Sermon, 4/18/21: When Seeing Is Not Believing!

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3 Easter

Psalm 4​Acts 3:12 – 19​I John 3:1 – 7​Luke 24:36b – 48

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, Jesus said to them, ‘Have you anything to eat?’ Lk. 24:41

Aside from my early youthful years, when, on a Saturday with parental permission, I would accompany childhood friends to the local movie theater, I have not been much of a movie buff, neither in theaters and nor on television. I have always preferred books over celluloid. However, with time for reflections, due to Covid-19 restrictions, I imagined myself a producer or director of a film.

And the film? My initial attempt at a title, I must confess, was not terribly imaginative: “The Resurrection: “The most incredible Miracle.” I toyed also with the title “God the Promise Keeper,” starring Jesus of Nazareth. I decided to postpone selecting a title until testing various ones on a private opinion poll. Let the script, the story dictate the title, so thought I. More important for me than a title, however, was that the film would have to be done in sequels, if its impact were to be long-lasting.

The first of the sequel is, of course, the Resurrection itself. Its title could be Mary of Magdala and the Discovery of the Empty Tomb. What preceded could be told as flashbacks. The second of this multi-sequel film features the disciple Thomas. It could bear the title The Redemption of Thomas the Doubter. And so it was that last Sunday, the second Sunday in Easter, we had our annual review of Thomas, the disciple who doubted, the disciple who asked for very specific proof. It was also my intent to remind us, that Thomas exercised his doubt in a community setting. He relied on being accepted by his fellow disciples, because he was not present when Jesus, the main character, made his first post-resurrection appearance to the disciples behind closed door.

As I envisage my film, I would need walk-ons, without whom the film would collapse into the realm of make-believe, but that would become the fourth sequel, and so I imagined that you and I have a prominent role. It is not uncommon, so I understand, for a director or a producer to have a role in a film. You and I are the “walk-ons” in the sequel is being still produced. However, before we can produce our sequel, that final fourth sequel, another precedes our own. And that sequel, the third of my four sequel film, deals with the major supporting characters, the men behind the closed doors, that small group of disciples who lent support to the redemption of Thomas. I suggest that an appropriate title for part three is: Ambivalence threatens Success!

As I have just noted, in my imaginary film, you and I find ourselves not in the third, but a later sequel, and it would be the height of hubris on my part to assign our sequel a title. And, if our sequel is to add credence to the larger film, if we are to perform our roles convincingly, I suggest that it is imperative that we look more closely at Sequel Three: Ambivalence threatens Success. For, it is in that sequel that we encounter folks not unlike ourselves, but who were fortunate to have been closer to the actual script, as it was being written. In order to do this, I have chosen a word that is probably not in your daily vocabulary. For sure. I know that it is not in mine, but it is a word that quite aptly describes the disciples. It is an Honors English word, and some might dare say a word flaunted by the intellectual elite: A M B I V A L E N C E.

However, I beg to differ. You understand already this word, you and I live out this word in our day-to-day interaction with the world around us, and more frequently than you would recognize. Consider what you would do, if of a Saturday afternoon your doorbell rang, suddenly and unexpectedly. You go to the front door, not attired in your finest, and are greeted with strobe lights and a TV camera, and you are met with a surprise of great magnitude.

Such, indeed, did happen recently to a tenured professor of my alma mater who, reportedly, became irritated by a repeated interruptions on his smartphone, as he was in the middle of a lecture. Only later, after his lecture, did he have time to address the irritation. Only then did he discover that he had been named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, an award for which he had not applied, but which is given to individuals under 30 years of age whose contribution to human endeavor shows great promise. Being so named came with a dollar amount in excess of one-half billion dollars, which allowed him to further his research.

What would be, do you think, your first reaction, if such were to happen to you? May I suggest that two simultaneous, conflicting emotions would overwhelm you? There is the disbelief that comes from the commonly accepted rationale that “nobody ever wins these things,” because the odds against winning are astronomical. At the same time there is the feeling of unbridled joy. That, may I suggest, is ambivalence.

Ambivalence is what we feel when two thoughts, having raced toward each other, each unwilling to give an inch, collide inside our head and heart, leaving us with the feeling of being unable to say yes or no to either possibility. Ambivalence was the emotional response of the disciple when they found themselves face-to-face with their risen Lord. The words that Luke used to describe the emotions racing through the minds of the disciples are: “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”

I would wager with 99% certainty of winning, that 99% of us would not have chosen that line from today’s gospel lesson, if asked to give an example of that Honor’s English word “ambivalence.” I believe that we would focus our attention on the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, that he asked for something to eat, in order to prove his existence. That is fair. You would not have chosen it, for the simple fact that the lesson appears to glide over the ambivalence on its way to somewhere else.

We probably would not have chosen it because, more often than not, we want Holy Writ to be clear, perfectly clear, without ambiguity, to tell us how to live our lives. As we struggle with what God is calling us to do in our individual lives and as a community, though still separated physically from each other because of Covind-19, we have conflicting emotions and ideas and long for but one clear sign, for that lightning bolt from above. What we get is a struggle: The joy of 135 plus years of worship in this place we call St. James, colliding with the uneasiness of the uncertainty of the future.

But it is there, this ambivalence. “While in their joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering….” says the Gospel according to Luke. And so it is also that I come again to the defense of my favorite disciple, Thomas. I will, in a moment, come to the other aim of the gospel, but if we are going to point the finger at “my main man” Thomas, we must also acknowledge the ambivalence felt by those disciples who were there, who could offer broiled fish to the risen Christ, those disciples who could touch and see. If these folks were ambivalent, why should Thomas, who was not there, also not be skeptical?

Terrified on the one hand, and ecstatic with joy on the other, disbelieving, and yet unable to deny that their risen Lord was standing in front of them, talking to them, those disciples, like Thomas, had not shed their humanness. And that is good for our own sequel, as latter day walk-ons. Easter presents us with a dilemma. Our puzzlement is about what we feel or do not feel, or about what we think we ought to feel, but somehow cannot quite grasp because it is so foreign to all that we have ever experienced. Think about our dilemma in the most mundane, concrete way. As latter day walk-ons, we are not able to offer God’s Messiah something to eat, or touch the nail print, or to place our finger into the side pierced by a sword. But is that ultimately really so?

Even in our ambivalence, we are called to witness. We have this Easter faith, a belief that is so utterly and totally defiant of all human experience, both before and since it occurrence. If someone were to ask you why you believe in Jesus of Nazareth, you might say, ‘because there were witnesses: Mary Magdalene, Peter, James, John, Matthew and, Thomas, along with other disciples, both women and men who were there. And I believe them.’ Today’s gospel concludes with the reminder: “You are witnesses of these things,” and it is a reminder to those very disciples of the commission, repeated at Pentecost, and passed down to us, that the mission of Jesus was, and is, not a static one, one for a small circle of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Even when displaying feelings of ambivalence, we humans want to share good news with others, not to brag or to boast, but to share, even during, but especially during this pandemic. Easter forces us out into the broader community, forces us to want to share the good news and concerns of Christ for others with others.

How may we respond to our own ambivalence? If, for some reason, we seem unable to connect with the risen Christ, then maybe we ought to be looking for someone in whom the risen Christ already lives. With an encouraging word, a gentle smile, a note of thanks, a telephone call to someone, for whom its value exceeds a half million dollars. Something bursts the ambivalences of our doubts and beliefs, and we find ourselves enveloped by a wow! experience. In that moment, that ancient, unique Easter becomes for us our Easter. When that happens, there is joy in our hearts and joy in the church, because our ambivalence has vanished, and Christ has become more real than life itself. Amen