Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Breakfast in Heaven

John 24:21-29
by Daniel Harrell

I’m continuing my survey of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in John’s gospel this Eastertide with a fish story. Moving to Minnesota, I knew I had landed in a fisherman’s paradise when the program on talk radio as I drove across the state line was about catching muskies. By contrast, a journalist I knew in Massachusetts once published an op-ed rant on catch-and-release fishing. He wrote of being appalled that people take thrill in “dragging a fish through the water by a barbed hook in its mouth…. No one would throw Fido a Milk-Bone with a hook hidden inside and then, when the barb had pierced his mouth and he was trying violently to shake it loose, drag him to a place where he couldn’t breathe. Anyone who did such a thing would be condemned for his brutality. Is it any less brutal to do it to a fish? … any sport that depends for its enjoyability on forcing an animal to fight for its life is wrong. Wrong for what it does to the fish. Even more wrong for what it does to the fisher.”

Man, I wish I’d had this article in hand as a kid whenever my Dad would drag me out of my bed at 2:30 in the morning to go fishing with him. My father is as avid an angler as they come. I sometimes wonder whether the main reason my parents had me was so my dad would have a fishing partner. That’s what he wrote in my baby book. One single sentence on the day I was born: “Now I have a fishing partner.” It was brutal: The getting up in the dark, the liver pudding sandwiches for lunch, the tangled lines, the hooks in trees, the too-often meager results, the sunburn, the mosquitoes, the numbing boredom, the obsessive insistence of trying just one more spot before quitting, the giddiness my Dad expressed at even the slightest nibble. Dad loved just being out on the water while all I wanted to do was drown myself in it. He eventually got fed up with my whining. So he and mom had my brother. Of course my brother turned out to love fishing just like my dad and they’ve been best friends ever since. Not that I’m bitter.

I was reading in the Star Tribune this week about bow fishing—how guys go after carp with a bow and arrow. That might have been cool. Though down South we probably would have just used shotguns.

As I got older I grew to appreciate fishing’s positive effect on my father—whatever that meant for the fish. When life’s stresses and strain started to weigh on him, he’d respond by simply saying: “I’m going fishing.” He found incredible solace and strength on the lake—as I imagine many in this congregation are doing as I speak. Going fishing provided some perspective with which to face life’s troubles. You obviously see where I’m going with this. Simon Peter and his disciple buddies were fishermen too—though for them it was an occupation if not also an obsession. The stress and strain Peter experienced over the course of that first Holy Week were starting to weigh on him—the fear, the guilt, the bewilderment, the amazement. Thus in verse 3 of our passage, Peter announced; “I’m going fishing.” Thomas, Nathanael, James, John and two other disciples announced that they were going too.

Simon Peter was fishing when Jesus first found him and called him to follow. Jesus was preaching on the beach and noticed Peter and his friends minding their boats. As the crowd increased, Jesus imposed upon Peter to allow him use of his boat so to address the multitudes that pressed him toward the water. After the sermon was done, Jesus turned to Peter and suggested he cast his nets one more time. Peter replied that the day’s results had been nil; nevertheless, perhaps the rabbi knew of an untapped honey hole. Few fisherman can resist one more cast. Besides, what could it hurt? Why not do it if only to appease this popular preacher. But then the nets filled to almost breaking capacity, and Peter realized this preacher to be no petty parson. He said, “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” To which Jesus responding, “Do not be afraid. From now on, you’ll be catching people.” And with that, Peter stopped fishing for fish.

That is until here after the resurrection. You’ll remember the risen Christ first appeared to his disciples as they hid behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish religious leaders. Matthew suggests that they had been accused of stealing Jesus’ body. The extra-canonical Gospel of Peter reports that they “were being sought by the authorities as malefactors and as wishing to set fire to the Temple.” But as I mentioned last Sunday, I bet they were afraid of Jesus too. During their master’s greatest need, they had been cowards and traitors. If Jesus was strong enough to conquer death, what was he going to do to them? No wonder they locked the door. Yet when Jesus popped in, he pronounced peace rather than doom upon their treachery. Moreover, he breathed his Spirit on them and sent them out to be apostles.

And yet eight days later they were still hiding. Perhaps this was for Thomas’ sake—hoping recreating the scene would compel Jesus to make another appearance. Whatever the reason, at least they no longer tried to hide now. But unless being an apostle means something other than what it meant (namely, one who is sent to fish for people), going back to fishing for fish is hardly what we would have expected these Spirit-infused disciples to be doing at the end of John’s gospel.

Now this may have to do with the way every Christian reacts to what fishing for people implies; namely, the E-Word. Evangelism. Talking about your faith to unbelievers. Catching heathen for the kingdom. Granted, dropping a net on unbelieving and unsuspecting friends usually comes off more like dropping a bomb. I know that whenever I tell people I attend church, never mind that I work at one, the responses I get can range from quizzical curiosity to outright hostility. Of course, Jesus said that’s how it would be. At the same time, it is odd that we interpret catching people as evangelism since to catch a fish is to kill it (first century fishing was not yet a sport). Then again, it was Jesus who said that “The kingdom of God is like a net let down into the lake that caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Maybe this was why the disciples went back to fishing for fish. Judgment Day scenarios can be pretty scary—even when they don’t occur as predicted. Others suggest that the disciples were just hungry—they did have to eat. If they were anything like my father, they may have needed that mental break, some male-bonding time, some peace and quiet. However, since fishing was their former occupation, chances were that they simply went back to the only thing they knew how to do without Jesus. True, he had given them his Spirit, but it must have been only a partial supply. You can’t imagine the disciples after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost behaving this way.

It would be easy to chalk up what looks like apostolic reticence to pre-Pentecost realities were the same reticence not so prevalent among us who stand on Pentecost’s other side. Endued with the fullness of Christ’s Spirit just like the disciples at Pentecost, many of us still resemble this gospel version. Oh there are some days when you’re feeling fully inspired—juiced and fervently unashamed, evangelistically bold, sacrificially generous and prayerfully diligent: You know, like when you’re fresh back from a mission trip, or after a powerful piece of music at church, a great Bible study, a fabulous sermon. But life always finds its way back to the usual. Back to the real world. Back home. Back to the old job.

Was this why Jesus showed up on the beach? I imagine his arms waving as he tried to get his disciples’ attention (though I always wonder why he didn’t just walk out there). The disciples squinted but couldn’t quite make out who it was. The stranger yelled out, “Had any luck boys?” “Naw,” they yelled back. “Well,” the stranger yelled, “try the right side of your boat!” Note that Jesus did not say, “What are you doing back at your old job?” or “Get out of that boat and get busy converting people!” If they were shirking their responsibility, Jesus did not condemn them for it.

Since no fisherman can ever resist one more cast, the disciples took the stranger’s recommendation, tossed their nets starboard and—deja vu—they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. John put two and two together and said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” The impulsive and elated Peter immediately—to the confusion of all who’ve read this since—threw his clothes on (he’d been stripped down to his shorts for work) and then threw himself into the water. Perhaps he hoped he wouldn’t sink this time. Whatever the reason, there’s no confusion as to the direction he swam. Peter made a trout-line for Jesus.

Jesus had some fish frying already, along with some bread. He suggested the disciples add a few of the fish they just caught to the pan. So Peter hauled the whole net-full ashore—153 fish in all, we read. And Jesus said to them, “Come have breakfast.”

Since John’s gospel has a propensity for shrouding the profound within the pedestrian, scholars and preachers have never been able to resist trying to sort out the symbolism. For instance, why were there seven disciples present? Seven is emblematic of perfection and completion. John also makes a point that the nets did not tear. The word tear is the Greek word schism. Could that be a comment on church unity? And what about serving bread with the fish? Jesus declared himself the bread of life. There’s the Last Supper and bread as Christ’s body broken, and the feeding of 5000 where bread and fish make up a miracle. Early Christians used the mark of the fish as a sign of their identification with the risen Lord. Fish spelled out in Greek is an acrostic meaning “Jesus Christ God’s Son and Savior.” Fish adorn bumpers of Christian’s cars in our time. One blew past me in traffic and cussed at me just the other day.

And what about that number 153? St. Jerome argued that 153 was the number of fish species Greek zoologists ascertained existed in the entire world. 153 thus meant the church was to catch people from every nation. St. Augustine adopted a mathematical approach speculating that because 153 is the sum of the numbers 1-17 consecutively, the number 17 was therefore important. Were there not 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Spirit? 9 choirs of angels and 8 beatitudes? 10 Lords-a-leaping and 7 swans a-swimming (OK, so that wasn’t Augustine). There are plenty of other ideas—but it starts getting a little ridiculous. If your tendency is to get bogged down in such deciphering, please don’t miss the main point of this story; namely, that Jesus showed up. The crucified dead and buried Jesus in his resurrected flesh. We should never grow so accustomed to this that we take for granted its enormity. As you may remember the apostle Paul writing in 2 Corinthians, “the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us all into his presence. This is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

On the other hand, don’t get so caught up in the resurrection’s enormity that you lose the simplicity of this story. Jesus showed up on the beach and cooked breakfast for his friends. He could have walked out to the disciples or even floated out to them on clouds surrounded by angels if he wanted to—but I suspect he’s reserving the big splash for later.

In the meantime, Jesus’ ordinary appearance encourages us to keep on the lookout for him, not only visibly in the eschatological sense, but in the ways he shows up in the usual places of our ordinary lives —especially on those days when we’re feeling more like gospel disciples than Pentecost apostles.

I finally decided to give fishing another go a few years back. A good friend invited me to join in on a little excursion off Cape Cod in search of striped bass. My gut reaction was to make up some excuse—visions of my tortured childhood dancing in my head. But instead I determined to overcome my childish ways and “be a man.” I still had to get up at 2:30 AM. Yet gratefully, there were no liver pudding sandwiches, no trees in which to snag my line, no mosquitoes and no numbing boredom—probably due to the fact that I spent most of the day throwing up into a bucket. Here was something which I had never experienced in all of those early mornings out on the lake with my father—seasickness. My friend chartered a small skiff with which we navigated the heavy swells of Buzzard’s Bay, not unlike riding one of a roller coaster at the State Fair for six hours after eating six pronto pups. What began as mild dizziness soon gave way to stomach-churning disorientation. My noble attempt at “being a man” now looked downright idiotic. Why did I subject myself to something I was so bad at? Somehow between appointments with the bucket, wanting to camouflage my humiliation, I did manage to throw out my line. Suddenly as I was reeling in, the line jerked. I yanked and accidently hooked this sweet monster of a bass which ended up being the catch of the day; accomplished, my friend remarked, with one of the lowest catch per cast ratios he’d ever seen. We grilled it and ate it that night on the beach. Delicious.

Now while my big fish story should not be confused with the disciples’ miraculous catch, it does provide one more parabolic reminder when it comes to keeping on the lookout for Jesus. You might want to pay particularly close attention during those times in your life when troubles come and you’re called on to do the things that are hard to do.

Just last Sunday, you’ll remember Hanneke Cassel and Chris Lewis playing fiddle and guitar as part of our worship. What you may not know was how we went home after church last Sunday night to discover that Chris’ parents and family home were in the path of the 
massive, historic tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri. We glared at the television and scoured the web for information as Chris frantically tried to locate his parents. He found them, thankfully, but finding Jesus in all the wreckage seemed less likely. As always, the question most instinctively ask was where was Jesus before the tornado hit? It’s a needless question. Obviously the Lord is not in the business of preventing natural disasters these days. He is, however, still in the resurrection business, and as such he’s been showing up all over Joplin. The vast outpouring of help and prayer has humbled Chris and his family. As difficult as their situation is, theirs is the story of thousands of others all around them. Consequently, a beautiful solidarity has emerged, an eagerness to be involved in each others lives; a desire to love and care in ways that would not have otherwise happened. As one Lutheran pastor wrote, “There is incredible loss and sorrow, and the church is here to witness as the body of Christ with the people of Joplin.”

The same has happened in North Minneapolis following the tornado that hit there last Sunday. Many of you have already given and pitched in to help. Christian organizations Urban Homeworks and the Salvation Army have been inundated with gifts and offers to the point of having to turn help away. It feels ironic that people come together this way only during times of hardship and tragedy. But that’s how resurrection has always worked. [And that’s why the adjectives out of so many mouths on the other side of these tragedies nevertheless have been words like “blessing” and “grace” and “hope” and “thanksgiving.” Without a trace of irony but with every trace of redemption, Chris’ parents went so far as to say that the love and compassion they’ve received “has blown them away.” “This is all for your sake,” Paul wrote, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

[To send a note or aid to Chris’ parents, you can do so at this address: Don Lewis/PO Box 1325/ Joplin, MO 64802]

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fingers of Faith

John 20:24-29
by Daniel Harrell

In Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen advises Alice in Wonderland to practice believing six impossible things before breakfast each morning to assist with her disbelief. Every Sunday, Christians would do well to heed her advice. It’s why we sometimes say the Apostle’s Creed. In addition to Jesus rising again from the dead, you also have his being born of the virgin Mary, ascending into heaven, coming again to judge the quick and the dead, the holy spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. That’s eight impossible things right there.

Granted, we might have eliminated Jesus’ coming to judge the quick and the dead as impossible had he returned yesterday like he was supposed to. By now you’ve heard, read or saw posted around the Cities that Jesus was due back on May 21. According to calculations by the folks at familyradio.com, if you take the Bible’s equating of one day to a 1000 years, multiply that by the seven days in Genesis 7 that God gives Noah before sending the flood, extrapolate that God was actually talking about Judgment Day; then subtract 4990 (the year of the Flood BC) from 7000, and then subtract 1 more to account for there being no year zero in the switch from BC to AD, you’re then left with 2011 AD. The math is a little more complicated to get to May 21 at 6PM, but since it didn’t happen, it doesn’t really matter. Though that tornado watch last night was foreboding. (And now that I mention it, I also notice a number of people aren’t here this morning.) I’ll admit to being a little disappointed. Even though I don’t think that the Bible teaches an airborne rapture, that could have been fun. But frankly, I’m more surprised than disappointed. I’m surprised that his latest forecast of the end of the world created the media circus that it did. It’s not that the media believed it would happen. The story was that so many people actually did—this despite Jesus’ insistence that none of us can know the day or hour of his coming.

I wonder what the coverage would have been like had Jesus shown up. In Matthew’s gospel, if you’ll remember back a few Sundays, the risen Jesus appeared to his supposedly faithful disciples only to have some of them doubt it anyway. It was a little embarrassing.
But as I mentioned then, I like that the disciples had their doubts. If the disciples can have post-resurrection doubts with Jesus standing right in front of them, any misgivings I harbor sight unseen are no problem. The truth is that doubt has never been a problem for Jesus. To him, it’s not the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction it’s aimed. If a mustard seed’s worth of faith will move a mountain, then obviously it takes a whole lot less to save your soul. Even weak faith is strong as long as it’s faith in Christ.

Faith and doubt often travel in tandem; though there are exceptions. Among my favorite memories is of a woman named Kelly who proudly declared she could never point to a time in her life when she did not believe in Jesus. She vividly recalled how at age six— already having been a believer for as long as she could remember—she heard the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in her Sunday School class and wondered why that happened. Doing what six-year-olds do when they need to know something, Kelly asked her Momma. She said, “Momma, why did Jesus get baptized?” Her Momma responded that Jesus wanted to show that he was a good Christian. So Kelly said, “Then I want to get baptized too.” So Kelly’s Momma marched her down to see the pastor of their Baptist church and Kelly told her pastor how she wanted to get baptized. Convinced she was ready, the pastor immediately scheduled her for the very next Sunday. They don’t call themselves Baptists for nothing.

Sunday arrived and Kelly proudly waltzed down the aisle to the front of the church. She wore one of those glorious, bleached white baptismal robes and ascended the steps to the mighty water that flowed in the big baptistery that sat at the center of the sanctuary—modeled after the River Jordan itself—with the pastor waiting hip deep. Kelly tiptoed toward the water and down onto the first step. The pastor stretched out his hand. He seemed a long way away to Kelly (it was a big pool and she was only six). The water started to soak into her robe and she thought, “maybe I should try to try to swim for it” (though she could only dog-paddle) By this time the white robe had started to puff up all around her, but then it filled up and turned into a cotton anchor. Kelly slipped and sank like a rock. The pastor quickly yelled out the baptismal words—“Father! Son! Holy Ghost!”—and then snatched her out of the water before she drowned. Kelly came up snorting and sputtering but still believing and still strongly to this day. She told me, “I tried to doubt once. I said to Jesus, ‘Maybe you don’t exist,’ but then I thought, ‘yes you do.’”

That such childlike faith so easily dispels “gloomy clouds of doubt” is a testimony to Jesus’ admonition that we practice faith like children. However we all know that even the brightest sunshine sometimes gives way to ominous weather fronts. There are days when faith moves mountains, yet there are other days when it barely gets you out of bed. Gloomy clouds return. We believe, but we also hesitate and question. We confess, but we also qualify our confessions with provisional asides. We trust, all the while guarding our hearts against disillusionment and unmet expectations. Ours is the plea of that desperate father who needed Jesus to heal his daughter, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” For most of us, faith and doubt travel in tandem.

But not for Thomas. Mislabeled “doubting Thomas,” he is the patron saint of adult-like faith. He demanded evidence. He wanted proof. You’re familiar with the story. Jesus’ frightened and disloyal disciples are huddled in their hideout behind locked doors, John tells us, for fear of the Jews—though I imagine they were a little scared of Jesus too. They’d messed up pretty bad and now Jesus was loose (like he said) and likely ticked off too. Jesus found them despite their locked doors, which only scared them more, only to then predictably pronounce peace rather than dreaded doom upon their disloyalty. What’s weird, however, was that eight days later the disciples were hiding out again. Were they still scared? Or were they just trying to recreate the scene from the previous Sunday night hoping to conjure up another showing for Thomas’ sake? John doesn’t tell us where Thomas was the first time around. But score him points for having the guts to venture outside while the others took cover.

Throughout John’s Gospel, Thomas is never portrayed as the timid sort. Back in chapter 11, Jesus told the Twelve about the death of his friend Lazarus and the pending miracle that awaited them once they traveled to his graveside. The disciples asked, “Are you sure you want to go back there? The last time you went there they tried to stone you!” But Jesus replied, “We’re going so that you might have faith in me.” Recognizing his master’s resolve, Thomas stepped up. He said, “Let’s go too so that we may die with him.” The man was no coward. In chapter 14, Jesus was describing how he had to depart from the earth in order to go and get heaven ready. “You know the way to the place where I am going,” Jesus said. But Thomas answered, “Lord we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?” Jesus countered, in what proved a prelude to tonight’s episode, “Thomas, I am the way and the truth and the life.” Thomas wasn’t the only disciple who had no idea what Jesus was talking about; but he was the only one gutsy enough to admit it.

Upon missing Jesus’ resurrection debut, the other disciples were eager to tell Thomas how they had “seen the Lord!” However Thomas was adamant, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” This is how Thomas got his “doubting” reputation. But if the word commonly used for doubt in the New Testament means what it means, namely hesitancy or tentativeness, then Thomas was no doubter. He was an all-or-nothing/no-nonsense kind of guy. He did not hesitate. He was not tentative. He emphatically refused to believe without seeing Jesus for himself.

So Jesus showed up again saying the same things he said when he popped in on Easter (since it obviously needed to be said again if the disciples were ever to get up and get busy being apostles). But then he turned to Thomas and said: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Jesus serves up Thomas’ own words back at him verbatim. Taking for granted that seeing the risen Jesus for the first time was shocking enough, hearing him repeat your exact words even though he’d been nowhere near when you said them must have done a number on poor Thomas. Maybe this was why there’s no report of him taking Jesus up on his offer to touch. Jesus then said, not “stop doubting,” but literally, “Stop not believing and start believing” as if each required the same amount of effort.

Which they did. For just as emphatically as Thomas had declared his refusal to believe, so now did he emphatically pronounce his faith: “My Lord and my God!” This was no minor leap of faith but an enormous launch from worshiping Jesus as the risen rabbi to venerating him as verily God himself. It’s doubting Thomas who utters the supreme Christological declaration of the entire fourth Gospel. Doubting Thomas makes courageously clear that one may now address Jesus with the same language with which Israel addressed Yahweh.

Unimpressed, it seems, Jesus responded with what reads like a mild rebuke: “You only believe because you have seen.” Yet as up to this point in John’s gospel, what other kind of faith in Jesus had their been? The only one type of true belief that had been possible was a belief in the visible Jesus. It was only after the bodily resurrection and the ascension, where the presence of Jesus becomes one of invisible presence through the Spirit, that a new type of faith emerged. Namely, a faith that believes without seeing. As the author of Hebrews would famously write, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” “Blessed, Jesus said,” are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

More than wishful thinking, more than hoping for the best; faith is spiritual sight. Its childlike variety is not na├»ve imagination but confident trust in a trustworthy Savior even though we do not see Him with our eyes. Human experience acknowledges, empirically as well as philosophically, that there is more to reality than what we see. I once spotted a blind woman walking downtown with her guide dog, a Labrador Retriever. Unfortunately, the dog must have been a rookie because it kept aiming the woman into a trash can which was really irritating her. She ordered him to straighten out and I chalked the event up to a quirk in the dog’s training. However a few minutes later as I returned from an errand, I was frantic to see that the guide dog had mistakenly halted the woman in the middle of oncoming traffic. Fortunately the woman—even though she could not see—nevertheless knew the reality. She yanked her dog safely across the street over to the other side.

Faith knows the existence of reality; a truth that resides deep in our souls that often counters everything we would have otherwise have expected. For Jesus to be Lord and God, meant that Christ had staked his claim on the world. But such a claim looked absurd. What sort of Lord would ever die on a cross and then select such a loser-band of misfit nobodies with which to conquer the planet? Yet by faith, Christ’s claim as well as his means of implementing proved completely realistic. The least ended up as the greatest. Within just a couple of generations the Roman Empire itself proved to be no match for the apostolic train. There was more to reality than anybody imagined. And there still is—as long as we’ll have the faith to believe it.

In his most recent book, Why Jesus?, Bishop William Willimon writes, “God’s great rescue operation for a fallen world is Jesus Christ. The great end of that venture is the Kingdom of God, that time and place when God, at last, gets what God wants. Many want a better world, a closer, more heightened sense of God’s nearness and God’s rule, but it is one thing to anticipate such a time and place; it is quite another actually to look at this lowly Jew from Nazareth, the servant, and believe that, in him, the kingdom has come—even now.” “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;” Jesus cautioned, “do not say ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is already among you.” By which he meant, “I am king—your Lord and your God. With all the impossible things we believe already, it is not so impossible to believe this too.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Dubious Rising

Matthew 28:1-17
by Daniel Harrell

How many of you were up early for the Royal Wedding on Friday. Tea and scones? We had it on DVR. And yet it was somewhat troubling to enjoy since at the same time I had in my hand a newspaper with all of those horrible pictures of tornado devastation from Alabama. Hundreds dead and thousands homeless. On the one hand the morning media obsession with the royal wedding almost to the exclusion of the tornadoes’ destruction seemed so inappropriate. And yet on the other hand, as I listened to the gathered congregation sing hymns in the majestically soaring Westminster Abbey, built to anticipate heaven, and heard the Archbishop of Canterbury intone those ancient words of Scripture and prayer, all designed to remind us of how marriage is founded on faith and modeled after our relationship with Jesus—for better or worse—and how this event carried for so many the symbol of so much hope for new life and the future, just as our own faith in the resurrection carries our hope for new life and the future—and knowing Southerners as I do, that even in tornado-torn Tuscaloosa, those that could have would have found a way to catch a glimpse of the dress to lighten their sadness just a bit—maybe the troubling tension we felt is similar to the tension we’re supposed to feel between this fallen world and the real world to come.
I told a story not too long ago of a university chaplain whose daughter Amy, a freshman at the university, was tragically killed. As parents, the chaplain and his wife were tortured with grief. Amy had sung in the University Chapel Choir. The choir members, distraught themselves, nevertheless insisted they sing at Amy’s funeral. In order to assist them with their grief, and to prepare them for their funereal performance, the University Health Services sent over a grief specialist who assured them of the necessity of their sorrow and encouraged them that their grief-work was progressing right on schedule and that really, it was good to grieve and accept death. At the funeral, however, the students in the University Chapel Choir (never ones to respect authority) stood and sang defiantly, raucously from the Easter portion of Handel’s Messiah: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!” According to the inconsolable chaplain, Jesus showed up that day and death slinked off campus, his great victory party ruined by a choir, that while it could not refuse death, could refuse to fear it or revere it.

It was a compelling testimony to the power of resurrection hope. Many in my congregation were moved when I first shared the story. However, someone also walked up and asked whether it really happened. What kind of question was that? OK, so preachers are known to embellish at times, but c’mon, “did it really happen…” I don’t know… It should have!
Afterwards I wondered, do things actually have to happen to be true? We read the parable of the Prodigal Son and take for granted it was just a story. But the grace about which it teaches is true. Can the same be said about the resurrection? A few years ago the Discovery Channel reported the finding of Jesus’ bones. It made a big splash. Yet they forgot to mention that these bones had in fact been discovered back in 1980. Why did it take more than 25 years to make the news?  Because it wasn’t news. The burial cave wasn’t extraordinary and the names on the bone boxes were very common for that period. That they echoed the names of the Holy Family was purely coincidence.

But what if they had found Jesus’ bones? There are plenty who wouldn’t have been surprised. People don’t rise from the dead. Some say what really happened was what Matthew himself reports: Jesus’ enemies had the disciples swiping Jesus’ body and orchestrating what would’ve turned out to be the biggest hoax in world history—a remarkable feat given how dim-witted the Gospels persistently portray this bunch. Others insist that Jesus never really died on the cross, but only passed out. Buried in an unconscious state, he came to three days later and pushed aside a 2000-pound rock. There’s the Mirage Theory (everybody was hallucinating together at the same time), the Mislocation Theory (they had the wrong tomb), and even one that has Jesus being eaten by dogs, sort of a “Lost Homework” theory.

Postmodernists assert that such explanations are only necessary for people stuck in limited Enlightenment mindsets bound by their need for empirical verification. Things don’t actually have to happen in order to be true. There’s plenty of significance that eludes scientific scrutiny. That’s fine, but I’m still not sure why anybody would want to be a Christian if Jesus is still lying out in some Jerusalem graveyard. I tend to side with the apostle Paul on this one. If Christ was not actually raised from the dead, then Christians are basically just a bunch of idiots.

Not that some of us aren’t idiots already. I got an email from that university chaplain’s office after posting the story about the death of his daughter. Someone had read my sermon online and called to offer their condolences. The email read, “Our university chaplain does not have a daughter who was killed. In fact, he does not have a daughter named Amy. Was wondering where you did your research for this?”

Uh, research?

OK, some things actually do have to happen to be true. Still, many Christians in church on Easter doubt the resurrection ever happened. Most Christians as it turns out. According to one recent poll, 54% of professing Christians do not believe the thing that makes Christianity, Christianity. Is this surprising? Not necessarily—not when you read this passage from Matthew’s gospel.

Most of it you’re familiar with. Women go to the graveyard early in the morning to pay their respects. Earthquake. Angels. The massive stone covering the tomb removed. Nobody’s home. The macho guards? They’ve fainted. The ladies? They’re cool. A little freaked out, but holding it together. The angels ask the ladies what they’re doing in the graveyard: “Jesus isn’t here. He has been raised, just like he told you.” The angels send the bewildered women off to preach the first Easter sermon—no small thing in a culture where women were decidedly second-class. No self-respecting ancient author looking to invent a best-selling gospel would have included women so prominently. On their way they bump into Jesus. They grab his feet. I guess they didn’t want him getting away again.

Jesus tells them not to be scared. He reiterates the angels’ instructions: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee.” In Galilee, they all meet Jesus on a mountain, since in Matthew’s gospel all the really important stuff happens on mountains. “The disciples worshipped him,” Matthew writes, but then somewhat surprisingly adds, “some doubted.” That’s a line you may not have remembered.

Now, to be fair, each of the gospels has its doubters; the most famous being Doubting Thomas. In John’s gospel, Jesus popped in on the hiding disciples to gave them the good news of his resurrection in person. But Thomas was out getting groceries or something. He refuses to believe what the others report unless he sees for himself. So the risen Jesus pops in again and tells Thomas to check it out: “See my hands. Poke your finger in my side. Stop doubting and believe.” There’s no record that Thomas ever sticks his finger in Jesus’ side but he does believe. Jesus responds, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” A clear message for the rest of us.

In Matthew’s gospel, however, we get a different kind of doubter. The disciples who doubt aren’t the ones out getting groceries, but the ones looking at the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. Perhaps not wanting to embarrass anybody, Matthew doesn’t name names. And I should add that Matthew’s word for doubt is different from the one used for Doubting Thomas. Thomas’ doubt was outright disbelief whereas what we have here is more akin to hesitation. But still, why the hesitation? It is a little embarrassing. Since the next verse says that Jesus “came to them,” maybe they hesitated because Jesus was still far away—though not so far away that they failed to recognize him enough to worship him. Maybe “the some” who hesitated were not some of the disciples, but some hangers-on who had yet to get with the program--except that Matthew specifically says “the eleven.” Maybe Matthew’s pen slipped? He meant to write “believed” and mistakenly wrote “doubted”? Heck of a slip. Basic Bible translation guidelines insist that the harder the passage, the more likely it is to be original since some later copyist would have already tried to fix it.

But why fix it? I say leave it like it is. If the disciples can have post-resurrection doubts with Jesus standing right in front of them, then why any reservations of our own are nothing? If the disciples hesitate to believe when they see Jesus, then the rest of us who struggle to believe sight unseen are home free. How do I know? Because in the ensuing verses Jesus sends out his doubting disciples to make more disciples. “Go and baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey everything I taught.” How about that? Jesus doesn’t say, “OK guys, let’s deal with this doubt thing first. I can’t send you out to start a major world religion if you’re not sure of it yourself!” No, the disciples doubt and Jesus says “go spread the good news!”

Doubt has never been a problem for Jesus. The only problem is when doubt becomes an excuse. Every now and then I’ll get into a conversation with someone considering Christianity that goes something like this. I’ll ask, “Why don’t you just believe in Jesus?” The person I’m ask will start listing hesitations: “I’m not a good enough person yet,” or “I want to get my life in order before I start getting serious about God,” or “I don’t want to be a hypocrite,” or “I haven’t read the Bible cover to cover yet, you know, done the research,” or “I need more proof,” or “I’m waiting until I get married and have kids,” or “what if the story’s not true? The last thing I want to do is believe something that could be wrong. I’ve got to figure these things out.”

But Jesus never showed up to anybody who had everything figured out. He never showed up to anybody who had their life in order. If you’ve already got it all together, Jesus is probably not for you. And he’s probably not for you if you’re a good enough person either, whatever that means. Jesus is for people who’ve got nothing together, whose lives are a mess and who have every doubt in their ability to be good on their own.

Doubt has never been a problem for Jesus. To him, it’s not the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction in which it’s pointed. If a mustard seed’s worth of faith will move a mountain, then obviously it takes a whole lot less to save your soul, as long as you’re aiming at Christ. The only other time this word for doubt gets used in the Bible is earlier in Matthew. It’s where Peter tries to walk on water after seeing Jesus do it. After a couple of steps toward Jesus, Peter freaks and starts to sink. He screams out, “Lord save me!” and Jesus stretches out his hand and saves him. “Why’d you doubt?” Jesus asked. Peter’s like, “Why do you think?” And then they get back in the boat. Later, Peter really makes a mess of things but still gets named chief of the church. That says something too.

Jesus is probably not for anybody who can walk on water by themselves. Jesus is for doubters and fearers and strugglers and sinkers and losers and grievers like you and me. People like those who attended that university woman’s heartbreaking funeral. That’s right, it happened. I did my research this time. A young woman named Amy was tragically crushed and killed by a bus. And yes, her parents and classmates were devastated. And yes, the University Health Services sent over a goofy grief specialist whom the choir ignored as, yes, they defiantly sang “Hallelujah!” in the face of death.

Only the young woman who died was not the chaplain’s daughter. I got that part wrong. Unlike Matthew, my pen did slip. Nevertheless, the university chaplain was present. He was there, he saw what happened. Just like the women in the graveyard that first Easter morning saw what happened. Just the like the disciples who encountered Jesus atop that mountain but couldn’t believe their eyes. And just like the billions of believers ever since who’ve been pulled out of the water by encounters with a risen Christ they’ve never seen with their eyes—including the survivors of horrible tornadoes who I guarantee you are in churches this morning, along all those who help them in Christ’s name. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” Jesus said. And blessed are those who doubt too.