The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
O Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Whatever one might say about the resurrection appearances, we must say that something happened that moved the disciples–not just the twelve, but all of the disciples, the followers of Jesus–from cowardice and fear to the unquestionably risky work of proclamation.
We must remember that these were not sophisticated political ideologues. The disciples were not even educated theologians. They were very simple, uneducated, working class people, intimidated by the power of the Roman government and the dominant religious power structure of their time.
But I believe that there were two things that made the difference in their ability to witness, two things that changed them from fear to faith. First, I believe it was their love of the Lord. Despite their fear, despite their absence during his arrest and his trial and his crucifixion, they really loved the Lord. They loved Jesus as teacher and friend, so much so that Jesus was affected by their affection, and he said to them, “You are no longer my students that act as servants. You’re my friends.” [John 15:15]
And once, when others were leaving him, he turned to some of his disciples and he said to them, “Well, everyone else is leaving. Are you going to leave me, too?” And they said to him, “Lord, where would we go, for you have the words that give life to us, that energize us, that give us a sense that we have eternal life.” [John 6:68]
Their love for the Lord. Flavius Josephus–a first-century Jewish historian, perhaps the most respected historian of the first century–was born only a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion. And he wrote in his Antiquities what he observed of these first Christians on whom he looked with suspicion. And he wrote this of their love for Jesus. Josephus wrote, “Those who had in the first place come to love Jesus did not give up their conviction and their affection for him after the crucifixion. And this tribe, the Christians, so-called after him, still till this day, has not disappeared.” Yes, though blocked by fear and cowardice, deep down in their heart they really loved the Lord.
Do you love the Lord this morning? With your doubts and fears? With the questions that you bear, do you, down in your heart, still love him?
Secondly, I believe that something special had to happen to cause them to break through the fear, the cowardice, and the doubt to the risky work of proclamation. There was something that engendered faith in them. William James, the great pioneer in the psychology and philosophy of religion, wrote of his observations of people who had religious faith. And he wrote in Principles of Psychology that often enough it is our “faith beforehand in uncertified results that is the only thing that makes the results come true!” So, what was the faith that caused Christians to be referred to in Acts–these same cowardly, working class, unsophisticated people–what caused them to be referred to in Acts as “these people who have been turning the world upside down”? [Acts 17:6]
Well, the seven Sundays of Easter teach us what happened to them and what can happen to us. The Gospel lesson today opens with these words, “While they were telling about their own experiences, [their individual experiences of the appearance of Jesus at the tomb, in the upper room, on the Road to Emmaeus], Jesus himself, stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ [Luke 24:36]
You know, sharing our personal stories of faith can still bring Jesus Christ alive in our midst and speak peace to the doubts in our hearts.
Now, in the Black Evangelical tradition in which I was raised, there is a practice called testifying. Now, testifying is a time when persons stand before the congregation and they share what they feel God has done in their life. Now, I’m not going to ask you to stand and testify this morning. But it’s still so vital, not just important, but vital to our faith’s growth to be able to share what God has done in our lives. Each one of us, whether we will admit it or not, there are things that have happened in our lives that we know that Jesus lives!
For many other traditions this happens in adult Bible study or in Sunday school. It happens in spiritual direction groups or in prayer circles. However, I have come to be concerned that far too many Christians have no accepting place to tell their story, to share their story with other believers. To be able to say, “I was sick and I was so depressed, and I felt a hand or a touch, and it felt like God’s hand, and somehow I just knew that everything was going to be alright.” Or, “I just felt a compulsion to call her. It was like someone was telling me to do it. And I’m so glad that I did because when I called her, she was in such great crisis.” Or some have said, “I’ve been raised to think a certain way about a people who have a certain lifestyle or a condition socially or a religious conviction different than mine, but now although it’s not my cup of tea, the more I pray and the more I come to know them, I feel something is changing my heart as I know them as people.”
These are all testimonies that I have heard, and maybe they are yours, or there are other testimonies that you had. But as Christians we need safe places for sharing faith among the faithful and in sacred circles of listening where we can share the liveliness of God in our lives: God in Christ speaking peace among us.
Yes, we need to find or make safe places of sharing and sacred circles of listening where we can confess the transforming presence of Christ in our lives.
I remember a confirmation class–this is a class where in the Episcopal Church persons who want to inquire about the church or who would like to be confirmed in their own ministry, they come and spend a series of weeks, usually with the rector, to talk about the faith and the Anglican tradition and the Christian experience. And in a gathering there was a husband and wife who had been coming for a time. And the wife finally said, after a time of feeling some security, in the group, she said, “You know, my husband and I have been having quite a struggle. It just seems that we are always at odds with one another. But she said, you know when we come to church when the peace comes and the priest says, “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” and I turn and I look at him and he looks at me, and no matter what had happened during the week, we found forgiveness, peace. Without the peace,” she said, “we wouldn’t have made it through those weeks.”
And then others began to share their stories of what worship meant to them, those places in worship that had given them a lift in their time of difficulty, and how God was present for them in worship.
Another point about sharing our faith, especially in sacred circles, comes out of the part of our Gospel lesson that says when Jesus appeared while they were telling their story, they were startled, they were terrified, and they thought they were seeing a ghost. And Jesus said to them, “You’ve been here telling your own stories. Why are you so frightened, and why do doubts rise up in your hearts?”[Luke 24:38]
Well, I’m a firm believer that when we do come together to share our individual stories there is a revelation of Christ that is so much more powerful than our individual stories could ever be that it can be frightening. But even more, it can produce new doubts. I think this is because such a presence, when we really come together in faith, can demand more of us than private faith. For the more we risk to know the Lord and to share our story, the more God risks with us and entrusts to us greater circles of witness.
God challenges us to witness publicly, and we find in those sacred circles of sharing the courage, the strength, to believe that maybe not only we should but that we can. To be able to step from the safety of sacred circles into the profane world of hostile disbelief, the places of our professions and work and our play. Places where there is great social, cultural, and economic need, where people are angry because they feel that God and the church has abandoned them, into a world where many persons see religion only as that which inspires hatred. Where religion seems to be only a tool to make sacred social and cultural oppression. For religion, for many, seems to be, especially Christianity, that the only thing that is resurrected are old fears and regressive damning judgments. It is into this everyday profane world in which religion is too often recognized by its grim, loveless, judgmental face and its irrelevant rhetoric that you and I are called to share our faith.
I believe that the faith we are called to share, that should be the power of our witness, is to be able to share with the world that the material and political power that so many hunger for is not the ultimate power. Faith in God is the ultimate power of life. To be able to share that wealth does not bring happiness, but sharing wealth can. That hatred and vengeance, even of one’s own enemy, does not protect us or our children, but rather it causes us to deteriorate morally and spiritually. To say to those who find themselves oppressed, that the structures of society or culture which have historically oppressed and excluded those different from ourselves, can be changed–if we will them to be changed.
And most of all, that the salvation and healing of God can survive the worst that human fear, human hate, and evil can inflict. God has a way of resurrecting truth, no matter what the hate and fear of humanity may do.
So when we come together in faith, exciting and terrifying possibilities come alive, possibilities that call us to risk and to grow and to change even more that we may have already changed. And perhaps this is what Jesus perceived in them–the fear of growing more, of changing when he asked them, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
There is one final and very important note in our Gospel lesson today, and it is this: God is always willing to provide a reason to believe if we truly want to believe. Jesus said to them, “Touch me, feel my palms. Yes, if you need this to believe, here it is. Well, maybe you need me to eat something. Will that help you? Tell me what you need to believe. You want to believe. Let me help you believe.” [Luke 24:39-42]
Like Thomas in our earlier lesson this Easter season, he could not bring himself to believe. He loved the Lord, but he just couldn’t bring himself to believe that somehow this one whom he had loved and devoted his life to and had been so brutally murdered, that he could be alive! I can hear Thomas saying, “I simply will put myself through the pain of this disappointment again unless I can touch some real evidence.”
Or I think of the disciples and their response when Jesus told them, “I know that you are feeling oppressed and I know that there are difficulties, but those who offend you, you not only must forgive them once, but seventy times seventy!” And the disciples looked at Jesus and they said, “Lord, if we’re going to do that, you’re going to have to increase our faith!” [Luke 17:5]
But I like best the prayer of the man whose son was epileptic. [Mark 9;24] And he brought his son to Jesus, and he said, “Jesus, would you heal my son?” And Jesus said to him, “Do you believe?” And the man said to Jesus, “I want to believe. Will you help my unbelief? Will you help my unbelief?” Have you ever prayed that prayer? I certainly pray it. Yet there are times when I need God to help me to believe.
But as it was for Thomas, as it was for the epileptic child’s father, as it was for the disciples, God never leaves us without a reason to believe even if the answer is not what we would want.
And so in summary, this third Sunday of Easter, I have two hopes for all of you who are gathered this day. First, during this Easter season, I am praying that each one of you will find or form some safe place, some sacred circle, where you can share the experience of faith that is in your life. That you will be able to share, whether it is a spiritual direction group or a church group, a Sunday school group, a prayer or a Bible study group, that you will find that place–or make it if it does not exist for you–to share your faith. And maybe you’re a private person. Not all of us are off-the-scale extroverts. Maybe you might want to find a spiritual partner, some friend whose shared space that you might have a relationship with them in which you can talk about faith. Or maybe a spiritual director. But some sacred circle, some safe place that you will share the story of faith, of God’s continual resurrection, in your life. And men, especially to you because we are very, very careful about sharing such queasy things as religious experience. But God needs men who will share their story and allow themselves to be strengthened in such a way that they can minister and witness in this macho world. I pray you will share your faith with other male believers.
Secondly, I don’t know where you are on your spiritual journey, but I will praying throughout this Easter season that you will be open to the power of God’s revelation, the inspiration of God’s call in your life. Maybe you have drifted away from God, or maybe you’re at a place in your journey where you just need a reason to believe. I hope that you will decide today to be open to God, to risk to be vulnerable enough that the Holy Spirit, the same spirit of God that was in Jesus, will appear in your life in ways that will empower you to believe and give greater energy to your faith.
I pray that in prayer and meditation, in expectation perhaps even as you come to this Communion rail this day, that you will find a renewal of your faith that will make you a witness of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So let us close with just a moment of prayer, and in the silence, if you need the renewal of your faith, a reason to believe, to feel the presence of God, I ask you to ask God in this moment of silence before my closing prayer.
Let us pray.
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved; in quietness and in confidence, shall be our strength; by the might of Thy Spirit, open us we pray to thy presence where we may be still and know that Thou art God, and we ask it through Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, Amen.