Sunday, April 22, 2012

In Joy and Disbelief


Luke 24:36-48

During my second year of seminary I was selected to participate in the Middle East Travel Seminar, a three week study tour of biblical and archaeological sites in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, the occupied territories of Palestine and Greece. The application and interview process was rigorous as sixty seminary students from five schools were chosen for this almost fully funded trip of a lifetime. One thing that was reiterated over and over again throughout the process, in the way that only happens when someone has previously complained about their own experience, this was NOT going to be a spiritual pilgrimage.

All around the land we call the “Holy Land,” for thousands of years, people have been making pilgrimages. There are churches and chapels and monuments scattered everywhere, some of them 15- and 16-hundred years old, marking THE mountain Moses climbed in order to receive the tablets of the ten commandments from God, THE mountain on the east side of the Jordan where Moses died, the underground cave-like stable where Jesus was born, even THE very rock that served as a table for the fish breakfast that Jesus shared with his disciples in another resurrection account from the gospels. There are plenty of places to which someone could make a pilgrimage, but it didn’t take long to figure out why our trip organizers warned us that is not what we would be doing.

My leader, Dr. Jerry Mattingly, was kind of a character. As a local, state-required tour guide would be making her speech about the holy site we were seeing, Jerry would hold up fingers in the back row. Five, ten, fifteen. We thought at first he was grading her tour guide skills, but eventually we discovered he was correcting her assertions.

“This is the site where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law.” Or according to Jerry, somewhere within 10 miles.

“This is the site where Jesus’ body was buried” Or according to Jerry, somewhere within 500 yards.

“This is the site where Jesus was baptized.” Or according to Jerry, 15 miles up or down the river. Give or take.

This is why they warned us. Instead of developing in us a sense of awe at the innate holiness of each site we saw, Jerry put questions into our minds about the accuracy of the claims of the churches which were built on top of the holy ground on which Mary delivered Jesus. He let doubts creep into our minds about the HUGE STORMS that supposedly threatened the lives of the fishermen on the mere lake the Scriptures call the Sea of Galilee. Obviously, this could not have been a spiritual pilgrimage, because doubts are not very spiritual right?

The story we heard this morning took place on Easter evening or maybe the day after. In Luke’s gospel the resurrection is discovered by the women, then confirmed by Peter when their account is thought to be an “idle tale.” But two disciples, Cleopas and his companion didn't stick around for Peter’s confirmation. After the women discovered Jesus’ missing body and heard the witness of angels at the tomb, these two hit the road out of town. They aren't present when Peter shares his apparently NOT-so-idle tale, but instead they get an up-close-and-personal encounter with Jesus as they are walking to Emmaus, a town seven miles from Jerusalem. After eating dinner with Jesus they turn around and head back to Jerusalem, even in the middle of the night, to tell the rest of the disciples what has happened.

When they arrived, they told their story. Presumably they also heard about Peter’s trip to the empty tomb and then right in the middle of all this story-telling and confusion, Jesus finally appears! Not stolen, not lost, not buried, but resurrected. Whatever THAT means. Right in the middle of them.

They've all been talking about resurrection for a while, but obviously this is their first experience with it. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the dominant religious “parties” of the day, fought about it all the time – would there be a resurrection or not? Would it be bodily or just spiritually? Is it going to be when the Messiah comes or at the end of time? Who will be included? People were used to talking about when, how, and who will be resurrected, but really, when it came down to it, nobody REALLY knew what it would look like, what it would be like when someone actually WAS resurrected. So here was Jesus, right in the middle of them, and as if he could hear their questions running a mile a minute through their heads - - “Is he real? Is he a ghost? Can we touch him? Can we see through him? Does he sleep? Can he fly?” - -

He interrupts them, offering them his hands and feet as proof that he is real. He invites them to touch him and feel his skin and bones so they can know that he isn’t a ghost. And then while they are still caught between both rejoicing and wondering, he asks them what seems like a really ridiculous question, “Does anyone have anything to eat?”

It answers some questions (Yes, he has a body and it needs nourishment. No, he isn’t a ghost. Yes we can touch him. No, I sure HOPE we can’t see through him to see what eating looks like on the inside.). And joy, what joy it brings! But at the exact same time this simple act of eating also leads to so many more questions, doubts, even disbelief. (The dead don’t walk around. Bodies don’t just stand up after dying. What is the end if being killed and sealed in tomb isn’t the end? What in the world does any of this have to do with what God is doing?) So yes, his presence brings joy in their midst, but just like Luke said, it brings confusion, doubts, and even disbelief.

But this can’t be right, can it? Because everyone knows that doubts are not very spiritual, right?

Doubts have a bad name in the version of Christianity that seems dominant in our culture. Doubts are dismissed by some of our traditions as unfaithful, disrespectful, disingenuous. People who ask questions about how things happened in Scripture, people who are willing to say Scripture tells us less about “how” the world was made and more about “why” the world was made, people who wonder about the need to believe every detail written down between the covers of the Bible are literally and factually true are put down by many of the Christians who are holding the microphones on television and the radio, who are typing what is in print and on the internet. Thinking for ourselves is encouraged in pockets of faith, but the loudest voices, the ones way too many of our non-Christian neighbors can hear are the ones who say this is a take or leave it faith. You’re all in or you’re not in at all. Doubts are not very spiritual.

But guess what - - That’s not the viewpoint Jesus holds in this story. I love, love, LOVE the way this resurrection appearance takes place. I love, love, LOVE the way joy and disbelief are held right next to each other. I love, love, LOVE the way the disciples who were closest to Jesus still can’t quite figure out what’s going on. And I love, love, LOVE that Jesus doesn’t abandon them because of it.

Jesus doesn’t turn right around and walk out the door when the disciples can’t wrap their minds and hearts around what has taken place. He doesn’t give up on them and go find the Roman soldier who was able to declare with full faith and conviction in Luke’s gospel “He was innocent” and in Mark’s gospel, “Truly this man was God’s son!” He doesn’t stop them in their tracks and demand that they choose sides, that they sign on the dotted line, that they affirm a set of specific beliefs and understandings about every little thing that happened. Jesus doesn’t do it!

Jesus goes to great lengths – even COMICAL lengths – to show them his body is real because it’s so unbelievable, but even when they still don’t believe he doesn’t stop believing in them. Jesus doesn’t give up on his disciples. He doesn’t chastise them. He doesn’t get angry with them. He sits down, he eats with them, and he teaches them, in the middle of their joy and their disbelief. In the middle of their excitement and their wondering. In the middle of their celebration and their confusion.

We forget sometimes, that THIS is what the church is about. We forget sometimes that the questions are as welcome as answers. We forget that there isn't any one tradition or denomination or theological leaning that has it all right all the time. We see church marketing plans that ask us "Have you found Jesus?" because they claim they have a hold of him. Well, I'd love to start a different kind of campaign, one that puts signs out in front of churches saying "Got questions? We do, too." I'd love to start a different kind of campaign in which we don't have to pretend we know it all, that we understand it all, that we believe every last thing, but a campaign that is bold enough to say we gather with joy and disbelief, with reverence and wonder, with excitement and questions to see Jesus, eat with him, hear the Scriptures and how they tell of God's working in the world, and to be his witnesses in the world. That's a campaign I can get behind.

They told us before we went on the Middle East Travel Seminar that we weren't going on a spiritual pilgrimage, or more accurately, that they weren't leading a spiritual pilgrimage. They must have assumed like so many others that we might think questioning the tradition wasn't very spiritual. For me it was the exact opposite. For me the questions led me to think about what I was learning, what I was hearing, what I had heard for years and years in the church. For me the questions forced me to decide whether it mattered if I knew exactly where Jesus' feet had touched the ground, exactly where Moses encountered God, exactly where words of blessing and beatitude were spoken. For me the questions, the doubts invited me to enter into a relationship with God that wasn't based on geography and historical fact, but was based on the witness of people of faith who have gone before me, the witness of people of faith who struggled just as much as I do with what it means to follow this resurrected Jesus.

Here’s the thing - - Jesus isn’t scared of our questions. Jesus isn’t scared of our doubts, our disbelief, our confusion, and our wondering. He doesn’t get mad at them, he doesn’t look down on us for them, he doesn’t tell us they have to be wiped away before we are loved. And he definitely doesn’t tell us we have to have them all worked out before we can work in his name. The same disciples who stood there in disbelief are the same disciples who are equipped and sent as witnesses. The same disciples who are tentative about jumping into the pool of faith with both feet are the same disciples who are called to the ends of the earth to tell the story.

And thankfully they didn't wait until they totally get it all, until all their questions are answered and they know and believe and trust in exactly what's going on. They jumped in with their questions and doubts and disbelief, too, and apparently that's OK with Jesus. He came to where they were and commissioned them to serve with all their joy AND their disbelief. And he comes and commissions us to witness in the same way.

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