Jeremiah 1:4-12, John 20:19:29
May 8, 2011
Last week we read Luke’s version of what happened on Easter, “later that same day…” (As we used to say!) His was the wonderful story of the Road to Emmaus. Well, today we have John’s version. And this too takes place “later that same day.” And if you want some mental exercise, you might try putting these two stories together in your mind. You might imagine this whole scene we just read about, and then shortly after that, you might picture these two men bursting into the room and telling of their encounter with Jesus “on the road!” I hope that helps you see a bigger picture of this very eventful day!
Let’s think about John’s account. As this scene opens the disciples were in this house together. And they were hiding! John tells us that the doors “were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.” Again, I think it’s hard for us to get this into our minds. These men were Jesus’ disciples. They were those he was teaching to be leaders in his ministry. That’s what a rabbi’s disciples were! And now that the Jewish leadership had been successful in eliminating Jesus, these men feared that they were next! And it was a very real fear!
That’s hard for us to understand. We can’t imagine what this was like for them, because, again, we know the story. I keep emphasizing that, because it is so hard to put ourselves into their understanding of all this. We know the story, and we know the end of the story! We know these guys are going to be ok. But they didn’t. So they were living in fear! They were terribly worried about what was going to happen next.
Well, if that fear and worry weren’t enough, add to it the fact that their entire world their hopes, their dreams, their expectations of the coming kingdom – had just come crashing down within the past few days. They had been riding a huge high! Now it was all gone! And they were still in shock! To say they were “devastated” might describe their state of mind – but even that word would fall short! This was way more than just being afraid!!
Even if we can take that in, can we even begin to imagine what it was like for them when Jesus appeared?! John tells us that “the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” (verse 20) Now a lot of times we fail to capture the emotion in these stories because of the way we read them. But, this is also a place where the translation to our language has fallen way short. The word “glad” is completely inadequate here! I checked several other translations, and a number of them use the word “overjoyed.” That’s better! A couple of them said the disciples were “filled with joy.” I pulled out my thesaurus on this one, and it suggested “jubilant,” “thrilled,” or “ecstatic!” (How about “over the moon”? “The disciples were over the moon when they saw the Lord!”) I’d also add the word “astonished,” or even “incredulous!” (I like that word!) “The disciples were incredulous when they saw the Lord!”
Do you get the picture? After the horrific events of Thursday and Good Friday, there he was! And the Gospel writers are all careful to point out that this was not just some kind of “ghostly appearance.” Later in this chapter Jesus would invite Thomas to touch his hands and his side. And I think that was about more than just proving that he was alive again. I think it was also said for the purpose of showing that he was real! Luke was even more specific. He tells us that Jesus said, “See my hands and feet that it is I myself. Handle me, and see. A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39)
No doubt about it, Jesus was back! He was alive! And let me just say a word here about Jesus’ death! Every once in a while, someone resurrects the old notion that “Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross,” that he merely “went into a coma” of some kind, and that he “revived” later on. Well, there are a lot of reasons why that’s not true. But let me just say this. This is one place where we the readers do not have the best perspective! This is one place where we don’t know more than they did! The characters in this story all knew that Jesus had died!
The Jewish leaders knew it. They spread a rumor that the disciples had “stolen the body,” in order to say he had come back from the dead. (Matthew 28:11-15) But there was no suggestion that he wasn’t dead. The Romans knew it. This kind of execution was their business! And they were good at it! The soldier thrust a spear into Jesus’ side – just to be sure. And the evidence of that is recorded in the Gospels. Pontius Pilate knew he was dead. In Mark’s Gospel, when Joseph of Arimathea came and asked to take the body of Jesus, Pilate summoned the centurion and asked him if Jesus had died – just to be sure! (Mark 15:44) And lastly, these men knew it! From everything they said this first Easter, they knew this was a resurrection from the dead! It was only a question of whether or not it was real! But none of them asked, “Does this mean you didn’t actually die, Jesus?” There was no doubt about his death! Let’s be absolutely sure of that!
So, the disciples, then, were overjoyed, ecstatic, incredulous, dumbfounded – and all those other words – for he had come back to them! But, if you think about it, it wasn’t because they understood it all! I’m sure they didn’t! They were “glad” this unbelievable miracle happened. They were glad Jesus was not dead – at least not any more! But again, they didn’t understand it all, and they didn’t know what was ahead of them! And yes, in the days ahead, they would come to understand. But for now it was just joy and astonishment!
Ok. So where does the faith come in? This sermon is entitled “From Fear to Faith.” But so far it’s been about “From Sadness to Joy.” So where did they start to believe? Certainly, faith was about believing he was alive again. And they came to believe that – though it took a little convincing for Thomas. And let me remind you what I think about him! I truly believe Thomas was no more a doubter” than any of them! He simply was the one who was not there at the first part of this chapter! Any one of them would have said the same words if they had been absent when Jesus first appeared! “I won’t believe it unless I see!” Any one of them, when told by the others that Jesus was alive, would have said, “You’re nuts!!”
So the seeds of faith were planted as Jesus was present with them! Of course that faith in him was actually planted while he was still alive. But it was dashed along with their hopes and dreams. Now that faith was resurrected with his resurrection, and it was now fed by his renewed presence with them. And it would be nurtured by his promise to be with them always “to the close of the age.” Matthew gives us the words of that promise at the end of his Gospel. (Matthew 28:20) Go read that sometime, and put your name in there!! That’s the promise!!
I think all of that is important because their faith worked the same as ours. And by the way, so did their doubts. When Jesus took them to the mountaintop where he gave them that famous promise, Matthew is quick to point out, “When they saw Jesus, they worshipped him. But some doubted.” (20:17) These men were no different than us! They had the same doubts we have. There were times they were not so sure about all this – just like us! But like us, having that faith is a matter of being convinced of it. That’s the key. We believe when we are convinced that Jesus is with us. That’s where faith begins. That’s where it’s planted. That’s where it’s nurtured.
So how do we do that? How can we know for sure that Jesus is with us “even to the close of the age?” Well, I think Isaiah said it very well. “Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6) Those are “action words,” aren’t they? Seek him! Call on him! That describes an active pursuit of faith, doesn’t it? That means doing something!
The problem is that too many people do either one of two things. First, they can be too passive about faith. They don’t think they have to do anything to have faith. Or they think, “I’ll have faith if God hits me over the head with it. But otherwise I won’t bother.” That’s because faith can be hard work. And some see it as too much of a bother. They don’t really want to spend the energy! They don’t want to struggle with the issue of belief! The other thing that can happen with people is they can take on an “active refusal.” That’s the problem expressed by Thomas. It wasn’t a matter of, “I don’t think I could believe that unless I see him.” It was “Unless I see… I will not believe!” That’s active refusal!
The thing is, we all have those times, don’t we? No one’s life of faith is perfect. No one believes 100% strongly 100% of the time and never doubts. But to be a “disciples” means having “discipline,” doesn’t it? That’s the same root word. And that means pursuing that consistency and that growth in faith. That means working at it – seeking and calling – on a regular basis.
Sometimes we have a hard time doing that, don’t we? We have our ups and our downs. Sometimes we’re very strong in our faith, and at other times our circumstances and our difficulties cause us to have times of weakness. In all that, we need to keep in mind that being a disciple and having discipline does not happen all by itself. To have faith is to “actively pursue” faith. Because, if you think about it, you’ll agree that the emotions – the fear, the despair – will drag us down if we do nothing!
So that’s what I want to leave with you today. Let us strive to be active in our faith not passive! Let us not be satisfied with our doubts or weakness. Let us follow the words of Isaiah and let us “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Let us not be faithless, but believing!
Lord, help us to know even in the dark times of our lives that you are with us. Help us to be active in the living of our faith. Help us to seek you and to call upon you. Help us to know we are yours, that we may rejoice in your kingdom. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.