Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45
RCL: Acts 3:12-19 Ps 4 Luke 24:36b-48
In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering. [Luke 24:41]
I remember when I was in Sunday School (yes, they had Sunday School when I was a boy!) they would upon occasion show us movies of Bible stories. (How many of you may remember before there were TiVOs or DVRs, or even VCRs? and we actually rented films and threaded them into projectors and set up a screen and turned the lights out! Remember that? Very retro! Very primitive! But in those days we thought it was a big deal!) These movies we saw in Sunday School were as I recall produced by a company aptly named Cathedral Films, and they were in black and white, and kind of low-budget, but all things considered they really weren’t too bad. (I liked them better than Cecil B. DeMille’s very high budget The Ten Commandments, which I think is perfectly dreadful. Or the more recent version they showed during Holy Week, which was much less pretentious than Charlton Heston and much more boring.)
I remember one particular episode from those old films of the life of Jesus, which must have been based on today’s Gospel, or maybe last Sunday’s, where the disciples were all gathered in the upper room after the resurrection, and the door was shut and locked, and the camera dollied in on the door, and all of a sudden the risen Jesus sort of materialized there in front of the door. It was all very impressive, and the disciples were properly awestruck. It was kind of like Marley’s Ghost stepping into Scrooge’s bedchamber.
What’s going on here, in these Gospel accounts?
The disciples have for some time—probably several years, at least some of them—been living fairly continually in close personal fellowship with Jesus of Nazareth. They have committed themselves—their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor (to borrow a later phrase)—to the cause of the Reign of God as Jesus has been proclaiming it. Jesus has become for them not only master and teacher, but dear friend in the deepest sense. Through their relationship with Jesus they have, in a way they never have before, known life, known love, known reality, known themselves, known God. They have come to realize—with that utter certainty that goes far beyond any clever proof written in a book, that utter certainty that comes out of the personal experience of living the reality over a long time—they have come to realize that their own very lives and the life of the world itself hangs upon this man, their friend and leader, Jesus of Nazareth, and what he is saying and doing.
And now they have seen Jesus come to a catastrophic end, while they themselves abandoned him out of panic and fear for their own skins. They have suffered the utter emptiness and desolation of those who have staked everything—not only their lives but even more precious, all their hopes and dreams and love—and they have lost. They are in chaos. The foundations of reality itself are crumbling. Either they are utterly insane, or the world is. There is no sense, no reason, no justice, anywhere; the words no longer have meaning; there is no meaning. “The stars are black and cold, as [they] stare into the void of a world that cannot hold.”
And then Jesus comes among them and says—as he has said so many times to them before: “Peace be with you.” And, says St. Luke, “they disbelieved for joy.” Not, they disbelieved for lack of convincing evidence. Not, they disbelieved in the absence of empirical verification. Not, they disbelieved because everybody knows that it’s a proven scientific fact that dead men don’t just saunter in, pick up a fish-stick, and say, “Peace!” They disbelieved for joy.
Once again, God was—they thought—too good to be true. This can’t be—it’s too much to hope for—I don’t deserve this—I’m just not worth it.
We can be faithless, and we are faithless, in many ways throughout our lives. But isn’t it true that at least one of the ways we are faithless, and thus cut ourselves off from the power of being really alive, is that we really just won’t believe that God cares that much about us? God’s love and grace are too good to be true—too much to hope for—not for me!—I don’t deserve it—I’m just not worth it!
“Well,” says Jesus, “I don’t know about that. Worth it by whose standards? I’m sure if you want to stay all hung up in preoccupation with your own worthiness and what you deserve, that you’ll manage to find some very good reasons to judge yourself unworthy and undeserving. Some folks do seem to get their religious jollies out of wallowing in their own unworthiness. As for me,” Jesus says, “I’m not really into that. Yes, your silliness, your stubbornness, your selfishness, your wickedness, they all pain me very much—because by hanging onto these things you are destroying yourself, and I love you and I don’t want you to destroy yourself. But ‘not worth it’?” Jesus says. “Ah, you are worth it to me!—and who can say me nay over who is or is not ‘worth it’? Whose world is this, anyway? Yes, you are worth it, you are infinitely worth it, I proclaim and decree that you are worth it. I understand that you should disbelieve for joy. Be filled with joy, and believe! It is I! I am no ghost! All that you staked on me—your hopes, your dreams, your love, your life—you haven’t lost at all! No, no, you’ve won! You’ve won for ever! For I love you,” Jesus says, “and that means that for you, nothing is ever too good to be true!”
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead