Preaching on Creation: Third Sunday of Easter (April 14) in Year B (Ormseth12)

Eating Is Not Incidental Dennis Ormseth reflects on sharing the heavenly meal that is a “holy communion” between God and all God’s creatures, including ourselves.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024, 2027)
Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

It may feel a bit “out of place” on this Sunday which is also Earth Day (2012) to talk about heaven, but the texts give us reason to do so, precisely for the sake of our orientation to and care of the Earth. Again our perspective is shaped by noting the transformed relationship of the post-resurrection community of Jesus’ followers to the temple in Jerusalem, that place where, according to Hebrew cosmology, heaven and earth meet. In contrast to the apparent continuation of temple worship on the part of the post-resurrection community of disciples in last Sunday’s reading from Acts 4, the lesson this Sunday from Acts 3 more clearly reflects the state of tension that we might expect from the community’s awareness that in the course of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the temple had been displaced as the center of life in God’s presence in favor of Jesus’ own person.

As Ben Witherington notes, the sermon of Peter in the Portico of Solomon in the appointed verses was directed against the officials of the temple (Ben Witherington, “Third Sunday of Easter,” New Proclamation: Year B, 2003, Easter through Pentecost. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002, p 23). Additionally, the crowd to whom the sermon was delivered was drawn by the healing of a beggar who “used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple;” the crowd’s utter astonishment reflects the contrast between the man’s persistent pleas for alms at “the Beautiful Gate of the temple” and his complete restoration to health by Peter in “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 3:6-8). Furthermore, the sermon makes clear that the followers of Jesus have now appropriated several titles associated with worship in the temple for their confession of Jesus as Christ: the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus,” Peter proclaims. The officials of the temple, he charges, “rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15).

Particularly significant here is the use of the title “servant,” clearly an allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-14, who “shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” The idea that Jesus has already been glorified is the firm premise of Peter’s confidence that, if the people repent and turn to God, new ”times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord,” when Jesus, “who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” will come to them again (Acts 3:19-21; because the reading ends with verse 19, verses 20 and 21 should be added in order to provide a basis for the points being made here). Peter’s sermon thus envisions that the well-being once associated with the presence of God in Israel, formerly tied to the temple, will now instead be made available, through acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, not only to the people of Israel, but to all peoples, in accordance with the “covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:25).

The text assumes, irrespective of the fact that Jesus’ ascension will not yet have been observed in the calendar of the Church year, that Jesus is “in heaven.” The fulfillment of the promise to Abraham is linked to the return of the glorified Jesus from heaven. Today’s texts share this interest in the glorified Jesus who is in heaven: “Beloved,” writes the author of 1 John, “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” And the Gospel from Luke 24:36b-49, we want to suggest, provides the reader with an idea of how this evangelist, at least, envisioned how he will be seen to be.

The Gospel reading repeats the emphasis we have seen in the texts from the previous two Sundays of Easter on the bodily reality of the Jesus who appears to the disciples, an emphasis that we have identified as significant for understanding our relationship to creation. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes, by emphatically contradicting the thought that the disciples were “seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:37), Luke “is simply trying to assert the reality of Jesus personal presence” in continuity with the Jesus they knew prior to his crucifixion: “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” (Luke 24:39) (Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, p. 401). But as Johnson goes on to assert, Luke is also concerned to describe “the reality of Jesus’ presence” in “its difference from his former presence,” which will make him available to the community in the future:

“The disciples are filled with a mixture of terror and joy. And when Jesus speaks, it is not simply the same as “when he was with them” (24:44); now he is the commanding Lord. They worship him and he departs for heaven with hands lifted in blessing. Luke teaches the community that from now on, Jesus’ presence to them will be at such fellowship meals where they break bread as Jesus had taught them, read the Scriptures that speak of him, and remember his words” (Johnson, p. 404).

Thus, the Gospel reading offers us, we want to suggest, a vignette of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, which will be operative for them, even though Jesus is considered to be “in heaven.”

The Psalmist also helps us here with praise for God’s gift of “room,” in which the faithful whom the Lord has “set apart for himself” are gathered, and the “light of God’s face shine[s] upon [them] and he puts more gladness in their hearts “than when their grain and wine abound,” and where they can “both lie down and sleep in peace;” because the Lord alone can make one “lie down in safety” (Psalm 4:3-8).

In the context of these readings, we would argue, the “room” is heaven, if the reader will follow us in appropriating Norman Wirzba’s understanding of heaven as not primarily a location but rather a set of relationships: “what makes a place really a place” he writes, “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there.” Accordingly, it is . . .

“. . . not primarily the location that makes heaven what it is but the character of the memberships that are happening in it. It is the place we most want to be because the relationships that transpire there are life-giving, joyous, and peaceful. What makes the relationships heavenly is that God is present and known in them (John 17:3). As such, heaven is the ultimate and complete realization of Home, the place of perfect nurture and celebration.” (Norman Wirzba, Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14.)

Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his . . .

“. . . ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like, and thus also what God’s desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized” (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).

And therefore it is of particular interest that included in such “possibilities of embodiment,” according to Luke, is eating.

When Luke has Jesus ask for a piece of grilled fish, we suggest, he is not only providing a reminder of the many meals they have shared in the narrative of the Gospel. He means to make his readers aware, as Wirzba puts it, that “eating is not incidental to the expression of life as Christ reveals it.” How so? Eating, he argues,

“. . . can serve as a witness to the heavenly kingdom. Why? Because eating is the action whereby we share and strengthen life, celebrate blessings received, and enact fellowship. When we eat well with each other we perform an essential meaning of home. As Robert Karris puts it, ‘In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal: Following Jesus we learn to eat like he does so that we can move into the fullness of life he makes possible’” (Wirzba, p. 216).

The Gospel reading thus prompts us to ask with Wirzba, “will there then be eating in heaven?” While no one can give a definite answer, Wirzba allows, he thinks that “eating of some form will occur.” Why?

“Because eating is one of the most fundamental ways we know for enacting communion. Because eating affirms the resurrection of a body that is what it is because of its relationships with other bodies. Because eating is so deeply intertwined with life’s movements that to remove it would be to render living unintelligible to us. And because eating is a sharing in the primordial, eternal hospitality that is a mark of God’s Triune life. This is not to suggest that the eating characteristic of heavenly life is a direct continuation of the eating we do now. If our eating is to witness to heaven, it will need to be transformed by Christ. Insofar as we learn to co-abide with him, eating can become a sacrament, the daily sign that the world we call our garden, kitchen, and home is also the home of God” (Wirzba, pp. 216-17).

That we should eat with Jesus in heaven, and in the feast that anticipates heaven, in other words bears fully on the manner and consequence of our eating on earth.

Wirzba confirms the significance for our heavenly eating with Jesus for our orientation to earth and its care in this trenchant paragraph:

“Eating is not simply about the filling of a gustatory hole. It is also how we develop into particular kinds of people capable of Godly sensitivities, affections, responsibilities, and delights. The Eucharist teaches that when we eat together we share in God’s hospitable life. More exactly, we recognize, receive, and then extend to others the gifts of life that God so graciously gives. We discover that life is not a possession but a deep and profoundly mysterious reality we participate in. Table manners developed while eating together play a crucial role in equipping us to participate in the lives of each other with understanding, appreciation, and care. Jesus spent so much time at table with others precisely because it is around food that we come to a clearer self-understanding and a more honest estimation of the world as God’s creation and our place in it” (Wirzba, p. 228).

Luke’s story, he concludes,

“. . . enables us to see that eating serves the very important role of helping us discover the meaning and the requirements of our life together. . . [E]ating is the occasion through which we discover that we are creatures nestled within multiple memberships of creation altogether dependent on our creator God. It is the time when we honor, nurture, and celebrate membership. When we eat well, with Christ in mind, heart, and stomach, we recognize the grace and blessing and the mercy of these memberships, thereby (hopefully) becoming more graceful, grateful, and merciful ourselves. Around the table, people learn to live into God’s eternal self-offering life by offering themselves to each other and to the world. Eating Eucharistically can thus rightly be understood as a ‘rehearsal of heaven on earth’” (Wirzba, pp. 229-30; the quotation is from Samuel Wells, God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006, p. 197.)

Accordingly there is probably nothing we can do as important for Earth, as that we should share the heavenly meal that is a “holy communion” between God and all God’s creatures, ourselves included.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.