The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 3—Year B; Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
We are now two full weeks into the Easter season, but the church just won’t let us leave THAT day, the first day of the week, the day when the tomb is empty, when life can’t stay contained, when Jesus, who we thought was dead and gone is very, very much alive.
In Luke’s gospel, it goes like this. The women come to anoint the body only to find the stone rolled away. Messengers confront them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They return from the tomb and tell the eleven and all the others, but, and the Common English Bible puts it this way, “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.” But something awakened in Peter’s heart because he ran to the tomb. He sees the linen cloth, and then he returns home wondering what in the world had happened.
On that same day, two disciples are on their way to Emmaus when this stranger comes alongside them. They are incredulous that this stranger doesn’t know all that has happened over these last three days. Then, they pour their hearts out—all their sadness, all their shock, all their grief, and then a whole other round of shock at the women’s news that he was alive, which eventually was confirmed when some of the group went to the tomb and found it “just as the women had said.” This stranger then called the two disciples on their dull minds that prevent them from believing all that the prophets talked about. Then he broke open the scriptures for them starting with Moses all the way through the prophets.
When they got to the village of Emmaus, it was late, and they asked the stranger to stay with them. He did, and when he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave to them, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. And in the next instant, he was gone. But they knew. And then they knew what that strange sensation was that they had felt as he broke open the scriptures—it was their heart burning in recognition that it was true, and they could trust that it was true. Jesus was living. Different than before, but alive, maybe even more alive than when they had said goodbye to him at the Last Supper or in the garden of Gethsemane or at the foot of the cross.
So, those two disciples hightail it back to Jerusalem to tell the story of what had happened to them on the road and at table with this stranger.
And while they are talking, now late in the evening, Jesus himself comes and stands among them. He first does what he always does, which is? (pause) He wishes them peace. Now, the text tells us that the disciples were startled and terrified, but again, that translation doesn’t do it justice. No, we are back to terrified and affrighted, thrown into terror. So, they were terrifiedand really terrified. And I suppose seeing someone whom you thought dead would be a terrifying thing, so a little compassion here for the disciples and their companions gathered.
And then, Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Again, the greek is helpful—here the word the NRSV translates as frightened is really much more about agitation. Jesus is asking, “Why are you agitated, restless, anxious, distressed, why are your insides all churned up, why have you lost your equanimity?” And this word for “doubts?” It’s not so much the “no, this can’t be true because it’s just not possible” doubt—the greek describes it this way, “the thinking of a man deliberating with himself.” Oh, I know that guy—this is the full committee in our heads, all voices present and accounted for, in full debate mode. Except, Jesus locates this inner debate not just in the head, but even more, in the heart. I’m not even sure what to make of that—the heart debating with itself.
Whatever is going on, these encounters with Jesus, and even just the news of them, have clearly completely unsettled the disciples, unleashed a torrent of terror, thrown their insides into chaos, thrown their heads into a swirl, and triggered a battle within the heart itself.
And into that chaotic swirl, Jesus gets very real and tangible and physical—“Look at my hands and feet. It’s I myself! It’s me. Touch me and see; a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And then he showed them his hands and feet. And then we get this interesting line: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” This disbelieving isn’t about evidence-based doubting; the word means “to betray a trust”—this is much more about not trusting that this is true. Oh, and trust is often much more about the heart. The head may tell us the reasons we shouldn’t trust, but it is the heart that is afraid of being hurt again that keeps the inner debate going so that it never really has to leap into that ocean of vulnerability. And the really curious thing is that this struggle to trust is happening in the midst of an experience of joy that is soaked in a sense of wonder and amazement.
And that leads me to a concept I first heard about in Brené Brown’s work—foreboding joy. In her research, she discovered that joy is one of the most vulnerable things we can feel. If “vulnerability is defined as emotional risk, uncertainty, and exposure,” then you can begin to see why it is so hard to lean into joy because we all know that it can disappear in an instant. To feel deep joy is to let your heart be full-on open and exposed without any guarantees of anything except the possibility that it will be gone in the next instant. Brown notes, “When we lose the ability or willingness to be vulnerable, joy becomes something we approach with deep foreboding.”
She goes on to say that it can show up in different ways. The most common is to catastrophize when we start to feel that feeling of joy. We are enjoying peace and contentment, and we start thinking of all the things that have gone wrong in the past and could go wrong in the future. The other, and much more subtle form, happens when we just live disappointed and don’t expect much because it’s just so much easier to live in that disappointed place than to have your heart wide-open and experience a disappointment. All of these strategies, Brown notes, are “just trying to beat vulnerability to the punch.” She says, “We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.”
So, could it be that the disciples are caught in the grips of a whopping big dose of foreboding joy. The embodiment of resurrection is standing right before them, and their heads can’t go there, and their hearts can’t trust it. And I think this is more than us wrestling with our 21st century empirical doubts about a resuscitated body. I don’t know how Jesus’ resurrection body works, I don’t have a clue as to the physiology of that, but I don’t think that’s the real problem in believing—I think it’s much, much deeper than that. I think that we have a really hard time fully embracing the joy that overwhelms us when we let in the possibility that his life, Jesus’ life, God’s life is this big and alive and irrepressible.
When we have moved through our Good Friday’s—both our small and very personal crucifixions, and our big and very public ones—when our hearts have been completely laid open by loss and grief and abandonment and betrayal, it is very hard to let our hearts fall back into life and deep joy. And all this stuff about Jesus showing us his wounds, his hands, his feet, eating the daggone fish—it’s all a way of saying, “The scars remain, but there is life again; there is joy if your heart can trust that this life is indeed deeper than anything you fear.” It’s all a way of saying, “Resurrection is about being all-in with life—being all-in with your heart and your mind and your spirit and your body. Wherever death has held you captive, can you trust that space in your being to live again?”
Jesus is standing right before us, wounded and risen, why do we persist in our endless debates in our heads, why do we let our fear rule our hearts, why do we let our hesitancy and reluctance to trust dictate our lives? And what would happen if, in the midst of that swirl, we jumped anyway? What would happen if we took the leap and looked at Jesus and heard his voice calling to us through these sacred stories or in our sacred silence? What if, when the bread was broken, we recognized that strange sensation in our hearts for what it is, and knew, as St. Augustine knew, that our hearts had been “set on fire by God’s love?” What if we made a conscious decision to trust the wonder and mystery of Resurrection, instead of making peace with our skeptism? Could we handle that much joy? Could we handle that much life? Could we handle that much hope? Would you like to try?
We’re not saying that death and Good Friday will never come again—quite the contrary, we know it will come again, but why would we squander our resurrection life fearing that inevitable moment? Why not be all-in with resurrection and possibility and joy and wonder and amazement, and trust, that as the journey turns this way and that, Jesus will be right there “with us, beside us, behind us, before us, beneath us, above us, within us,” as the old Celtic hymn says?
Jesus is in our presence, here, now, today, fully alive, yearning to touch and be touched, what is keeping us from meeting him in that place of irrepressible joy? Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 19, 2015