Disbelieving and Still Wondering

So, a few things about this passage. This story takes place in Luke’s gospel right after the disciples from the road to Emmaus story have run all the way back to Jerusalem to say that they had seen the Risen Christ. And they have been told that Jesus had also appeared to Peter earlier in the day. So when it says, while they were talking about this, that is they’re still talking about the road to Emmaus experience. They’re talking about how Jesus had been revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. Then Jesus comes and stands among them, and their reaction is they are scared out of their minds, and they think it’s a ghost. Had they not been paying attention to the stories they were just sharing with one another?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
April 14, 2024—Easter III
Luke 24:36b-48
Text transcribed by YouTube, Reconstructed by ChatGPT. Please forgive any typos.

And to attempt to assuage them and make them feel more comfortable, he shows them his hands and his feet. He says, “Look, it’s me.” He eats, which is the kind of ancient world definitive proof that someone isn’t a ghost because ghosts don’t eat. So he eats some broiled fish and shows that he’s a live person of flesh and blood, a person raised from the dead. And then he explains the scriptures with a little bit of shade thrown in because he says, “As I told you when I was with you, here’s how it all works.” That’s kind of disciple shaming in a way. It’s sort of saying, “See if you’d been paying attention, you would you would have known this. I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.” But he repeats himself and he tells them, “Here’s what I told you. Remember, so here’s what’s happened: the Messiah has to suffer, die, and be raised after three days for eternal life. And now you know. And now you’re a witness to these things.” So you can testify to them. Yourself.

It’s an interesting story among the resurrection appearances that we encounter. There are a few main ones. So, Mark’s gospel: there are no resurrection appearances in the original version of Mark. It ends abruptly at verse eight with a kind of cliffhanger. In Matthew, we do get a brief resurrection appearance back in Galilee on the mountain that Jesus had told the disciples he would see them on. In Luke, we get the road to Emmaus, we get this experience in the upper room, and then we also get several other appearances culminating in the Ascension 40 days later.

In John’s gospel, we get the appearance to Mary Magdalene, we get the appearance in the upper room without Thomas, then a week later with Thomas, and then we get a couple more. We get another appearance up on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the very end. And it’s generally assumed that the doubting Thomas story is kind of unique in the way it presents how the disciples respond to the resurrection. But it’s not as unique as we might think because while the doubting Thomas story makes the most of a disciple doubting that the resurrection has actually happened, it turns out that in every other gospel where there is a resurrection appearance, doubt is mentioned.

In Matthew’s gospel, in Matthew 28:7, there Jesus is with the disciples on the mountain that he told them he would see them on after his resurrection, and it said that they worshiped him but some doubted. I used to work with a Catholic priest who was floored by this verse. He was like, even then, they’re standing in his presence and they’re still not sure. But we leave Luke out of the fun. Luke mentions here in this text that they were wondering and doubting while he’s standing in the room with them.

There’s only one takeaway that I can take from this, that is no matter how profound the religious experience, no matter how seemingly convincing the proof, doubt is unexpungeable. Doubt is inescapable. It is a fact of faithful living. We Christians aren’t always comfortable with that idea. We’re not comfortable with the idea that doubt is okay or that doubt can be tolerated. We don’t know what to do with it because we’re afraid that admitting doubt is tantamount to admitting weakness in faith or admitting that we’re not faithful enough.

There was a very, very well-meaning video made by, I won’t mention which annual conference it was, it was just located in the Baltimore-Washington area. They made a video by some of the leaders of the conference addressing the question of doubt, and it was very well-meaning because they were trying to make people with doubt feel better, except every single one of them, in effect, said, “Well, I used to doubt, so it’s okay,” meaning that they had gotten over it, that they had somehow conquered their doubt and their doubt was now gone.

So if you’re feeling doubt, don’t worry, it’s okay, and you too will get over it. No one looked into that camera and said, “Doubt, I’m doubting right now,” which would have been in my mind far more helpful because here’s the thing: if the disciples, the ones who worked with and lived with and ministered with Jesus, the ones to whom he appeared in the flesh in the upper room and on the road to Emmaus and in Emmaus at dinner and on the Galilean lakeshore, if they could doubt and be witnesses, we can too.

There is nothing preventing us from being faithful witnesses even when we doubt. Now it’s been said by me repeatedly because this is, after all, the congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter, that doubt is not only to be accepted, it is to be expected and on some level required, that is, you can’t have real faith without authentic doubt. I’ve shared with you before there was a scene in the TV series Battlestar Galactica of all things in which one of the characters is being sent out on a mission and there’s all reasons to wonder whether she is loyal, whether she might be a sleeper agent, all kinds of things going on, and she says to the captain, “How can you really be sure that you can trust me?” And he says, or she, she says, “How are you sure that you’re really sure that you trust me? Or how can you know?” And he says, “I don’t. That’s what trust is, right? It’s not in the knowing, it’s in the choosing to extend faith even when we are unsure.”

Now, that’s not a blind leap. It’s not an ignorant leap. It’s not the kind of plug your ears and close your eyes, see no evil, hear no evil, I’m just going to go ahead and blunder through and ignore all the facts that the world has to offer. It’s saying I don’t know nevertheless, even though I admit I don’t know, I move forward in faith. It’s at the heart of those trust falls that they do on corporate retreats and youth group retreats where they make you fall backwards into the arms of someone you can’t see and so you can’t know that they’re going to catch you, but you trust that they will. That’s what faith is at its heart.

Too often in our lives, faith is interpreted as ascent to things to believe. In fact, you hear that a lot in a lot of modern religious discourse, that

it’s about believing in certain things and believing that they are true and accepting certain doctrines and certain worldviews and certain other positions that are essential things that John Wesley would have called opinions. John Wesley wasn’t a big fan of people who lifted up correct belief as the most important thing about religion because he said, “I’m not impressed by people who have the right opinions. The devil certainly has the right opinions about everything. He knows the true nature of God, he knows he could explain the Trinity to us better than anyone. So what? He’s not full of love, he’s not full of grace.”

So just having the right opinion about something, believing the correct thing in Wesley’s mind, was inferior to loving and to loving generously and faithfully. And it’s the same with doubt. It is less important that we be absolutely certain about the things we believe in than that we take that risk of faith and choose to love and to live and to witness to mercy and grace and justice and peace and hope, even if we doubt that these things are ever going to take place. We live into that reality through faith.

That’s what faith is, that’s what trust is. It is that living into it, it is that falling backward into the arms when you can’t see them and can’t know for sure because there is a power in that, there is a power that transforms the world when we are moved by people of faith. We are rarely moved by how eloquently they can explain the mysteries of theology. We are moved by the things that they dare to do, the way witness that they dare to make, the love that they dare to share, even when the world doesn’t share it back.

Why should Martin Luther King have gone out into public at all when he felt that his life was soon to come to an end? He did it not because he thought the risk was gone or that he was sure he would be fine, he did it because he trusted in love and trusted in justice and he trusted in all the things the gospel is about. Those are the kinds of things that inspire, those are the kinds of things that are witnessing to the gospel.

It’s the that’s the witness that Jesus is telling his disciples they are capable of making now even with their doubt, they can still go out, they can still proclaim hope and love and life and mercy because certainty is not required, only faith, only a willingness to take a risk, to take the leap of faith. That doesn’t make it easier, and I think one of the reasons we crave certainty is because we just want it to be easy, we want to know for sure, we want a sure thing, a safe bet, something that we can count on in a world full of uncertainty.

Well, I guess that’s tough for us because we’re not going to get it, but we have the better thing, we have the faithful response, we have the response that even in the midst of wondering and doubting can receive the Risen Christ into our midst and proclaim him as witness to all the world.

The Text

Luke 24:36–48

“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.”