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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 4/26

          Do you remember the pre-resurrection disciples?  I think you do.  You’ve heard lots of sermons about them from me and from others, about how clueless they were, about how they consistently failed to get it, failed to understand who Jesus was and what he was talking about.  You’ve heard that and you’ve heard about how when things really got tough and Jesus was arrested and put on trial all of the disciples wound up betraying Jesus or abandoning him.  And you’ve heard that even after the resurrection the disciples were still cowering in fear for their own lives, locked up and hiding, perhaps more confused than ever about what was going on; that’s part of today’s gospel. 

          It’s not a very favorable portrayal although it can be comforting in a way because we figure if they didn’t get it, as close to Jesus as they were, why should we be surprised at our own failings to be good disciples; so we sometimes use this portrayal of the disciples as an excuse for ourselves and our own inadequacies or we use the disciples as negative examples of how not to be good followers of Jesus. 

Those however are the disciples of the gospels.  The book of Acts, which we understand to be Volume 2 of Luke’s gospel is a different story.  All of a sudden the disciples understand everything about Jesus and they are able to talk eloquently about him, Peter’s sermon in today’s first lesson is one example of this.  In addition to that they are able to do some of the same miraculous things that Jesus did and they are fearless when confronted by the authorities. They become Jesus’ witnesses, his representatives and the church grows by leaps and bounds, but it’s almost like from the gospels to Acts you’re talking about a different group of people the contrast is so great.

          I must confess though that I’d never really noticed or paid much attention to this change in the disciples until we were doing Acts in Bible Study a few weeks ago.  It seems so glaring and obvious once it’s pointed out that you wonder how you could fail to take note and wonder about this dramatic change in these characters.   How did they go from being without a clue to pretty much solving the mystery?

          Today’s gospel sort of gives an answer to the question.  In this passage after Jesus appears to the disciples and after he shows them his hands and his feet, shows them that he’s really there in the flesh, and after he eats with them, then the text says, “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”  At first that does seem like an explanation for the big change, Jesus opened their minds, but if that’s the case then you have to ask, why didn’t he do it sooner?  Wouldn’t things have gone more smoothly for Jesus and for the disciples if their minds had been open prior to the resurrection rather than after? 

          But before we get too hung up on that, look at what it says after it says, “He opened their minds to understand.”  What Jesus did in opening their minds was to talk about how it was necessary that he suffer and die and then rise on the third day; he talked about repentance and forgiveness of sins…all of which he had talked about before.  None of this was new.  So maybe the question isn’t why didn’t he open their minds sooner; maybe it’s why didn’t they understand it sooner when Jesus had said all these things before.

          Another direction to go with this is to say that in Acts we have the after Pentecost disciples.  Acts starts with the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit who would guide them and explain everything to them.  So we could say that the presence of the Holy Spirit has made the words of Jesus make sense to the disciples when they hadn’t made sense before. 

That’s somewhat helpful and there is truth in it but I think we have to be careful about thinking of the Holy Spirit as an agent that magically and instantly changes things because while that might be possible, we also say that each of us receives the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism and that doesn’t seem to magically make us perfect Christians or make us understand everything from then on; on one level we are transformed, that’s true, but it’s not a transformation that produces perfect faith and complete understanding.  It’s not that simple.

          Yet another way to think about this is to say that in Acts the disciples have experienced the Risen Christ and that is why their understanding is different.  Before, they knew Jesus as their friend and as their teacher even if they weren’t particularly good students.  Now, they know and have experienced the Risen Christ so now they see things differently, they understand things differently.

          The change in the disciples is rather dramatic but rather than try to pinpoint one thing that caused this change to instantly happen, I think what we really have here in the move from the gospels to Acts is a progression in the faith journey of the disciples.  At the very end of the gospels and in Acts they have experienced the Risen Christ, they have received the gift of the Holy Spirit; they have been changed and on paper it seems to have happened very quickly and dramatically; but those experiences of the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit were contingent on everything else that had happened to them up to that point.  Jesus had explained everything to them before, but they weren’t ready to hear it yet; other things had to happen first, before it could make sense, before they could imagine what all this meant and accept the mystery of it, before they could make it a real part of their lives.  It wasn’t so much about one dramatic event, more a combination of a lot of things that had happened over a longer period of time.

          I know that there are some of you, maybe many of you who can relate to this.  Some of you though have talked to me about how much more your faith means to you now than it once did, how maybe you used to come to church because it seemed like what you were supposed to do but now you come because it’s important to you.  But I’ll bet you can’t pinpoint one dramatic moment when that change happened.  You might be able to remember a time when you became aware of the fact that your faith life meant more to you, but like the disciples, it was probably a process, perhaps even a struggle, where a variety of things had to happen, but at some point you knew the Risen Christ.

          Now that variety of things that happens is different for everybody too.  There’s no one combination but it might include things that happen in your personal life, it might include prayer and reading the Bible, it might include hearing the gospel proclaimed and explained in preaching, it might be in the experience of Holy Communion, in might include service to others, walking the walk of faith; like I said there is no one formula, but over time, engaging the journey of faith, the Risen Christ becomes real to you just as the Risen Christ became real to the disciples and many other witnesses.

          It’s a process, not a moment and if I may be un-Lutheran for a moment, I think it’s a process that requires our cooperation.  While a journey of faith and encountering the Risen Christ is a product of God’s grace, I think that having been created with free will, we have to cooperate with the process.  Strict Lutheran theology says no, it’s all the work of God, we have nothing to do with it.  I think the evidence though indicates that there are those who open themselves to the reception of God’s grace and there are those who shut themselves off from it or at least shut themselves off from any awareness of it.

Faith is a process, it is a journey that all of us are on, traveling together but at different points.  At some points it may feel like you’re just going through the motions and not getting anywhere because it doesn’t seem to be making the Risen Christ real.  But as was the case with the disciples, times of stumbling around and feeling rather clueless may be a necessary part of the journey.  If you’re persistent though, at some point you notice that things look different to you; the moments of frustration and stumbling become moments of revelation and understanding; the Risen Christ becomes visible and real; the gifts of the Risen Christ, acceptance and forgiveness and eternal life become visible and real.

The change might not be as dramatic as it was with the disciples; but He is Risen, he is still making appearances and we are his witnesses.  The journey continues.
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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