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Too Good To Be True?

Sermons On The Gospel Readings
Series I, Cycle B
Here's the scene. The disciples are huddled together and they have just heard Simon's account of experiencing the risen Christ when Cleopas and his companion enter and add word of their encounter with the risen Christ. Luke describes the scene like this: "While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost" (v. 36).

This account picks us up at a point where -- were we to be present at Easter's ground zero -- we also would have been -- "talking," "startled," and "terrified."

Those words sum up how we behave in the face of unexpected news, good or bad. Yes, I said both bad and good. When the news is bad, such responses are understandable. But we also experience them when the news is good.

People sometimes feel their lives are unfolding in too good a way. They may even say that the goodness scares them a bit. The implication is clear: They are not sure life has the right to be that good. Consequently, they wait for the other shoe to drop.

The Peanuts cartoon I have in mind finds Lucy saying her prayers. When she is finished, she walks into the kitchen where Linus is eating and comments: "I was praying for greater patience and understanding, but I quit ..." In the last frame, she continues: "I was afraid I might get it."

James Evans McReynolds was onto something when he wrote:

Whatever else the resurrection of Jesus means,
it means that God is getting close to us.
We fear that.
Easter, we say, is a day of joy
and it really is.
We say it is a day of hope and it really is.
We say it is a day of promise and it really is.
But we are not as fond of it as we think.
We are afraid of it.
We are more afraid of it than we will ever say.1

Good news, here, but frankly, it makes us quake in our clogs. So little wonder that Jesus says to these shaking, quaking disciples: "Peace be with you." Or to put it colloquially, "Chill! It's going to be fine. I know you don't understand how all this has come to pass, but it's going to be all right. In fact, very all right."

What now follows is a time when Jesus invites these people to touch him and feed him, and in that way they come to know that they are a companioned people.

There is a world of difference between loneliness and solitude. When we feel lonely, it is as though we are in this big world all by ourselves, and no one else knows or cares about what we are experiencing. Solitude, by contrast, is the desire of the soul to commune with itself, knowing all the time that we are never utterly alone. We are companioned by the risen Christ, or as another once put it, "A solitude is the audience chamber of God."

There was a Scotsman who found it difficult to pray. He consulted his minister and the minister made a very simple suggestion. "Just sit down and put a chair opposite you, imagine that Jesus is in it and talk to him as you would to a friend." To the Scotsman, the chair made all the difference in the world. Companioned -- that's what it means to be an Easter people.

Still, a part of us wishes we could have it as those primal disciples did; we too wish we could avail ourselves of Jesus' invitation: "Touch me and see." We also want to feel the touch of Jesus. The Easter point is, we do feel that touch, and probably most of the time we are not even aware of it.

Charles Wesley, whose hymn "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" is sung on Easter morn in virtually every Christian congregation in America, died in 1788. But he continues to be present when we sing his hymn. Beethoven died in 1827, but every time we sing "Joyful, Joyful," Beethoven affects us in a very personal way. Similarly, every exertion of ours that can be called Christ-like happens because we are in the presence of Christ's risenness, whether we happen to feel it or not. At some level, conscious or not, there has been a knock on the soul's door and a voice has said: "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" (Revelation 3:20). To do the Christ-like thing means that on some level we have heard that knock that is God-in-Christ and have opened the door.

Companioned -- there's one Easter word.

Then a second one: led. We are a companioned people, and we are a led people. After breaking bread together, Luke tell us Jesus led them out: "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them." John describes Jesus as the shepherd who "calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3b).

We all have had those times in travel when we have become utterly lost. With the route to our destination in dispute, we had to seek counsel.

Sometimes the church behaves as though it is lost. We know that's the case when it looks to the culture and begins to follow its lead. Take the business model. There is a sense in which the church must behave like a business. There is no questioning the need for accurate bookkeeping, effective equipment, and accountability. On the other hand, we can be sure that something is suspect when ministers see themselves as CEOs, or -- as one minister identified himself -- an entrepreneur. The richness and breadth of Jesus is compromised when the Lord of the church is marketed like any other product. A church can become so slick that it behaves more like a well-oiled machine, than a company of believers linked by faith, identified by loving ways, and united in a common mission to be a healing presence in places of suffering, loss, and discouragement. In fact, the church, unlike the world of business, sees loss as opportunity, links value not to productivity but essence, and finds in spiritual bankruptcy, God's opportunity. The church's bottom line is not calculated in terms financial, but in levels of compassion, community, tolerance, and justice. Show me a church that is long on compassion, big on the building of community, patiently tolerant of human differences, and sensitive to fair play, and I will show you a church that is rich in what ultimately matters.

We didn't dream up these values. They come from the Lord of the Church, whose resurrection is our hope, our sustenance, and our joy. If you want to find the risen Christ, it is in these bottom line arenas where he will be found. When you are moved by compassion, drawn by what creates genuine community, joyful over the colorful diversity of our world and impassioned by what is equitable, you can say: "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared" to me.

It's never been expressed more eloquently than Albert Schweitzer did in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old by the lake-side He came to those who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, "Follow thou Me," and sets us to the task which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.2

Luke says of those huddled post-Resurrection disciples that "in their joy they were disbelieving."

Is all this too good to believe? Yes, it is. But believe it anyway -- for the simple reason that it's true!


1. James Evans McReynolds, "Afraid of Easter" (Alive Now! March/April 1978), p. 58.

2. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision (San Fancisco: Harper & Row, l987), p. 19.

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