Disbelieving for Joy
Third Sunday in Easter/4th May 2003
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
This is a curious turn of phrase, “while they were still disbelieving for joy, and wondered. . . .” It’s often overlooked, ignored. It’s not joy in their belief or because of their belief, but joy in a state of complete disbelief. Remember, these are the disciples and friends of Jesus gathered together in Jerusalem, terrified and confused due to the strange stories they’d been hearing. There were rumors that several women came upon an empty tomb and encountered two messengers from God who talked about Jesus being raised from the dead. This is the same tomb, mind you, where just several days earlier you saw with your own eyes the Roman centurions sealing it shut tight. Jesus was dead. Completely dead. Dead as a doorknob – dead. And you saw it. Then on the Emmaus Road on the evening of resurrection, two men came running back to the city in a state of utter shock and awe because they walked with Jesus and invited him into their home for a meal. When they realized it was Jesus they ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others. They ran at night! No one traveled at night. It wasn’t safe. But they ran breathless back to Jerusalem, and just as they were sharing their story with the others, Jesus appeared again, as if out of nowhere (as Jesus always appears out of nowhere in our lives). In an ancient form of greeting (not unlike what you hear in the Middle East today, especially among Muslims), Jesus says to them, “Peace to you!”
Imagine what that must have been like? His greeting, his presence would have stopped everyone dead in their tracks. They were startled, frightened, terrified – the walking dead is now alive and talking to you. What would you do? It would have scared the life out of you if it wasn’t for the fact that it was life itself who was standing before you. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “How can this be?” they were asking. Surely this isn’t the same Jesus. “We saw him dead. Maybe it’s just a ghost, that’s right, it’s just a ghost. Maybe it’s a hallucination. The last couple of days have been tough, maybe we just need a long vacation at a seaside resort on the Mediterranean. After a few days, we’ll be as good as new, we could put Jesus and the crucifixion behind us and then we could get on with our lives. There’s fishing to be done."
But you can’t hide from Jesus by keeping busy and you can’t hide from him by going to Club Med. He’s no ghost and this is no resurrected spirit; this is a resurrected body - flesh and blood, real as you and me.
Do me a favor, right now: Look at your hands. Now touch them, feel the contours of your palms, press firmly against the delicate bones of your hands, look at the veins full of your blood pulsating through your body, be conscious of how it feels to be a body and to be alive.
We’re not ghosts and neither was the resurrected Jesus. “See my hands and my feet.” Touch and see. “Handle me,” Jesus says. Put your arms around me and feel the warmth of my body, solid, taking up space, alive, an-other. He’s offering them “proof,” concrete, physical, corporal, tangible evidence that they can reach out to touch, to substantiate and verify that what they’re seeing is true, real, really real.
And yet, Luke tells us, that they were still disbelieving for joy. It’s a marvelous way of describing the life of faith when you live in that marvelously creative place of tension. What a great gift this text is to us. Some assume that the opposite of faith is doubt, that to exhibit any form of doubt or disbelief is a sign of faithlessness or maybe, worse, a sin. We have come to believe that it’s an either/or situation: either you have 100% faith or nothing. We expect such perfection of ourselves when even God doesn’t expect such perfection from us - because it’s not about us, but about God. The gospel is not about the importance of our faith, but of God’s faithfulness to us, even when and especially when we are faithless. Faith is not the opposite of doubt.
When I was at Rutgers College, one of my religion professors first introduced this idea to me when he said Christians should always entertain a “healthy skepticism.” I can’t tell you how liberating it was to hear that – it opened up my world and my mind. Saturday evening, as I was going over the sermon, I began to wonder, why didn’t I hear this from the church? Doubt goes with faith. Disbelief is a part of belief. Or perhaps more correctly, the Christian life consists of living in the creative tension of faith and doubt. You’re supposed to have doubt. If you had all the answers you would be God. It’s healthy to be skeptical. (But make sure you don’t become a cynic. Cynics aren’t much fun. They’re not a lot of fun at parties.) Instead, you’re supposed to question your faith and question the church and question your minister and question the world. You grow in the struggle. What matters is that you live in the tension.
Several years ago when I lived in New Jersey, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Sir John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest, former professor of physics, and winner of the esteemed Templeton Prize in Religion. Sir John was having lunch with a mutual friend, Kitty Ferguson, who is Stephen Hawking’s (perhaps the greatest physicist of our day) personal biographer, and I was invited to join them. At that time, I was serving the church but was wrestling with whether to serve Christ as an academic or remain in the parish and serve Christ as a pastor. He said to me, don’t choose. “Live in the tension between the two,” he said. “That’s where the creativity is.” My mentor at Princeton, Jim Loder, taught me that the Christian life and thought is grounded in living in the tension between doubt and faith. He’s always challenged me to remain in the tension, to indwell it.
The tension is beautifully represented in this phrase “disbelieving for joy.” For the disciples couldn’t believe what they were seeing, it was against the norm, it was an affront to their senses and what could be reasonably expected. The dead do not come back to life in our reality. And yet this dead one - whom we crucified, whom we put to death, whom we buried – is now standing in front of us and it’s difficult to contain our joy. The joy is the joy of awareness that Jesus is indeed alive; but how can he be alive? And yet he is here and we are talking with him and we feel the joy; but how can he be alive? Don’t you feel it? Don’t we feel elated by his presence? The Lord is back with us; yet, how can he be with us? Back and forth between disbelief and joy. We spend our lives moving back and forth in this tension between disbelief and joy – sometimes all at the same time!
And “while they were still disbelieving for joy, and wonder,” Jesus said to them, “Have you have anything here to eat?” I love this! The disciples are in this state of utter amazement and completely overwhelmed by the One before them, and as if ignoring their state of disbelief, he says to them, “Hey guys, I’m hungry. Does anyone here have anything to eat?” It’s as if he is saying to them, “Yes, this is what it’s going to be like from now on. Get used to is. Get with the program.” We live with this tension now that the Resurrected One has encountered the dead and dying. So they gave him some broiled fish and he ate it before them - just like ordinary, living, humans do. Ghosts have no need of food. Bodies need food. Bodies need to be fed.
“While they were disbelieving for joy, and wondered,” Jesus turns to food and eats with them. It is one of the many ways Luke tells us throughout his gospel and Acts that, from now on, all the meals we share become ways for us to clarify and confirm what we believe and don’t believe about Jesus. For when we have a meal, and every time we have a meal together, we are reminded of the Risen Christ who ate with his disciples and who eats with us now. Just as a piece of broiled fish and Jesus’ hunger become further “proof” of the resurrection, so too this meal, this loaf, this cup are given to us by the Lord as “proof” of the resurrection. In the midst of our disbelief and our joy, Jesus gives us this support to feed our bodies and to feed his body, the church, in the world. In the midst of the tension between faith and doubt, between disbelief and joy, Jesus gives us this meal so that we might be strengthened and equipped to be his disciples, to know that the Lord has risen indeed, and continues to be known us in the breaking of the bread.
Cf. John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996; Kitty Ferguson, Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. See also her work, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion & the Search for God. New York: Bantam Press, 1994.