Seeing and believing

The Revd Naomi Gardom


Sung Eucharist

Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus said to them, ‘You are witnesses of these things.’

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am a big fan of the Golden Age of detective fiction. Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – all of these occupy a significant place in my heart, and, less conveniently, on my bookshelves. I would call it a guilty pleasure, if I could bring myself to feel any guilt about it. There’s one recurring trope in those novels, however, which slightly sours my enjoyment of them: scenes in which an innocent onlooker to the crime is questioned about their recollection of events, either by our hero or by a bumbling police detective. Perhaps I have a singularly unretentive memory, but I’m always staggered by how much detail these witnesses are supposed to be able to reproduce: precise descriptions of dress, appearance, timbre of voice, and verbatim reports of conversations are produced, much to the aid of those of us trying to work out who dunnit. While it’s very helpful for the plot, it is never quite believable.

Our gospel reading today, from nearly the very end of Luke, plays around with ideas of witnessing and eye-witness testimony, as Luke brings the first half of his narrative to a close, before recounting the early days of the Church in the book of Acts. Our reading follows immediately after the encounter between the risen Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus, in which they walk together talking intently for the seven-mile journey, but they only finally recognise him when he takes bread, blesses and breaks it. These are the kind of witnesses I think I would be: unobservant, wrapped up in my own concerns, only becoming aware of the importance of what was happening when it was shoved down my throat. These disciples return immediately to Jerusalem, where they join up with the disciples in today’s passage.

Indeed, they are still talking about what has happened when Jesus makes another appearance. What would that discussion have been like, I wonder. Perhaps it would have had some of the same features of all conversations among the bereaved: an air of stunned resignation or angry denial, some hastening on to comforting platitudes, others already reminiscing, an air both of lethargy and restlessness. Added to this is the confusion of the accounts of something strange having happened to Jesus’ body – is this yet another tragedy and complication for them to deal with?

Then mysteriously, irrepressibly, he is in the midst of them, saying ‘Peace be with you.’ Unlike the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they do recognise him, but they can’t believe their eyes. They think he must be a ghost, a cruel mirage of their still dead friend. And so Luke proceeds to write an uncompromisingly materialistic account of the risen Lord: ‘look at my hands, look at my feet. It is I, me, myself, the same person, not a ghost or a fake. Touch me, come close, I smell the same as before. Here, feel the roughness of my hands in yours.’ Their lethargy gone, the disciples can hardly believe it for joy, but what clinches it is that the Lord shares food with them – as he did the night he was betrayed, as he did so many times on the road, as he did with tax collectors and sinners, as he did with five thousand, he does again now.

Why is Luke so insistent on the physical reality of Jesus’ resurrection? Why does is matter so much? It is the culmination of layers of eye-witness testimony to the reality of the resurrection: first the women at the tomb, then Peter, then the pair on the Emmaus road, and now this. Not just sight, but touch and voice and all the senses confirming that this is the Lord.

And this kind of witnessing is a vital part of the resolution of Luke’s gospel. Without it, the story is incomplete, because the disciples had witnessed a murder. Not a decorous, country-house poisoning like the ones in my detective novels, but a brutal and pointless lynching, with ritual humiliation, by the hostile power under which they were living. As they sat together discussing the horror of the last few days, the pain and fear of this would have been written into their bodies, cortisol and adrenaline still coursing through them, flashbacks haunting them. They would not, could not, forget this trauma, but perhaps they might be in a position to heal from it.

In trauma theory, it has been suggested that witnessing, bearing witness, is a key part of the process of integrating traumatic memories, such that healing can occur, healing both of mind and body. This witnessing has two aspects to it: the sufferer has to be able to bear witness to what has happened, to express it to someone who will listen. And then that person has to bear witness in their turn, to demonstrate that they have truly listened. The trauma is heard, then held, then integrated, and finally it becomes the site of new green growth. Jesus says to them, ‘You are witnesses of these things.’ He acknowledges what they have seen, and through his physical presence among them, shows them the possibility of healing.

In our reading from Acts, we see the outworking of this green growth, in Peter’s speech to the astonished crowd. He is doing what the Church still seeks to do, what we are called to do: to bear witness to the triumph of life over death, with our words, our actions, our lives, our bodies. Yes, we are called to proclaim, death is a reality, but life is the greater reality. That is why the ultimate form of witnessing is martyrdom, a witnessing with one’s whole life to the triumph of life, though most of us are called to the far more laborious task of daily testimony through our ordinary actions and relationships.

How can we do this, when we don’t have what the disciples had? We cannot look at Jesus’ hands or at his feet. We cannot touch them. We cannot share grilled fish with him. But we can hold his body, given for us, in our hands. We can eat his body, given for us, and drink his blood, shed for us. And we can bring our own brokenness into his presence – our own hands, wounded by what we have done and what has been done to us, hold him. Our own feet, footsore, carry us to receive him. We can witness, in this Eucharist, to his presence among us saying ‘Peace be with you.’ And then we can go out, to be witnesses to that presence, to that peace, in the world. Amen.