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 am 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 is 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. And that means, according to the Apostle Paul, that I am a new creation, fully alive for all eternity. The old Wayne has passed away; the new Wayne has replaced it. And that is a great and glorious and wonderful mystery that is beyond my ability to comprehend. But too often, I fail to live as if this is the truth.
But I suppose, to some degree, that that is OK. We who follow Jesus 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 in some far, distant unknowable galaxy, but rather, it is with us. God has chosen us as his dwelling place. And that is also 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, though, is that we do not often find joy in mystery. We can’t accept mystery, we want to solve it. We want our lives to be neat and orderly and predictable. We don’t like the tension that mystery brings into our lives. We think that mystery is something that needs to be fixed, and we will go all kinds of crazy trying to fix it.
But for the disciples, and for far too many people living today, there is no mystery in death. Death was and is the end of life. Death was and is 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 this abundantly clear. After telling their new friend about the events of the most discouraging week of their whole lives, they concluded their sad tale 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.
But, and all of creation shivers now, as soon as Cleopas and the other disciple recognized Jesus when he broke bread with them, the two returned to Jerusalem with great joy in their hearts. Those hands of Jesus, that had countless other times, taken bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it with his disciples, became the evidence of their resurrected Lord in their midst. And when they arrived in Jerusalem, there was also great joy. But what kind of joy was it? I’m not sure. It is a bit of a mystery.
But then, without any announcement at all, Jesus simply showed up. And the first thing that Jesus said to them was, “Peace be with you.” And instead of hearing those words of peace, instead of being overcome with shivers of genuine joy, the disciples recoiled in fear! They were startled and terrified, and they supposed that they were seeing a ghost!
Why are these people behaving so much like human beings? Aren’t they the very disciples of Jesus who have the word “Saint” as a new first name? And now, they don’t even believe what they see with their very 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, one could be three days in the grave, and yet, after that, be alive. And so Jesus is not alive. He is, instead, a ghost. And fortunately, ghosts fit into the disciples’ belief system. Ghosts are real. Ghosts are something that they can put their hands on, so to speak. Ghosts are much easier to believe in, especially when we’re talking about the ultimate defeat of death. Death is too strong, too powerful to be ultimately defeated, and so ghosts are a reasonable compromise. Half way is better than nothing at all, don’t you think?
And so Jesus offers himself up for inspection. 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.”
Even with this wonderful open invitation, the disciples are slow to respond. 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: two very conflicting human emotions and states of mind, simultaneously at work in the disciples’ lives.
So let’s try to unpack them a bit. Are the disciples experiencing joyful disbelief, or are they disbelieving with joy? It doesn’t really matter. It was how they were feeling, and Luke has captured that feeling with perfect and complete honesty. Perhaps Luke is trying to tell us that the disciples were elated in their hearts, but still skeptical in their minds. I can understand that tension. Oftentimes, my mind is slow to catch up with my heart. And I don’t believe that I am alone in this.
The disciples’ slowness of faith can quite possibly become a source of encouragement to us. On a number of occasions, Jesus had made it plain to his disciples that he must suffer and die, and be raised on the third day. 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, principally the women, had seen him being deposited in the tomb. As terrible as it was to see their beloved Jesus suffer and die, they knew that suffering and death was a normal part of everyone’s life. 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 a very much alive Jesus standing before them, they really don’t have any existing category in their lives, to put that new reality into, and so they are slow to believe, and so are we.
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. In this respect, we identify with every human creature who has ever lived, is now alive, or who will ever live in the future. But what about resurrection, where does that fit? Is it hard to believe? Of course it is. Perhaps, deep down, we don’t believe it at all. Perhaps, like the disciples, we don’t have a life category into which resurrection can fit.
If that is the case, I suggest that we consider the place of disbelieving joy, or joyful disbelief, whichever we prefer. If we can do this, Jesus will offer himself up for our inspection, in the same way that he offered himself up to his disciples. Jesus is always willing to be examined. Blind, unexamined faith is no faith at all.
We know that we have suffered. Everyone has suffered. And, with Christ, we have also died. And, glory upon glory, with Jesus, we have also been raised from the dead. We are participants in our Lord’s resurrection.
Our faith does not work without resurrection. Without a risen Lord, we are wasting our time and our money on a very foolish enterprise, that can only have been founded upon lies and a clear intention to deceive. We are fools for having fallen for it.
But Jesus is alive. And if Jesus lives, so do we. And because he lives, we must live as the resurrected people that we are. We must always be bringing life and light into this dark and dying world. There is much hatred in this world, even among the resurrected followers of Jesus. That hatred must be banished from our hearts if we have any hope of living as resurrected persons. We serve a God who loves the world and all who live in it. This world desperately needs the light and the life and the love that we can bring to it.
An amazing thing happens at the close of this passage. Jesus opens up the Scriptures for his still struggling, still skeptical disciples. And in the Scriptures, those disciples saw the light and the love and the life that had been God’s plan from the beginning of the world, in the person of his son Jesus Christ. And the beauty of this is that we, too, can open up the Scriptures. And in those words we will find the power not only to live resurrected lives in this dark and dying and hateful world, but also to share the love, and life and light that has filled us to overflowing because of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Go forth in that light and love and life. It is the road home to Jesus.