One of the joys for me of being the mother of a young child was reading together every night. When Joseph Henry began second grade we embarked upon the Harry Potter series. By the end of that school year we had finished all seven books, a chapter a night.
I still occasionally go back and reread those books, and every time I notice something new. I find it astonishing that so many fundamentalist Christians have banned those books from their homes.
To me, they are full of Christian themes and allusions, a reflection of the deep Christian faith of their author, JK Rowling.
The last book in the series is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
According to wizarding lore, the deathly hallows are three objects that give the owner protection from or power over death. One of the hallows is the Resurrection Stone, not to be confused with the Sorcerer’s Stone from the first book of the series.
The Sorcerer’s Stone gives its owner immortality. The Resurrection Stone’s power goes beyond that; it brings people back from the dead.
Legend says that the wizard who first owned the Resurrection Stone could not wait to use it. He hurried home, took out the stone, and turned it three times in his hand.
“To his amazement and delight, the figure of the girl he had once hoped to marry, before her untimely death, appeared at once before him,” the book says.
But the wizard’s amazement and delight at seeing his fiancée again were short lived. “She was sad and cold, separated from him by a veil,” the book says. “Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered.
“Finally the man, driven mad with hopeless longing, killed himself so as truly to join her.
The Resurrection Stone led not to life, but to death.
The allure of the resurrection stone is something we all can understand. Who has not longed to call back someone from death – a spouse or parent or child or friend? To see them, touch them, talk to them?
But even in the world of Harry Potter – full of ghosts, whimsical creatures, and magic, death is final. As Harry’s friend Hermione reminds him, wizards and witches can do magic, but they are still human, and humans die. No magic can change that grim truth.
Jesus’ disciples, like all humans, are fully aware of that grim truth, which is why they are confused and terrified by the things they have heard on this Sunday evening after the death of their beloved friend and teacher.
First, they heard from the women early that morning that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that angels told them that Jesus was no longer dead, but had risen. As Luke’s gospel says, “These words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
But then that evening two more of Jesus’ followers, Cleopas and his companion, arrive to tell them that they have seen Jesus, that he walked and ate with them on the road to Emmaus.
Then, in the middle of that story, Jesus himself appears among the gathered disciples and says, “Peace be with you.”
Far from being joyful at this unexpected appearance from one they thought dead, the disciples are terrified, thinking they are seeing a ghost.
“I’m not a ghost,” Jesus reassures them, inviting them to touch his hands and feet, to feel him, to see that he is alive, that he is real. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have,” he tells them.
With this assurance the disciples’ fear turns to joy and wonderment.
And then comes my favorite part of the story.
In the midst of the joy, the wonderment, the amazement; in the midst of the most magnificent event that any human could possibly imagine, Jesus, back from the dead, looks at his friends and asks – “Do you have anything here to eat?”
What a wonderfully human moment.
The Bible doesn’t offer explanations of the resurrection. We don’t know how it happened. We don’t know exactly what form Jesus takes in this new life. People who knew him in his earthly existence often fail to recognize him after the resurrection.
He has a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t kind of quality – disappearing at the moment Cleopas recognizes him on that road to Emmaus, suddenly appearing inside locked rooms and then just as suddenly vanishing.
Obviously there is a difference between this post-resurrection Jesus and the Jesus who lived before the crucifixion.
But just as obviously, this is no ghost, no apparition, no hallucination. This is not the result of magic, like the Resurrection Stone in Harry Potter. No veil separates this risen Jesus from his friends, this Jesus is not sad and cold, yearning to go back among the dead.
The disciples can touch him, feel him, laugh in joy with him, and they can eat with him.
Something is different, to be sure, even mysterious. But this Jesus is most definitely alive.
And it seems significant that of all the things Jesus could have said and done in that room with his first terrified, then joyful friends, he first asks them for food.
In her book Take This Bread, writer Sara Miles says that she believes that the reason Jesus rose from the dead was to eat with his friends again.
Indeed, just as food – feeding people and eating with them – was an important part of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion, it also plays a prominent role in his post-resurrection appearances.
He is recognized on the road to Emmaus as he breaks bread with Cleopas. He shows up on the beach one morning to cook breakfast for the disciples who have been out fishing all night.
“All of this points to a force stronger that the anxious formulas of religion,” Miles says, “a radically inclusive love that accompanied people in the most ordinary of actions – eating, drinking, walking – and stayed with them, through fear, even past death.”
“It seems pretty clear,” Miles adds. “If I want to see God, I can feed people.”
There is great truth in that statement. That is why so much of church life centers around food.
A table – the altar – is at the center of our worship and gathering around it each Sunday to be spiritually fed by the sacramental bread and wine is at the heart of our faith.
Moving from this table to the one in the parish hall around which we gather for coffee hour is also a sacramental act, taking part in the great biblical mandate of hospitality.
Food is central to other parts of Christian life, too, of course, We take food to one another in times of trouble or grief.
And food is one of the primary ways we reach out beyond the walls of the church. We fill the red wagon in the narthex with food that is taken to a local food bank.
We cook and serve dinner several times a year for people at Holy Comforter, a church with many parishioners who live in group homes, for whom food is not something to take for granted.
We periodically make sandwiches and bag lunches to distribute at Church of the Common Ground, which serves homeless people in downtown Atlanta.
Beginning this afternoon the table in the parish hall will become a dining room table for two families who will be making this place their home for the next week. Many of you will be preparing the food for that table, or sitting with them to eat.
I think one of the most moving moments of my time at St. Dunstan’s was last summer when we hosted a Ramadan feast for the Dallous, a family who has sought refuge here from Syria. We gathered together and shared food as common children of Abraham.
Food, of course, is a necessity for life. As the sign on the Unitarian Church I pass every day says this week “Everyone needs to eat; but not everyone can.” Giving food to people who don’t have enough is the most basic and essential form of ministry.
But food also grounds us, binds us together.
Sara Miles says the first thing she knew of Jesus was tasting him in her mouth at the Eucharist.
“All that grounded me were those pieces of bread,” she writes. “I was feeling my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth and working out from there.
“I couldn’t start by conceptualizing God as an abstract ‘Trinity’ or trying to ‘prove’ a divine existence philosophically. It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of incarnation in its grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected.”
Sometimes Christianity, especially when we are talking about mysterious, unexplainable things like the resurrection can be too spiritual, too ethereal, too vague.
That’s why Jesus starts with food. Then he moves into words, explaining the scripture. And then he sends his disciples out into the world to witness to the things he has told them.
Surely there is mystery in our faith. But Christianity is at heart an earthy, material, fleshy faith. The incarnation, God made flesh, a God who both eats with us and feeds us, is at its center – even when we are talking about the resurrection.