Stages of Faith: Impossible to Believe

given on Sunday, April 30, 2017:  Stage 1 of the 4 stages of faith 

Scripture connection: Luke 24:13-35 (NLT)

The Walk to Emmaus

13 That same day two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. 14 As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things, Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them. 16 But God kept them from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?”

They stopped short, sadness written across their faces. 18 Then one of them, Cleopas, replied, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.”

19 “What things?” Jesus asked.

“The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” they said. “He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. 20 But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.

22 “Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report. 23 They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive! 24 Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said.”

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” 27 Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 By this time they were nearing Emmaus and the end of their journey. Jesus acted as if he were going on, 29 but they begged him, “Stay the night with us, since it is getting late.” So he went home with them. 30 As they sat down to eat,[b] he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them. 31 Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared!

32 They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” 33 And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem. There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them, 34 who said, “The Lord has really risen! He appeared to Peter.[c]

35 Then the two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread.

Reflection:  Impossible to believe

Easter is over. Or is it?

The Story continues beyond one annual holiday celebration. The Story never ends. The Story is about life eternal and that is impossible to believe. Or is it?

Turn to John 20:1 and just think about the story:

Early on Sunday morning,[a] while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance.

 

Jesus’ life ended on a cross. Everybody saw it with his or her own eyes; they could not deny that Jesus was dead. But on that Sunday morning, reality changed. The Story continued and continues yet today. Only one problem, the empty tomb simply seemed impossible to believe. Or is it?

Look at the calendar and you know that right now, right here The Story is well over 2,000 years old. Any study of history or even a geological or archeological study can methodically and scientifically explain the experiences     of humanity. Very little remains mysterious, yet The Story hinges on the empty tomb, and explaining that is a problem for those who need concrete evidence to believe.

Faith is believing what you cannot see. Faith is knowing The Story of Jesus Christ and believing it to be true. But what happens when the belief in the story is filled with uncertainty and questions?

Think about this statement:

People who hear about the Resurrection for the first time may need time before they can comprehend this amazing story. Like Mary and the disciples, they may pass through four stages of belief. (1) At first, they may think the story is a fabrication, impossible to believe [John 20:2]. (2) Like Peter, they may check out the facts and still be puzzled about what happened [John 20:6]. (3) Only when they encounter Jesus personally are they able to accept the fact of the Resurrection [John 20:16]. (4) Then as they commit themselves to the risen Lord and devote their lives to serving him, they begin to understand fully the reality of his presence with them [John 20:28]. (19912346-2347)

 

Reading that study note answers some of my own questions, but not completely. This week the lectionary includes the reading from Luke 24 and I discovered an almost identical study note:

People who hear about the Resurrection for the first time may need time before they can comprehend this amazing story. Like the disciples, they may pass through four states of belief: (1) At first, they may think it is a fairy tale, impossible to believe. (2) Like Peter, they may check out the facts and still be puzzled about what happened. (3) Only when they encounter Jesus personally will they be able to accept the fact of the Resurrection. (4) Then as they commit themselves to Jesus and devote their lives to serving him, they will begin fully to understand the reality of his presence with them. (19912270)

 

The scriptures throughout the four gospels all include the story of Jesus’ walk to Emmaus, but the Mark version only covers two verses, Mark 16:12-13:

12 Afterward he appeared in a different form to two of his followers who were walking from Jerusalem into the country. 13 They rushed back to tell the others, but no one believed them.

 

The reference to the walk is not nearly as specific in Matthew 28:16-17:

16 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted!

 

All four books mention Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the road, but two accounts provide more details and that may be due to the audience that the writers were addressing. John was written to the newest Christians and those looking for answers, Luke was written to the Gentiles who did not know the prophecies. Mark was written for the Roman citizens who were now Christians while Matthew was written for the Jewish people who were familiar the prophecies and were anticipating the complete story of Jesus.

Who are you? Are you one of the faithful long waiting to have Jesus come and save your people? Are you one of the Roman citizens who is learning the story for the first time? Are you a Gentile, someone who knew nothing about the Jewish faith but were neighbors? Are you looking for answers and you have heard about Jesus and are curious, wanting to know more?

Sometimes placing one’s self into the story is difficult, so consider who you are in today’s culture:

  • Are you one of the many who was born into a Christian family and have always attended church in the traditional way—baptized as an infant or child, went to Sunday school, always attended church, got married in the church, and then raised your family in the same manner? You are reading Matthew with a historical understanding and are expecting Jesus to save you in this world.
  • Are you an American citizen who has learned that Christianity is a faith system that matches your understanding of how laws work to make a society that is productive and nurturing of freedoms? You are reading Mark and seeing how Jesus’ one commandment makes sense in today’s world.
  • Are you a non-believer who is just learning about this Christian faith and need to be convinced that it is a lifestyle that makes a difference and will ‘save’ you providing you eternal life? If so, then you are reading Luke to academically learn and understand what Christianity is and how it works in your life right now.
  • Are you a new Christian, born again, or someone who is seeking to find answers about how to live a happy, productive, even successful life in today’s world? Reading John makes sense to you. It is not overly wordy and it is to the point. No nonsense in telling this story of how Jesus was born and lived.

 

Yet, the story is impossible. Or is it?

What is the rest of the story? As a child of God and the rest of The Story is your story. You are writing The Story with your life, so learning what you believe and what you do is important as you keep Christ alive.

The concern is how to take a story that seems so impossible and follow the message today. How can one live and believe something so old in today’s world? How can something that sounds like a fairy tale make any sense today?

First, remember that literature has a timeless message for all of humanity. Good writing shares ideas that apply in any setting, among any peoples, and at any time in history. Themes in literature never become outdated. The theme of the Bible really boils down to Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees question in Matthew 22:36, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”

Remember, Matthew was written for the Jewish people who knew God’s prophecies and were historically prepared for Jesus’ coming. The question demonstrates the skepticism even the faithful had concerning the reality of Jesus. The Pharisees’ interrogation shows how they could not believe what they were witnessing in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ answer combined the Jewish faithful relation with God to a much simpler, inclusive commandment:

37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’[e] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[f] 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

 

The Story continued in Matthew’s gospel. The answer seemingly addressed the Pharisees’ own disbelief, yet change for those people was difficult if not impossible. The threat to the Jewish way of life lead to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

But The Story did not end with a human death. The Story continues as Jesus left the tomb—resurrected from death. Impossible to believe? Even to those who were eyewitnesses to the three days the resurrection was not real.   If even the eyewitnesses struggled to believe, so do so many in today’s world struggle to believe.

Stage 1 in faith is to hear the story, want to believe, and then accept the story as real. Beginning to believe has to hear the message of the gospel and then start practicing the commandments to love God and to love one another. As Christians, disbelief in The Story is just part of developing one’s faith. What sounds impossible to believe yet appealing, too, opens the door to discipleship.

Discipleship calls us to follow Jesus’ commandments. As we shift our lives into a Christian lifestyle, the impossible becomes believable. When we test God’s lifestyle against those lifestyles existing around us, we discover the reality of God’s grace not only for ourselves but also for others. The impossible to believe story leads to answers in living the challenging lives we live today. Discipleship includes study of the scriptures as well as application of the lessons shared in those words. The Story that seems impossible to believe comes alive as the words turn into actions. Now the impossible is possible.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

 

Forgive us for our disbelief in The Story.

Help us hear you speak to us

In the words shared by your earliest disciples.

 

Forgive us for our uncertainty of The Story.

Help us to practice the simple law

Jesus taught and the disciples preserved.

 

Forgive us for our skepticism about The Story.

Help us test the commandments daily

As The Story becomes real even today.

 

Guide us in our discipleship,

So we may discover the truth

And find the joy of living

In the ‘Sonshine’ of Easter morning

When the impossible became real.

 

In the name of God,

Creator, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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