Doubting Disciples and our Risen Lord

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Luke 24:13-27; 28-35 (read in two parts)

Of all people you would have thought, you would have thought that the disciples would have been the first on Easter day or Easter evening to shout “Alleluia, Christ is Risen, he is risen indeed”  You would have thought that the disciples would have been the first to believe with great joy the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Ready to go out with joy and energy to tell the world, “He is alive, he is really alive!” 

I used to think that. But I was wrong. 

That is not the witness of the gospels. The disciples do not immediately respond to the news of Easter so much with belief, but with doubt and dismay or fear.  This is true in every gospel telling of the story.

In Mark’s original ending, the women who hear the good news of Easter are told to tell the disciples. But that is not what they do. Mark says, ”So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” 

In Matthew, when the disciples meet the Risen Jesus for the first time, Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshped him; but some doubted.”  

In John, we know the story of the most famous doubter of them all: we’ve even labeled him for all eternity as doubting Thomas. I always feel for him.  He didn’t believe until he had proof. What we forget is that the other disciples did not believe in the resurrection either until they saw his hands and his side. Doubting Disciples… all of them. After the resurrection. 

In Luke, when the women tell the resurrection story to the disciples, Luke says, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale”… and then Luke goes on to tell the story we read today. A great story, the walk to Emmaus… 

It is Easter evening,  Cleopas and another follower (many scholars think it is his wife) heading home after a long, hard weekend. The weekend from hell, literally, a weekend where they saw hell come to earth. A weekend where their hopes and dreams for Jesus and what he would do for Israel are crushed. 

So it is back to reality. Back to the grind. They have 7 miles and 3 hours of walking to unpack it all. They could have used a therapist. Of course, who is there with them? — but Jesus, their risen Lord. But they do not know that. He is still a stranger to the. They will not know who he is until much later. 

It is a very interesting story about faith and doubt to me on this side of Easter. 

Like us, they have all the evidence of a risen Lord. Like us, they remember what Jesus had told them again and again: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:22) 

Like us, they know they story of Easter morning… the empty tomb, the angels in dazzling clothes saying, “Remember.. Remember, what Jesus told you, that he Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 

They have all the evidence of a risen Lord- his words, the words of angels and now they have the Risen Lord right next to them, as they stop to tell this stranger the story… and they cannot recognize him. They just stand there… telling the stranger the story… lost in their grief, shock, and dismay. 

Now I would like to think I would have recognized him on the road. I would like to think I would be saying, “Praise the Lord. Youare alive!” I would like to think that today those words would fall easily off my tongue. After all, we have the story of new life. 

We were here on Easter Sunday with the crowds saying, “Christ is alive!” …

We sang the Easter hymns… But that was a couple of weeks ago. 

Now we too have travelled down the Easter road toward home. Now we are caught up again in the harsh reality of the world – we are taken over by our problems, our worries and our frustrations. Dreams of a perfect life shattered. Wars still rage. Our military are still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In spite of killing Ben Laden, we know there are still more terrorists out there. Famine still plagues so many. People are still diagnosed with cancer…People are picking up their lives from storms and natural disasters from Japan, to Alabama to Wake county… And now a slow flood is traveling down the Mississippi. 

We just can’t seem to put the pieces together, even after Easter. “We had hoped that he was going to be the one to redeem Israel… to redeem us… to redeem this world!” 

We had such high hopes! How far do we get from Easter before we stop on the road and stare at one another and look very sad? How easy to understand those who leave Easter with their doubts and dismay. 

So I understand and have sympathy with those who live in a world where many doubt the truth of Easter. Cleopas and his wife or friend would understand. They’ve been down that road. 

The disciples would be the first to say, “I know… I know… it was hard for us to believe too.” 

I’m going to tell you something you already know- we live in an age when many doubt and we should understand—we have friends… and there are those who worship at the Kirk who struggle with doubt. I know that. And I’m glad you are here. 

So I’m not surprised by the popularity of books like those written by the atheists of our age: Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who question the existence of God. I’m not surprised by the new book coming out called, “The Divinity of Doubt” written by an agnostic trial lawyer—attacking people of faith and atheists alike. There will be always people feeding our doubts.  You know these arguments are not new, don’t you? 

Truthfully, I don’t always find the critics of the faith very self critical or humble. They often seem as self righteous as the people they critique. They often treat Christian faith as a simple faith to be easily deconstructed – based on arguments they set up– where those of us who have been a part of the faith for a long time understand it is a very rich and complex faith. 

William Sloan Coffin, who was chaplain at Yale and minister to the Riverside church in New York was writing to a young man who was a doubter. Coffin was sharing his own journey from doubt to belief in a series of letters. He was telling Tom, the young doubter, about a common phenomenon in American universities today. He wrote to Tom, “Professors judge poetry, novels, art and music by their very best works. Why then do so many judge religion by the worst examples of it?

 I used to ask professors, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ I knew that 99 chances  out of 100 I wouldn’t believe in that kind of God either.” 

This is not to say that doubt does not have a role to play in faith. I’ve had my doubts.  I think a healthy  doubt has a vital role to play. Too often in religion, doubt has been given a bad press. We trumpet faith but look down on doubt. 

So, may I say a good word about doubt. About doubt that is truly divine in my mind? I think healthy doubt may be one of the best gifts God has given us. 

Fredrick Buechner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith, it keeps it alive and moving.” 

When doubt stirs up a self righteous, complacent faith or bad faith… it is a good thing. It could be exactly what leads someone to a deeper faith. It could be the kind of doubt that leads us to a better understanding of God. 

Healthy doubt has a vital role to play in our lives. Science depends on doubt. For thousands of years people believe the earth was flat. That is reflected in scripture as well. And, yet, there were doubters who questioned this assumption. This led to new discoveries that altered the history of the world. Galileo was right when he called doubt, ‘the father of discovery.” 

The same is true in the life of faith. Jesus himself showed this magnificent power of critical thinking. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” – that was the law of Moses. But Jesus doubted that. He said, “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye’, but I tell you to turn the other cheek.” He saw the self assured Pharisees with their long prayers, rigid Sabbath rules, dietary laws and doubted them all. He heard people say that the Samaritans were a despised and inferior race, but he rejected that thought. A good Samaritan, he said, is better than a bad priest. 

You see, sometimes the strongest faith is reached through deep personal struggles.

Someone once observed that there are two ways a person comes to faith. One way is to inherit it, to borrow it, or to swallow it without question. But generally that kind of faith is not really yours. You never had to fight for it.The other way that a person comes to faith is through deep struggles that move a person from doubt to faith. [1]

The Bible is certainly a book of faith. It is also a book filled with the struggles of individuals who wrestled with their doubts and unbelief and even God. . People, who through that struggle are led to a new and profound faith and deeper understanding of God.People like the doubting disciples. People like Cleopas and his wife or friend.

The road to Emmaus was filled with doubt and dismay. 

 But notice the road didn’t end there. Notice—and this is very important in understanding the story—notice, Jesus was there with them in their doubts…   

He didn’t walk away from them or turn his back on them…  Jesus kept walking with them… he engaged them in conversation—and  when invited by them, he stayed with them, and in a moment of intimacy, when they sat down to a meal with this stranger… when Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them… it was then their eyes were opened and they recognized him. 

It was then, they came to Easter faith… a faith so alive in them that they ran all 7 miles back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the disciples and their friends,

“The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeard to Simon!” 

Today, if you have any doubts, I would invite you to embrace those healthy doubts as a gift of God to you… on your spiritual journey… on your road to resurrection…

I want you to hear Luke tell us, that you are not alone on that road… Christ is right there with you—walking alongside you… maybe you don’t see him, or recognize him… but Christ is there… listening, in conversation with you… even challenging you and comforting you… 

The witness of Luke is that Christ is there walking beside you, ready to be invited into your life… ready to open your eyes… maybe as your share the gift of hospitality with a stranger, maybe as you share a meal and conversation, maybe as we receive the bread and cup from Jesus in the  the Lord’s supper… maybe in the baptism of a child… maybe in an act of loving service… maybe in the quiet of contemplation. Maybe in the midst of your grief when comfort and care are offered. The witness of Luke is that the risen Lord is here among us, waiting to be invited into our lives. 

The Episcopalians have a prayer that says it well. You’ll find it in their book of prayers. It is a simple prayer based on this verse in our story today:“Stay with us, for it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.”

The book of Common prayer captures this ancient act of hospitality and invitation in a moving word of prayer. Today I want to close with that prayer as an invitation for our Risen Lord to be present among us as well:   

Let us pray:  “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion on the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.” Amen.

Thanks to a sermon by Bill Wood of FPC Charlotte for this insight and other insights into role of doubt


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