“Joyful Disbelief”

In my vacation absence, Elder Summer Sattora preached the following. She is a member of South Church and about to begin her second year at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, NY.

When I was reading the scripture for today I found myself rereading verses 36-42 over and over again, trying to picture what was being written about. My focus has been so much on those verses that I will be basing most of my sermon this morning on those (rather than the entire piece). I will read them again for you now: “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and 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.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”

“While in their joy they were disbelieving.” At first glance this phrase is a little odd. How can you disbelieve and still have joy? The RSV translates this phrase as “And while they still disbelieved for joy.” That seems to be even odder, doesn’t it? How can you disbelieve because of or for joy? But I thought a little more about it and as I thought I kept thinking of what it would have been like to have been a disciple in that room seeing Jesus after he had died. I would have mourned him, grieved for him, cried and yelled, unable to sleep or eat perhaps, wishing for just one more chance to see him or speak with him or even touch his hand. Sure, the women returned from the tomb saying that they were told “He is not here, but has risen.” But I hadn’t seen him. I wasn’t there. And sure, two of the followers of Jesus had told of an encounter on the road to Emmaus, but I hadn’t seen him. I wasn’t there. And maybe a small part of me remembered Jesus saying he would be resurrected, but since I wasn’t sure I believed he would be killed let alone raised from the dead, I figure it’s just a vain hope. So there I am, sitting in a room with my fellow disciples, talking about these visits, when suddenly a voice I never thought I would hear again says “Peace be with you.” Standing there before me is my teacher and my friend and my brother whose body I saw tortured and beaten and crucified, appearing to be alive and healthy and whole. I can imagine that moment of hearing his voice and feeling everything in me stop. My breath, my heart, my mind. I would’ve gotten those chills that run up the back of your neck to the top of your head. All I could do was stare, wondering if my eyes were playing tricks on me, or perhaps if I had finally snapped under the pressure of hiding from those who had killed him afraid I would be next. I wouldn’t be able to move, maybe even wondering if the other ten were witnessing what I was. And then when he continued to speak, declaring himself to be really there in front of us, that feeling of happiness that would’ve welled up inside me would have taken me over. Tears would have filled my eyes and my limbs would have become shaky. I probably would’ve fallen to my knees, longing to run to him and embrace him, muttering prayers of thanksgiving to God that Jesus wasn’t dead after all. Joyful disbelief indeed.

I wonder if someone in that room looked at Jesus as he was asking them why they were frightened and why they doubted and wanted to say “Why do you think?! You were dead and now you aren’t!!” I mean, sure, I can imagine Jesus was a bit frustrated. He probably wanted to say, “Listen dummies not only did I tell you this would happen but I told you it was necessary to happen to fulfill prophecy! Why are you so surprised?” Maybe the disciples weren’t the only ones experiencing joyful disbelief. Jesus finally has the chance to be with his chosen eleven (Judas being out of the picture at this point) and it is not quite the reunion he hoped for. He is joyful to be with them again but disbelieving that they don’t immediately rush to embrace him. Who knows, maybe Jesus had imagined the reunion in the days prior to his arrest, picturing what it would be like when he would present himself before his apostles, how each one would react, and the  happiness everyone would feel at being reunited again before going to spread the word of God. He was human at that time, so it’s possible. We just don’t know. So maybe there was enough joyful disbelief for everyone in that room.

Now I’m sure some of you have been sitting here thinking you’ve been experiencing déjà vu and feeling like some of the Scripture words are sounding vaguely familiar. Perhaps you’re hearing, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this he showed them his hand and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” That’s John 20:19-20. Very similar, isn’t it, except it’s got a lot of joy and not a lot of disbelief. Now, we know that there are four gospels which tell four varying accounts of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is a lot that is similar and a lot that is different. Here is one example of a story that is almost eerily close in wording. We know that the four gospel writers were writing in four different places at four different times to four different audiences. So when we come across something that is the same, it makes us sit up and take notice. Don’t worry, I’m not here to teach a New Testament class and talk about different sources that the gospel writers got their words from and etcetera and etcetera. But it appears that there must have been some sort of tradition, probably oral, that told of Jesus appearing to his disciples. Whether it’s based in fact or not is not for us to discuss here today at this moment, but it would seem that there must have been something compelling enough here that two of the four gospel writers included it in their testimony, almost word for word. On a side note, Mark 16:14, which is included in the “longer ending of Mark” which is missing from the earlier Greek versions of his gospel, has a similar story but it’s not nearly so nice: “Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at the table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” Perhaps there’s a reason this one is not included in John and Luke? It’s heavy on the disbelief and light on the joy.

We can even look at the fact that in Luke’s version Jesus appears before them in physical form. He asks them to touch him, he shows them his wounds, and he even eats in front of them to prove he is not a ghost or a spirit. Talk about joyful disbelieving!! I’m sure that even if the disciples believed he was going to be raised they probably didn’t think it would be as a flesh and blood body. They probably believed he would be in the form of some heavenly creature, something with form but no substance. I mean, if someone I was hanging out with all the time told me they were going to die but then be risen I certainly wouldn’t think it would be in the same physical form. I watch Ghost Hunters. I would assume it would be a shadowy figure or something transparent, something on another realm. So imagine my disbelief if all of a sudden this person appeared to me in the same form I had just celebrated Passover with a few days ago. It was almost like he hadn’t died at all, like he had just gone away for a few days on vacation and returned refreshed and rejuvenated. Although, I guess, in a way, you could almost say that’s kind of what happened. So despite our joy at seeing him it would be hard to believe what I was seeing.

What does it mean for us today to be filled with joyful disbelief? Imagine for a moment how you would feel and what you would do if all of a sudden, in the middle of this sermon, Jesus appeared in this room and said to us, “Peace be with you.” Go ahead, I’ll give you a minute to really picture that, live with it for a moment. (Pause for congregation to think about this) How would you feel? What would you do? Go ahead, shout out what you’re thinking. (Allow a couple minutes for the congregation to express themselves) I would like to think I would be like Mary outside the tomb, running up to him yelling “Rabboni” through my tears. I mean, who among us wouldn’t want a Jesus hug? But I think in reality I would cower in a corner, every doubt or fear I had ever had in my faith life causing me to step back and hide. Here would be the embodiment of my faith, the Son of God, the person in the Bible I look up to the most and want to know the most about, and I would feel insignificant and unworthy. I would feel life-altering joy at being in his presence and at the chance to speak with and be with him, but I would also feel disbelief, wondering if he was really here, wondering why he chose this room, wondering why he would want to embrace someone like me. I would be filled with joyful disbelief. Can you relate to that?

But I think that Jesus would sense that and would come up to me, or to you, and say “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your heart? Touch me and see.” To have faith is to be constantly filled with joyful disbelief. I mean, let’s think about it, some of the stuff we believe in is pretty, well, unbelievable. Let’s start with what we celebrated a couple weeks ago: the Resurrection. Trying to explain that to someone….. “So there was this guy and he pissed people off by speaking about loving everyone no matter what and so he got crucified but then it’s okay because three days later God raised him from the dead.” Just for starters. Sounds pretty out there, am I right? But as Christians we believe in this, even if we have different ideas of what that means. We find joy and comfort in this idea of the resurrection, in the idea that Jesus was the Son of God, in the idea that he died for us. We find joy in his message of loving everyone no matter what, even when we’re faced with a world that seems to tell us the opposite. And yes, sometimes we can’t explain why we believe, we just know that we do, that something inside us gives us the strength to believe even when we don’t know why.

I haven’t forgotten about verses 44-48, don’t worry. I don’t want them to feel left out, because there is certainly joyful disbelief there as well. After all, this is Luke’s version of the great commission. He writes, “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” The eleven must have been filled with so much joy that the teachings of Jesus were going to continue and then at the same time filled with so much disbelief that they were the ones being entrusted to do this. Isn’t this how we all feel, knowing we are called on to do the same? As Christians we feel so much joy that we get to share this message of hope and love, and yet we feel so much disbelief that we are being entrusted with something so important. While we are not lucky enough to have Jesus appear before us and open our minds to the scripture in the same way he did for the apostles, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t just as worthy. I would be surprised if these witnesses didn’t feel trepidation and fear as they ventured out in to the world. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment in a small room with others who have shared your experience with Jesus, but it’s quite another thing to venture forth from Jerusalem and start preaching the word to people who may not want to hear it. But isn’t that what we’re called to do? To venture forth from this room in Rochester NY and spread the word to people who may not want to hear it? We must find a way to merge our joy and our disbelief so we can face the risen Lord and say, “Jesus, I may feel fear and doubt and disbelief, but Lord I feel confidence and strength and joy also. I will go out and even in my disbelief I will find the joy to tell everyone of your message. I will find a way for others to feel what I feel when reading these words of Luke and when I imagine myself in that room seeing Jesus for the first time. I will be your witness.” That is how we will preach our joyful disbelief.

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