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GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

2024.0414.B.Easter3.Dinner

[Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 31-7; Luke 24:36b-48]


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?.  That is the title of the 1967, American, romantic comedy about an interracial marriage, involving two white, liberal parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn).  Their daughter (played by Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s actual daughter) brings her fiancée home to meet her parents over dinner and conversation.  From the outset of the film, the daughter’s intention to marry this man is clear and was no secret to the parents, save for the fact that their future son-in-law (played by Sidney Poitier) is black.  Beyond the movie’s liberal social perspective, the deeper significance of the movie was that at that time (some of us may recall) interracial marriage was historically illegal in our country and in 1967 was still illegal in seventeen states.  Not until Loving vs. Virginia did the Supreme Court strike down the anti-miscegenation laws.  


On a personal note, my parents (solidly moderate Republicans of moral conscience – remember those dinosaurs?) – my parents went to see the movie.  I babysat my brothers.  When Mom and Dad came home from their night out, they were not their usual selves.  I recall sensing that they had been talking about what they had seen; and as it turned out they had been discussing the movie with a probing seriousness.  I can’t remember the actual sequence of events, but the upshot was this statement – one I remember deeply to this day.  With the three of us standing in the kitchen, my Mom spoke to me.  (She always handled my parents’ emotional work.).  She summarized the movie’s plot and then announced that if I ever decided to marry a black woman, the world would be against us; but they would not.


In retrospect, I continue to realize what a statement that was, what a risky and loving statement that was.  It moves me still because in 1967 this was socially a radical stance, and my parents were not radicals.  Undoubtedly, they had friends who would disapprove of such a relationship and perhaps disparage me and our family.  But in this simple movie, they saw a greater reality and were open to something new, to something that is now so strange – not so radical.  (Perhaps this is the reason that I notice how many interracial couples star in advertisements on television.)  Something has changed.  Something has opened up.  Something new has been seen.  And the impact of such a shift in our reality still reverberates among us.


This Eastertide, I have called us specifically to confront Jesus’ resurrection and to view it seriously and honestly.  At the risk of upsetting some, I have consciously challenged the familiar Easter tropes: namely, that Jesus’ resurrection is about the reality of “life after death” or that Easter shows that “we go to heaven when we die”.  To the extent that these familiar statements contain some derivative truth, they must not (in my opinion) take the central and essential place of what Jesus’ rising means, what it reveals.  Easter means that God’s love is stronger than fear and death; and in the reality of Jesus’ rising, we are returned to that life-giving love, reunited to that transforming God-life, to live this Easter life and to do so – now!  


In a liturgical year in which Mark furnishes us with the gospel content, today Luke provides the elements of the “Good News” because Mark’s account (as we have it) does not include any post-resurrection reports.  (Why might this be?).  So, for this year’s orbit around Jesus and his resurrection, with John’s gospel’s testimonies used, save for this day, what can we learn about Jesus’ resurrection and the Easter life it provides?  What difference does Jesus’ resurrection make – to us – now?


In Luke’s last chapter (the 24th), he provides in sequence three post-resurrection scenes.  The first stems from the empty tomb experience of the women, where the angel’s revealing question to them: “Why do you seek the living among the dead”.  The second scene follows immediately but from another location.  Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to their home in the village of Emmaus, when a stranger happened to join them.  He had overheard the couple’s intense conversation about the events surrounding Jesus, specifically those reports about his resurrection and appearances.  Cleopas and his wife Mary were perplexed and confused by all this news, at which the stranger interjected his comments and his biblical summary about the Messiah’s death and resurrection.  


Having invited the engaging stranger into their homes for a meal at table with them the stranger took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, at which point (in the breaking of the bread) they recognized the Risen One, who then vanished from their sight.

Luke’s  third scene (today’s gospel lesson) occurs back in Jerusalem, Cleopas and Mary having raced back to the Upper Room to add their experience of a risen Jesus to the accounts among the Eleven.  In the midst of the Emmaus villagers’ resurrection testimony, Jesus himself appeared once more in the Upper Room.  In spite of all the reports of his rising, Jesus’ appearance still causes his followers to be frightened and shocked.  Like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, they all stand locked-kneed with fear, as if silently repeating the lion’s desperate refrain: “I do believe in spooks.  I do believe in spooks!” 


In a reminiscence of “Doubting Thomas” in John [20:19-29], Luke’s version does not zero-in on Thomas but has Jesus showing the Eleven his wounds and explaining: “Don’t be upset, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over.  Look at my hands; look at my feet – it’s really me. Touch me.  Look me over from head to toe,  A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.”1  At the sight of the Resurrected One, with disbelief mixed with fear and wonder etched on their faces, Jesus, reading the room, pulls his “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” card, jump-shifting the entire scene with this riveting question: “Do you have any food here?”


Playing with this scene in my mind (as I like to do), I’d like to think that Philip – our guy – was working the grill in the Upper Room; and at Jesus’ inquiry, flipped him a piece of fish, which Jesus promptly and delightedly ate in a gulp.  I also fantasize that Philip, seeing Jesus devour the fish, quipped knowingly to his Lord and Master, “Hey, Jesus, you want fries with that?!”


“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”  


What does it mean, this resurrection of Jesus?  I hope we will continue to ask this question and to do so in light of the primary experience conveyed in the gospels.  One thing it means is that we do not have to wait until we die to have some heaven.  In Christ’s dying, death is destroyed.  That’s old language from the experience of the early church.  With death destroyed, that is, with death no longer being the definer of our lives, we are liberated to receive the life that God reveals in Jesus.  “God’s love is stronger than death, and to that love, to that eternal life, we are returned” – now – but incompletely.  As such, this life is not simply about “life after death”.  What Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates is that life on God’s terms has cracked the world’s life open, and we are given eyes to see the strains of heaven in our midst – now.


“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” is a threshold, over which we are invited to stride from what the world worships, from what is shrouded in fear and death, to what is of God whose presence generates new life; whose triumph over death provides reunion to what is separated.  At the very least, Easter speaks to the promise of hope –hope that there is much more to life -- our life -- than we can make of it.  As such, the Risen Jesus speaks to the God-life in our midst and to what awaits us as we go “from strength to strength”, receiving God’s new life bit by bit, more and more completely.


In closing, two focusing points.


The first comes from the last line of a poem I came across this past week.  That line, I think, describes beautifully and honestly the reality of Easter and our place in living its reality. Here is the line: “Now when we walk, we walk like in a dream.  Understanding nothing.  But knowing what it means.”2  There is a lot we don’t understand about Easter and resurrection life; but in spite of our limitations – both in our incomplete understanding and in our incomplete willingness to receive, we can still live in its meaning, tasting bits of the God-life, glimpsing eternity around us, sensing its liberating, transcendent, transforming effect.  Something new has opened up for us.


Today’s epistle makes the point in sharper terms: “Beloved, 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….”  In the meantime, we are called to go “from strength to strength” in the light of resurrection.


The second point comes from our Communion liturgy, specifically from what the Celebrant says as he or she distributes the consecrated bread into your hands, with these words:  “The Body of Christ; the Bread of heaven.”  There is a third phrase that can also be said.  Tellingly and appropriately, it is this: “Behold what you are.  Become what you receive”.

 

Christ is risen.  Like the total eclipse of the sun, God’s life has overshadowed what we know and even expect; and in that revelation, we can see the transforming effects of eternity in our midst.  We may not fully understand it, but its meaning is now and present in our lives.  Our faithful job now as church is to work together, helping one another to “behold” and to “become”.  Amen.

 

1. The Message. Luke 24:38-40

2. Paul Pastor. “Year of Wonder”

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