Joyful Disbelieving Belief

My reading this week comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verses 36-48. It reads:

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 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.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 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.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 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, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 

There are several key themes in this passage that mark parallels to be found at an almost universal level across the witness of the Gospels. We have disbelief/belief, sorrow and confusion/joy and excitement, the bodily nature of Jesus’ resurrection, and that in light of his resurrection, the disciples are now commissioned to share this Good News with others. Tomes could be and have been written on each of these themes.

While I want to address most of these, I think the best approach is to look at this in stages or a pattern of development. Specifically, how do the disciples deal with the resurrection, how does the resurrection change them, and what does this change empower them to do. So, we begin at the start of this passage.

According to Luke, Jesus simply appears before them amidst their confused talk about the risen Lord, especially in light of the news given by Cleopas and the other unnamed disciples as they were making their way to Emmaus. The text specifically says that Jesus “stood in their midst” (este en meso). No context, no manner in which he arrived; Luke simply asserts that Jesus was standing there among them, paralleling (but in reverse) what had just happened to Cleopas and the other disciple when Jesus had been revealed to them in the breaking of the bread and he just vanished.

The disciples respond to this “appearing” in their midst with shocked disbelief. Quite simply, the have no category to put this experience other than what they respond with: they believe he is a disembodied spirit. This is important in that, as NT Wright often points out, when it comes to understanding the first century mind when it comes to the resurrection, we can’t just assume that they were expecting anything like it. They understood spirits, and they did expect a generalized resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

But Jesus’ resurrection is completely off their radar. Not only is it not the “end of days,” so to speak, but this was the raised body of their Master they knew to be executed and buried. His body still bore the wounds inflicted on him. In his appearing and disappearing, this body has the ability to both be there, and also not (strangely, one could make interesting parallels with modern science on this point; Jesus’ body seem to be non-local in the way we talk about particles being non-local; see this article in Scientific American to explore the idea a bit). Yet, this same body that possesses this strange property also is subject to being touched, or eating fish, which, we might assume, suggests that Jesus was hungry, just like our bodies in their present state are hungry. The risen Christ is the embodied Christ.

In light of Jesus’ resurrected, glorified, transformed body, what had appeared as another failed messianic claim turns out to have been far beyond their ability to comprehend or align with their expectations of what a Messiah would be. How can the Messiah, the Christ, be one who suffers humiliation and death, only to rise again? How can this risen one be so much like us, yet not? How can dead things not stay dead, to borrow a quote from Anna Florence?  (Preaching Moment #10)

In light of this, Luke records, the disciples in their shock were “disbelieving from their joy” (apistounton apo tes charas). Unable to parse their experience, the emotions of shock and disbelief are suddenly mixed with the sheer joy of knowing that though they don’t understand what is going on, something is, in fact, unfolding before them. In the peace Jesus brings by his presence (v. 36), something begins to well up on the inside of them, and it is joy and wonderment that even though they don’t understand, they know God has been faithful. They see with their own eyes and feel with their hands that salvation, that redemption for which they and their parents’ and their parents’ parents had prayed and longed for. Today, here and now, their hearts and their eyes tells them, God’s promises have made their way to them, and its fulfillment is greater and more marvelous than they could have imagined.

Yet, knowing that something is going on and understanding what that is are two separate realities. Their joyful disbelief awaits one last step of transformation. The boundaries of what they think they know about God, God’s promises and God’s faithfulness must now be redrawn in light of the resurrection. This transformation reveals hidden depths to the law, prophets and the psalms. (v. 44)

Luke tells us that in light of their confused, yet joyful disbelief, Jesus opens their minds to the full meaning of Scripture (dienoixen auton ton noun). In them, they see that everything that had come before finds the fullness of meaning in Jesus’ risen presence. And it is in his risen presence, in the glory of the mystery that they see revealed before them, that they come to a profound discovery: The risen Jesus is the embodied Jesus, and the embodied Jesus is none other than Israel’s God made flesh. The risen, embodied, Yahweh-God-with-us-presence shines with a new glory that ties together the story of a people whose call is being renewed and re-formed as Jesus’ witnesses. (v. 48) Behold, he has made all things new. (Isaiah 43:19, 65:17; Ephesians 2:15; Hebrews 8:13; Revelation 21:5)

For a first-century Jew, this was a mind-shattering event, and the church will spend the next fifty years pounding the initial implications of what Jesus reveals in appearances like this one. The church will spend several hundred years formalizing the Trinitarian implications that flow from the church’s earliest affirmations that Jesus was a man, yet somehow also Yahweh’s incarnate presence. That said, the implications are just as mind-bending for us moderns. As was rhetorically asked earlier, what can we know and how can we know it if dead things don’t stay dead?

Here, I think we can take consolation in the observation of David Lane’s observation: “no one believes the goodness of Jesus’ Resurrection when they first hear it.” Simon Peter and John didn’t, so they ran to the tomb. Thomas didn’t. Even Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb thought someone had taken the body away. Cleopas and the unnamed disciple commented a few verses previous here in Luke that their hearts were heavy because they “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21). Even after seeing it, they had to have their minds opened to its reality. None of us are better than the disciples who knew Jesus best, so we can’t claim to have a mightier faith.

But the good news is that the joy that comes from Jesus’ resurrection power and presence isn’t dependent upon how firmly we decide to believe it. No, it’s a gift that comes when he appears to us and grants us his peace, just as he did with these disciples. What matters in this equation is that we are willing to be present, to be his witnesses to the best of our God given ability. It is through him alone that we are empowered to take it out into the world and share it. When it goes out through us, it will take a lot of winding paths, as does our own wavering faith.

But in receiving it by his power, this proclamation leads us time and again to the foot of the cross and to the rolled away stone, both of which eventually point us to our neighbor’s door to share his story. When we share his story, there he stands next to us, helping all who hear repent and turn from their shortcomings, and so receive forgiveness.

Jesus has never, nor will he ever ask for perfect people to share this joyous news. If he had waited on the perfection of his first disciples’ faith before the news went out, we would still be waiting 2,000 years later. I don’t know about you, but that is a relief to me. No, what he simply asks for is a people, is for you amidst all your amazement and your questions to stand in his peace, stand in the sheer joy at this new thing he has done, and show it and live it out to the best of our ability, proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.

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