Sunday, April 19, 2015

Disbelieving for Joy

Luke 24:36-48
Easter 3
April 19, 2015
William G. Carter

Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 

One year, Easter came on a beautiful spring day. The snow had long been melted, the flowers were blooming, and the sun was shining bright. After a long Lent, everybody was feeling lifted up. The crowd was enthusiastic, the music had been spectacular. It was a really good celebration.

As I finished greeting people, I noticed one of our part-time attendees out on the corner. He was having a smoke. I went out and we chatted a bit. “Thanks for the service today,” he said, “it was glorious.”

“Yes,” I replied, “it’s always a great day when the Presbyterians are on their best behavior.”

“Sure is,” he said. “On a day like this, you can almost feel like it’s all true.” Now what do you think about that? Easter was the biggest day of our year and a doubter had sneaked in among us.

I suppose we could train our ushers to be more careful. Perhaps there should be a short entrance exam for those who show up: do you believe the Resurrection really happened, yes or no? Then you can have a really good seat, somewhere in the back. Those who aren’t so sure will be brought right down front, where they can feel the heat from the preacher’s nostrils.

After all, Easter lies at the heart of everything that the church has to say – and to think there would be some here who doubted? Can you believe it? Why, that would be just like the early church!

Perhaps the most unbelievable thing about the Easter story is that many who first heard it found it unbelievable. All the Gospels report the doubts. In the Gospel of John, there is a lot of confusion around the empty tomb. Simon Peter looks in and scratches his head, Mary Magdalene is sure the body was stolen, Doubting Thomas says, “I won’t believe until I put my finger in the nail holes.” Not a lot of faith there.

Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus ran away in fear, and didn’t say anything to anybody. Matthew said that, even in the presence of the Risen Lord, “some doubted.”

And then there’s this final chapter of Luke. The women go to the tomb of Jesus and find it empty. They hear the witness of the angels and return to tell the eleven disciples – who doubt them, who dismiss it as an “idle tale.” Later that day, two disciples are walking to Emmaus when Jesus joins up with them. They don’t recognize him as they talk. Suddenly they perceive him when he breaks the bread but then he vanishes.

The group reconvenes that night in Jerusalem. The stories are flying around the room. Nobody knows what to think – and suddenly, Jesus is right there, with all of them too. They couldn’t believe it. They thought they were seeing a ghost, and he confronts them: “Why are you scared? Why do you doubt? A ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like me.” And Luke says, “They disbelieved for joy.”

What does it take to believe?

What I like about Luke’s story is that it doesn’t prove anything. I like that; that’s the way it is. You can tell somebody something, and it’s your word against theirs. You can show them scars and nail prints, but it may not convince them of anything. In fact, you can go to a whopping big Easter service, with a big crowd and a lot of brassy singing, then step outside for a smoke and say, “It almost feels like it’s true.”

I like Luke’s story because there’s a little bit of comedy in it. Jesus comes and says, “You got anything to eat?” He’s like a hungry teenager coming home from soccer practice, looking to raid the refrigerator. He is hungry. He wants some food.  

I imagine what the disciples do not say: “Well, Jesus, we were just listening to how you were up in the little town of Emmaus. You were talking to two of us on the road, and you were giving them heartburn as you explained the scriptures. They invited you into their home for something to eat, and you took the bread and broke it, and they saw you, but then you left before you had any bread. Of course you’re hungry.”

It’s an unusual little touch. He says, “Do you have anything to eat?” What a surreal thing to say! Apart from the Last Supper, it is about the only time we hear of Jesus having something to eat. Obviously the ghost is not a ghost. They put a piece of grilled fish in his wounded hands. They watch carefully to make sure he can chew, to make sure they can’t see the bite of fish go down his esophagus into his stomach.

It reminds me of that bad joke that Jimmy Connors used to tell when he was the mayor of Scranton. The mayor told a lot of bad jokes as he made his rounds at the banquet circuit. Here is one that I remember: A skeleton goes into a bar and says, “Give me a beer and a mop.”

I don’t know what is more frightening: that Jesus could appear after his death like a ghost, or that he is alive again and munching on a piece of tilapia. No, this is not a ghost. He has an appetite. He hasn’t had anything to eat since that big Passover meal on Thursday night. But still, what in the world is this? He appears and disappears at will, and in between, he’s hungry? No wonder the disciples don’t know what to think.

They are hidden away in a borrowed room. They are hearing reports how Jesus was not in his tomb, that he appeared seven miles away, and now he stands among them and says he’s hungry? What in the world is all this about?

And that’s when he tells them: “Remember what we talked about when I was with you before? I’ve told you ahead of time that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead. Remember? Remember how I told you that parable about the wayward son who goes home, or the lost sheep who is brought back to the fold, or the woman who celebrates when she finds the lost nickel under the sofa? Each one is a celebration of returning to God – that’s the joyful journey of repentance, remember that?”

“And remember how I spoke over and over about forgiveness – you must forgive seven times if somebody apologize seven times? Remember what I said on the cross? ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ Remember how I have shown you what forgiveness looks like?” The Risen Christ comes to them and reminds them of what he has said before.

And if that isn’t enough, he opens their minds to understand the scriptures. Now, that is a tall order in itself.

The Bible is a thick book. How many of you understand everything that you read there? It is an enormous book, for us a library of sixty-six different documents of history, law, prophetic speech, poetry, parable, and letters. Some of the documents overlap with one another, some of the documents are not obvious and clear, some of the writers refer to things long ago, and matters quite distant from us.

  • “If your ox falls into a pit…” How many have had that happen to you? It’s in the book.[1]
  • “If your house has leprosy on the walls…” Bummer for you. The prescription is in the Bible.[2]
  • “If your neighbor is deaf, don’t curse him.” Why? He can’t hear you anyway. But it’s in the book.[3]
  • “It’s better to live with a dripping faucet than with a bickering wife.” That verse is in the Bible.[4] It doesn’t say anything, though, about a husband who refuses to do lawn work.

It takes a lifetime to study the Bible, to truly live in the pages of the book. There aren’t a lot of people who want to work that hard, and the Easter Christ opens the book to his disciples. That’s a remarkable claim.

The fact is, since the Bible was written centuries ago, a lot of people will poke around until they find something weird and then they will obsess about that. In fact, that’s the surest way to become a millionaire: find an obscure verse, take it out of context, write a scary book about it (the scarier the better), and claim that you have the hidden code that nobody else has. Those books sell so fast they fly off the shelves – and did you ever notice that none of them – none of them! – have to do with loving God or loving neighbor. They just want to frighten you, scare you, spook you.

But Jesus is not a spooky ghost. He has spoken before about knowing the scripture, especially in the Gospel of Luke. And he has said if you understand the scriptures, you will understand God.

There’s that story he tells in chapter sixteen. There was a rich man and a poor man. There always is, isn’t there? The rich man ate, the poor man at his gate didn’t eat. That’s all we know about them. The rich man died and was buried. The poor man died, and we don’t know if he was buried. And the rich man went to hell, and the poor man went to heaven, leaning on the chest of Father Abraham.

The rich man said, “Father Abraham, send that poor man back to warn my brothers.” He still thinks he’s in charge. Abraham says, “It’s too late, and they have the scriptures.” The rich man says, “But no, if you send him to back from the dead, my brothers will repent.” And Father Abraham said, “They already have the scriptures; and if they don’t listen to the scriptures, neither will they be convinced if somebody rises from the dead/” (Luke 16:19-31).

What scripture is he talking about? Deuteronomy 15:7 – “If anyone is poor among you, do not be hard-hearted.” That’s Moses.  Isaiah 58:7 – “Share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house; clothe the naked, and do not hide yourself from your own kin.” That’s the prophet. If you have the scriptures, listen to them. Learn of God’s values and listen for God’s call.

The Risen Christ opened their minds to understand the scriptures. What does that mean? I think it means understanding not the whole book, but the heart of the book. The Bible is substantial enough that we can get distracted by matters that are not central. Like the minister back in the 1960’s who published a doctoral dissertation about flying saucers in the book of Ezekiel, or the dear soul who fiercely believed that a whale could swallow a man like Jonah and survive for three days in its belly. Or in the Gospel of Matthew, where it says Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of two farm animals, a donkey and its colt – that’s what it says (Matt. 21:7). You can obsess about all these little things – but none of them are the One Thing that matters.

And he opened their mind to understand the scriptures. The whole book? No, the things in the book that had to do with himself. Because the death and resurrection of Jesus turned everything they expected upside down. They expected the Messiah would come and he would not die. Jesus comes and he is crucified. And he comes back from the dead to help understand some parts of their own Bible that they had not really noticed.

For instance, Isaiah 53 and 54: The Servant of God “was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; as one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised and we held him of no account…He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (53:3-5). It was there in the Book all along, and he opened their minds to understand this is what God is like: rejected but self-giving, vulnerable but powerful, wounded but able to make us whole. Then he showed him the wounds in his hands and his feet.

We will be distracted by the edges of the Bible unless we look to the heart of the Bible, for the Bible speaks of God. The Bible tells the truth of about what kind of people we really are, but the Bible focuses on what kind of God has made us, what kind of God stays with us, what kind of God can heal us.

And he opened their minds to understand the scriptures… for an opened mind is a serving mind. If we comprehend the God who comes to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we will want to be part of the movement that God has started in the sending of his Son. What is the shape of that movement? Again it’s there in his words: “Let repentance and forgiveness be proclaimed to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem,” the city that crucified him, the city where he was raised from the dead.

We have the freedom to doubt Easter. We have the freedom to speculate about all kinds of matters that really have no bearing on us or anybody else. But when we invite others to return to the God who forgives us and offers to heal all of us, we are pretty close to everything the Bible says about Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 14:5-6
[2] Leviticus 14:33-42
[3] Leviticus 19:14
[4] Proverbs 27:15

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