“Joys and Doubts” Luke 24:36b-48
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021
Rev. Dr. John Henson
As you look back on your week, what were your highs and lows? That’s a question we sometimes ask in small groups around here as a way to get group interaction going and to build community. Each person in the group is to share one high and one low, with the assumption that everyone has experienced both in a given week. Sometimes we can experience a wide range of emotions in one day, hour, or just a few moments. Our are lives are often like a rollercoaster of emotions. Like with rollercoasters, the ride through the highs and lows of life can be exhausting.
As we’ve heard in our gospel reading this morning, the disciples were riding an emotional rollercoaster of sorts. Think about what they’ve been through up to this point. In the span of a week, they have walked with Jesus to the jubilation and cheers of people at a Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem, watched the interaction of Jesus with the powers that be, shared an intimate meal with Jesus in an upper room, witnessed the betrayal of Jesus by one among them, watched as Jesus was arrested by the Romans, scattered out of fear for their own lives, looked on as their leader Peter denied even knowing Jesus, viewed Jesus carrying a cross through the streets of the city, heard his cries and witnessed his pain as he hung there dying, watched as he was removed from the cross and buried, suffered in their grief as they wondered how to carry on, heard reports that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that he had risen from the dead, and endured the anguish of wanting to believe he was alive but feeling the finality of death. They were riding the ups and downs of all of this as Jesus walked through the walls and stood among them, speaking to them, eating in front of them, showing them the marks of his suffering and death while gently confronting them with the evidence of his resurrection and life.
We may not have had that many highs and lows in one week but I’m pretty sure we are all familiar with this kind of rollercoaster ride. You know the exciting highs of speeding along in life with a hands-up kind of joy and the thrills of new heights while also knowing how all of that can so quickly drop from under you, sinking you to a new low and jerking you around with an unexpected and unwelcome turn. You may even know what it’s like to be upside down, with things reversed and out of your control. When it comes to life and death, news of the resurrection of Jesus sometimes becomes a rollercoaster of emotions for us, leading us on a course of the thrill of realization of victory over death and the deep lows of its inevitable reality.
We experience the sheer joy of Easter that death did not prevail; that there’s victory over death. It soon dawns on us, as it did with the disciples, that the resurrection of Jesus gives triumph over violence and evil, that the horror of capital punishment and the atrocities we humans do to each other is negated by life. There is also joy for us as we think of our loved ones we have buried and see no longer, instilling us with hope that we shall see them again. It also gives us strength as we face our own mortality, leaving us with no reason to fear it and every reason to be at peace knowing it shall be without end, even better than it is now with the many limitations on it in this world. So there’s joy in all of that as we gaze at the risen Savior along with the disciples.
But there’s also disbelief, the doubts that come into our lives like dark clouds showing up on a sunny day. Just when we are delighting in the joy of our belief and the discovery of life, we find ourselves wondering again how it could really ever be true. For some, there are doubts if Jesus really ever did rise again. Others may fully believe he did, but have no confidence they will ever rise again from the dead; that it couldn’t really happen like that for us. Then there is the difficulty of believing life is really triumphant when there’s so much death around, like with the 530,000 people who have died from COVID this past year or with the number of people killed in the 45 mass shootings that have taken place in just this past month, not to mention all the people of color who have been killed by police. With such death and destruction all around us in our world today, we may wonder how Jesus’ resurrection even makes a difference in our world. The joy that led us to say, “O death where is thy sting?” has faded to the despair that comes as we see the stinger all around and feel it deep within us. We might even resign ourselves to thinking this world is beyond the reach of resurrection life, believing that it’s real and worked for Jesus, but is inaccessible to us until we get to heaven.
Before we judge ourselves or others too harshly for doubting, we should understand that doubts and disbelief can actually be a part of our faith formation. I like what Rob Bell writes about doubts,
“For many people in our world, the opposite of faith is doubt. The goal, then, within this understanding, is to eliminate doubt. But faith and doubt aren’t opposites. Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it’s alive and well and exploring and searching. Faith and doubt aren’t opposites, they are, it turns out, excellent dance partners.”Rob Bell, What We Talk about When We Talk about God
Even if we don’t like to be on the dance floor, we know the dance. Our steps of belief are joined with our doubts. I also like how Henry David Thoreau once described doubt, how “Faith keeps many debts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe.” Doubts, like clouds, do come our way in the midst of our belief.
The clouds of doubt lift again, when the power of life burns through all of a sudden and we are surprised and startled by the joy of life once more. Like with the two who walked down the road to Emmaus with their fears and doubts only to discover Jesus had been walking with them all along, we too find him with us just as much in our doubting as with our believing. Jesus never leaves us alone with our doubts and disbelief. Like with Thomas the doubter, he doesn’t judge us for doubting. He moves right through the walls of it all with his risen body and demonstrates just how real he and his resurrected life are to us. We progress in our faith development as we walk on with the risen Jesus and his healed wounds, wherever he leads us.