We encounter things daily that are unbelievable. These are encounters that leave us scratching our heads in disbelief, retreating in fear, or pivoting to something more believable.
Some of you find it unbelievable that winter will ever full yield to spring.
In the D.C. area, it is unbelievable to think that the Capitals will ever make it out of the second round of the playoffs or that our football team will ever make the playoffs. It is unbelievable to think that we can go a day without a new scandal or bombshell hitting the news. It is also unbelievable to think that all of this is the result of a first-century rabbi who overcame the power of sin and death, that all of this is the result of Jesus rising out of the tomb.
Our journey in Eastertide continues after Jesus appeared to two disciples on a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. Cleopas explained disbelief among many who had heard of the resurrection, even disbelief among those closet to Jesus. The Emmaus story culminates with Jesus being made known in the breaking of bread, “Then they told what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of bread.”
I tell you this story because the Gospel of Luke was not intended to be ready scene by scene. Along with the Book of Acts, the Gospel of Luke was intended to be read together; each story leading to the next, which explains why so many of our readings begin with “while they were talking about this…” “This,” referring to the previous encounter and transitioning us to what’s next. The author is teeing up the next story by continuing the previous, leaving us with the disciples “startled and terrified,” in the presence of the resurrected Christ, after hearing about a previous resurrection encounter. This is Luke’s second resurrection encounter removed from Easter and the disciples still do not believe their eyes. They think it is impossible, this is entirely unbelievable, after what they had seen on Good Friday and because of this they forget what Jesus had told them in the Upper Room, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus told them what would happen and still they think it is unbelievable.
All of the resurrection encounters between Jesus and his disciples in one way or another begin with unbelief and fear. Yet in the midst of unbelief and fear Jesus offers peace over and over again. Even before Jesus questions his unbelieving disciples,”why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts,” Jesus offers peace, and then moves to address the doubts that they have.
In a world dominated by things we can prove with science, statistics, and accurate news reporting, the resurrection can be a hard sell. And it is not unfair to be critical of the resurrection today, because after all the closest friends of the risen Christ did not believe what had happened when Jesus himself was standing directly in front of them. If on a first glance the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost, shouldn’t I, shouldn’t you be wary of the resurrection? If those who saw what the Gospel of John describes as the “many other signs” performed and still had their doubts, shouldn’t we get a little leeway as try to figure out if we are willing to sign onto the whole resurrection thing?
These are legitimate questions that I know many of you quietly ask yourselves or not so quietly ask people like me and Pastor Ed.
On one hand, especially if you have kids or have ever mentored or taught a kid in the church, we want to live out the teachings of Jesus as best we can and if we can’t we hope that the next generation of the church will give it a better try. We think teachings like, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” are great, and we don’t question them. We center our lives around things like this and when we mess up along the way we fervently depend on the grace and forgiveness extended to us by Christ. But somewhere between Easter Sunday and Advent in December, the hope-filled anticipation of the resurrection escapes us, and we relegate the lynchpin of Christian orthodoxy to being a fleeting possibility.
The unbelief of the disciples that we frown upon during Eastertide creeps up for many of us before the lilies and tulips of Easter Sunday go dormant for another year.
A few weeks ago a mentor of mine suggested that Christian speech, the stained-glass language, the “churchy” language we use to describe our faith falls apart when we insert unbelief about the physical resurrection of the Christ and the physical resurrection promised to each of us.
None of us here this morning would have ever considered paying attention to the Sermon on the Mount without the disciples' witness of the resurrection.
Without the resurrection, Christmas is just a day off from work where we get out of bed way too early and spending way too much money.
Without the resurrection, we have no reason to pay attention to anything between Matthew 1:1 and Revelation 22:21.
While we are willing and able to deliberate ad nauseam things like salvation, inclusivity and placement of the paraments when it comes to the resurrection of the body, for many, crossing of our fingers seem to be the proper liturgical movement and we keep our doubts quietly to ourselves.
The doubt we experience is the same doubt felt by those who saw the “many other signs” performed that our Gospel writers left out.
Last week I shared a meditation from my Thursday evening class on the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts. And this week I have another classroom observation for you. I share these with you for two reasons. First, I am a theology nerd, I love learning at Wesley Theological Seminary and I want to share all that I can with you. Second, in case my professor tunes into our live stream this morning or listens to this sermon via podcast, I want Dr. Smith to know I am actually paying attention.
So here it is: teaching about or preaching about the resurrection is hard.
I know, theological shocker.
Anyone who has ever taught Sunday school, led VBS, or preached can testify to this. And worse, we do it over and over again, week after week, making it easier for us to check out or to seem repetitive.
The part of Christianity that is most necessary is at times the hardest to not only explain to outsiders but also to explain to someone who has faithfully attended worship for 40 years. We start thinking of ghosts instead of bodies, creating for ourselves the same tricky-wicket the disciples experienced.
Just like the disciples, Jesus extends peace to us, and his hands and feet. When that’s not enough, he gathers us together sharing in the breaking of bread at the table or in a simple meal of broiled fish. Thomas, the disciple known primarily for this doubting, said he needed to see the pierced hands and side of Jesus. He needed to touch the risen Christ’s scars. So Jesus offers exactly what Thomas said he needed but first extended peace. The peace of Christ confirmed what Thomas needed to know. After thinking they have seen a ghost Jesus offers the disciples the proof they required, turning what was thought to be unbelievable into reality. Jesus offers peace and then gives the disciples the bodily proof they required.
“Peace be with you,” comes without prerequisite. There is no required level of acceptance or giving to have peace extended to you by God. Our Wesleyan heritage states this comes to us preveniently, “coming before our belief in Christ.”
The early church recognized this and throughout Paul’s letters to the early church and the Epistles, the authors while extending hard truths, things that may seem unbelievable or that will turn a person’s life upside down, first offer a greeting of peace.
Without the peace of Christ, the disciples may have never realized Jesus was standing before them.
Without the peace of Christ, on the days when the resurrection or this entire church thing seems unbelievable, our doubts and fears convince us to keep those questions to ourselves or to simply cross our fingers and hope for the best. Our understanding of the resurrection, being able to see the risen Christ and not a ghost rises out of the peace extended us by Jesus himself.
The Good News is that even with our doubts and fears Christ is extending peace to us, and invites us to break bread with him.