April 14, 2024

Luke 24:36b-48

“Joyful, Disbelieving, Wondering Disciples”

During the Season of Easter, the lectionary suggests a lot of Scripture readings about the Risen Christ appearing to his disciples. It makes sense because there were two important things that shaped the Christian faith of the early church going forward. First, there was the fact that Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty, with his body gone. And second, there was the experience and witness of a number of his friends and followers who saw him raised.

If you were at worship last Sunday, but perhaps not carefully checking the Scripture reference, you might have thought that we repeated the same Gospel passage today that Taeyang preached about last week. In both cases, it was a story about Jesus appearing to a group of disciples in Jerusalem, not too long after they’d found the tomb to be empty and heard reports from the women that they’d seen Jesus alive.

Both of these stories, that are probably describing the same event in their own unique ways, have Jesus standing among the disciples with a greeting of “Peace be with you.” They also both include some doubt on the part of the disciples, with John’s account attributing the disbelief and doubt primarily to Thomas, while Luke suggests that all the disciples may have had some questions and wonderings about what they were seeing before them.

Last week we heard Thomas make a special request to touch Jesus, to feel his physical body and its wounds. He didn’t quite trust what he was seeing with his eyes, and he thought that if he could just touch Jesus, he could know for sure that he was really alive.

In today’s passage from Luke’s account, Jesus senses that his disciples are all quite frightened and experiencing doubts about what they are seeing. So he invites them all to touch him: “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.”

When people think about religion, the question of belief is often the focus. Religious traditions are defined by the things that the adherents believe, and especially by the things they believe that are different from other religions or different from people with no religion.

Whereas as an atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of a god, and an agnostic is someone who is not committed to believing in either the existence of god or the non-existence of God, religious people are thought of as those who do believe in God, and do believe certain things about God.

Of course, Christians are identified as people believe in God. Christians are the ones who also believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he was raised from the dead. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s continuing presence in the world and among God’s people. And Christians believe in life after death.

We have a long tradition of defining who is a Christian and who is not a Christian based on our beliefs about certain things. The ancient creeds of the church (the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) were written expressly for that purpose of confirming what Christians are supposed to believe, and then determining who was a Christian and who was a heretic. These are the things that Christians are supposed to believe, we said to one another. And if you don’t believe these things in this way then you are not a Christian.

And to some extent, we still do that. We don’t test each other on the way into the church, and we’re not inclined to shut anyone out if they don’t sign on to every detail of either the ancient creeds, our Reformed statements of faith, or our denominational positions on various theological issues and questions. But we often still use belief as the main measure of who is a Christian and who is not.

Now, you don’t have to think long and hard before recognizing that using expressed belief as the only measure for who is a Christian is going to be problematic. After all, members the Ku Klux Klan identified as Christians and probably believed the basic stuff in the creeds, and so did members of the Nazi Party under Hitler.

And most of us probably bristled when we saw the news a few weeks ago about Donald Trump selling Bibles across the United States. He also would identify as a Christian, and even claims to have attended a Presbyterian Sunday School. Even if he likely couldn’t answer even simple theological questions, I expect he would say that he believes in God, he believes in the Resurrection of Christ, and he believes in life after death.

So, our faith and our identity as Christian people has got to be about more than just belief – about more than just holding certain ideas about God and Jesus in our heads.

Last Sunday evening, I went to Mass with Nick at Campion College and the preacher was Father Scott Lewis, a Jesuit who is also a biblical scholar and expert on the Gospel of John. In talking about Thomas and his hesitancy to believe, Scott explained that the author of John’s Gospel means something more when he talks about believing.

“Belief” for John is not just a confidence and conviction that something is true. It’s not just an idea in your head. But “belief” carries this deeper sense of assurance that transforms the person’s life. “Belief” is deeply connected to our response to what we believe. So “belief in God and in Jesus Christ Risen” includes trusting God, and loving God, and loving our neighbours, and following Jesus with our lives, and giving of ourselves for others, and taking risks for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Now, our Gospel reading this morning was not from John (that was last week) but from Luke which was written quite a bit earlier in the first century and may not have had that all-encompassing idea of belief yet.

But what I noticed about today’s text was that the disciples’ doubts, questions, and wonderings about this Risen Jesus standing in front of them were not considered to be a big problem.

The first thing that happened when Jesus appeared was that they were startled, and terrified, and thought they might be seeing a ghost. Jesus knew what they were thinking and feeling, and helped them out by giving them a bit more information and evidence about what was going on. They weren’t sure that they could trust their eyes, so he invited them to touch him and use another sense to confirm what their eyes were telling them. That was very thoughtful.

Do you remember Thomas’ response last week when he got to touch Jesus’ hands and side? He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” It wasn’t a whole Christian Creed, as those wouldn’t be written for a few hundred more years. But it was one of the earliest and most basic of Christian creeds, an expression of his belief in Christ as Lord and God.

The disciples in today’s text don’t say anything of the sort after touching the Risen Jesus. In fact, the narrator writes “Yet for all their joy they were still disbelieving and wondering.” They were happy, joyful, and amazed by what they were seeing and touching, but they were simultaneously disbelieving and wondering.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot more like the way that I believe. I mean, I believe that Christ was raised and that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the church and in the world. I see lots of evidence of that in acts of love, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and sacrifice happening each and every day. But I can’t help but be discouraged by all the bad stuff too – by the violence, discrimination, greed, and selfishness that seems so powerful in the world.

And when professing Christians and churches participate, and even lead the way in such hatred and evil, it’s all the more discouraging and likely to cause some doubts to arise in my heart.

The next thing that happens in the story is not Jesus noticing and pointing out that the disciples still seem to be experiencing some doubts. I expect he knew it, but he didn’t keep going on about it. Instead, he asked for a snack. “Have you anything here to eat?” Jesus asked. And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

Some interpreters will suggest that Jesus wasn’t actually hungry and needing something to eat. They’ll say that he asked for the food in order to give them one more piece of evidence that he was truly and physically alive again. And I suppose they’re right that it might have helped a bit, because we all know that ghosts don’t eat fish.

But I wonder if Jesus was not really so worried about how perfectly and unstintingly his followers believed in his resurrection, and he was more focused on turning their attention towards the mission that he had for them to continue in his name. I like the way to the SALT Lectionary commentary described that mission: “feeding the hungry person right in front of them, for starters!”

After that, Jesus did spend some time teaching the disciples, reminding them of what they probably already knew from the Scriptures and all that he had taught them over the last few years. He didn’t give them a creed and tell them that they needed to adhere to it carefully. But he sent them out to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to the world, starting right where they were.

In other words, the people of the world are invited to turn towards love and mend their relationships. We’re invited to follow the humble, generous, gracious way of Jesus with one another, and to share what we have seen and come to believe through Jesus Christ our Lord – that we are loved, that we are made for love, and that God who is love will empower us to love.

Do you remember Easter Sunday in church, when I drew you all into that repeating refrain… Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed! If you joined in that refrain in a half-hearted way, somewhat impeded by lingering doubts or questions about this strange, startling, astounding, and unlikely thing that we profess in our creeds that Jesus has been raised from the dead, I get it. I think we all do, and the first disciples certainly did, and Jesus likely did as well.

Like Jesus’ friends on that day, Easter fills us with joy, while we are simultaneously disbelieving and still wondering. I think Jesus understands that, and invites us to feed the hungry person standing in front of us, and to study the Scriptures, and to ask questions and grapple with answers, and study some more. And Jesus invites us to go and share, and to be witnesses to what we have seen, probably most effectively by loving one another as he taught us to do.