Easter 3B: Becoming Human—Broiled Fish, John Rambo, and Banquo’s Ghost
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Easter 3, Year B-- Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Becoming Human—Broiled Fish, John Rambo, and Banquo’s Ghost
Sometime before Holy Week I was scrolling through the new movie releases on Netflix and was struck by how many of the films were all about revenge. There’s Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych, Old Boy by Chan-wook Park, Gladiator, Mel Gibson’s Payback… the list goes on and on. It’s fair to say that the revenge flick is a genre unto itself with particular moves that we’ve all come to expect—the protagonist has something horrible happen to him or her, she plots her revenge, at some point all seems hopelessly lost, and finally she gets even with person who wronged her in a moment of delicious and (usually) bloody triumph.
I remember being at a birthday party as a kid where we were all taken to see Rambo. I can’t remember the ins and outs of the plot (are there ins and outs to the plot in a Sylvester Stallone film?), but what I do recall is that at the moment John Rambo exacted his revenge on the bad guys, the entire theatre erupted in a roar. I had never experienced anything like it, and I was terrified. I got a glimpse in that moment of something we come to see all too clearly as we get older—the thrill we get at seeing the wronged party triumph over the bad guys. All is right with the world and we hoot and holler.
For a slightly different take, consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth. After Macbeth has Banquo dispatched and is feasting with the other Lords in the hall, he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair, bloody face and all. This sets a distressed Macbeth off his food and he decides to retire early. But notice the assumption made here—that the wronged party (in this case Banquo) comes back angry and looking to exact his revenge on his killers. It’s simply not in the script that the wronged party would return to his or her persecutors and do anything else.
And yet, this is exactly what the Risen Jesus does. Last week, we encountered the disciples cowering behind a locked door “for fear of the Jews.” Jesus has been killed, and they are convinced that it was only a matter of time before their number is up too. But we miss the point if we stop there, for the disciples’ fear of the Jews is really just a projection of their own fears about betraying Jesus. Everyone flees. His closest disciple, the rock on whom the Church is founded, denies even knowing Jesus, and Jesus dies alone, mocked, taunted, humiliated and shamed on a garbage heap outside the city walls.
So the disciples’ fear is much more about their own betrayal of Jesus than it is concern over further reprisals. Being locked away in the upper room and barricaded behind the door is really a symbol of their spiritual state. There are stuck in a feedback loop of shame and fear. The only story they can imagine is one where they are punished for their abandonment of the one they called “Lord.” Like us, their minds are held captive by the hackneyed plots of old movie scripts where betrayal is automatically repaid in kind. If Jesus appears again, it must be for the purposes of taunting and terrifying at the very least. Like the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s banquet, Jesus’ coming back is a reminder of the depths of their betrayal and strikes fear and self-loathing into their hearts. It reminds them what they have done and that is about the last thing they want to consider. It’s a lot easier to be afraid of “the Jews” than to face ourselves. It’s a lot easier to curl up in a cowering ball in a locked room than to revisit the moment of their traumatic betrayal and learn from it.
But Jesus’ risen presence takes the disciples back to that traumatic moment to heal it. He helps them revisit the betrayal, see it clearly, to recognize their weakness and their need for a Savior to save them from themselves, and offers them forgiveness and peace, instead of recrimination. Without returning to that moment, the danger is that the disciples might remain locked in fear forever. These days we know lots more about the effects of trauma and the crucifixion is nothing if not traumatic. By returning to the disciples in the spirit of peace and forgiveness, Jesus breaks the hold the disciples’ desertion has over them and shows them a different ground from which to live. The cycle of fear, shame, revenge, and retributive violence is broken and in the process the disciples experience a newfound freedom from their self-recriminating stories, and their fear-based projections that keep them closed off from the world. They lose their old life, and something else begins to burble up.
Jesus’ return, then, embodies an entirely different way of being. This is the sheer gift of the resurrection to us. Jesus returns to us from outside of our usual frame of reference to free us from fear, self-blame, sorrow, guilt, and confusion. He shows us that the way God works is not the way of the Hollywood vengeance flick, or another version of a ghostly haunting. Jesus shows his wounds to the disciples and eats with them (I’m pretty sure I’d choose something other than broiled fish after all Jesus has been through!) in order to show them that what happened to him was real—his flesh was pierced, his back scourged, his appearance marred beyond recognition—but that even then humiliation, shame, death could not defeat love. Jesus returns as forgiveness to the disciples to free them up as witnesses to something other than cheering in a movie theatre when the bad guys get their so-called due. The disciples, little children of resurrection hope, the church, is called to live from a story that’s not just another version of the same-old-story of violence and revenge. God steps into human life to show us the bankruptcy of the old way of doing things and to show us what it really means to be human.
That’s the crucial thing to realize about the resurrection and the person of Jesus—that he was the only truly human being. As Walter Wink writes,
It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.
Suddenly, the resurrection becomes something that is not so much about other-wordly realities as what it actually means to live, here and now, as a community that is grounded in love rather fear, abundance instead of lack, forgiveness instead of revenge, peace instead of endless rivalry and violence. When we learn to live from the resurrection, to make the life of the Risen Christ our own, we are on the road to Emmaus, which is nothing other than road to becoming fully human.
That’s why the First Letter of John makes use of that lovely phrase—“Little children.” We are little children in the sense that we are called to make the resurrection the ground in which we are rooted. The First Letter of John is reminding us of the startling truth—that we are just beginning the project of creating a truly human human race. We are just beginning to learn what it means to abide in the peace, forgiveness, love, and mercy of God in Christ. That’s the work of discipleship—to learn to embody by grace in our flesh and bones and blood the peace and forgiveness Jesus reveals to the disciples. “What we will be has not yet been revealed,” John tells us. The question is whether we will co-operate with God’s grace in journeying into that new future, or whether we’ll hang out in the locked room of habit and fear watching re-runs of Sly Stallone.
When Jesus breaks into the claustrophobic upper room of the disciples’ fear and breathes peace upon their startled, incredulous faces, he presents them with a choice. They can learn to live from that peace, from that place where the powers and principalities of this world have been defeated and begin the journey into becoming a truly human community, or they can continue the play-acting at being human that is the stuff of all those movies. The same is true for us. The door has been opened and the locks broken off, but the choice, the free choice of how to live and whether we embrace the freedom that has been given to us, is ours. And that’s what the church is here for—to help us make the resurrection a reality we live from, and not just a fancy bit of poetry we hear about once a year. That’s why we have sacraments, immerse ourselves in the scriptures, pray daily, and serve the poor. All these things exist as means, practices, to help us put on the mind of Christ and make his life our own.
Our gospel passage for this day ends with those words—"You are witnesses of these things.” What do witnesses do? They tell other people about what they’ve seen and experienced. The Greek word for witness is μάρτυς (martyr)—witnesses testify to the death of a culture of death, to the collapse of the old system of revenge, and the cycle of violence. Witnesses are martyrs in that their lives die to the old ways of doing business—John Rambo and Banquo’s ghost. Witnesses announce, not only with their lips, but with their lives, a new world of resurrection hope that is unfolding itself in our lives. If we become people of the resurrection who have had their old stories about the themselves, God, and the world trampled down by the startling new story of the resurrected Jesus, then it’s our job to live this story out in community for others that the world might see another way to live. Jesus told the disciples to start where they were—Jerusalem. This is place is our Jerusalem. What would the world look like if we took seriously Jesus’ pronouncement that who we are is yet to be revealed? What would the world look like if we recognized that we are just beginning the project of becoming human? What would the world look like if we had more people breathing in peace and forgiveness instead of the stale air of tit-for-tat? That’s the adventure of the Christian life. That’s what it means to be an Easter people. Let’s make the journey together—the journey of unwrapping the gift that has already been given, the journey towards being truly human human beings.