36While 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. 44Then 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.
The powers of death have so shaped our conception of the world that we often struggle to recognize resurrection life when it springs forth among us. This is particularly true, I think, for those of us who have been centered in the structures of power and privilege such that we can imagine no other possible future than the one promised by the Empire.
The sequence of resurrection appearances in Luke’s Gospel bears witness to this reality. It is the eleven disciples Luke names as Jesus’s apostles (Luke 6:13-16) who have the hardest time grasping the world-changing events of the resurrection. It takes Luke three full stories to describe the process of the Eleven coming to grasp that Jesus was indeed alive and the world forever changed. According to Luke, awareness of the resurrection comes first to the women, then to some previously unnamed disciples, and then only belated to the Eleven, who had believed themselves to be the true bearers of the ministry of Jesus.
In the first story (Luke 24:1-12), heavenly messengers appear to the women who had followed Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and an untold number of “other women with them” (24:10). The angels open up the scriptures to them, explaining that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Yet when the women return to the Eleven, the apostles consider the women’s report to be but “an idle tale” (24:11).
Yet, according to Luke, women had always been crucial to the life and ministry of Jesus, from Elizabeth and Mary, to Anna the prophetess, to the sisters Martha and Mary, to Mary Magdalene. That the annunciation of Jesus’s birth had long ago been made to a woman (Luke 1:26-38) should have been a clue to the male disciples that the annunciation of his resurrection would also be given to women. And yet they did not believe them.
In the second story (Luke 24:13-35), Jesus walks along with two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, his identity unbeknownst to them. This time Jesus reveals himself to two peripheral disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed companion, who were not counted among Jesus’s eleven closest followers. At first the two fail to recognize him, even as Jesus interprets the scriptures for them—unlike the women at the tomb who had understood right away (Luke 24:8). Yet when they invite Jesus to dinner and he breaks bread for them, their eyes were opened and they recognized him (24:31).
Yet the Eleven didn’t believe them either.
This week’s lectionary passage begins just as Cleopas and his companion finish telling the Eleven about their encounter with Jesus on the road. The text tells us that “While they were talking about this,” Jesus himself appeared among them (24:36). Yet despite having heard the women’s story of the tomb and Cleopas’ story of the road to Emmaus, the Eleven cannot grasp that it is the resurrected Jesus who stands before them. Terrified, they think they are seeing a ghost. They cannot countenance that the power of life has overcome the dark shadow of death.
Curiously, Jesus does not begin by explaining the scriptures to them, as he had done with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and as the angels had done with the women at the tomb. Instead, he begins by showing them his hands and feet. It is as though he understands that those who have been centered in the power structure cannot grasp the truth of the resurrection because they yet believe the Empire’s narrative is the only possible reality. Those on the periphery—the women and unnamed disciples—already recognize that the imperial narrative has failed because it has not served them. They are freed to see experience the resurrection that now encounters them in the risen Christ.
But for the Eleven, Jesus begins with his body. Sensing their doubt, he shows them his hands and his feet, saying,
Look 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. (24:39)
In the exchange, Jesus insists that they encounter his physical body. In a single verse, Jesus twice instructs the disciples to “see” (eidon), accompanied by “touch” (pselafao) and “observe” (theoreo). These are experiential verbs emphasizing the physical presence of Jesus in their midst.
For the Eleven, coming to grasp the reality of the resurrection Gospel means paying attention to bodies. It means experiencing the world around them, not through their own narratives of how the world is, but through the body of one who had experienced death at the hands of the Empire. They experience resurrection not in their own reading of the scriptures but in the bodies of those who have suffered at the hands of the Empire.
Yet, even after touching his body, the Eleven remain in disbelief and wonder (24:41). Recognizing this, Jesus asks for a bite to eat (24:41). The disciples give him a piece of broiled fish, which he eats in front of them. As with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, table fellowship is necessary to recognizing the truth of the Gospel.
It is only at this point that Jesus begins to explain to the Eleven what the women and the peripheral disciples on the road to Emmaus had already understood—that Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures. Jesus explains to them that everything that has happened has already been revealed in “Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (24:44). Only after experiencing his body and sharing food with him were the minds of the Eleven opened to understand the scriptures.
So too, perhaps, it is for us. Those of us who occupy centers of power often have the most difficulty grasping the possibilities of resurrected life. We have the most difficulty understanding that a narrative other than Empire’s is possible, for we have been centered within it. We struggle to recognize an alternative reality of abundance and new life working its way in from the edges of the imperial structure.
Yet, as liberation theologians have long told us, God is most easily recognized outside official systems of power. Resurrection is at work among those at the periphery long before it is recognized by those in the center. Those who already know that the narrative of the Empire has failed are able to grasp the possibility of an alternative Gospel of resurrection. Those who know that the Empire functions in death can more readily bear witness to the God who brings forth new life.
For those of us who find ourselves at the center of power structures—because of the way the Empire values our bodies, our gender expression, our citizenship, our academic credentialing—this text comes as both warning and invitation. It warns us against overconfidence in our own perception of things, for we, like the Eleven, may have the most difficulty grasping the good news of the Gospel. The more we sit comfortably in our centeredness, the less we understand about the Gospel.
Yet this text is also an invitation. It is an invitation to listen to the tales of those who have seen Jesus at the tomb without dismissing them as idle gossip. It is an invitation to hear the testimony of those who have supped with him along the road, despite their being unknown to us. It is an invitation to acknowledge the bodily witness of those who have borne the brunt of the Empire’s deathly violence. It is an invitation to break bread with those who are unfamiliar to us.
Only then can we return to the scriptures. Only then can we see the power of the resurrection at work transforming the world.