Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sermon - This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, April 19, 2015

This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Luke 24:36b-48, NRSV

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.

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.”

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 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.

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. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

            This is the third Sunday of our Eastertide season, and the second Sunday of our sermon series, “This I Believe.” In order to partner with our confirmation class and support the work that our youth are doing to seek and understand the theological foundation of what it means to be a Christian, we, as a congregation, are going to walk alongside them and lift up the most important parts of our faith as we know and practice it. Last week, Meg preached a beautiful sermon on what we believe about God, as Christians. This week, we turn our attention to Jesus Christ, to further explore what we believe about this person of the Trinity.
            If I’m being perfectly honest, our religion is pretty weird. We are the only religion that understands God in this particular way: as one God, expressed in three forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, when we talk about Jesus, we speak of him as having two natures – being fully human and fully divine.

Guys. This is nuts.

 I realize full well that this requires an awful lot of trust in God’s ability to make these things evident to us. And, for many of us, our faith doesn’t hinge on a perfect understanding of the natures of God, or Christ. Rather, our faith is formed throughout a lifetime of openness to God and the beautiful ways in which God reveals that that God is, in fact, present in our lives. For most of us, the theological understanding of who Christ is has very little to do with our personal faith. Except, that we proclaim some bizarre things as Christians that bear some attention.
What on earth does it mean for us that we believe in a God who would become Incarnate (one-with-us), live, suffer and die, only to be resurrected on the third day?
What does it mean that God became one-with-us in the form a man – fully human and fully divine?
What are the implications for our faith when we look to the cross and see God Incarnate (one-with-us) breathe his last?
What are the possibilities for us when we see this same God, fully human and fully divine, alive and well?
            Here, two weeks after Easter Sunday, we are experiencing the same questions of Christ’s conquering of death that the Disciples are. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has appeared twice to them, once on the Road to Emmaus and now in the midst of their conversation about him. After it has been discovered that Christ’s tomb is empty, there is a lot of debate and question amongst his followers as to what has happened. Some, like Mary Magdalene and Peter, see … and believe. But many who hear of the story cannot comprehend the complexity of it. So, it seems understandable that Jesus would appear to them and introduce himself with the words, “Peace be with you.” 
            But, these words bring the opposite of comfort to his friends. Filled with fear, they look to him, terrified and afraid, certain they were seeing a ghost. For all of the things the disciples have witnessed in Jesus’ presence, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead, they have never seen a ghost. I find it such a strange and wonderful story that the illogical assumption they make is more reasonable in their minds than the truth.
            But, you know that the old saying is true. When you have lost something, you always find it in the last place you look. The Disciples weren’t looking for Jesus anywhere but the tomb. They were looking for a body to anoint, not a mouth to feed. So, when Jesus appears to them in the flesh, I can sympathize with their inability to believe that their friend has actually reappeared to them. “If the resurrection really is true, well then, there goes life as we knew it. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, “if dead people don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on?”[1]
            This is because the Resurrection is the great “yes” in the face of an all-encompassing “no.” It is the hope that not even death is final. It is the curiosity that the certainty of the end may not be certain at all. “This is what Karl Barth described as the ‘impossible possibility,’ a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true.”[2] So, like the disciples, we are asked to make a choice about what we believe about Jesus. For many, it requires a very clear experience – a mountain top moment – a life, changing, crystallizing, burning bush sign from God that what we have been told is true. That there IS a God, and that God is with us.
            But, the beauty of our text today is that the disciples actually do get such a sign. They stare in amazement at the many before them, who is clearly the exact likeness of their recently deceased friend, and with joy and amazement, and they cling to their doubt. How could this be? How could this man, who they understood to be the Son of God, be standing before them? Each week, I’ve been asking for feedback on Facebook about what people believe about our topic. My friend, Colleen, wrote me and offered something beautiful. She said, “I used to think that I was a poor Christian because I doubted the divinity of Christ. I think at this point I have come to think that there are some things that we just won't KNOW for sure and maybe it might be enough for me if I can relate to the person that Jesus might have been.”
            There is much of our faith that is chalked up to mystery. Sometimes, I’m grateful for this language as the only sufficient answer I can offer for difficult questions. But, mostly, I find it completely insufficient as a reason for faith. If God remains mysterious, then how are we to grow and deepen our faith? Just exactly how did Jesus become the only son of God, born of the Virgin Mary? “It’s a mystery!” is woefully incompetent as a response. A Jesuit scholar writes that, “Mystery can more accurately be described as the reality we cannot understand with our human faculties. Doubt is not the problem. Doubt is often a very good starting place for inquiry.”[3]
            If there is one thing the Disciples in our passage have in spades, it’s doubt. The difficult thing for us is to understand what to make of our doubt. We have been conditioned to believe that doubt is bad for our lives of faith. It’s an indication that we aren’t trusting God enough. I disagree. I think we open ourselves up to deepening our faith when we realize that, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.” I love this because it opens us up to the ability to question God and God’s presence in our lives. It allows us to engage Jesus, crucified and risen, with a skeptical raised eyebrow, to see what answers will come. And, certainty is the thing that closes us off to learning more about the nature of God. Once we decide something is true, it’s very hard to be convinced otherwise.
“doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.”
[4] The tension in our passage is that the people who knew Jesus best cannot recognize him in his resurrection.
             But, the secret of this passage is unlocked for me when it tells us that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
            It is in the midst of their very seeing that the Disciples’ disbelief holds fast. The beauty of this moment is that Jesus doesn’t take the time to rebuke or lecture them. He doesn’t roll his eyes or quote Isaiah. Rather, he does the one thing that could confirm their hope: the risen Christ asks if there is something to eat. This is the beauty of our incarnate God: that he sees the only way to persuade us that he is alive in this world, truly alive, is to hunger with us, to eat with us. He engages their concern that he might be a ghost, and he addresses it directly by doing the simplest and most basic of human things.
            It directs us to two things: The bizarre and blessed gift that is the Incarnation of God in Christ, as well as God’s choice to be revealed to us as such. Incarnation. Revelation. God-with-us. God abiding with us, and allowing us to see it and notice. There is no other religion that understands God in such a way, so very real and visceral and present in the world. We have a unique understanding of God. The God of all gods is not lofty and distant, but fragile and available. This is not a God who abides in the highest heaven. This is a God who eats broiled fish with the commoners.  
            And, we are the witnesses of these things. This is how the Good News is told. Jesus, upon revealing himself to the disciples, reminds them that he has fulfilled what the scriptures foretold. He reminds them, “You are witnesses of these things!” 
          Go, and tell. 
          Speak confidently about what you know to be true. 
          Open yourselves to the questions that remain. 
          Witness to the fact that Jesus is somehow real to you. 
          Try to put words to it, images around it, the smallest kernel of faith in it. 
It is in the courageous naming of these things that we find ourselves as witnesses to a God who refuses to be God without us. A God who insists on living in the world with us. A God who won't even allow death to separate us. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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