A few days later my phone rang. I casually checked to see who was calling. To my astonishment, it was the dead woman. I just about jumped out of my skin.
Pretty quickly, I realized that it was in fact her husband calling from their home phone. As soon as that conversation was over, I changed the name in my contact list from her to him. But I will long remember that little shiver that happens when we encounter something uncanny.
That moment was a teeny, tiny version of a part of what the disciples experienced in our gospel reading this morning. When Jesus appears, they thought they were seeing a ghost, and they were startled and terrified.
But what the disciples experienced that morning was considerably more complicated than seeing a ghost.
To start with, the poor disciples are struggling. They have been through a lot. They saw their beloved master get arrested, tried, tortured, and executed. They feel guilt about their failure to stand by him. They are afraid because they know that they are themselves under suspicion as his disciples. They are in hiding. I suspect they are in shock.
Imagine you were there, ashamed, afraid, grieving, and totally uncertain about the future. Do you go home? Do you stick together? Was the whole Jesus thing a big mistake?
And suddenly, Jesus is there. Jesus, who you saw die. Jesus, whom you denied and abandoned. Jesus, whom you love.
This is a LOT bigger than seeing the name of a dead woman on the screen of my phone. Their hearts must have been pounding. Their adrenaline must have been surging.
Jesus tries to reassure them, but it takes time to settle down after the shock, to process what is happening. The disciples are so keyed up that Jesus has to do something totally ordinary. So Jesus asks for something to eat. You know that our resurrected Lord, with his transformed body, did not need food. But Jesus eats.
The scene strikes me as comical. As I picture it, Jesus is sitting down, eating, acting as if it is perfectly normal for a man who was recently dead to be eating broiled fish with a few friends. Meanwhile the disciples are standing around him bug-eyed, struggling to wrap their minds around the fact that Jesus is sitting right there in front of them.
Not surprisingly, their reaction is complicated. Luke tells us, “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”
I love that line. Joy, and disbelief, and wonder are all mixed together. And the question is, which one will come to dominate? Will they live lives of joy? Or will they live lives of disbelief?
It is not an easy question. Life can be hard for all kinds of reasons. We suffer. People we love suffer. Horrible things happen. Just last week was Holocaust Remembrance Day and also the two-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.
So, like the disciples, we experience our own tragedies, our own losses, our own pains and regrets.
And, like the disciples, we hear the good news. Christ is raised, the first fruits of the kingdom. The victory is won, and we share in it. The people we love who have died are safe with God. We, too, will, eventually enter into the nearer presence of God. God’s kingdom will come. God’s will will be done.
We hear that. And we rejoice. But it can be hard to take in, particularly in the midst of pain and suffering. Like the disciples, we often receive the good news with a bit of disbelief and a lot of wonder.
`As for them, so for us, the question is, which will dominate in our lives?
Two things are totally beyond our control. One is that bad things will continue to happen as long as we live in a sinful and fallen world. Our struggles will never entirely disappear. And suffering makes it hard to feel the joy, hard to believe the good news.
But the second thing is that God’s grace will continue to pour out on us and on all creation. God’s Spirit will continue to bathe us in love. Our resurrected Lord will continue to offer us new and abundant life in him.
We are confronted with tragedy. And we are given good news. Both are real. Both are compelling. But only one can be the deepest truth of our lives.
Is it crucifixion? Is it tragedy and loss? Is it bitterness and cynicism? Is it disbelief?
Or, is it resurrection? Is it victory even over the cross? Is it new life even in the face of death? Is it joy?
The disciples faced that question. We face that question, too.
Bill and Denise Richardson faced that question in a particularly excruciating way. Their eight-year-old son died in the Boston Marathon bombing. Their seven-year-old daughter lost her leg. Both parents were injured.
I cannot imagine the pain they experienced or the rage they must have felt. They said the bomber “stole part of our soul.” I get that.
For the Richardsons, tragedy and loss could certainly have become the deepest truth of their lives.
But somehow, miraculously, through the grace of God, the Richardsons are choosing life.
The Richardsons have publicly asked that the prosecutors not seek the death penalty. The Richardsons have not forgiven the bomber, or at least the paper did not report that. They are not asking for mercy for his sake.
The Richardsons are just trying their best to move on. They wrote, “We believe that now is the time to turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future—for us, for Boston, and for the country.”
They do not mention God, but that is a statement of profound faith. The Richardsons are refusing to let horror define who they are or the world they live in. The Richardsons are saying that joy and new life are possible, even in the midst of pain and despair, disbelief and wonder. May God help them to find it.
Few of us will suffer as intensely as the Richardsons have suffered in the last two years. But every life has its challenges. And so all of us face the same question that the disciples faced and that the Richardsons are facing. Can we see through the pain to new life? Can we accept the possibility of joy, even after the crucifixion?
The disciples said yes, and became Christ’s witnesses to the world. The Richardsons are saying yes, even if they are surely still struggling.
In this Easter season, God promises to help us say yes too. God promises to help us find joy. God promises us that, no matter how bad things might get, the risen Christ will suddenly stand among us, changing everything, opening our minds, pointing us forward, enabling us to live.
Christ came to call us to abundant life. Christ died and rose again to make abundant life a reality, indeed the deepest reality of our world.
And so on this third Sunday of Easter, I thank God for the good news of resurrection and the possibility of true joy. In the name of our risen Lord. Amen.