Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter – April 18, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.
My wife and I enjoy watching old episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We love how it humorously depicts the give and take of married life. As I was working through our gospel reading for this morning, a scene from one of the early episodes came to mind. Ray and his wife Debra are remembering their wedding day. Through a series of flashback scenes we see how Ray was a nervous wreck right on the day of the wedding. He expresses doubts about the wedding to his parents, and to his brother, and to his priest. He doesn’t think Debra really wants to marry him. He thinks it just has to be too good to be true. He is so plagued by his doubts that it almost derails the wedding! As the scene returns to the present, macho Ray the sportswriter then confesses to his wife that he wept on their wedding night, because he couldn’t believe that someone so beautiful and wonderful wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. It seemed too good to be true. He was full of both joy and disbelief.
I think this scene, this scenario, beautifully captures what is going on in our gospel reading for today.
The risen Jesus came to the disciples. He stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and afraid, thinking they were looking at a ghost. “Why are you frightened,” Jesus asked, “and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Jesus invited them to touch him. He pointed out that he had flesh and bones. He wasn’t a ghost! Jesus showed them the wounds on his hands and feet. And then he said, “Have you got anything to eat?” Jesus was hungry! They gave him some broiled fish, and he ate it in their presence, as if to prove to them that he wasn’t an apparition but a real human being, risen from the dead!
St. Luke tells us that this all happened to the disciples “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” What an odd sentence! They were both “in their joy” and “disbelieving.” The two seem mutually exclusive. They seem to be at odds. But what Luke is telling us is that the disciples thought that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was too good to be true. Joy and disbelief coexisted because it seemed too good to be true!
Their doubts just about ruined everything, and so Jesus gently chastised them for it: “Why do doubts arise in your hearts?” he said. “Look, and see that it is I myself!” Their doubts could have derailed their relationship with the risen Jesus. Their doubts could have thwarted the mission Jesus would give them to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations. It could have gotten in the way of their calling to be witnesses of the resurrection. If they continued to believe Jesus was a ghost, they might have turned and run away like Ray thinking about fleeing the church on his wedding day.
But Jesus worked with them. He showed them it was true. He called them to faith. He called them to trust him. He pointed them to the scriptures, all of which – whether the law of Moses, the prophets, or the psalms — testify to him. And instead of continuing to believe it was too good to be true, the disciples began to live into this joyful new reality.
I think we live much of our lives as Christians in this funny place between joy and disbelief. We love the idea of the resurrection. We love the story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. But doubts about whether it is really, historically true or not prevent us from living into this joyful new reality. Maybe our minds have been too powerfully shaped by an enlightenment scientific worldview to believe that death could be reversed. Maybe we’ve been convinced by heretical voices on the margins of the church claiming that Jesus wasn’t bodily raised, but only raised in the hearts of the disciples as they were inspired by his memory. Maybe we’ve seen too many dead bodies stay dead to believe that one would actually rise again and come around asking for a fish sandwich. Maybe we think that Jesus’ victory over death is just too good to be true.
These doubts are entirely understandable. It does seem too good to be true! But these doubts get in the way of our relationship with our risen Lord. They rob us of the peace he proclaims to us. They rob us of the abundant life he came to give us. They rob us of a pure, unadulterated joy, of a joy that isn’t watered down or kept in check by disbelief. And it gets in the way of our mission as the church, our calling as God’s people. How can we be passionate witnesses to something we only kind of believe?
But it is true. Jesus was raised from the dead. He wasn’t an apparition or a vision or a figment of the disciples’ imagination. His resurrection wasn’t a metaphor. He had a risen body that the disciples could touch. He had a risen body that enjoyed some broiled fish. Jesus really, truly, was alive again. He really did conquer death!
And as St. Paul teaches us, his risen body is the “firstfruits of the resurrection” (1 Corinthians 15:21). It is a demonstration of what God has in store for all who put their trust in him. Or as St. John wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life.”
Doubting all of this is understandable. The disciples did at first, and they had the risen Jesus standing right there in front of them! It does seem too good to be true. But it is true. Jesus Christ actually, literally, rose from the dead as a living, breathing, fish eating human being, as the first fruits of a resurrection God has in store for all who believe in him. It is the most earth-shattering, life-changing truth you will ever be invited to believe.
And so our Lord Jesus comes to us today as he did to the disciples. He comes to us to ease our fears, saying “Peace be with you.” He comes to gently chastise us for our doubts and invite us to trust in him. He comes to us through his Supper to give us his body to touch. He comes to us pointing us to the scriptures, inviting us to trust God’s Word and to seek him there. He comes to call us to our mission as the church, which is to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, all peoples. He calls us to be witnesses to his resurrection.
Don’t stay stuck in that funny place between joy and disbelief. Don’t let your doubts get in the way of the beautiful, wonderful thing God has done for you in Jesus Christ. Instead of believing it is too good to be true, let us all live into this joyful new reality together.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church