Here is my sermon from 4/22/2012. I thought it appropriately nerdy for the blogosphere.
The Amazing Reappearing Christ
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’* 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.*41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah* is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.48You are witnesses* of these things.
“Are you watching closely?
“Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this thing; perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed ordinary or not. Of course it probably isn’t.
“The second act is called the Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part. The part we call the Prestige.”
These haunting words begin the suspenseful and fascinating film called “The Prestige,” by Christopher Nolan. I say haunting because it informs everything about the plot of this brilliant movie about magic, illusions, dedication, jealousy, obsession and pride. It gets right down to the heart of the matter of a magicians act; everyone wants to see how it’s done. Everyone really tries hard to understand it; but part of it is that we don’t really want to know, according to the film’s logic.
It all focuses on the rivalry between two magicians and their quest to outdo each other, and central to this quest is the illusion known as The Transported Man. The tenants of the trick are quite simple yet wholly impossible by general scientific reason: you show the audience a person, you make that person somehow disappear from sight, and then you show the audience that the person was instantly transported to another part of the stage, or even to another part of the theater. The audience is stunned when they see this, and so are we, because we all instinctively know that that has to be an illusion. It has to be a lie. In the context of a magic trick, we want to believe that someone can do these things, but we always know that this is what we pay for: we pay so that we can be amazed, so that we can be challenged, so that we can be shown that there is more mystery to this world than is on the surface. The story of “The Prestige” is a tragic one though, because it pushes these two magicians to the boundaries of ethics and even the laws of nature themselves in pursuit of a real miracle, and when they get one, the consequences are deadly. I won’t give away the movie, you’ll have to watch it for yourself, but it does pose to us very important questions: how do we perceive the world? What is real? What is fake? And how can we tell them apart?
The truth is, as much as we balk and complain that the world puts too much stock in science, people have always had a sense that things happen in a certain way. Things fall to the ground. People can’t fly on their own power. Things have to move somewhere for real reasons; they can’t just disappear and then reappear without an apparent reason. When these things happen, we desperately want to know how. We can’t believe it, because things don’t usually work that way. And don’t you say that “oh it must be a miracle and we shouldn’t look too deeply into it,” because if you see one up close, you really want to know how it happened. We need to look closely at things, because we instantly are put in a position of disbelief when we are confronted with a practically impossible truth.
Such is the case with the disciples after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Before this story, we are given the story of the walk to Emmaus. In case you need to have your memory refreshed, here’s the basics: two of the disciples were on their way from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus, and on the way, they are met by a stranger who asks why they are so depressed. They are shocked that the guy doesn’t know that just this past weekend, the man named Jesus of Nazareth, the one they thought was the messiah, was crucified for treason. The stranger then begins to argue them, and talk to them about scriptures. Then, the stranger makes to move on down the road, but the disciples insist he stay with them for dinner. When they break bread, they realize that the stranger was actually Jesus the whole time. That very instant, Jesus simply disappears. Poof! Jesus is gone. Shocked and freaked out, the two disciples run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that Jesus was indeed with them and he was alive, and he was just with them.
That’s the very moment that this passage in Luke that I just read begins. So I’ll pose the question again: Are you watching closely? “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them…” How? What? Who!? Suddenly, Jesus disappears, and then out of nowhere, Jesus reappears! Poof! I don’t know for sure if there was a poof, but I imagine there was a poof, or a bamf, or bkow, or some kind of sound effect. If there wasn’t, that would be even more unsettling. Jesus suddenly shows up, and for one, you know it’s Jesus because he says the most ridiculous thing ever, almost as ridiculous as the Angels saying “Don’t be afraid!” What does Jesus say, after he suddenly reappears out of thin air? “Peace be with you!” My brothers and sisters, that’s just weird.
The disciples know this, obviously, because they were startled, terrified, and thought he was a ghost, because they know people don’t come back from the dead, they don’t just reappear out of nowhere, and they certainly don’t say after doing all that “Peace be with you,” the most sarcastic, inappropriate thing anyone can say after doing that. What if I just suddenly snuck up on you guys, say, right before you have dinner, and loudly say “PEACE BE WITH YOU!” You’d probably have a heart attack.
In any case, this whole scene is, in the eyes of the disciples and in the eyes of just about anyone reading it, is beyond reason. Or is it? I think we need to qualify what we’re talking about reasonably, don’t we? For one, I think we are all in agreement that someone suddenly appearing out of thin air is a violation of the laws of nature, yes?
Now then, I think we’re getting onto something when we say that. Specifically, I mean the word nature. What is nature? Everything around us? Stuff we can see, touch, measure? The entire universe? Yes, I guess you could say something. We can say these things as rational, reasonable people. However, because of who we are as Christians, and how we see the world, we also have another definition for nature: that it is creation. That it is something that was made. It doesn’t matter when or how it was made, but rather THAT it was made is the key to it all. When we say “creation,” that naturally leads us to conclude that there had to be a “creator” who made it all in a way that is far beyond our capacity to know at this point in time.
The how of God’s creation is mysterious in and of itself. How could God simply speak creation into existence? How does sound make something out of nothing? How does a word make light out of darkness? How do we reconcile the theological biblical accounts of creation with the scientific historic accounts of creation? We have to ask this question if we are serious about our faith. We know better than to ignore evidence. But we also have to keep in mind that we have more than just the how question to deal with. The truth is, the biblical account is a theological understanding of the creation of the universe, and through scientific exploration and discovery, we can see more clearly how God works in the world through various natural phenomena like biology and geology. Yes, we should be curious, and yes we should strive to further explanation of the nature of the universe through science, but the answer we have in the biblical account of creation is not a how, but a why! Science gets the how, we get the why. Why did God make the universe? Because God is love. And because God is love, that means God desires an object of affection to love, to be in relationship with. Love is a self-giving, an act of sharing, and a God who is defined by love seeks to express this love in the fullest way he knows how. That way is creation.
Because of this, God has ultimate creative and sustaining powers over this creation. If God was not constantly willing our existence, we wouldn’t exist at all. It is God’s love that sustains us. Because God has this ultimate power, that means God can do what God sees as necessary to further this relationship with us, and to prove his availability, tangibility, and of course, love for his creation—this includes miraculous, natural-law-defying acts. We see this most in the person of Jesus Christ, God incarnate in the flesh.
So, that leads us back to Jesus suddenly surprising the disciples with this disappearing/reappearing act, and instead of “Tada!” he says “Peace be with you.” What’s the next thing he does? He does exactly what I just did—he explains the why, not the how. He tells them that yes, he is in fact real, no, he’s not a ghost, and that if he were a ghost, why would he be so hungry. THEN he explains himself: what he’s done, he’s been telling them since the beginning. Look in the scriptures if you don’t believe him. Look at the law, the prophets, the psalms, the writings, everything points to this: that he would resurrect and reappear. This shouldn’t surprise you, if you’d been watching closely. The reason is obvious; it isn’t a trick. It isn’t an illusion. What happened was not some kind of elaborate lie. It was a real miracle. Jesus really did these things, because he’s not just ordinary, but extraordinary. Jesus is the real deal. The whole point of Luke’s gospel is to give an accurate and historical account of the life of Jesus; the proof is in the person of Jesus.
So the pledge was that Jesus was a seemingly ordinary man. The Turn was that things did not go the way they were expected to go, and he disappeared. The Prestige is that Jesus reappeared. He has all three parts of a trick, but the trick was that it wasn’t really a trick at all.
How do we know this? We know this because Jesus continues to show up. He continues to pop into our lives, when we least expect it. He shows up when we are joyful. He shows up when we are depressed. He shows up when we are together, and he shows up when we are lonely. He shows up when we’re sick and when we are well; he shows up when we are hungry, and when we are filled. He shows up, and we can’t stop him. We are witnesses to these things. After explaining the why of the reappearing Jesus, he says that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” We are witnesses to the reappearing, resurrected Christ, and now our job is to witness to it, and the forgiveness that is given through it. Our job is to wrestle with it. Our job is to pay attention to it. Our job is to dig deeper into our unbelief, our fear, our wonder and amazement, not because we want to be fooled but because we want to see more clearly the Christ who did reappear, who did resurrect, and who is one with the Father and the Spirit. God created us, God sustains us, and it is God who redeems us in all things, especially when we don’t expect it. So I leave you with this simple question, the one that informs us and guides us in our path to holiness and unity with God:
“Are you watching closely?”