Faith and Doubt: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 3
1) This is the third week of Eastertide (there are seven such weeks, poetically one more week than the six weeks of Lent). The gospel readings for these first three weeks of the season focus on stories of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers; the next four weeks will explore Jesus’ teachings about intimacy with God.
2) A recurring theme in the resurrection appearance stories is how early Christian communities struggle to perceive and believe. For starters, the risen Jesus isn’t even recognized at first. In John, Mary thinks he’s the local gardener, and the disciples don’t recognize him on the beach (John 20:15; 21:4). And likewise, just before this week’s passage in Luke, two of Jesus’ followers have an extended conversation with him (and about him!) without realizing who he is. In this way, both John and Luke go out of their way to suggest that resurrection means something more mysterious than simple resuscitation: Jesus is risen, and at the same time he is somehow different. Part of what’s going on here is early Christian communities wrestling with the fact that great crowds didn’t notice Jesus' return (as they did, for example, in the case of Lazarus’ resurrection in John (see John 12:9)). Jesus does come back, but only a few have eyes to see; even his disciples need help recognizing him. What’s more, Jesus not only looks different; he also vanishes into thin air (Luke 24:31) and walks through locked doors (John 20:19). Is he some kind of spirit or ghost? This week’s passage in Luke addresses this question directly.
3) The passage from Acts 3 can easily be misinterpreted in anti-Jewish ways, and this danger should be explicitly tackled. Peter does address “Jews” directly, but he does so as a Jew himself, and he does so by arguing (as Jesus does in the Luke passage) that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah described in the ancient stream of Jewish thought and scripture. What's more, Peter calls his listeners to repent; but only a few pages earlier (Luke and Acts are written by the same author), Peter himself has denied and betrayed Jesus in a startlingly intimate, devastating way. He is the betrayer in chief, we might say, arguably more culpable than any of his audience, since unlike them he did not “act in ignorance” (Acts 3:17). The call to repentance is also addressed to the preacher! And please note: in this sermon Peter goes on to speak strikingly of a “universal restoration” - not the saving of a few, but the saving of all, regardless of their creed, identity, or past behavior (Acts 3:21).
1) “Touch me and see,” Jesus says, directly addressing their fears and doubts that, rather than a resurrected Jesus, they were actually seeing a ghost: “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Thus Luke frames Jesus’ act of showing his wounds as not only an act of demonstrating who he is (as in, “look, I’m the one you saw crucified”) but also an act of demonstrating his physicality (as in, “look, I’m a human being, not an ethereal spirit”).
2) Why was a physical resurrection important to early followers of Jesus? Why wouldn’t a ghostly apparition of him have been enough? First, the physicality of the resurrection strongly resonates with the physicality of the Incarnation: many in the ancient world (and today!) think of God as intangible or residing on some superior “spiritual” plane - but the Christmas witness is that God becomes flesh and dwells among us, clarifying that the physical world is indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and well suited to being indwelt by divine presence and power. In this way, the physical Incarnation and the physical resurrection - Christmas and Easter - are bookends around the radiant good news about the profound goodness of creation. And second, the physicality of the resurrection underlines its astonishing, miraculous character, its sheer impossibility, and so strengthens its status as a decisive sign of the dawning of God’s realm (and of many more “impossibilities” to come).
3) This impossibility itself raises what may be the most important theme in this passage: the role of doubt in the life of faith. One of the most surprising things in this story is that, unlike the similar account in John, in which Thomas initially doubts and then declares his faith with a stirring confession after touching Jesus’ wounds (John 20:24-28), Luke’s story doesn’t neatly resolve the disciples’ doubts. Jesus shows them his wounds, but they don't cry out in a chorus of belief. Instead we get what may be our favorite verse in all of scripture: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, Jesus said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” (Luke 24:41). Jesus’ hunger and subsequent meal further demonstrate his physicality, of course, but don’t miss the scene’s overall dynamics: the disciples are joyful, disbelieving, and still wondering, and Jesus, as if breaking their dumbfounded silence, asks for a snack! As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth has pointed out, miracle stories (and resurrection stories most of all) are designed to astonish, and astonishment, after all, is a blend of belief and disbelief. Accordingly, Barth contends that Christians should neither merely “believe” miracle stories (for that would mean we aren’t truly astonished by them) nor merely “disbelieve” them (ditto); rather, these stories should leave us continually “taken aback.” In this way, we may truly take our place among the “joyful, disbelieving, wondering” disciples, and turn our attention to what Jesus’ mission means for us today. Feeding the hungry person right in front of us, for starters! "Have you anything here to eat?"
1) Since this passage is the last of the three resurrection appearance stories this Eastertide, this may be a perfect week to name and explore what resurrection means in our lives today. Resurrection comes in many forms in these stories, and the penumbras of mystery around them can help open our eyes to the manifold ways God raises up new life. In fact, one way to interpret stories like this one is to emphasize how they narrate the resurrection (literally the “standing again”) not of Jesus but of the community of disciples, moving them from inward-focused fear to outward-focused witness. Jesus’ resurrection gives rise to the disciples’ resurrection - and in turn, they are sent out as witnesses to help give rise to countless resurrections of others through changing hearts (“repentance”) and proclaiming God’s mercy (“forgiveness of sins”).
2) Some may say (or think), “OK, but does a witness to resurrection have to believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead?” Many people struggle with variations on this question, and so this is the perfect week to name, affirm, and explore the role of doubt in the life of faith. Do you have doubts? You’re in good company, both in scripture and in church! Do you believe? You’re in good company, too, though much of scripture warns against letting our believing become too settled. And in fact, taking Luke’s story seriously means reconsidering whether settled “belief” should be the goal. A blend of joy, disbelief, and wondering would seem much closer to the astonishment a miracle is supposed to engender - and after all, such a state of joy/disbelief/wonder may well keep our hearts and minds humble and open to whatever the Spirit will do next. Viewed from this angle, it may be more orthodox, not less, to say (with a twinkle in our eyes), “I am astounded by the physical resurrection!” rather than (with flat solemnity) “I am convinced of it.” Herein lies a glimpse of the difference between mere “belief” and a living, growing faith. These ancient stories, to which we rightly return again and again, aim to astonish us, to leave us “taken aback,” to call into question our assumptions about what may or may not be "possible" and “impossible,” and so to invite us into an open-minded, open-hearted posture of disbelief, wonder, and Easter joy.