Third Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:1-7
See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God!
There’s a funny sign that women like to post in their homes that says, “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” This is true because when Momma is frazzled by the work she has to do, she takes it out on the others in the house. If there are too many dishes in the sink, the kids hear long lectures about wasting valuable resources when they use a clean cup every time they take a drink of water. Toys on the living room floor bring out the wrath of Momma. You don’t even want to see Momma when there are dirty footprints her newly mopped kitchen floor. On the other hand, the household is happy after Momma has had a quiet and relaxing bubble bath without children interrupting. The sign reminds us that happiness comes when Momma is kept happy.
I once saw this saying: “I don’t suffer from stress. I’m a carrier.” We could name a million ways stress is affecting people in our world today; it is a wonder that anyone can say, “I don’t suffer from stress.” The saying is funny because the writer claims to be a carrier, but is this really a joke? Too many people are responding to stress in unhealthy and dangerous ways. Yet, we can face our stress with an optimistic point of view. Will we continue to suffer or will we look forward to the better times that are surely around the corner? The answer to that question is what drives our response. If we believe that tomorrow will be a good day, we’ll do positive things. If we expect to continue suffering, then nothing we do, good or bad, will make any difference.
David was always facing some enemy. We see in the Psalms his songs of lament and worry. But we also see that he faced those times of difficulty with faith. He believed his God was trustworthy so he had nothing to fear. In today’s psalm he cried out asking God to answer him, to have mercy and to hear his prayer. Yet, even in that cry he spoke to God with confidence in His saving hand. He faced his difficulty with faith, knowing that God is trustworthy.
We probably shouldn’t be a carrier of stress, since so many people are already dealing with problems that seem beyond their ability to handle, but we need not suffer from it either. We can, in our faith, have the same attitude as David: that we need not be concerned that our neighbors have plenty of grain and wine. Hope in the Lord gives us something that they can never have: a greater joy that gives us the peace to sleep well at night, despite the difficulties we face.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke wrote, “While they still didn’t believe for joy...” This is such an odd statement. How can they be happy about something they can’t believe is happening? Yet, haven’t we all experienced that at some point in our lives? Have you ever been so joyously in love and yet at the same time wonder how that glorious creature could possibly love you too? Have you ever received an award or a gift that seems way beyond what you deserve, and even while accepting the award and gift with joy can’t believe that you are actually the recipient? Have you ever gotten a test back, thinking that you must have failed only to find that you did very well? Your examples might be different, but I’m sure each of us can remember a time when we’ve received something with joy but also disbelief.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear another version of the same story we heard from John’s Gospel last week. In this story, the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus had just returned from that extraordinary experience. They had met a man as they walked toward their home, away from the confusion in Jerusalem. He explained the scriptures as they had never heard before; they did not realize the man was their Master and friend. There was something different about Him; His words were somehow new. The man spoke in a way that made the begin to understand the things Jesus had said before He died. Then, when He broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they saw Him clearly. Only then did they know it was Jesus. They ran back to Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, to the place where the disciples were hiding. They told them what they had seen.
Imagine the scene: two disciples ran in breathless with the Good News. The disciples had heard the same news from Mary and the women, but no one really believed them. They’d seen the empty tomb. They heard Good News again, but it is still unbelievable. How do you think they responded this time? “You saw Jesus? But He’s dead!” “Was it a ghost?” It was ridiculous and impossible. They were probably arguing about what those disciples had experienced. “What do you mean that He said that He was the one that Moses and the prophets were talking about?” Religious debate can be heated under the best circumstances. Imagine how hard it must have been for those two disciples to explain the unexplainable to those who had not yet experienced it.
In the middle of this discussion, Jesus appeared. Now, I can imagine those two disciples saying, “See, we told you so!” And yet, they were probably as startled and frightened as the rest of the group. After all, they had seen Jesus and knew that it was Him, but then He just disappeared from their sight. They didn’t know where He went. I wonder if those two disciples were trying to get the other disciples to run back to Emmaus with them. “Come with us and see!” But there He was, in the midst of the disciples having entered through a locked door, appearing as quickly as He’d disappeared after breaking bread at their table.
It is no surprise, then, that the disciples were both joyous and disbelieving. After all, this was beyond their understanding. They’d never met a physical being that was man and yet not man. Despite the times and ways Jesus told them that He would be raised, they didn’t expect this turn of events. They were probably in the upper room trying to figure out what they would do next. Who would be their new leader? Or, the more likely possibility, they were probably deciding to drop it all and return to their lives. Joy and disbelief is the natural response to this circumstance. “Yes, He’s back! But how?”
The circumstances the disciples experienced on that first Easter were extraordinary. Emotions must have been running high. They were grieving because the Master whom they had followed for three years died just a few days before. They were angry because the people who should have stood up for justice and Jesus were among those who caused His death. They were afraid because they did not know whether those same leaders might go after them. They were probably tired for lack of sleep and hungry for lack of appetite. Then, when the women and the disciples from Emmaus came into their presence with the strange news that Jesus had been raised, they were probably confused, doubtful, curious and perhaps even anxious for it to be true.
When Jesus did appear in the Upper Room with the disciples, it is no surprise that they misunderstood what they were seeing. They knew about spirits, ghosts and other superstitious possibilities; resurrection wasn’t really something they might expect. According to N. T. Wright, in his book “Surprised by Hope,” there were very few people in Jesus’ day that believed that a body could be made alive again. Those who did believe in resurrection believed that it would happen only at the end of time. No human was ever expected to be raised in the middle of history. So, these disciples were expected to believe something that was completely outside their understanding. The fact that Jesus’ body was different didn’t help matters. He could walk through walls and appear out of nowhere. What was this being that was standing in their midst?
In John’s story, Jesus simply tells them to touch His wounds. By feeling His body they knew that it was real flesh. Luke makes it even clearer that Jesus was not a spirit but had a human body; Jesus asked the disciples for something to eat. Though they touched His body, there was still room for doubt. People who have had paranormal experiences tell stories about solid looking apparitions and the feeling of a physical presence. People talk about feeling the touch of a hand or even physical force. But ghosts do not need to eat.
Though we see something unique in Jesus, Luke is very careful to show us that the Jesus the disciples met after the resurrection was very real and very human. There were already some who were trying to diminish the events of Easter to nothing more than a spiritual rebirth. Others were claiming that the body had been stolen. Luke, by noting the meal Jesus ate, firmly establishes that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. We still do not understand exactly the type of body He had, but despite those odd differences, it was still like ours. Since Jesus is the first born of the dead, we see that our resurrected bodies will also be very real and very human. From this, N. T. Wright suggests that we should rethink our understanding of Heaven. It won’t be a place, he says, where disembodied spirits hang out on fluffy clouds; we never become angels. Our eternal life will be spent in a new earth with a new flesh that is very real and very human that does not perish but has everlasting life. This is the true hope of our faith that we received on that first Easter.
I suppose even today we can meet this Good News with the same emotions as the disciples, “While they still didn’t believe for joy...” It really is ridiculous and impossible. We still struggle with wanting proof. Why isn’t God showing us His power today? Why don’t we see God’s miraculous works happening among our congregations?
We often talk about the miracle of magnificent sunset or a baby’s giggle. We see miracles in nature all the time with the blooming fields of wildflowers in springtime and the way the land is restored after a disaster. It doesn’t take very long for a forest to begin sprouting after a fire or a valley to recover after a flood. Even drought stricken regions of the world have turned green with new growth when it begins to rain.
There are those who scoff at the idea that those are miracles. They can easily be explained. There is always a sunset, and those brilliant days come because of the right conditions. A baby’s giggle isn’t extraordinary; babies laugh and cry all the time. The wildflowers will bloom year after year; they will be magnificent when the conditions are perfect. Fire is good for the forest, and that’s why it recovers so quickly. Floods leave behind nutrients that get washed out of the earth and even droughts can provide positive effects. Where is the miracle?
We see miracles through the eyes of faith, simply knowing that God’s hand is in the midst of everything in our world. We see Him as He touches our lives in subtle but very real ways. We see Him painting that sunset and that field of wildflowers. We see Him make good things happen out of the bad. They might not be miraculous miracles, but to us they are miracles. We are happy to settle for the little miracles because we believe that God can and does make incredible things happen every day.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a supernatural occurrence that defies scientific explanation, but I still believe miraculous miracles happen.
We read the stories of Jesus and we are amazed. He healed the sick, cast out demons, made wine out of water and fed thousands on multiple occasions. He walked on water and stopped the storm. He made the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk. He cured leprosy and raised the dead. The disciples did the same thing. We don’t seem to see that kind of miracle anymore. Oh, we occasionally hear of something that is beyond our everyday experiences, but even then we can usually explain it away. Medical miracles that surprise the doctors can often be explained.
When we do hear about an actual miracle, like stories of people being raised from the dead in Africa, we wonder if it could be true but think like Thomas: we will believe when we see it for ourselves. We don’t doubt that God can make these things happen, but we want proof. We believe in Him, but there’s no reason for us to believe in miracles because our faith is based on what Christ has done rather than on what He might do. We know that the stories in the scriptures, both of Jesus and His disciples, helped to establish their authority to speak the Gospel to the world. We don’t need these miracles to establish our credibility. We have the power of the Holy Spirit and as we speak, the Word does the work. Those who believe do so because the Spirit gives them faith. While it would be nice if we had the backing of miraculous works to put credibility to our words, we don’t need them anymore. The true miracle has nothing to do with supernatural occurrences. The true miracle is faith.
Jesus once said, “You will do greater things that these.” The disciples were amazed at His miraculous works, but Jesus assured them that they would do more. They did do miraculous works as we see in the story before today’s reading from the book of Acts. Peter saw a crippled man who was left at the gate to beg. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about his “work”; he didn’t even look at those who were passing him by when he asked for money. When Peter said, “Look at us,” he looked because he thought they were going to give him some coin. Peter gave him something better. “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, that I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!” Peter helped him up and he was so excited to be healed that he danced around the Temple praising God. The people were amazed.
The miracle made the people pay attention. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that why we want the miracle? We want people to pay attention to us. However, it is very easy to get caught up in the fame and amazement of the crowds while losing touch with our true ministry. After all, Jesus didn’t heal to make the crowd follow Him; He healed so that they would listen. As a matter of fact, how many times did Jesus tell those He healed to be quiet about it?
The healing definitely got the attention of the people in the Temple. They came running, surrounding Peter, John and the man. Peter asked, “You men of Israel, why do you marvel at this man? Why do you fasten your eyes on us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made him walk?” It wasn’t about Peter or John, or even about the man. It was all about the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the God of their fathers. It was all about glorifying Jesus. See, Peter didn’t heal with fancy words but with the name of Jesus Christ. Peter went on to tell the people what really mattered: “Believe in Jesus.”
Miraculous healing, raising the dead, overcoming nature and the physical world is nothing compared to the real miracle: faith. Sharing the Gospel is the greater work that we are called to do, because in speaking God’s Word of forgiveness and hope we give the people what they truly need: life. Amazing, isn’t it: the one thing that was denied Jesus is the very thing He won for us on the cross. Peter used this opportunity to tell the people that even though they missed the truth of Jesus when He was alive, God was doing exactly what He intended so that they could see the truth. Jesus died at the hands of all those who rejected Him, but He has promised forgiveness for all who turn back to the God who loved them so much that He sent His Son to make all who believe heirs to the eternal kingdom.
We live in between the now and the future. We are saved and yet we are not fully saved. We live in the already but not yet. We are children of God, and yet what that means for us in the future has not yet been revealed. We are transformed by the grace of God, but we’ll be transformed in that day when we are in His presence again. What He is has already changed us. We are forgiven. We have the Holy Spirit. We are living new in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Though we are not quite there and we do not see Him clearly, He is still with us and in us. We live in a hope that is without disappointment, knowing that what is now will be even more so some day. And in that hope we live as Jesus lived, doing as He did. We share in His righteousness and are righteous as He was righteous.
Peter said to the people in the Temple, “Now, brothers, I know that you did this in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But the things which God announced by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, so that there may come times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Christ Jesus, who was ordained for you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God spoke long ago by the mouth of his holy prophets.”
The people who approached Peter and John in the Temple wanted to how it could be that the man walked again. It is as if they asked the same question we find in the Psalm. “Many say, ‘Who will show us any good?’” We can’t answer by our own power, it is only by the power of God that we can bring healing and forgiveness to the world. So, we cry out to God, “Yahweh, let the light of your face shine on us.” Jesus came to show us good.
Isn’t it amazing that the promise is even for those who sent Jesus to the cross? They did not know what they were doing, and Jesus offered that forgiveness even as He died before them when He said to His Father, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The disciples have been sent to call the people to repentance so that they might benefit from that forgiveness. The disciples were witnesses to all that happened with Jesus, but each person is invited to experience a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus even now because He lives. In that relationship we can sing like the Psalmist, “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and their new wine are increased. In peace I will both lay myself down and sleep, for you, Yahweh alone, make me live in safety.”
We still live in wonder and joy at this thing that is ridiculous and impossible. God loves us, despite our unworthiness. He sent Jesus to die for us. He raised Jesus from the dead so that we would have life. He gives us the Holy Spirit so that we will share His grace with the world. He continues to love us even though we don’t do a very good job at being disciples. We are saved and we are being saved. We are transformed and are being transformed. It is a work in progress. Two thousand years after the resurrection, we are still getting to know Him, one step at a time. The day will come when everything will be made perfect. He will come again and we will truly know what it means to be like Him. We are called to Him through the witness of those who have come before us and we come to Him in repentance. He cleanses us of our sin and gives us the Holy Spirit that we might walk in the truth. He does the most miraculous miracle in our hearts by giving us faith. He makes us one of His beloved children.
It is no wonder we receive this Good News with joy and unbelief. It is all so ridiculous and impossible. We are reminded in John’s letter that it isn’t by our action and ability that we are made right with God. He writes, “My little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” We are righteous not by what we do, but by being in a right relationship with God. This comes through faith in the One who shines His face on us. In that light, we walk according to His ways as we are made more and more like Him each step of our journey of life.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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