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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 22, 2018

Disbelieving Belief

Psalm 4; Luke 24:36-48

            Let me begin this morning with a George Herbert Walker and Barbara Pierce Bush story.  In 1997 I was invited by the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center Foundation, of whose Board I was a member at the time, to offer the invocation for their annual fundraising celebration event.  A man in Spartanburg who has made a whole lot of money selling textile machinery world-wide, by the name of Jimmy Gibbs, agreed to pay the one hundred thousand dollar appearance fee that it would take to get former President George H.W. and Barbara Bush to come to Spartanburg to speak on behalf of the good work that the Regional Hospital Foundation does in that county. 

            The Bushes came to spend the whole day.  They visited the hospital, they learned about many of its programs that reached out to the poor and the under-served in that community.  I found myself sitting that night, at a black tie event in the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, filled to overflowing, right next to Barbara Bush, with George Bush on the other side.  Jimmy Gibbs did not have the opportunity to introduce Mr. Bush – that went to his Yale classmate and former Secretary of Commerce, under Richard Nixon, long-time Spartanburg textile businessman, Frederick Dent.  But on this particular occasion, since Jimmy had ponied up a hundred thousand dollars, he was asked to get up to say something. 

            Jimmy was a merchant in the purest sense of the word, as much a self-made man as anybody I know.  Jimmy and his wife Marsha never had children.  Marsha, a very sweet human being, took time to take care of herself, and was a very attractive woman.  She was perfectly made-up, well-dressed, and quite striking that evening.  Jimmy, in the course of his remarks, gave credit and praise to Marsha.  “I want you to meet my wife, because this is way more about Marsha than it is about me.  Can you stand up Marsha?”  Marsha stood up looking lovely, and Jimmy said, “She is my little fireball!”

            Fred Dent introduced George Herbert Walker Bush after dinner.  When I sat down from delivering the invocation the President said, “You know, I was a Presbyterian Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Midland.  Barbara and I were married at the Rye Presbyterian Church, where Barbara grew up as a child.”  They were masters at connecting, finding ways, graciously, to connect with another human being.  Barbara Bush gave a very short talk, but I will never forget how she started it.  She stood up and she said, “I’ll bet George would love to have his own little fireball!”  The place came absolutely undone!  People roared and barely could get over how funny the line was, how self-deprecating Barbara’s humor was, and how completely charming and disarming, as well as perfectly timed, her quip was.  To say that Barbara Pierce Bush had presence is an understatement!

            In this morning’s Lucan resurrection account, we come face to face with the presence of Jesus, risen from the dead.  To say that Jesus had “presence” is even more of an understatement!  Remember that Cleopas and his travelling companion have returned to Jerusalem, to share what they experienced on the Emmaus Road, how Jesus was finally “recognized” in the breaking of the bread, and “how their hearts burned within them.”  Note as well that Simon had also seen the risen Lord, and that the women encountered two angels who proclaimed that Jesus was risen, “as He said.”  They were in Jerusalem, Jesus’ closest followers, sharing these puzzling, stunning events.

            Now, suddenly, “Jesus himself stood among them.”  Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  He says this because Luke tells us that “they were startled and terrified.”  After all, they all think that they are seeing a ghost.  (When someone is “crucified, dead and buried,” you do not expect to see them again!)  Jesus meets them just where they are – Jesus is always meeting us exactly where we are!  He asks, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise within you?”

            I love this scene!  We like to think that if we could have lived back when Jesus did, it would be easier for us to believe, separated as we are by two thousand years and so many other differences.  Yet even the first disciples, including the eleven apostles, had a mixture of thoughts and feelings – terror, fright and even doubt.  And Jesus meets them just where they are, offering to them what He always offers: “Peace be with you.”

            More than that, Jesus is not offended or upset by these doubts and this intense fear.  Rather, He speaks directly to them.  Jesus invites them twice to “look” at Him – to “look” at His hands and feet, to “see” that it is “I myself.”  Then Jesus says, “touch me and see.”  He exposes His hands and His feet, presumably showing them His wounds, sharing with them His woundedness.  The risen Jesus is always one and the same with the crucified Jesus in the New Testament.

            I love then how Luke describes the disciples’ response to the presence of the risen Christ!  “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering….”  There is nothing simple about Luke’s account – nothing simple about Jesus, or about His earliest followers, just as there is nothing simple about believing and following Jesus today.

            There is “joy” and “wonder,” and there is “disbelief.”  Isn’t that often the way it is with us?  We are like the father of the child Jesus healed, when he was asked if he had faith.  “I believe; help my unbelief.”  The disciples are filled with “joy” and “wonder” at Jesus’ sudden appearance, but they are also filled with “disbelief.”  Again, Jesus does not scold them.  Sometimes, the Gospel is too good to believe – it is incredible.  Jesus’ resurrection meant nothing less than “the undoing of death,” and we find this both wondrously joyous to ponder, and hard to believe at the same time!

            Jesus accepts them where they are, and offers a second proof beyond seeing and touching.  He eats a piece of broiled fish in their presence.  Luke and John both want us to understand that Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection.  (In John, Jesus asks Thomas to place his hand in His wounded side.)  They do not want any of their readers to spiritualize Jesus’ resurrection.  It was a bodily resurrection, as Jesus was raised by God from His all too brutal death to life.

            Then, having spoken to their fears, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”  This is what Jesus did with Cleopas and his partner as they walked along the Emmaus Road.  This is what Jesus still does for us!  We read the Bible Christo-centrically, or in the light of Jesus Christ, if we are to read it rightly.

            And when we read the Bible in the light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we discover the Gospel, the Good News, all over again.  Jesus proclaims for His followers once again a summary of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is: “repentance and forgiveness of sins… proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

            The Gospel is for all nations, and for all people.  There is nothing narrow or exclusive about the Gospel.  It is a call to repent, or to turn around, and it is the gracious offer of forgiveness to all sinners.  The Gospel is peace for our fears, grace for all our sins, redemption for our failures, healing for our hurts, and best of all, the Gospel is resurrection and life, the undoing of death.

            One of the things I appreciated about Barbara Bush’s service were her words shared with her son, Jeb.  She did not fear death, and she believed she was going to a better place, because, as she told Jeb, “I believe in Jesus.”  Don’t you hope someday that you can say the same, at a ripe old age, like Barbara Bush was able to say it? 

            I do not fear death.  But let me be completely honest – I do not fear the idea that I will surely die, and that when I do, I will be with Jesus, in heaven.  But there are things about death I do fear.  I watched my father die from Alzheimer’s.  I fear Alzheimer’s.  I watched my mother waste away from ovarian cancer within the space of a year, when she was in the midst of her best years.  I fear what cancer can do and does to people I love.

            And when I think of the possibility of losing one of my children or grandchildren to death, as some of you whom we know and love have, I am fearful.  And this is what I love most about Jesus – even when I am a mixture of faith and fear, of terror and joy, of wonder and doubt, Jesus still comes, and Jesus still says, “Peace be with you.”

            The Gospel does not guarantee us that nothing frightening or heartbreaking will ever happen to us again.  But it does promise us the presence of the risen Christ, and His Gospel that forgiveness of sins and the undoing of death is to be offered to all nations and to all people.  I sang it as a child, and still I love the song!  “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”  Jesus loves the big ones too, “all the children of the world!”  He promises always to be with us, even in our fears and doubts, and never, ever to leave us.

            On Friday, Connie and I watched part of the Today Show.  It included a clip by Jenna Bush Hager, who wrote a letter to her “Ganny,” Barbara Pierce Bush.  She shared in the letter an email her grandmother sent to her in February of 2017.  It was entitled, “You.” 

“You”

“I’m watching you.

I love you. 

Ganny”

            Isn’t this a beautiful summary of the Gospel?  “You.  I’m watching you.  I love you.  Jesus.”

                                                                                    Amen.

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