…beyond belief…beyond hearsay
Easter Sunday April 1, 2018
Scriptures: Based loosely but faithfully on John 20:1-18, and Luke 24:13-49
I am not sure it is possible to understand how catastrophic the events of the last several days had been for the believers now scattered across the city of Jerusalem. Everything seemed to have been on track as they gathered for the Passover Seder in the upper room on Thursday afternoon. Jesus had been notably direct and instructive in his words to them while they shared together; seemingly imploring them to fully grasp what he was trying to tell them. However, the gravity of the events soon to come must have escaped them for if they truly understood what Jesus was telling them in that moment they would have done everything in their power to protect and shield him from the authority and power arrayed against him. But as it was, the Lord’s careful instructions fell on ears that only much later would come to understand, when the disciples had a chance to puzzle through these last words of their Lord and friend.
And so after they had finished the Passover meal they set out for an evening walk together down through the ancient vineyards lining the sides of the Kidron Valley below the city, and then up onto the Mount of Olives on the other side. With the events of the week beginning to catch up with the disciples they were all close to exhaustion and as Jesus went off on his own to pray, many of the disciples fell fast asleep there in the Garden of Gethsemane.
At several points during the evening Jesus came back to them, imploring them to stay awake and pray with him, but they were just too tired and couldn’t do it. And then it happened…Judas Iscariot showed up in the Garden with a small band of heavily armed Temple Guards from the Sanhedrin led by some of the Temple Authorities. At their arrival, all of Jesus’ followers were immediately wide awake and they watched in horror as Judas went up to Jesus and gave him a kiss, whereupon the guards seized Jesus roughly and set about trying to capture his followers as well. Scattering this way and that the disciples and other believers ran long and hard before seeking out places in which they could safely hide. They knew how enraged the Chief Priest and others had become at the words and insinuations of Jesus over the last couple of days and they feared for their own lives should they be found to be his followers. But then slowly and carefully they began to make their way back into the center of the city, back to the house in which they had all been staying before Jesus was arrested.
Peter, having recently declared that he would never betray or abandon Jesus followed the Temple Guards from a distance as they made their way over to the house of the High Priest. Moving as close as he dared, Peter stood outside with other onlookers while Jesus was questioned by the High Priest. However it was not long before some of those gathered around the warming fire figured out who Peter was and he was forced to deny Jesus three times in front of them. And immediately upon his third denial, Jesus, who could see Peter through the open door out into the courtyard turned and looked at him, whereupon a rooster crowed in the darkness. Remembering Jesus’ words that he would in fact deny him three times, Peter turned and ran away, tearfully making his way back towards the house where the others waited.
The next day brought no relief and in fact got much worse as Jesus was convicted and taken off to be crucified, prompting some of the women, accompanied by John to follow Jesus up onto the hill known as Calvary. There they watched and wept as Jesus was nailed to one of three crosses and hoisted up into the air and left to die, flanked on each side by common criminals. All of this happened early on Friday morning and it was not long before Jesus breathed his very last.
As the Sabbath hour was approaching later that afternoon, a request was made to have the bodies removed from the crosses in order to allow for burial before sunset. A man named Joseph of Arimathea asked for and was granted the now lifeless body of Jesus which he placed in a tomb he had available lower down on the hill. And then, with the onset of the Sabbath upon them everyone returned home while John returned to the house where he met up with the rest of the disciples.
None of them could believe all that had transpired and truly had no idea what they were supposed to do next. The hopes and even the dreams the disciples had allowed themselves to begin to believe were not only possible but within reach, had all been completely dashed against the jagged reality of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, conviction and now, death. The beloved leader they had followed closely for so many months, the one they had finally come to believe was in fact the promised one to come, the Messiah-king descended from King David himself had been cruelly tortured and put to death on what they had thought was the eve of his victory.
And so they sat and wondered in the dim light of the shuttered room, locked securely for fear of the Authorities. As yet they had not really thought through all that Jesus had tried so hard to share with them in those last hours together. For now, all they could see was the bleak and grim finality of his death and not knowing what direction to turn, some even talked openly of going back to fishing for a living, the only other thing many of them really knew how to do.
And then, unbeknownst to the disciples gathered in the house, some of the women went out very early on Sunday morning after the Sabbath had ended. As they were not accorded the same rank or privilege in society these women who had believed in and followed Jesus closely as well felt it was their solemn duty to go back and properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial as it had only been hastily wrapped in a shroud on the eve of the Sabbath after his death. For them, his death was final as well, but their love for Jesus and their sense of duty as his friends impelled them to gather the proper spices and materials and make the long climb back up the hill to the tomb. Their sorrow and grief was close to overwhelming as they walked together towards the tomb of this one who had so often made them feel important, worthy, and perhaps even equal in the eyes of God.
Mary Magdalene was the leader of this small group and as they drew near to the tomb they saw that the large stone that had been guarding the entrance had been rolled away and that the body of Jesus appeared to be missing. Fearing the worst they all ran back down to the house where the men had been staying. Knocking softly on the door three times and then once more, a code I would imagine they had all agreed upon, the door was cautiously opened by Peter and John. Hurriedly Mary told them what she had found on the hillside concerning the open and now empty tomb. And then, following along behind them as the two men immediately ran off, Mary climbed back up the hill, this time however all by herself.
John, being the younger and stronger of the two men reached the tomb first, but out of deference to Peter he waited until his companion arrived and only went in after Peter himself had. The two men saw that indeed Jesus’ body was missing, but curiously they noticed that the grave cloths and shroud in which he had been wrapped were still there off to the side. Not yet understanding what they were seeing the two turned and went back down the hill to share this mystery with the rest of those in the house.
Mary however could not bring herself to leave. She had so loved Jesus and did not know what to make of this strange turn of events. Weeping profusely she went back over to the tomb entrance and was shocked to see two angels dressed all in white sitting on the small ledge where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
One of the angels said to Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Composing herself just a little she said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” After saying this she turned around as she sensed there was someone else there behind her. It was in fact Jesus standing there; however she did not recognize him at first. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing that he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried my Jesus away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
At that Jesus said to her, “Mary!” Recognizing his voice, she turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbi!” Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me just now, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go back to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” And after Jesus had said that Mary hurriedly ran back down the hill where breathless with excitement, she once again knocked softly on the door of the house. After being let inside she excitedly told them all what she had seen and heard and that she had in fact herself seen the risen and living Lord.
The men however were too deep in their sorrow and doubt to believe her and dismissed her story out of hand, telling her to go and leave them alone.
After she had left, some of the men there had finally had enough and decided to leave the house to go back to the lives they had before meeting this strange preacher and teacher from Nazareth. Two of them, Cleopas and his friend set off for Emmaus, which was about a seven mile walk from Jerusalem. The two were not part of the twelve lead disciples, but like so many others they had witnessed what Jesus had been doing and had joined in with all those who had come to believe in Jesus’ true identity. But at this point with all that had happened, and with the confusing and seeming contradictory stories of empty tombs, angels, and women’ tales they decided that sad as they were, they had had enough and set out from the house.
The two kept discussing all they had heard and seen however as they walked along for Jesus had made an indelible impression on them and they somehow knew that their belief would never be the same. However, they just couldn’t get past the fact that Jesus had been put to death. It was the only piece of the puzzle that did not make any sense to them. They, along with all the other men had truly come to believe that Jesus was going to completely overthrow the old oppressive order and somehow single-handedly usher in the long-awaited Kingdom of God.
And as they walked along in the heat of the afternoon Jesus himself drew near to them and walked along beside them. Their eyes were not opened as yet to Jesus’ identity and they had no idea who he really was. Listening in to their conversation he said to them, “What is it you discussing with each other as you walk along?” They stood still, looking very sad. Then Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these last few days?” Jesus asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. We had so hoped that he was the one to finally deliver and restore Israel”.
Listening to their story Jesus waited as Cleopas continued, “Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place, and some of the women of our group astounded us. They went to the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of the men who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him there.”
Then Jesus said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
And as they drew near to Emmaus, Jesus walked on ahead as if he were going further. But the two urged him strongly, saying, “Please, stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So Jesus went in to stay with them. Sitting down at table with the two Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And as he did so their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and in the same moment he vanished from their sight.
Amazed, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening up the scriptures to us?” And at that same hour they got up and swiftly returned to Jerusalem; where in the fading light they found the eleven and their companions still gathered together. The others in the house were all excited as well as they shared that Jesus had also appeared to Peter earlier in the day. They were all exclaiming, “The Lord has risen indeed!” Then Cleopas and his friend recounted their own amazing story of their encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus Road, and of how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
…this is the word of our Lord and our faith story for this day…thanks be to God…amen
…beyond belief… beyond hearsay…and all the way to encountering
These timeless stories of the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus are so, so familiar. In fact they are arguably the most important and distinguishing thing there is about the Christian understanding of faith in God. And like the fun and celebratory story of Palm Sunday last week we tend to accept them, at the face value they have been given now for many centuries…a value that truly is extensive. However, I wonder if there may in fact be another layer of meaning we might tease out of these old stories…a new angle or perspective that might speak to us beyond the joyous shouts of Palm Sunday and the confident and relieved celebration of Easter dawn. Is there more we might glean from these ancient tales?
I must confess that it took some time for me to even find a toehold on a possible new angle, but in looking closely at the passion story I realized that those early appearances by Jesus after his resurrection may have been more important for the early spread of the faith and for our own faith expression than we may realize. For it has been close to two thousand years since the events of that first Easter morning and somehow the faith in this wild and patently unbelievable story has survived.
And so I would submit that without those appearances by Jesus in the flesh that the Christian faith would not have survived. Without the experienced witness of seeing Jesus alive and well after his death on a cross, Christianity might just have become a footnote in history of yet another ‘Messiah-wanna-be’. The disciples were not stupid men; however they were nowhere near ready or even able at first to shoulder the responsibility for carrying on the message of Jesus all alone. Remember, they had gathered together in that locked upper room and pretty much decided to call the whole thing off, even rejecting the accounts of the women who first saw Jesus alive as wishful delusions. No, I do not think the faith would have continued without Jesus actually appearing before those men, thereby forcing them to accept the reality of the resurrection and to pick up the mantle of discipleship for which they had long been in training.
And so the question becomes; now, some two thousand years later…way past when those actual encounters with the living Jesus took place…in fact long enough ago for many to have relegated those accounts to myth or fable…is it still necessary, or is it even possible for an encounter with the risen Lord to occur…and if so, is that necessary in order for a strong and vibrant faith to take root and thrive in the life of a believer?
I think in fact the answer to both of those questions is yes. For in truth a faith based simply on hearsay from someone else…a faith based solely on belief is insufficient to make the change the world needs today. A faith absent a real relationship with the risen and living Lord is simply a system of thought meant to guide or curtail one’s behavior, rather than an internal conviction and drive that compels one to live as though the call within them from the Spirit is all that matters…the same drive that compelled Mary Magdalene to run all the way back down to the house in order to share her encounter with Jesus at the empty tomb.
I think that an argument can be made in this regard that ‘belief’, as the sole basis of one’s faith may in fact be a weak foundation. For if belief is only a system whereby one gains a structure of behavior then it is possibly only that… a behavioral structure merely for personal guidance which may in fact allow one to operate solely for oneself, apart from the concern for others that was the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry.
One only needs to reflect briefly on the current state of our culture and society so broken apart by competing belief systems based on polar-opposite understandings drawn from observation of the same events. If the last couple of years have done anything they have shown us that it is possible for competing belief systems to be totally unreliable constructs upon which to support truth or justice. No, belief all by itself is a far too restrictive box to capture or to hold our God of love and grace.
And so in some very real sense, when it comes to faith, belief may be only step one. To say you believe in something, as in, ‘I believe in this’, or, ‘I believe that is so’ is actually to hedge your bets. In saying you believe something to be the case you are in a sense leaving room for it not to be so as well. Just because you ‘believe something to be so’ does not mean that you know it to be true. And in fact I would submit that there is a qualitative difference between the two.
To believe the account of Mary or Peter or Cleopas means only that you have faith in what they have said…you believe or have faith in them. On the other hand, to encounter and be in the presence of the living and risen Lord as was Mary, as was Peter, as was Cleopas and his friend, is to know without a shadow of a doubt that the one everyone tells you has risen, in fact has done just that! ‘Belief’, which often is merely an activity of reason and logic, is merely the first engagement with God, and for a faith to grow and make a difference in one’s life it must move beyond belief to that place where one actually encounters the living God…to that place where belief is transformed into knowing.
And that then becomes the source of a new perspective on our scripture stories…this need for a believer to actually encounter the Lord in order to truly and unconditionally be willing to give up everything else…in order to have the call of grace become the primary and driving force within one’s life. And that then raises a new and honest question for some…and that is…is God really there? And if so, is God willing to reach out across the divide between felt and experienced reality and the realm of Spirit…is God willing to come to us as he did to so many after the resurrection? Or are we supposed to trust merely in the word of another? Must our faith be only based on belief? Does God still operate in that shadowy place outside of what we are convinced are the tightly-bound limits of physical reality? I think so…but perhaps with certain understandings as well.
For each time Jesus appeared to his followers it was both common, and extraordinary. In fact one could say, as evidenced in the little house in Emmaus, that Jesus chooses to come to us in sacramental ways and at sacramental times. But I think perhaps not just in the usual ways we think of as ‘sacramental’. For showing up as though ‘through the walls’ into the locked and secure upper room where the disciples were staying and asking for and eating a piece of fish in front of them seems pretty far away from the High Church understanding of the meaning of ‘sacrament’.
I think that in order to understand the possible ways in which our Lord is willing to come to us and to reveal the divine presence to us as well, we may need to expand our definition of and understanding of sacrament itself…I think we may need to include much more into this category of ‘holy time’ or ‘holy ground’ if we are to open ourselves up to the possibility of an incursion into our own reality by the divine presence…if we are to expose ourselves to the possibility of moving from belief over to knowing.
Mary, standing there at the entrance to the tomb heard the voice of Jesus and just knew…it was her beloved. Peter saw the empty tomb but still doubted until, as reported by the others in the house to Cleopas, Jesus appeared to Peter as well, at which point he just knew he was alive. Cleopas and his friend had believed until their belief betrayed them and faltered in light of the crucifixion. But then in the breaking of the bread their eyes were opened and they just knew who it was sitting there before them. All these had a holy moment, a sacred moment, a moment of sacrament with the risen Lord…all of these then just knew.
And I would contend that those same moments are available to anyone who seeks them out, to anyone who has a willingness to open their eyes, ears, or hearts to the possibility that God is in fact reaching out to them, reaching across the divide between spirit and world through loving sacrament.
Perhaps it is through the sacrament of care and compassion in a time of deep need or sorrow.
Perhaps it is through the sacrament of surrender and sacrifice when one willingly submits to the Spirit’s difficult call…
…or the sacrament of humility and openness which takes place in that space of finally and fully standing alone and silent before God.
Or perhaps it is within the sacrament of intimate solitude or silent reflection so deeply healing and so critically needed but so elusive in these times…
…or in the sacrament of tears of sorrow that comes in the willingness to grieve deeply all alone or on behalf of and with another.
Perhaps the Lord will be revealed in the sacrament of laughter and joy, even though we so seldom ascribe these characteristics to the Lord we keep trapped within rigid and legalistic behaviors.
Or maybe the Lord will seek us out in the garden…finding us there in the sacrament of surprise and wonder within the Creation which is our gifted home.
When did you last see the Lord? And was it enough to hold you until this present moment? Have you seen the Lord…or like Mary did you not recognize him at first when he appeared there before you?
Are you open to seeing and being in a real and living relationship with Jesus? Are you willing to move beyond belief and practice to knowing as the result of an encounter with our risen and living Lord?
These are all very valid questions to ask ourselves…and valid consequences to consider as well. For in truth, the fact that the disciples encountered the living Lord did not mean that all was rosy and good from that moment forward but rather quite the opposite. In fact, the knowledge they then possessed was required for them to persevere and carry the faith forward in the face of strict and determined opposition. For all that is not love in this world is now, and always has been opposed to the holy and unconditional love we have been offered and asked to live into by our Lord.
And not only is true encounter with the ‘holy’ dangerous due to these external pressures but it is difficult as a result of internal pressures as well. And that is because any time one stands open, alone, and vulnerable before the Lord of all love and grace there is such a humble reckoning as to one’s unworthiness to receive the gifts being freely offered. For as much as humanity was fashioned in the image of our God, we have done much to hide the resemblance.
The willingness of Jesus to appear to his followers as he did after the resurrection has not abated. Over the centuries there have been countless reported instances of God bringing believers from a place of belief all the way over to knowing. And in each case those who crossed over were used by God in incredible ways to further the purposes of God and bless the lives of all whom they touched. Life is filled with these moments of common and holy sacrament…moments where the line, the very ‘edge’ of reality is blurred and the hand of God reaches over into the heart and soul of humankind. All that is required is the slightest willingness to immerse oneself into that instance of sacred grace…and in that moment…you too will truly know that our Lord is risen indeed! Happy Easter,