Sunday, April 22, 2012

Disbelieving and Wondering (Luke 24:36-48)

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and 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 when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.  While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
Then he 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 in Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.

One of the things about being a follower of Jesus is that we never know exactly where he’s going to show up.  This is particularly true after the resurrection.  The risen Christ has a way of showing up in unexpected and unlikely places, surprising, startling, and sometimes frightening those who follow him.  Jesus has this annoying habit of showing up anywhere Jesus wants, often in spite of whatever way we have locked our doors or hearts.  Anywhere the risen Christ appears, transformation, change, and new life is sure to follow, thanks be to God.  May we pray.

Has someone ever startled you?  I’m talking heart-jumping-into-your-throat-somebody-get-some-towels-because-I-just-wet-myself startled?  I startle people like that all the time.  I don’t mean to, but apparently I sneak up on people without realizing that’s what I’m doing, and I think they are aware that I’m there, and they’re not, and they turn around and there I am.  Apparently, I’m a bit of a soft-walker, also not what you’d expect from a guy my size, but it’s a skill I developed growing up in an old house with creaky wooden floors and sneaking both into and out of the house during the middle of the night without my parents’ detection.

Having startled a number of people, I have even started to change some of my habits if I know I am approaching someone who might be startled to see me there.  From a long way off, I may start whistling or humming loudly to announce my approach, or intentionally clomp along a little louder just so my footsteps may announce my pending arrival.

Jesus, however, doesn’t offer people this courtesy.  It is late in the evening on the first Easter Sunday.  The day started as Jesus startled the women outside his empty tomb.  Later that day, he appeared and talked with two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and upon their arrival, he broke bread, blessed it, and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened.  Though it was almost evening, they ran from Emmaus to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what they had just experienced, no small feat considering it was late in the day and the trip was all of 20 miles, and they did it in robes, sandals, and without any marathon training.

By the time the two disciples join the others in Jerusalem, it is late in the day and they gather in a locked room - there are rumors and competing stories swirling around - that the body of Jesus has been stolen, that it’s been moved, that soldiers are combing the streets and going house-to-house to find, arrest, and execute the followers of Jesus.  But there’s another rumor out there, that Jesus has been raised from the dead - a resurrection, they called it - and he now lives again.

The disciples were discussing this very thing, when the two who had just run in from Emmaus burst through the door and said, “The Lord is risen indeed!” (Luke 24:34)  Somebody went and triple-bolted the door, and they were talking about all that had been seen and experienced on the road, and how Jesus had been made known them in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:35).  And all of a sudden, despite the locked door, Jesus himself was standing in their midst, and he said, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36).

This is a consistent refrain in the resurrection stories of Jesus.  After his resurrection, when he appears to people, though he literally frightened the living Jesus out of these people, he always greets them with a word of Peace.  When Christians gather in worship today, we greet each other with a word of peace, because we gather with the resurrected Christ.  The one who lived and died is now alive again, and where the newness of Christ’s resurrection is recognized and celebrated, there is a word of peace.  We do it every Sunday - that’s why that line in the bulletin says “Passing the Peace of Christ,” not “Say hello to your neighbor,” not “Say how much you like their new shirt,” not “Ask how the game was last night,” not “Organize your errands and to-do list for the day,” not ask “Who’s in charge of lunch for today.”  It doesn’t say to do any of that - it just says, “Passing the Peace of Christ.”

It is both an act of worship and Christian hospitality.  Just look at how our worship begins, and even the most simple-minded person can get the point.  First, we gather in the Lord’s name.  Then, we are called to worship - a proclamation that we have uniquely come into the presence of God in worship.  We sing a song or songs of praise to say, “Hey, I sure am glad to be worshipping the Lord today!”  Having come into God’s presence, we realize that we may have come in with baggage that would keep us from worshiping God fully, and so we confess that and ask for God’s forgiveness, and then the assurance of our forgiveness is declared.  And then, as forgiven and reconciled people, we greet each other with the peace of Christ.  We say, “I have confessed and been freed from the baggage that would keep me from Christ’s peace, and you have to, and so we greet each other, face-to-face, that the peace of Christ that dwells within me might greet and be greeted by the peace of Christ that dwells in you.”  Did you know you were supposed to be doing, and saying, and experiencing all that in those handshakes and hugs at the beginning of the worship service?

I know I’ve told you the story before about friends of mine who were visiting their parents’ church, and it came time to pass the peace, and everyone in the congregation turned and greeted four of five people immediately around them and said in hushed tones, “Peace be with you.”  We always need to make sure we understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, because one little girl of about four, imitating what she thought the adults were doing, turned to her neighbors and just went “Psss psss psss psss.”  And, to this day, whenever I am in a worship setting with these two friends, when it comes time to pass the peace, I will simply turn to them and go, “Psss psss psss psss.”

Back in our story, though Jesus has spoken a word of peace, the disciples are apparently still frightened and have doubts in their hearts.  We know this, because Jesus says in verse 38, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”  Notice that Christ’s peace comes first.  The peace of Christ is a given, it is extended while fear and doubt still exist in the disciples’ hearts.  Jesus doesn’t withhold peace until all doubt and fear is gone, he doesn’t tell the disciples they have to get everything figured out before they get peace, he doesn’t say, “Agree with me and believe as I do and THEN I might share my peace with you.”  The peace of Christ - his love, mercy, and grace - is given to us before we ask for it or know what it is or have done anything to deserve it.

How contrary that is to how the peace of Christ is often experienced in American Christianity.  How often we refuse to share Christ’s peace with those whom we doubt or fear, even though Christ shared peace with his disciples, knowing their doubt and fear.

As Ted Henry said in his message last week, it is amazing how many Christians today withhold from others the very love and grace, peace and forgiveness, they have themselves received from the open hand of God.  It causes one to wonder if those who call themselves Christian and yet act in such ugly ways toward others have ever really experienced the joy of the resurrected Christ, or if they are perhaps just following Jesus in name only.

We can only pray for such persons, that some day their eyes and minds and hearts will be opened, that someday they actually will meet Jesus, that someday the resurrected Christ will make an impression on them and they will live the new life that Jesus offers.  And until that day, we pray for them, and we watch for opportunities to introduce the real, risen, living Jesus to them.

The peace of Christ is a given.  It is not a reward for a job well-done.  Peace isn’t the destination, it’s the starting point.  It’s the catalyst to help us live as resurrection people.  It’s the gas in the tank.  Peace is the thing that gets the whole thing going and makes our discipleship possible.  The peace of Christ is freely given to all, with the understanding and expectation that once we have received and experienced it, our hearts and lives will testify to the power of the risen Christ to make all things new.

By no means does experiencing the new life in Christ’s resurrection make us perfect.  I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect, no one here is!  I’ve often said to people, if you do find a perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll ruin it!  Every church has imperfections and flaws it in because they have us in them - people with imperfections and flaws who, by the grace of God are hopefully going on toward perfection, but probably haven’t attained it yet.  The early disciples of Jesus certainly experienced that.  Verse 41 says, “In their joy they were still disbelieving and wondering.”  Did you catch that?  In their joy, because of the experience of the risen Christ in their midst.  In their joy, because of the transformation Christ was working in their hearts.  In their joy, because of the new life they were experiencing.  In their joy, in all of that, they were still disbelieving and wondering!  Being a follower of Jesus isn’t a magic trick where everything is just presto-chango in our lives where once we were this way and now, all of a sudden, we’re that way.

Friends, what matters most is not whether we have moments of disbelief or wonder, doubt or fear.    More determinative is the presence of joy.  And so the litmus test is whether or not there is joy in our lives, because being a follower of Jesus, particularly since his resurrection, it is intended that the followers of Jesus receive, reflect, and magnify joy.  Joy is the thing that matters.  We are to be joyful people; when we experience the resurrection of Christ, joy becomes our primary and determinative orientation.

And when it happens, Jesus has called and commissioned us to be witnesses to the power of his resurrection.  He says in verse 48, “You are witnesses of these things.”  Even though they don’t fully believe, even though they still have doubt, even though they still wonder sometimes and even though they still have fears, more importantly, they have the joy of new life in Christ, and because of that joy, they are called to be witnesses.  Full comprehension or understanding is not a prerequisite for participating in the life of Christ, and it certainly isn’t required for sharing it, and thank God it’s not!  Really, for who among us can fully grasp and comprehend the depths, the heights, and the bounds of the infinite mysteries of God?  How much we understand is not the issue here.  Rather, Jesus calls us to share, out of joy, what we have seen, experienced, heard, and known.

Friends, if the resurrection of Christ has caused you to experience the joy of new and transformed life, then you are also called to be a witness.  You see, the good news of what God does in our life is never exclusively for us.  It’s meant to be shared.  Like water poured into the font that marks the new birth in Christ, like bread broken in which the risen Christ is known, the good news of what God does in us through Christ is meant to be shared.  It’s called witnessing.

I know witnessing has been given a bad name in recent years, and I want us to be clear in what Jesus calls us to do.  Witnessing does not mean shoving our faith down someone’s throat or threatening them with hellfire and damnation if they don’t believe like we do.  It’s simply telling others where we have sensed and experienced God at work - home or school, work or even church - if we sense God at work, then we play show-and-tell about the wonderful work of God, in all things, everywhere, large and small.

It springs forth as the natural result of joy in our hearts, joy that is experienced because we are resurrected people.  What we were is dead, but who we are in Christ is just being born.  That is the good news today, and good news deserves to be shared.  What we were is dead, but who we are in Christ is just being born.

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