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Doubt. Belief. Witness

Welcome to worship with us this weekend at GCM and GCO!  Our Gospel text today finds the disciples being confronted with the reality of the risen Lord.  It is here that they move from doubt, to belief, and then to becoming witnesses to all nations.

We live in a world which fosters believing half of what we see and almost none of what we hear.  We can credit Benjamin Franklin for this observation…

Some even move from skepticism into cynicism.  I think we are all a bit skeptical, but I hope this doesn’t make you cynical.  Our skepticism is probably due at least in part because we have been fed so many false claims.  It makes us more inclined to doubt or question accepted opinions.

From our earliest beginning Satan sought to plant doubt in our minds about the creator’s good purpose and His desire for us.  In our present culture we are barraged with 100’s of advertisements each day making claims that are beyond belief.  Have you ever noticed how real food never quite lives up to the way it appears in a TV commercial?   That hamburger is never quite as juicy…the lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions are never quite as fresh and as well-proportioned as the burger we see advertised.  What’s that all about?  Advertisers can work wonders can’t they?

And even when we are looking at the real thing, like a new car for sale on the lot, sometimes the advertisement obscures the reality…

What a deal!  $127 a month for a brand new car.  I can do that!  And then over in the smaller print you only have to come up with $5,000 down, and the total cost of that car per month divided by how long you will be making payments turns out to be over $300 per month.  This is REALITY! This is what is true about your car purchase. No wonder we are suspicious and skeptical.

In the two weeks immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, there was plenty of opportunity for doubt.  First there’s Thomas, who doesn’t happen to be present with the rest of the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them post resurrection.   When Thomas hears about Jesus appearance, he says “I won’t believe it unless I sees the nail marks in his hands and put my hand in his wounds.”  But apparently just seeing Jesus is enough for Thomas, because when he does witness the resurrected Lord standing in front of him he quickly confesses, “My Lord and my God”.   This week we come to our text in Luke chapter 24, where the disciples are rehearsing all that has just happened and trying to make sense of it as they are walking on the road to Emmaus. Let’s go to Luke chapter 24, verses 36-48:

   Luke 24:36-48 (NRSV)   36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”l  37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (LIVE)

Have you ever been with a group a people who were talking about another person when suddenly that person walks into the room? It can be an awkward moment, depending on what was being said. Today’s text follows immediately on the heels of the story of Cleopas and an unnamed disciple who are encountered by Jesus on their walk to Emmaus. They were talking about Jesus and all that took place in Jerusalem leading to his crucifixion. As they were talking “Jesus himself came near and went with them.”

Now, at the beginning of our text for today, we have these two disciples gathered with other disciples sharing their experience and discussing the strange reports that Jesus had been raised from the dead. “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Luke 24:36-37

There seems to be a pattern developing. When you gather with others to talk about Jesus, he has a tendency of showing up to join the conversation.  (Where two or three are gatheres…) But he doesn’t come to us to shame us or catch us in some awkward conversation to embarrass us. He comes bringing peace. These disciples needed to hear these words of peace from Jesus as they responded to his appearance by being “startled and terrified” as they thought they were seeing a ghost. Although they have been talking about the testimonies of those who encountered the risen Jesus and even though Jesus was standing in front of them, these disciples were fearful that it was not true. They had their doubts.  God doesn’t reveal himself only that we might have intellectual knowledge of him.  This falls under the whole topic of the hiddenness of God.

Some atheists suggest that if God would put a big cross moving across the sky from East to West saying “Jesus Saves” that this would put an end to our doubts and all would have to believe in Him.  But God’s purpose isn’t just to get humanity to add another item to the list of things they believe, just another category among the inventory of things we believe are real.  Simply knowing He exists.  But rather God reveals himself to bring people into a saving, personal, loving relationship with the triune God.  He knows exactly what sort of evidence to provide people in order to make that possible, and is under no obligation to make His existence more obvious to people who He knew would not respond to it and come into a relationship if He were to provide it.  The Bible is full of examples of people who witnessed powerful miracles and yet it does not bring them into a personal relationship to Him…  Jesus healed a man blind from birth before their eyes, yet the eyes of those Pharisees remained blind to God’s purpose as they denied the very source of the healing.  God knows what evidence to provide for every person.  He can be relied upon to place us in circumstances that lead to faith.   God gave powerful evidence of His power and presence to the Israelites, many signs and wonders including the cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night leading them…  Yet they doubted, denied, rebelled, and lived as disbelievers. If you have an epoxy glue, two part, if you knew that the person didn’t have the hardener, it is pointless to supply the glue.  God knows just how much evidence a person needs to believe in Him.   We talked a bit last week about God’s purpose in putting an eternal treasure in a clay pot.

The disciples in Luke at first found it easier to attribute what they were seeing to a ghost. What we’re seeing looks a lot like Jesus, but surely it must be something else. This can’t be real. It doesn’t make any sense from all we know of dead people. A ghost maybe…but Jesus in the flesh. Impossible. Notice how Jesus responds to their fears. In that culture, it was not an uncommon belief for a dead person to appear as a ghost.  (Not so uncommon for our culture either if you consider the number of movies and television series which have focused on the dead returning in some fashion!)  Walking, talking, eating, wreaking vengeance, preying on the living.)

And so Jesus begins by asking them a probing question: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” When Jesus stands before us and gives us his peace, why do we still fear? This may be a good question for us to take up today. The peace (shalom) that Jesus has brought to us is real. It’s not a suggestion or a sentimental nice thing to say. Jesus has brought peace and that is a reality. As we look around us, we may be tempted to think Jesus’ pronouncement of peace is a mirage. We may not see a lot of peace in our world and therefor draw the conclusion that Jesus’ peace must be some vapory form of peace, shallow and “ghost-like” but nothing of substance.  A false advertisement if you will… a divine bait and switch.  So, we remain in our fears. What lies at the heart of our fears? Is it not a lack of trust in God’s Word to us in Jesus? What is more real to us, what the world presents to our eyes or what the Word speaks to our ears? We are called to faith, to believe and cast our full trust on the One who loves us, who came to us as Lord and Savior. If he brings peace, you can rest assured that it is a real peace to be received, not an ungrounded allusion to doubt.

Notice the next thing Jesus does after getting the disciples to ponder the reason for their fear.   He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”   Luke 24:38-39

He moves to help them see the reality. He doesn’t chide them or throw up his hands in frustration. He simply takes them where they are and works to grow their faith in him. Jesus is content to work with their present fears and culturally conditioned responses. He is comfortable working in and through our doubts.  We don’t have to believe that Jesus is real for Him to act in real ways upon our life and our world.  In fact, they had some tests that could be used to validate whether a person was a ghost or not. First, you could check the person’s feet to make sure they touched the ground and were not floating like a ghost. Second, the hands could be examined to see if they were solid with flesh and bones. Also, you could check to see if they had teeth and could eat. Jesus, apparently, is taking the disciples through this template of testing to show them he is indeed Jesus himself.

Even as Jesus puts himself through this “ghost test” we can see that the disciples are struggling “in their joy” to believe. We would say, “It seems too good to be true.” But Jesus is committed to bringing them into the reality of the good news that he was coming to them as the risen Lord. This seems to be the thrust of Luke’s telling of the story. Luke doesn’t mention the nail scars on Jesus’ hands or present us with someone asking to touch the hole in his side as John’s account does as he describes Thomas’ doubt and then his response.  In fact, Jesus answer to both Thomas and you and me is that for those who believe, faith will also accompany this belief beyond what we can see and touch!

   “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet come to believe.”    Jesus is simply trying to establish for the disciples that he is real, not a ghost. He is Jesus in the flesh, risen from the dead.  He is also teaching us that some faith is required!

This account of Jesus appearing to his disciples can bring us great comfort in our times of fear and doubt. We can know that Jesus wants to move us beyond our fears so we can embrace his peace. He takes us where we are and moves us beyond our limited capacities. He doesn’t come to us with disappointment or annoyance at our weakness of faith. If that were so, he would not be living in the peace he is holding out to us. But Jesus is living completely in the peace he promises. He does not fear our fears and doubts, and he is not anxious about our culture’s influence on our ability to trust in him. Rather, he moves in peace toward us, calling us further to himself.  The last test Jesus applies to himself is eating.   “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” -Luke 24:41-43 NRSV 

Notice how he involves the disciples in what he is doing. Not only does this present evidence that Jesus is not a ghost, but it may connect with them on a personal level as their memory may return to the time they handed Jesus some fish and Jesus used it to feed thousands. Now they were giving him fish that he is using to open their eyes to who he is.

Jesus is being consistent in how he relates to the disciples. He takes what they give him and uses it to reveal himself further to them. And Jesus is still doing that today. Have you ever experienced the Lord asking you to give him something that he then turns into a means of revealing himself to you in a deeper way? Maybe he asked you to give over some stinky fish of complaining only to find that God shares with you his overflowing joy. Maybe he asked you to give him that offense from another you have been unable to forgive only to find that God has forgiven you completely, setting you free to forgive others as you have been forgiven. Or maybe he has asked you to give just a little more in the offering basket than you were comfortable with only to find that God is a generous God who gives all things without compulsion. In this way, our giving becomes a form of receiving. God takes what we give him and uses it to further his blessing to us of knowing him.

After Jesus presents himself to the disciples in this way, he then reminds them of what he told them about Scripture—it’s all about him. Then he said to them,   “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.  Luke 24:44-48

He wants them to know who he is beyond all their fear and doubt and he directs them to the Scriptures to do just that. But he goes further: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Let that sink in. When we read the Scriptures, we can trust that Jesus is right there with us by the Spirit, opening our minds to understand further who he is. How important it is to continually be searching the Scriptures, reading along with Jesus who is opening our minds to understand who he is as revealed in them. Not only did Jesus open their minds to understand what the Scriptures are saying about him, but he used the Scriptures to open their eyes to who they are in Christ—his witnesses. When Jesus appeared to them and brought them to see that he was real, and not a ghost, he was also preparing them for their calling of being a witness. Sometimes when we talk about being witnesses or about evangelism, we do so as if we are on our own. But Jesus is the true Witness, and he calls us along to join him. He is preparing us for this calling by witnessing to us who he is and who his Father is.  There is no way we can be witnesses outside of his witness to us and his continuing witness to the Father by the Spirit for the sake of the world.

Jesus also makes them more than “eyewitnesses” of Jesus after the resurrection. He links their witness with the Scriptures as they are to be “witnesses of these things”—the things that he just opened their minds to in the Scriptures. The calling to proclaim the gospel will entail being “ministers of the word.” Also, notice that Jesus said the proclamation “to all nations” would begin “from Jerusalem.” In other words, they will first witness from where they are. Jesus links witness to relationship.

He prepared the first disciples and us today to be witnesses by having us come to know him personally for who he is. Because when you really believe something, you begin to live it. We are to share that first with others we are closest to. We begin where we are, with our families and friends. Our sights are not set only on some distant land to reach with the gospel, but as witnesses who have been encountered by the risen Lord, we naturally want to share with the closest person within reach. It is a natural response of seeing the Lord. So, our text has come full circle. Like the original disciples, we move from doubt, to belief, to witness…

He comes to you and to me to bring us his peace. He comes to you to reveal himself to us further, so we can know him and his Father more deeply. He comes to us to build our faith in him so that we can go into our world living in the reality of God’s love for us, living in the repentance and forgiveness of sins that has been proclaimed in the name of Jesus.

May we see him more clearly and hear his word with perceptive hearts, and in his name, may we go out and share his words of peace with others.

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