Disbelieving Joy

Preaching, Theology

 

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

 

stephen

He didn’t see it coming, but only because his eyes were fixed on a revelation from heaven. Acts 7:54-60

Jesus appears to the disciples and bids them peace because they are terrified, and they are terrified for good reason. Of all the friends huddled together in that room where Jesus appears, most of them will die gruesome deaths. In the corner is Stephen. He’s been on the margins of this operation for most of it, helping the women gather dishes after supper while the other men scheme late into the evening; but in a month or so he’ll be made a deacon, and he’ll preach a sermon about resurrection so upsetting that everyone who hears it will pick up stones to pelt him with until he dies. Closer to the center of the room is Peter, his brow perpetually knit, still trying to make sense of what’s happening.

FOT1018533

“Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died, Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head-down was crucified.” -Hymn 661

He’ll have a few more years in him than Stephen does, but some of them will be in prison, they’ll end in Rome, and he’ll be crucified just like Jesus was except upside down. Andrew is nearby, too, who will also be killed for his Gospel work.

andrew

St. Andrew, believed to have died on an X-shaped cross in Patras

And then there’s John, younger than the rest, wide-eyed with wonder; he’ll have to face outliving all of them, damned to spend many of his elder years with a new generation which can never seem to understand what he’s been through. Each of the people in this room will suffer pain for their passion because that is what passion is, that is what Jesus’ passion is, being in love with people who hurt. So you can imagine why they might be terrified. You can imagine why a part of them might wish that they were only seeing a ghost. Because if what they’re seeing is true, if Jesus was right about being the Son of God and right about defeating death by entering it with willfully accepting obedience and suffering, then they couldn’t just go back to the lives they were living before.

durer revelation

John is the only of the twelve apostles believed to have not been martyred. Here the John of Revelation can be seen tripping out on a deserted island, opting to eat the empty pages of a holy book rather than stare down another blank page.

If what they were seeing was true, it was both inexplicably wonderful and required a transformation which was absolutely terrifying.

In their joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering. We’re supposed to be excited about this, right? You’ve come back from the other side of death to show us that you’ve made the line more porous than we’d insisted on maintaining, to say that despite our having abandoned you there by yourself you’ve come back to be with us and that you’ll be there still when we come to join you, and this is supposed to be peaceful? It sounds much more like the unsettling of everything we thought we knew about how this world works. It sounds like if we try to tell anyone about this they’ll think we’re crazy. It sounds like this kind of news, having so much to do with true authority and real life and the death that leads to it, will also surely get us killed…

[Here I say a few things that I didn’t have written down before hand]

…And even when we do catch a glimpse of that inexplicable joy surging mysteriously through a familiar hymn, wafting from the extravagant lilies or tumbling from our youngest ones with childlike faith, how in the world are we going to explain that to anyone else? How can we justify joy in the middle of a dying world? How can we make sense of a death whose following leads to eternal life?

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” In the middle of their confusion, in the middle of their terror for the future, in the middle of wondering how in the world they’re going to make sense of what this means for their lives now, Jesus asks them for one thing which they can give easily: something to eat. I may not know how to explain the mystery of the Ressurection but I do know how to make you a sandwhich. It reminds me of how people feed grief. We may not know how to say the right thing to someone who has suffered a terrible loss, but we do know how to bring over a casserole. Or it reminds me of lovebirds on a dinner date. You can only say “I love you” so many times before baser appetites set in and demand attention, a bowl of pasta to share, a bottle of something as effervescent as the affinity between them. Jesus has asked the disciples to trust in something unbelievable, and seeing the pained intermingling of suspended joy and disbelief in their eyes, he asks for the next best thing: ok, how about some dinner together, then?

Easter doesn’t make sense. Not the way Holy Week makes sense, not the way our failures make sense. And When we do get to the heart of Easter’s implications for us, it is pretty natural to get spooked. Believing in the defeat of death requires acting like the fear of death has no power over us. It means dying to the many fears death has secured in us, the fear of not enough, the fear of failure, the fear of annihilation and ultimate meaninglessness. Following this path which light has cut through fear is daunting and dark, and so Jesus bids us peace. He asks again for one thing at a time which we can give. A piece of broiled fish. A sip of wine. A moment of something practical to share with his beloved friends before they go forth into unspeakable trials. Remarkably, inexplicably, they’ll face these trials as if they led to the heart of life itself. Remarkably they’ll continue living as if death were not the final word for them, at times disbelieving, often wondering, and, on days when they pause long enough to remember all that bore them out this far, filled with gratitude and joy.

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