April 19, 2015
I sometimes wish that the disciples of Jesus had done a better job of believing that Jesus was alive after his resurrection. It seems like it took them forever to accept the fact that Jesus was alive, even when they were confronted with him face to face. I would like to imagine that I would have done a better job of it. I’d like to think that I’m a better believer than they were. I’m so filled with myself that I’d like to think that as soon as I saw the Risen Christ face to face that I would have dispensed with all doubt and that I would have abolished all disbelief. That’s what I’d like to think. But deep down, I also know better. In some respects, I am no more a believer in the resurrection of the dead than the disciples were. And that’s because too often, I fail to live my life as if I, myself, have been raised from the dead. I am a baptized believer in Jesus Christ. And that means, according to the Apostle Paul, that I have already died, that I have already been buried, and that I have already been resurrected to new life in Jesus Christ. I am a new creation, fully alive for all eternity. The old Wayne has passed away, the new Wayne has replaced it. And that’s a great and glorious and wonderful mystery that is beyond my ability to fully comprehend. But too often, I fail to live as if that is the truth.
But I suppose, to some degree, that that’s OK. We Christians are part of something that is much, much bigger and far more awesome than we are. We have, at the same time, a transcendent God who lives high in the heavens but who also dwells in our hearts. And yet, God’s true dwelling place is not some far, distant unknowable galaxy, but rather it is with us. God has chosen us as his dwelling place. And that also is a glorious mystery. Some day, when all of time has run its course, we will understand it fully. But for now, all we can do is find joy in the mystery of it all.
Our problem is that we don’t often find joy in mystery. We can’t accept it, we want to solve it. We want our lives to be neat and orderly. We don’t like the tension that mystery brings into our lives. We think of it as something that needs to be fixed, or at least explained
But for the disciples, and for far too many people living today, there was no mystery in death. Death was the end of life. It was the final event. As the two followers of Jesus made their way along the road to Emmaus, with their strange, yet companionable visitor, they made that abundantly clear. After telling their new friend about the events of the most discouraging week of their whole lives, they concluded their story by saying, “But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” End of story. Jesus was dead. What we had hoped to be, will not be. There is nothing left to hope for. It is over. Death, the final enemy, has triumphed yet again.
And the same was true that evening. As soon as Cleopas and the other follower of Jesus recognized Jesus when he broke bread with them, the two returned to Jerusalem, apparently with great joy. The hands of Jesus that had countless other times taken bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples, led Cleopas and the other follower of Jesus to believe that Jesus was indeed alive. And when these two arrived in Jerusalem and found the place where the disciples were gathered, they also, apparently, encountered great joy among the disciples. The word among the disciples was that Jesus was indeed alive! He had appeared to Simon. That should have counted for something!
But then, Jesus showed up. And the first thing Jesus said to them was “Peace be with you.” And instead of hearing those words of peace, instead of receiving that tremendous blessing, the disciples recoiled fear! They were startled and terrified, and the first thing that came to their minds was that they were seeing a ghost.
What’s going on here? Cleopas and his friend arrived with the news that Jesus is alive, the disciples have already received word that Jesus is alive, they have heard that Jesus has appeared to Simon, and yet they recoil from Jesus in horror and suppose that he is a ghost! When the Risen Lord shows up, they don’t even believe what they are seeing with their own eyes. They don’t believe that it really is Jesus.
And they don’t believe, because resurrection is something that they cannot comprehend. They cannot grasp the concept that one could be dead, that one could be three days in the tomb, and yet after that be alive. And so Jesus is not alive. He is instead, a ghost. At least ghosts fit into their belief system. Ghosts are real. Ghosts are something that they can put their hands on, so to speak. Ghosts are easier to believe in than the ultimate defeat of death. Death is too strong, too powerful to be ultimately defeated, and so ghosts are a reasonable compromise.
And so Jesus offers himself up for inspection. Jesus offers the blessed peace of understanding. He has already pronounced peace upon them, now he will give his disciples the opportunity to experience that peace. Jesus says to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 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.”
And yet, even with this invitation, the disciples are still slow to receive the offered peace. They are still slow to believe that Jesus is alive. Verse 41 is almost impossible to translate into English. Disbelief and joy are nearly mutually exclusive. They are almost impossible to put into the same sentence and have them make any sense at all. And yet, there they are, right in front of us: two very conflicting emotions and states of mind, simultaneously at work in the disciples’ lives.
Are they experiencing joyful disbelief, or are they disbelieving with joy? It doesn’t really matter. It is how they were feeling, and Luke has captured that feeling with perfect and complete honesty. I suppose that their hearts were elated that they were seeing Jesus, but their minds were still stubborn to believe that it was really him.
But because Luke was honest when he described the disciples’ feelings, we can be honest about our own feelings. Perhaps we can identify with the disciples. The tension of living with joyful disbelief is a great place to begin a life of faith, because no one can stay there for very long. Some resolution must come of it. And it is only Jesus who can bring that resolution about.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus’ disciples were human, just like we are. They had their issues just like we do. It just might be that their slowness to come to faith can be an encouragement to us. On a number of occasions, Jesus had told his disciples that he was to suffer and die and be raised on the third day. They heard these words with their own ears. And they watched him suffer. And they watched from a safe distance as Jesus was strapped to the cross and nailed into place. Some of them had even seen him breathe his last. And others, the woman among them, had witnessed his body being placed in the tomb. And so they understood suffering and death. And as terrible as it was to see their friend suffer and die, they knew that suffering and death was a part of everyone’s life. It was normal, it was expected. Crucifixion was cruel and unusual, but it was still suffering and death.
Resurrection, however, was another thing altogether. It was not normal. And so even though the disciples are seeing Jesus before them, and very much alive, they really don’t have any category to put that new reality into, and so they are slow to believe.
We see suffering and death all the time. We hear about it in the news and we witness it in the lives of our friends and loved ones. Suffering and death is a normal part of our lives as it was in the lives of the disciples. We share that with them and with all of humanity. But resurrection…Where does that fit? Is it hard to believe? Of course it is. Perhaps we don’t believe it at all, maybe we’ve just given a measure of nodding assent to it because that’s what Christians do. We talk and sing and preach about the resurrection. That’s Christian stuff.
If that’s the case with us this morning, I suggest that we allow ourselves to come to the place of disbelieving joy, or joyful disbelief, whichever we prefer. When we put ourselves in that place, we will discover that Jesus offers himself up to us for inspection, pretty much in the same way that he offered himself up to his disciples. Jesus is always willing to be examined. Blind faith in him is no faith at all.
The good news is that if we put ourselves in the place of joyful disbelief, we won’t stay there for very long. Under examination, the Risen Christ will become real to us. One of the blessings of knowing the Risen Christ is that we will discover that we are more alive ourselves.
We know that we have suffered. Everyone here this morning has suffered. But with Christ, we have also died. And wonder of wonders, with Christ we have also been raised to new life for all of eternity. We are participants in our Lord’s resurrection.
The Christian faith doesn’t work without resurrection. Without a Risen Lord, we are wasting our time and money on a very foolish enterprise, that was, at the very best, founded upon a very carefully crafted and equally deceptive lie. If Jesus us not risen from the dead, we Christians are most to be pitied of all persons. It is the epitome of stupidity.
But Jesus is alive. And if Jesus lives, so do we. The old hymn says, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” And it is in our hearts where we must live. If we do not live as resurrected persons, then Jesus does not live at all.
At the close of this passage, Jesus does something amazing for his disciples. He opens up the Scriptures for them. And in the opening of the Scriptures, their disbelieving joy becomes pure joy only. The disbelieving part is vanquished. They discover the truth, and the tension of their joyful disbelief is resolved.
The beauty of all of this is that we too, can open the Scriptures. Opening the Scriptures is not a novel concept at all. Anyone can do it. And in opening the Scriptures, we too, will find truth and joy, and belief.