come to people of faith…

Why did God do this or let this happen? What did I do to deserve this? How can you believe in God in a world like this?

At the vigil in Humboldt last weekend, the chaplain of the Broncos’ team preached a good, honest, humble, and yet reassuring sermon that grappled with these kinds of questions. He voiced the “why” questions on so many people’s minds, and did not claim to know all the answers. Then he proclaimed what he did know about God’s love and power and grace, and he invited those who listened to place their trust in God also to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death.

And I think that’s part of what Jesus meant when he asked his disciples to be witnesses. Humbly, being very clear that we don’t know all the answers, we witness to God’s love for us in the midst of the tragedies of our world.

We witness to our faith that God will triumph in the end.

We witness to our trust that God will carry us through these hard times.

We witness to our hope that there will be life forevermore for God’s children.

We don’t demand that anyone be convinced by our witness or embrace it in the midst of their crisis. But we stay with them and care for them with our prayers, and presence, and practical help.

We’ve seen many people in Saskatchewan serving as witnesses in the last week. May God inspire and empower us also to be witnesses today and tomorrow, for the sake of the world God so loves. Amen.