It is hard to miss Luke’s emphasis on the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection. It is also hard to ignore the disciples’ difficulty believing what they saw. The two go together—both in the text and, potentially, in your sermon. These emphases are distinctly Lukan, which matters especially if you preached on John’s account of the same event last week (John 20:19-23).
Luke’s context is also unique. Unlike the beloved evangelist who takes the reader straight from the empty tomb to the locked room, Luke details Jesus’ detour to Emmaus. This encounter provides the background for this week’s reading.
As a momentary aside, if you will entertain some friendly criticism of the lectionary committee for my church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, notice how our most recent hymnal’s, the Lutheran Service Book (LSB), version of the three-year lectionary chops Luke 24 into three sections and spreads them across the three year-cycle without any discernible intentionality. This is unfortunate, for it disrupts Luke’s narrative and detaches the Emmaus episode from the rest of the story. For this reason, you might consider reworking the lectionary readings to read all three sections of Luke’s account over three straight Sundays. If not this year, perhaps in 2022.
But let us return to the appointed text. Verse 36 drives us back to Emmaus. The disciple named Cleopas and his unnamed companion had just experienced an unexpected encounter with the risen Lord on the road and at table. After their eyes opened to see Him, they immediately retrace their seven-mile journey back to Jerusalem and find the eleven (and others). As they are recounting their experience, Jesus does it again. He appears out of nowhere and interrupts them: “Peace be with you.” I can imagine the Emmaus disciples thinking, “See! We told you!” But if they thought it, Luke does not tell us they said it.
Instead, they (together with the eleven and the others) were incredulous. They, “...were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (24:37). Even after seeing His hands and feet they, “...disbelieved for joy and were marveling” (24:41). Their disbelief was understandable. Jesus had been dead. There was no mistaking it. But now He stood among them. Apparently, modern skeptics in our scientific age were not the first to have trouble believing a body could literally rise from the dead. So, also did the disciples—and they were there in person!
Apparently, modern skeptics in our scientific age were not the first to have trouble believing a body could literally rise from the dead. So, also did the disciples—and they were there in person!
But Luke is unambiguous. The resurrection was real, and it was physical. Notice how many physical details he includes. It begins with Jesus’ own words: “See My hands and My feet, that it is I myself. Touch Me and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (verse 39). Then, Luke describes Jesus’ actions: “And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.” If simply hearing from Jesus and looking at His body were not enough, Luke goes on: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and He took it and ate before them” (verses 41-43). Luke’s message is clear. This was no spiritual or metaphorical resurrection. The body which had been dead was now alive and well—even a little hungry.
But what does it matter for your hearers? Jesus’ physical resurrection was good for Him, but unless your hearers have some advantageous connection to Him, the historicity does not matter much. This is where some apologetic attempts to demonstrate proof of a physical resurrection fall short. Even if we had evidence of the empty tomb, the benefit of Jesus’ resurrection for anyone beside Himself would still be a matter of faith.
The physical resurrection of Jesus signals our own.
Which brings us to your sermon. Luke’s emphasis on the physical reality of Jesus’ resurrection suggests a similar emphasis in your sermon. This may be a good week to emphasize the bodily resurrection. But without the promise of the Gospel, this is simply news. It becomes good news for your hearers when you make the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and their own. Which means you should proclaim Jesus’ physical resurrection as only the beginning. Throughout the Scriptures we read Jesus is the first to be raised (1 Corinthians 15:20; Colossians 1:18; Acts 26:23). After Him will rise all who die in Him. “Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:23). The epistle reading points in this direction, too. When Jesus returns, “We shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2).
In other words, the physical resurrection of Jesus signals our own. After more than a year of facing our collective mortality as a species, the promise of a physical resurrection is welcome news. Christian hope is not based on inoculation or herd immunity. It is not subject to the vicissitudes of variants or vaccines. Instead, we find hope and strength in the promise of our own physical resurrection. Furthermore, this promise invites us to live courageously. If the pandemic does not get us, something else will. This does not lead us to be cavalier, but rather confident and caring toward others. This promise frees us to serve others in word and deed, to sacrifice for others and put their physical needs ahead of our own. Luther’s explanation to the 5th Commandment comes to mind.
As we continue to celebrate Easter this week, let the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection frame your proclamation of the promise of ours. And let it provide motivation for your hearers to give themselves in service toward others, so all might come to believe in the resurrected Lord and receive their own physical resurrection at His return.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 24:36-49.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 24:36-49.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 24:36-49.