Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return this morning to our sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus in the gospel of Luke. Since we’re in the season of Easter now, today’s story is a resurrection story.
Appearing to the bewildered disciples as a group here, on Easter evening, Jesus says to them “Peace be with you,” and then he asks them a sort of double question: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
The “why are you frightened” question, in this context, reminds me of biblical angels, who are always going around saying to people, “Fear not!” They wouldn’t need to say it quite so often if folks weren’t scared in the first place, right? Here in Luke 24, the immediate fear is that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. Dead people, after all, generally don’t attend gatherings like this one. That’s already a decent reason for them to be, as the text says, “startled and terrified.” And then if we think back over what they’d just been through …
Why are we frightened? Why do we doubt, Jesus? Is it any wonder? Let’s see, it was just a few days ago that you were arrested, and our world came crashing down around our ears. We thought that you were it, that you were him, that you were the Messiah. It had been so exciting to be part of your team, to witness your healing miracles, to learn from your wise teaching. But then you were arrested, mocked, beaten, put to death. It was excruciating to watch – well, for those of us brave enough to be there, at least. The rest of us stayed hidden away for fear of the authorities. We thought they’d be coming after us next. And now we’ve just heard that two of our friends saw you along the road to Emmaus… and then while we’re still trying to wrap our minds around that, all of a sudden here you are with us, too? Or what appears to be you. You’d better believe we’re frightened! And as for doubts? What on earth are we supposed to think is happening here?
In response to their fears and doubts, Jesus makes things as concrete as he can for them, trying, I imagine, to give them something they can wrap their minds around. Here are my hands and feet, guys. It’s me. Touch me and you’ll see. And then I love the next bit: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” So touching Jesus’ hands and feet helps, but only so much. They want to believe him; they just don’t know if they really dare. And so they find themselves with this strange, but understandable, combination of joy, disbelief, and wonder.
While they’re in that state of joy, disbelief, and wonder, comes Jesus additional question: “Have you anything here to eat?” A simple request, something concrete they can do for him, even while they’re caught up in fear and doubt, joy and disbelief. They find him a piece of broiled fish, and he eats it. Now in doing so, he seems to offer them further proof that he’s really alive, ghosts not being known for a whole lot of fish consumption either. But in the meantime, he’d at least asked a question they could easily answer: “Have you anything here to eat?” “Sure, Jesus, we’ve got a bit of fish over on the grill.” That we can do!
The text then says Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, explaining why things had to unfold the way they did, through his suffering and death, and now his resurrection. Then he assured them, as witnesses of all these things, that they would soon be “clothed with power from on high.” That’s a bit of foreshadowing there, a nod toward the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit would whoosh around like a mighty wind to inspire and energize the whole early church. That’s a story this same author will tell in his sequel to the gospel of Luke, which we call the book of Acts. Meanwhile, for today, which appears from Luke’s telling still to be Easter day, they have Jesus with them, they have these signs that he is alive, and they have this promise of power from on high. And while he knows they’re still pretty frightened, by the big picture, he’s also asked of them something they can handle, something more concrete: “Have you got anything to eat?”
Now I’m not one to assume that every single verse of the Bible applies perfectly to contemporary situations. Sometimes a whole lot of historical and cross-cultural interpretation is required for us to make sense of what we read in Scripture. But I have to tell you, in light of what’s been going on in our country and in our world this year, today’s questions really jumped off the page at me.
For instance, Jesus asking: “Why are you frightened?” Why are we frightened? How long have you got? I mean, it’s hard even to know where to begin. Russia, North Korea, their leaders, our leaders, terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, terrorist attacks by white supremacists – if you have a few hours, Jesus, or a few dozen hours, we’ll be happy to explain to you why we’re frightened. And as for doubts, I’m sure you know those come with the territory for us mere mortals; quite rare is the person without them, even people of deep and abiding faith. We love to celebrate your resurrection on Easter. Singing our “Alleluias” and waving our “Alleluia wands” around here that morning – these are fun, joyful traditions, but like the disciples, even in our joy we can find ourselves wondering sometimes too.
But then comes Jesus’ other question - “Have you anything here to eat?” - to bring things back down to earth. A simple request, a concrete task to do. What might be our contemporary equivalents? Where is the invitation from Jesus to which we can say: “Oh, but that? That we can do!”
If we’re unsure where to start, the Bible certainly offers plenty of places to begin. Feed someone who is hungry. Welcome a stranger. Look after someone who is sick. Visit a prisoner. Pray for one another. Pray for your enemies. Stand with the powerless. Speak out against injustice. Practice hospitality, compassion, generosity. Pick any biblical mandate you wish, and focus your energy and attention there, to distract you a bit from your fears. Listen for an invitation from Jesus to do something concrete, in his name. And be as candid as you like as you pray for direction - “I’m a little freaked out, Jesus, quite terrified, frankly, by some of the things going on in our world, but … oh, that? Now that I can do!”)
After all, it’s been said that courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. So it’s ok if we look around us and find the world to be frightening in times like these. The key is not to let that fear shut us down, but to find ways to resist it. Some of us may even be able to do that on a grand scale. For instance, I’m overwhelmed by the tremendous courage and love and forgiveness being shown by Coptic Christians right now, even in the wake of a horrifying Palm Sunday attack in their church. But all of us can surely look for simpler, smaller scale ways to master our fears.
Watching for opportunities simply to do the basic things God commands us to do in Scripture, can help us become fearless, even in the face of all that unsettling news out there in the world. Fearless in the sense of not giving in or giving up to fear. Fearless in the sense of not being afraid to take risks and to reach out to others in love, kindness, compassion. Fearless in the sense that we know there is Something, Someone greater than our fear. Someone that will hold us no matter how scared we are, and no matter our particular balance of joy to wondering, belief to disbelief on any given day. Fearless in the sense of remembering all of those wonderful biblical angels telling us to “fear not” – why not? because God is with us.
So when Jesus asks us here in Luke 24 “Why are you frightened?” I don’t imagine there’s anything wrong with giving him a whole list of reasons why. So long as we also hear him saying, in this same text, “peace be with you,” … I’m alive and well… and “you will receive power from on high.”
Sure, it’s scary out there. But showing up when we’re frightened is one of the things God does best.