April 18, 2021
One of the things I love about the Easter season is how, week after week, we keep coming back to hear about how Jesus shows up, and the disciples are shocked, and we get to keep revisiting just how completely off-the-rails nutso it must have been for them that first Easter. I mean think about it. Before this, people didn’t come back from the dead. Before this, resurrection was a thing that was assumed to be in the long-off future. So when the disciples were discussing “these things,” they were talking about all the crazy stuff that had been happening.
The story of the empty tomb, first reported by the women. There was this extraordinary interruption to how normal things were supposed to happen, where tombs keep their dead and angels don’t announce resurrections. It was impossible, because it had never happened before.
They talked about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, swearing up and down that they had seen the risen Christ, even broken bread with him. But that’s crazy! Jesus was dead, and they all knew it. They saw the cross, they knew about the tomb. The dead stay dead. It was impossible, because it had never happened before.
Then Peter—the impetuous rock of the disciples—was saying that even he had seen the risen Christ! Had Peter just lost his mind in the grief? Had his impulsiveness somehow sapped his brain and now he was talking crazy about Jesus not being dead anymore and showing up to chat? It was all impossible, because it had never happened before.
But then, in the midst of their conversation, Jesus is there. The text doesn’t say how he got there, so I like to imagine he was standing there the whole time, until someone noticed. Like he interjects to correct them on some point about what they saw, and then suddenly everyone is either shouting or dumbstruck wondering how he got there. But however it happened, Jesus knows where they’re at. This kind of thing is impossible, because it had never happened—until now.
Here is Jesus, sharing the peace with his disciples who thought he was dead. He assures them he’s not a ghost, and invites them to touch him—his hands and his side, wounds they all saw him receive. It’s not some magic double, or a spirit, but Jesus in the flesh. But just in case they imagine there is some trick, some illusion happening, like they’re all hallucinating, he asks for some fish. Ghosts can’t eat, after all. A hallucination couldn’t hold something, let alone eat it. And so, while Jesus eats, he explains to them just what’s up. It’s happened exactly as he told them, to fulfill the scriptures. And now his message would be shared by them.
“You are witnesses of these things.”
It’s hard to believe something we hear secondhand, but it’s quite another thing to hear from someone who experienced it themselves. Jesus knew this when he showed up to the disciples, being bodily present with them so it wasn’t just some report they’d heard, but an experience they’d had that would push them to share the gospel with the world. They would be able to tell the world exactly how they themselves spoke with Jesus, were with him in the same room, watched him eat a fish even! But even more than giving them the presence they needed for proof, Jesus was showing us how to share the gospel.
We all have a bias that makes us skeptical of stories that are impossible—when people we don’t know or don’t trust tell them. When a stranger shares something that happened to them, we’re a lot less likely to believe them than if a good friend of ours shares that it happened to them too. And it really doesn’t make much of a difference if we’ve got all the right arguments on our side—the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, the twelve witnesses all reporting the same thing. All the statistics in the world won’t change most people’s minds. What makes the difference isn’t proof, it’s presence.
Jesus didn’t just give them an empty tomb. He didn’t just give them a couple of isolated appearances. Jesus gave them his presence, his friendship, his assurance that “look, see my hands and side; it’s me!” Jesus spent time with them, their own master, teacher, and friend. He built up the trust that we need to believe the impossible. And because he took the time to be present with them, the disciples took the gospel to the ends of the earth. They could take their experience with Jesus, and share it with people in Judea, and then on to Syria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Parthia, Ethiopia, and even India! And over the generations, Christians have found that the best way to share our faith, the best way to bring people to believe this earth-shattering impossible news of Jesus’ resurrection, is to be present with people.
It’s why Paul became all things to all people. If he could build up trust, then they would trust him when he shared the gospel. And it’s why Jesuit missionaries lived with native peoples and learned their customs, so that they would trust the missionaries when they shared these impossible stories of the risen Christ. It’s why Protestant missionaries worked so hard to translate the Bible into native languages, because they knew in the process of learning the language they could get to know the people and earn their trust. It’s why almost anyone who visits a church will only do so when a friend invites them.
People come to believe in Jesus because they are drawn in by those they know and love who know and love Jesus. The resurrection isn’t some dusty historical fact we trot out once a year; it’s an ongoing reality that is changing lives today. Because Jesus is alive, we are inspired to make sacrifices to keep our neighbors safe in this pandemic. Because Jesus is alive, we can cling to the certainty of hope even when the news everywhere feels so grim. Because Jesus is alive, we can be generous and joyful. When your friends and family see how the resurrection is making a difference in your life, when they look at how you live compared to how someone without Christ lives and they see the fullness of life that Christ brings, that’s what convinces. That’s how we are witnesses.
Because this thing was impossible, until it happened. And the only way we believe it happened is because we know and love people who told us it made their lives change forever. So let your presence be the proof. Let this crazy story of Easter lead you to laugh and say, “I know, but it’s true and here’s how it changed me!” Let the difference Jesus’ resurrection makes in your life shine like a beacon, drawing the world to find out where that light is coming from.
Because you are witnesses of these things. And the proof you give will be your presence.
Thanks be to God. Amen.