4 May 2003
Last week, when Barry was here, we read the story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples as told by John. This week, we have part of Luke’s account of the event, which is slightly different. Luke doesn’t stress the fact that the disciples were frightened, huddled together behind locked doors, the way John does. All the same, it’s pretty clear that this is what was happening, and you can’t blame them.
Imagine, if you will, that you are a citizen of a middle Eastern country which is occupied by an Imperial power. Your leader has been killed by elements of his own people joining forces with that Imperial power, and you are afraid that you will be next on the list. And there are funny rumours going round about what has happened to your leader – you would have sworn he was dead, but some quite sensible folk are saying that they’ve seen him and chatted to him.
Well, that may well be what is happening in Baghdad right now, but it also happened in Jerusalem all those years ago.
And those sensible folk who were claiming to have seen Jesus, and talked to him, include Simon Peter, for one – and here are Cleopas and his wife, who had decided to try to make it home to Emmaus, seven miles away, coming roaring back and saying that they’d seen Jesus, and spoken to him. Is he alive? Could he be?
And then, suddenly, there he is. A ghost? Surely you’re seeing things? Perhaps it’s a result of your own longing for him to be alive, like the Juliet Stevenson character conjuring up the Alan Rickman character in Truly, Madly, Deeply.
But no, he’s suggesting you grab hold of him. Feel – he’s well solid! Luke, in his account, doesn’t actually mention the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, the way John does, but the implication is there when Jesus tells the assembled disciples to touch his hands and feet.
And then he demands some food – trust Jesus to be hungry, that hasn’t changed! Not only asks for food, but actually eats his helping of fish, and I’ve no doubt that, had they had chips in those days, he’d have had some of those, too. Ever heard of a ghost who could eat?
So you are beginning to reckon that Jesus must be real, after all. And so he takes you back through the Scriptures – just as he did with Cleopas and his wife on the road to Emmaus – and shows you how this was all part of the plan, all prophesied, all foreseen and foretold, that God would raise the Messiah from death after three days. And this time, finally, you see what he is getting at.
You know, I wonder whether the disciples hadn’t quite realised what it was all about because Jesus himself hadn’t been absolutely certain. When you think of all the struggles he had had with himself about who he was, and what his mission was. After all, no matter how much we say we believe, when push comes to shove and our faith is tested, it’s not always easy to be quite so certain. Look how scared Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane. For him, it must have been such a relief to find he hadn’t been mistaken, after all! He knew he must die if he went to Jerusalem; so much was obvious. The Jewish authorities weren’t going to put up with a teacher like him any longer than they had to. But it must have been very difficult to be absolutely sure that he was doing the right thing in allowing himself to be put to death. If he were mistaken, it would have been so unnecessary, a life cut tragically short. And even if he were not mistaken, could he be really sure that his Father would raise him?
We know that on the Cross Jesus felt utterly alone, utterly separated from God. That cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But then, at the end, when he cries out, “It is finished!”, I’m almost sure that is a cry of triumph. A sort of “Done it!” “Yesssssssssss!” His doubts were vindicated. He had got it right, after all!
And so when he had been raised, the Scriptures, which he had thought before that he understood, he now knew, so clearly, that he had understood them, and was able to explain them to the disciples. “Look, this is what it says, do you see how it has worked out!”
But what does all of this mean to us? It’s all too familiar, these stories; we let them wash over us, we reckon we probably believe them, although whether we actually do or not we don’t particularly trouble ourselves to find out. After all, it was all so long ago in history….
I think the first thing we learn from this story is that it’s okay to doubt. The disciples were pretty doubtful; they had serious trouble believing that Jesus had been raised. It wasn’t until he’d shown them in as many ways that he could think of that he was alive and well that they were able to listen and understand how it was all part of God’s plan. And, as I said, I reckon Jesus himself must have had his doubts – he was, after all, human. And we all doubt.
I know there are some teachers who reckon we should never doubt, that it is sinful to doubt, and so on. Rubbish! Or an even stronger expletive than that, but let’s not use bad language! But honestly, it is all rot, you know. Because it’s only when you begin to doubt that your faith becomes important to you. Someone once said “Doubt is the crucible of faith”, it’s where your faith becomes refined, where all the inessential things fall away, and what is left is what really matters. Jesus promised us that “When the Holy Spirit comes, he will guide us into all truth”, and I think we can rely on that. After all, faith is a gift from God – maybe our doubts, when we have doubts, are God’s way of helping us to use that gift to the best of our ability!
Jesus went through the Scriptures, first with Cleopas and his companion, wife or whoever, and then with the other disciples, showing them that it was all there, all written, that the Messiah would be raised from death. And because they were there, with him, they could believe and understand. And, of course, later on, when Jesus had been finally taken into heaven, the Holy Spirit did come upon them, Luke says like a rushing mighty wind, and with tongues like flame. And then, of course, they were enabled to proclaim, as Jesus had said, “repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.
And we, too, have the Holy Spirit, since that promise was to all of us. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth, and gives us joy and peace in believing, helping us to find out what is true through all our doubts and fears. And giving us hope that, no matter how much we may doubt, it really is true in the end!
And, of course, bringing about what John said in that first reading that June read to us: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” We can know that, even in this life we are God’s children, and John says that we don’t know what we will be when we, too, are raised. “What we do know is this:” says John, “when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
Moreover, both in this life and especially in the life to come, there is healing. I don’t know so much about physical healing – I do know that this does sometimes happen, and very wonderful it is, too. But if we believe in resurrection, and why are we celebrating Easter if we don’t?, then maybe physical healing isn’t just so important. It feels important at the time, of course, nothing is worse than being in pain, but in the end our bodies are going to wear out or rust out, whatever we do to prevent it.
But that part of us that makes us “us”, if that makes sense. That, we are taught, carries on even after these bodies have gone to dust. One of the things that Jesus’ being raised shows us is that there is something else to look forward to, however improbable that seems most of the time! But if we carry on, and even if we don’t, spiritual healing makes sense. It’s not so much about laying-on-of-hands and so on, although that sometimes is part of it. It’s mostly about becoming the person God designed us to be. Becoming whole. Learning to identify, and dispose of, all the negative stuff inside us, the memories of painful or embarrassing times that still hurt, the times when someone let you down, or wasn’t there for you, the tings that you maybe feel guilty about, or angry about, even though there was nothing you could have done to prevent them. That sort of thing. Sometimes you need someone to help you confront these memories, other times you can manage alone, with God’s help. And the thing is, once you know what it is that is stopping you being truly whole, you can just hand it all over to Jesus, and ask for His healing touch. I can tell you from personal experience that we are healed like that when we ask.
It’s time I stopped, but I just want to finish with a thought that only occurred to me relatively recently. If we just look on the Resurrection as an event in history, then no matter how much we believe it, we aren’t making the most of it. Christ was not raised for his benefit, although that too. He was raised for our benefit. For your benefit. For my benefit. Because of the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit can come and indwell us, heal us and enable us. Because of the Resurrection, our sins, which Christ took upon himself on the Cross, have not only been forgiven, they’ve been totally disposed of. Let’s not waste the Resurrection. Let’s allow God to come and indwell us through his Holy Spirit, to help us work through our doubts to a more secure faith, to heal us where we need healing, and to make us whole. Who knows, we might be in for an exciting time!