Friday, April 20, 2012

April 22, Easter 3, "Why Do Doubts Arise Within Your Hearts?"

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48

Today is Easter Sunday number three. The Easter season is eight Sundays long, from Easter to Pentecost, seven weeks, forty-nine days plus one. The season is divided into forty days and ten days by Ascension Day, which will be on May 17.  During those first forty days, on the six Sundays of those forty days, the Lord Jesus kept showing up to be with his disciples.

The record states that his appearances were real, and in the flesh, but also contradictory. On the one hand he would suddenly appear and disappear, and make his way through solid walls and closed doors, as if the normal laws of nature didn’t apply to him, which suggests he was, what, maybe a disembodied spirit. On the other hand he could eat a piece of fish, and apparently digest it, which suggests he was a physical creature of familiar flesh and blood. It’s confusing. How shall we make sense of it? It’s like Jesus could receive at will the benefits of  the laws of nature (the broiled fish!) without being bound to the laws of nature (the walls!).

The Biblical scholar N T Wright describes it as Jesus apparently existing in two dimensions simultaneously. At his resurrection he began to exist in another dimension, the future world, the future of this world, the life of the world to come, in which there will be no sin and no corruption, where he is now and to which he calls us. But for those first forty days he also continued to exist in this dimension of the world, within the lines of time and space, of days and weeks, of geographic locality, of  human history, under the laws of gravity and of the biology of digestion. There was an overlap of forty days in which he existed in two dimensions of the world at once.

It’s hard to explain — it’s impossible to explain, but it’s like the laws of the future world take precedence over the laws of this familiar world, so that he was freely able to be in our familiar world and accept its laws at will, or not. It’s like it was up to him. What this also suggests is that the Kingdom of God embraces and engages the world of our familiarity but the laws of the Kingdom of God take precedence.

The disciples can’t make sense of this. (You might be thinking I can’t either.) They can’t make sense of all this new and conflicting and even contradictory information. And that’s why they have doubts, that’s why their doubts arise within them. Of course they doubt the whole possibility of his resurrection. It’s not just modern scientific people who doubt his resurrection. They doubted it back then. They knew the laws of nature. They knew that dead bodies don’t come alive again, not after they have leaked out their blood, and after the putrefaction which gets irreversible in under an hour. They did not have our modern methods of refrigeration, nor of socially keeping their dead bodies out of sight, so they knew it better than we do, that dead bodies don’t come back alive again. The disciples are reported in all four gospels as having first greeted the news of his resurrection with unbelief. The bodily resurrection is both the linchpin of the Christian faith and also the hardest thing to believe. Of course their doubts arose within them.

Doubts can arise from lack of evidence, when there is not enough to believe. But I think more frequently our doubts arise from too much evidence—from too much evidence to synthesize. It’s like when you get to know someone and you know his character and then he says something or does something which bothers you and makes you doubt his character. Which evidence shall you believe? Both sets of evidence may be true. You have to decide which set of evidence controls the other set.

The Lord Jesus famously says “the meek shall inherit the earth.” You want to believe it is true, which is partly why you are here today. You claim him as your Lord, and you want to believe what he says. But he’s contradicted by so much evidence in our familiar world. The strong inherit the earth, the assertive inherit the earth. That the Lord Jesus is wrong (or at least irrelevant) is assumed by the foreign policies of all the nations in the world. For evidence take the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian private property in the occupied West Bank, or the expansion of American frontier settlements on the lands guaranteed by Congress to Native Americans.

If America ever was a Christian country, then it was in our interest to read what Jesus said about “inheriting the earth” as a metaphor for going off to heaven when we die. But if he meant it the way he said it, as the earth, the land, the real and physical earth, which is what is implied by the physicality of his bodily resurrection, then it both convicts us in our history and it is contradicted by history’s evidence. You have cause to doubt what Jesus said. And so you face this choice: whether to give precedence to the laws of the Kingdom of God over the apparent iron laws of economics and politics and history, and whether the skimpy evidence of Jesus’ resurrection controls the massive evidence of greed and sin and death.

Look at your own life. You have contradictory evidence in your own life. You know you are a Christian. In many ways your life is so good and loving and so in tune with God. But you keep making those same mistakes, and hurting people in that same old way. As you get older you gain some victories over some old sins but you seem to have learned new sins! Your attempt to synthesize what you can believe about yourself is what gives rise to your doubts. You finally cannot synthesize the evidence; you have to prioritize it: which laws take precedence, which beliefs control the others. This is how to understand what our Epistle says, that “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

What it means to “hope in him” is to put your trust in the little evidence he offers, to take on the faith the signals of the gospel. That allows you to relocate the doubts which rise in you. You don’t stop doubting; you settle your doubts. You take your doubts and move them over and settle them down on top of the compulsion of familiar evidence. It’s not that you have to deny the familiar evidence, or doubt the lessons of human history, or doubt the laws of nature, lest you keep injuring your nose by trying to walk through closed doors; but you weigh the evidence and learn to doubt its certainty. You can doubt the confidence of conventional wisdom, as far as this present world goes, you can doubt the pretensions of its expertise and the permanence of its experience. You still embrace and engage the world, but you live according to the laws of the life of the world to come.

Let me finish with a story which offers a little bit of evidence of the power of the resurrection. It’s not as dramatic as Simon Peter raising the lame man up on his legs. But it is close to a miracle. You know that part of my ministry is pastoring the homeless men on Seventh Avenue. All the evidence admits that any gains these men may make are minimal. Maybe I can get them rooms of their own, which is a very good thing, but still you see them on the street, panhandling.

Six years ago a homeless guy named Gary Lee was sleeping on our stoop. I was able to get him a room. We tried to get him a job, but there was no work for him. He tried to make some money shining shoes on Flatbush Avenue by the Q train, but the cops kicked him off for having no permit. We got him into a program, and I heard he was getting some training. I hadn’t seen him for a year or two.

On Maundy Thursday I was walking up Seventh Avenue and I heard a car pull up and I heard my name, “Rev. Meeter, Rev. Meeter.” I thought “Who is this?” in my usual crabby way. I went over to the car and looked inside. “Garry Lee!”  Driving a car, and dressed in a uniform. “Gary Lee, whose car is this?” He grinned at me, “It’s my car, Rev. Meeter. And I’m working at an agency in Red Hook, I got my permit to drive their van.” I was ecstatic. “Gary Lee, Gary Lee!” He said, “I want to thank you, Rev. Meeter. You helped me out, you stood by me, you stayed with me.” Right there in the Avenue I leaned into his window and I prayed with him.

The power of the resurrection. A little skimpy contradiction of the familiar evidence. I accepted his thanks but it wasn’t really me. I just held him by the hand. He’s a believer. It was the power of the name of Jesus, coming through me, to engage his doubt about himself, and settle it down on top of the all evidence on homeless men like him, and free up his belief in the new world for himself, which his Lord Jesus was calling him to. I invite you to choose for that as well, to settle your doubt upon your certainties, and to free up faith to rise within you to belief. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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