I sometimes wish that the disciples of Jesus were brighter people, especially when it comes to understanding and accepting Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In the Gospels, they are portrayed as being frightfully dull and terribly unimaginative. They don’t seem to realize that Jesus is alive, even when he confronts them face to face. Personally, I’d like to think that I am much brighter and far more imaginative than they were. I’d like to think, that upon greeting the risen Christ, that I’d say something like, “Hey Jesus, I knew all along that you were going to rise from the dead. Its good to see you again!” I am so filled with myself that I would never be a doubter. I’m a believer! I know these things! Well, now that I’m done being a liar, for the time being, at least, my honest heart tells me that I am no more of 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 of eternity. The old Wayne has passed away. (Isn’t it funny how we refer to being dead as having ‘passed away’ as if it were some sort of euphemism?), And because the old Wayne has passed away, there is a new Wayne to replace it. And that is a great and glorious and wonderful mystery that is beyond my ability to fully comprehend. And too often, I fail to live as if that is the truth.
That’s not OK, of course. I should live every day as if my life has been utterly transformed. And in order to do that I need to embrace the mystery of how that transformation takes place, and especially how it takes place on a daily basis in my life. For the most part, however, we human beings have a gidget or a gadget or a gizmo within us that absolutely interferes with our ability to accept mystery. Mystery is a problem. Mystery needs to be solved. We cannot abide mystery. We want our lives to be neat and orderly. We don’t want the tension that mystery brings into our lives. Mystery has to be fixed, or at least explained.
For Jesus’ disciples, and sadly, for far too many people living today, there was no mystery in death. Everyone knew about death. Death was the end of life. Death was the final event. And so, in our passage this morning, we’ve got two fellows, followers of Jesus, who are utterly heart-broken, filled with despair, and without any hope at all. And they tell that story of hopelessness so well. A stranger has joined them who seems to know nothing of the week’s events, but he is curious, just the same. After telling their story, they conclude it by saying, “But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” That’s it. Story over. Jesus is dead, there is nothing left to hope for. All is finished, death, the final enemy, has triumphed yet again.
And yet, in the breaking of the bread, there was a dramatic and joyful reversal of the two disciples’ hopelessness. The hands of Jesus, that had countless other times taken bread, blessed it, broken it and given it to his disciples, created a joyful moment of recognition. The stranger in their midst was Jesus himself.
And suddenly, everything is changed. Cleopas and his companion race back to Jerusalem, where they locate the other disciples, who are most likely still hiding out in the upper room where they had celebrated Passover with Jesus before he was crucified. And here, in this hiding spot, Cleopas and his companion encounter great joy among the disciples. The word among them was that Jesus was indeed alive. He had appeared to Simon. Jesus must in fact be alive.
But then, Jesus showed up. And the first thing Jesus said to them was “Peace be with you.” And they had no peace at all. Instead of hearing the words of Jesus, instead of receiving the blessing of peace, the disciples reacted with fear and with dread. They were startled and terrified, and they were convinced that they were seeing a ghost.
As stupidly as the disciples are behaving, this is where I can identify with them 100 percent. The disciples cannot believe that they have encountered a man who once was dead, but who now is alive. None of us here this morning have ever seen that. None of us here this morning have ever witnessed the death of a fellow human being, seen three days come and go, and then meet that person alive once again. It simply does not happen, and even though the disciples have witnessed Jesus raise people from the dead, none of that seems to be registering right now, and probably for good reason. And so Jesus is not alive. He is, instead, a ghost. Ghosts fit into the disciples’ belief system. For them, ghosts are real. And this isn’t the first time that they have supposed that Jesus was a ghost. And, guess what? Ghosts are easier to believe in than the possibility of resurrection and the ultimate defeat of death. Death is too strong, too powerful to be ultimately defeated. Ghosts are a very reasonable compromise.
But Jesus will not settle for being a ghost. Actually, he will not tolerate it. And so he offers himself up for inspection. Jesus says, “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 believe; still slow to receive the offered peace. 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 are feeling, and Luke has captured that feeling with perfection and honesty. It is a glorious mystery where the heart and the mind are wonderfully conflicted, and where resolution is not immediately forthcoming. There’s tension there, and the tension is very good.
And because the tension is very good, it is quite OK for us to experience the same tension that the disciples experienced. The tension of living with joyful disbelief is a great place to begin a life of faith.
On a number of occasions Jesus had been very clear with his disciples that he was to suffer and die and be raised on the third day. And very much in opposition to their own sensitivities, they watched him suffer and die. 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 expected. Crucifixion was a cruel way to die, and a horrible way to die, 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 alive and very much well, they don’t really 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 as normal a part of our lives as it was in the lives of Jesus’ disciples. But resurrection? Where does that fit? Is it hard to believe? Of course it is. Perhaps we don’t believe it at all, or maybe we’ve just given it a measure of nodding assent because it seems like it is the right thing to do. It is, after all a Christian thing; it is what Christians believe, for goodness sake. So yeah, we’ll nod at it and sing about it at Easter because that’s what Christians do.
And so if that’s who we are this morning, I suggest we try out this bit about disbelieving joy, or joyful disbelief, whichever one sounds best to us. And in that place we will discover that Jesus offers himself up for inspection, much in the same way that he offered himself up to his disciples. Jesus is always ready to be examined. Blind faith in him is no faith at all. Never, ever, settle for “God said it, I believe it, that’s good enough for me.” That’s one of the biggest cop-outs that the devil ever cast upon the Christian Church. It actually keeps us from believing. Under examination, the Risen Christ will become real to us, just as Jesus became real to his disciples.
The Christian faith doesn’t work without resurrection. Without a risen Lord, we are simply wasting our time and energy on a very foolish enterprise. Without resurrection, the Christian faith would have died a long time ago, because there would have been no reason to keep it alive. Without resurrection, the Christian church would have been gone by the end of the first century, because by then the lie that supposedly created the church would have been completely exposed. And more importantly, the Roman persecution in the first century would have killed the church, and killed it good. There is no explanation for the survival of the Christian church through and beyond persecution, other than that it was empowered by a risen Lord.
Today however, the Christian church lives, however battered and beaten it may be, precisely because it is empowered by a risen Lord. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, we all have very stupidly fallen prey to a hoax.
At the close of this passage, Jesus does something amazing for his disciples. He opens the Scriptures for them. And perhaps for the first time, the eyes of their hearts are opened, and they recognize Jesus for who he really is. Disbelief is replaced with joy, and then the disciples receive a command to fulfill a mission. That command still stands. The mission is on going. When our disbelief is replaced with joy, we, like the disciples of old, will become fully committed to fulfilling that mission. And in the fulfilling of the mission the Christian church will be fully alive, in glorious imitation of its living Lord.