November 11, 2012
Final sermon in series on disciples
Jose Marcos Araujo, a Brazilian man, received a phone call a few weeks ago. He was told that his brother Gilberto, a car washer, had been shot to death. So Jose went in, identified the body, and brought it to his mother’s house for the wake.
As family and friends were gathered around the casket, there was a bit of a rustling behind them in the doorway. They turned around . . . and there was Gilberto. Gilberto’s casket in front of them. A walking, breathing, living Gilberto behind them. Many people thought they were seeing a ghost. Some people screamed. A few fainted. It took awhile for Gilberto’s family and friends to get over the shock and realize that he was, indeed, still alive.
Really, though, Jesus’ disciples should have been a bit more prepared to welcome Jesus in their midst. Even after his crucifixion, his presence among them should not have been that much of a shocker. For one thing, Jesus had told them that he would be raised from the dead. For another, the women–Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary–Jesus’ mom–and others–had seen the empty tomb and heard the gleaming men say that Jesus had risen. For another, Cleopas and his companion had talked and eaten with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
Actually, that is what the disciples are discussing when Jesus shows up. They are talking with Cleopas and his companion about their experience with the risen Christ. So, since they are discussing the risen Christ, we might think they would be half-expecting him to walk through the door. “Oh, Jesus,” they would say, “so good to see you again! We’ve been wondering when you would stop by. Close call there with that whole crucifixion business!”
But that, of course, is not the reception Jesus gets. Instead, just like the people at Gilberto Araujo’s funeral, the disciples “were startled and terrified. They thought they had seen a ghost.”
This is not the first time the disciples have mistaken Jesus for a ghost. They also thought Jesus was a ghost when he walked across the lake to their boat. I think we can understand their confusion. It really is disconcerting the way Jesus just appears (and disappears)–especially after the resurrection: walking through locked doors, seeming to materialize out of thin air. Sure, the disciples have some clues about this whole resurrection thing, but they can’t really be expected to understand.
I love the beginning of verse 41: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering” (NRSV). Disbelieving and still wondering.
This is the final Sunday in our series on the disciples, and throughout the series, we’ve heard a lot about disbelieving and wondering . . . there is a lot of doubt and confusion on the part of the disciples.
Judas, of course, wonders what the heck Jesus is doing . . . he finally doubts Jesus and his way of doing things. Disbelieving and still wondering . . .
Thomas . . . well . . . he’s known as doubting Thomas. In studying the passage for this morning, I noticed that in this story–Luke’s version–all of the disciples basically play the role Thomas plays in John’s version of the story. Jesus is with them, but they just can’t believe it. They have to see the physical wounds to know that Jesus is really there. Disbelieving and still wondering . . .
Peter dares to step out of the boat, but starts sinking as soon as he looks at the waves. He refuses to believe that Jesus will suffer and die. During the intense night of the trial, he denies Jesus three times. Disbelieving and still wondering . . .
James and John, despite being part of Jesus’ inner circle, don’t really understand what Jesus is about. Their request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in glory shows that they have basically missed the entire point of Jesus’ ministry. Disbelieving and still wondering . . .
Martha tells Jesus that if he had been there her brother, Lazarus, would still be alive. When Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha doesn’t quite get his meaning. “I know he will rise again at the last day.” But Jesus, of course, has something a little sooner in mind. Disbelieving and still wondering . . .
Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus at night, has great difficulty understanding Jesus: “You must be born again.” “But how?” asks Nicodemus. “A person can’t climb back into their mother’s womb and be born a second time.” Disbelieving and still wondering . . .
Mary Magdalene, a disciple with an honored place among Jesus’ followers and an honored place in the early church, thinks Jesus is the gardener when she first sees him wandering around the graveyard. Disbelieving and still wondering . . .
It seems to be a theme with the biblical disciples. Almost a requirement. You have to have doubts and questions to be counted among Jesus’ followers.
Today, of course, the loudest messages of Christianity are about certainty and answers–not doubts and questions. The evangelists preaching on street corners and going door to door with literature ask things like “Have you been saved?” and “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”. Being a disciple of Jesus, they imply, is about knowing for sure that you will get into heaven. Which requires that you know for sure who Jesus is.
So what happened? Do you ever wonder that? What happened between the time of Jesus’ earliest, disbelieving, wondering followers and today’s insistence on certainty?
In her book Christianity After Religion, church researcher Diana Butler Bass claims that the focus on correct belief within the church first emerged about 500 years ago when Western Christianity split into five major faith groups. (Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, and Anabaptist.) It suddenly became important for groups to distinguish themselves from each other by having clear statements of beliefs.
(As an interesting side note, she claims that Anabaptists were the one group that maintained a more experiential faith; they did not systematize their beliefs and write creeds and statements the way people in the other traditions did. This, she concedes, might be because they were too busy hiding from all of the other Christian groups who were trying to kill them.)
So, basically since the Reformation, Bass claims, the accepted method of church involvement has been: believe, behave, belong. You believe the claims of the church. Then you practice the behaviors that go along with being part of the church: worship, tithing, quilting . . . whatever those behaviors are. Then, finally, you are allowed to belong to the church. Believe, behave, belong.
Bass’ point in the book is that this order isn’t working any more. Many people today are not willing to believe (or claim to believe) specific doctrines or to behave in specific ways just to be allowed to be part of a church. They don’t necessarily even want to be part of a church in the first place.
The emerging pattern, says Bass, is belonging then behaving then believing.
She tells about a conversation she had with a young woman in a small, rural Lutheran church. During a potluck, she talked with this woman who was one of the only young, single members of the church. The young woman told Bass how much she loved the church, that the people had become her family. But, she confessed, “‘I don’t even know if I believe ‘in’ Christianity or Lutheran doctrine or anything like that. I just experience how to love God and how God loves me through these people, by learning how to quilt and singing these hymns. I don’t know what to call it, but it is less about believing and more about living'” (106).
Now some of the people who look at churches and religious practices are describing this as a new way of being church–belong, behave, then believe. A new paradigm. But I would argue that it is actually quite old.
“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering . . . ”
The people who gathered around Jesus, his earliest disciples, felt a sense of belonging before they knew how to behave–and certainly before they knew what to believe. Their joy comes from their sense of belonging–not from their doctrinal certainty or clear understanding.
“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering . . . ”
Even though they have just been talking about how Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, the disciples are startled and terrified when Jesus shows up. They think he is a ghost.
And how does Jesus respond to this lack of understanding, this lack of faith? He doesn’t berate them or lecture them. He shows them his wounded hands, his scarred feet. He says, “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
Jesus does seek to correct their misunderstanding, to transform their doubt into belief. But he does so gently, lovingly, patiently. He shows them his body. He eats a piece of fish to prove that he is not a ghost. Do ghosts have digestive tracts? He opens up the scriptures to them.
Jesus does not condemn the disciples for their lack of understanding, their lack of belief. He gives them what they need to better understand, what they need to move toward belief. He doesn’t insist that they believe in him before he enters into relationship with them.
In this story, Jesus is gracious and gentle with the doubts of his disciples.
Through this story, Jesus invites us into the joy of belonging, even if we are disbelieving and still wondering.
Thanks be to God.