April 15, 2018
OPEN TO UNDERSTAND
Just before Jesus came to them, the disciples were talking about the news. According to several witnesses, their teacher had risen from the grave. Now, in today’s reading from Luke, they discuss how this can cohere with what was written in their scriptures. The disciples are troubled, bothered in the way many of us are when we find we have to revise what we believe is true.
Jesus appears among them. He has come to help them understand the scriptures. But the disciples are startled by his appearance, as any of us would be. They think that Jesus is an apparition and they are afraid. Yet Jesus does here as he has done before for his disciples, he allays their fears.
The disciples had habitual fears. They lived under the heavy hand of Rome, whose authorities desecrated their holy land and humiliated the people. Jews in Palestine, like these disciples, were threatened with annihilation. Afraid of this, they combed their scriptures for any evidence that would give them some security. Therein, they found texts to give them hope in a messiah who would restore Israel. On a number of occasions, Jesus tried to teach them that the messiah would suffer, die and rise again and thereby fulfill the scripture. But fear forbid them from understanding.
Now the risen Jesus approaches his disciples to help them understand. And yet again, he finds them in fear. So he shows them his hands and feet to dispel their panic. Seeing this, they are no longer afraid. Here is Jesus’ opportunity to teach. He talks them through the law of Moses, prophets and psalms showing them how these scriptures describe God’s power to raise life from death. He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.
Commenting on this passage, Bible scholar Sarah Henrichs says, Minds cannot be opened when trapped by fear. This is true of the disciples. Their fear prevented them from fathoming what Jesus had to say about their scriptures. Fear inhibits understanding. Some even say it impedes the ability to understand from an early age. A Harvard study concludes that persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain. Just as fear may disrupt the development of the brain, so also it restricts the expansion of the mind. This is why it is often said that the disciples did not grasp what Jesus said about the law and prophets. Their minds were not open to new understanding. Fear, anxiety and unease constricted their interpretation of scripture. And indeed, they impede our own understanding of the Bible.
There are countless examples of this. Fear of change causes many to read the Bible as a sourcebook for traditional American values. Personal worries have people reading it as an ancient self-help book. Concern about moral relativism in our culture compels many to study it as a book of clear moral lessons. Anxiety over money makes many ignore the gospels in favor of a prosperity gospel. Unease about sex and gender has people making Adam and Eve into an argument. Apprehensions over scientific discoveries and theories have people treating the Bible like it’s a science textbook. National insecurity brings people to view the Bible as a manual for earthly kingdoms rather than hearing it as the proclamation of a heavenly one. And fear of death has us scouring scripture for ways to save ourselves while skimming past all that points to the God who saves.
Fear, anxiety, insecurity and unease have us manipulating the Bible to say whatever will easily assuage us. But worse, fear closes our minds to God and one another. This is why, as Marilynne Robinson says and I often repeat, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. The mind must be open to the extent of what is possible for God. And the mind will only open when it is free of fear. This is why Jesus deals with his disciples’ fright before he opens the scriptures to them. They can’t be trapped by fear, but must free to hear. Fears aside, they are freed to hear a story that will do away with fear itself.
Jesus tells the story of scripture. And he places himself within it. He is the Messiah who suffered, died and was raised to new life by God. He is proof of God’s life-giving power. Jesus takes his disciples back to the beginning of their story—back to the law of Moses. And as you heard earlier, these laws teach people how to live in light of a God who raised slaves out of Egypt and into life in a promised land. God breaks the bonds of slavery. He moves on to the prophets who preach about a God who lifts people from the destruction of enemies into new life. God restores life. And then he goes through the psalms that sing of a God who delivers the one who lays in the dust of death. God delivers from death. A pattern emerges. The law, the prophets, the psalms—they all are testimony to God’s will for life over death now manifest in the risen Christ. The disciples see that their reading of scripture was close-minded and short-sighted. Jesus opens their minds to purposes and possibilities of God that once seemed implausible. The story of scripture reveals a God who is more than they could have hoped for. Much of their fears now seem petty. This story banishes fear itself.
The story inspired such confidence in the disciples that they fearlessly proclaimed it in Jerusalem and beyond. When the Bible is read as the story of God’s will for life—and life to the fullest—it inspires fearless faith. Howard Thurman, the spiritual mentor of Martin Luther King Jr., said that awareness of this story creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy. Thurman explains what he means by recalling his experience seeing Halley’s Comet as a young boy. He wrote:
One night I was awakened by my mother, who asked if I would like to see the comet. I got up, dressed quickly, and went out with her into the backyard. There I saw in the heavens the awesome tail of the comet and stood transfixed. With deep anxiety I asked, without taking my eyes off it, What will happen to us when that thing falls out of the sky? There was a long silence during which I felt the gentle pressure of her fingers on my shoulders; then I looked into her face and saw what I had seen on another occasion, when without knocking I had rushed into her room and found her in prayer. At last she said, Nothing will happen to us, Howard. God will take care of us…Many things have I seen since that night. Times without number I have learned that life is hard, as hard as crucible steel; but as the years have unfolded, the majestic power of my mother’s glowing words has come back again and again, beating out its rhythmic chant in my own spirit. Here are the faith and the awareness that overcome fear and transform it into the power to strive, to achieve, and not to yield.
This is what happens when our minds are opened to the testimony of God’s will for life. Fear is overcome. Assurance is found. Awareness of the God revealed in scripture inspires confidence that should even heaven and earth crumble, God will take care of us.
And yet, for many, the Bible has become fear-producing rather than fear-reducing. That is because we have made it about us. Scripture has become the story of people trying to live right before God and getting it all wrong. This story does not inspire confidence; it induces guilt and anxiety. And it is preached as a how to guide for the good life. But this misses the central thread of it. The Bible is not about how we make a better life. It is about how God makes, sustains and transforms life even when it seems impossible. This story inspired the profound faith of Howard’s mother.
Richard B. Hays, New Testament scholar and cancer survivor, says all of this better than I can say myself. He writes, The God with whom we have to do is a God who wills life and wholeness for us. If we read the biblical story rightly as a story about this God, we will learn to read it in hopeful trust, open to joyous surprises. We will read it with hearts open to the divine power disclosed in the resurrection—a power that overthrows all human systems of violence and oppression.
Jesus invites his disciples, then and now, to find themselves in the biblical story as it is unfolding today. God is still at work making, sustaining and restoring life. The Bible gives us clues as to where God is at work. It tells us God was at work among the slaves of Egypt, the orphans, widows and foreigners in Israel, the people in exile, the lepers in Palestine, the underdogs of Samaria, the imprisoned in Rome, and so on. The Bible shows us that God will be found working wherever life is being threatened and oppressed—whether it be in Syria or here in Odenton. Scripture also describes characters who are called to work with God. When we read the Bible in this way, we will find ourselves among this cast of characters.
This is what happened to Martin Luther King Jr. Knowing the story of scripture so well, he was able to see it play out in his day. On the eve of his assassination on April 4, 1968, King told Memphis, I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that people, in some strange way, are responding—something is happening in the world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today…the cry is always the same—We want to be free. On that night, King named the places where people were oppressed. God is working there, his Bible helped him believe. But it also helped him believe that God would raise these people to new life. He knew the story: the exodus ends in the promised land. That is why he said this with assurance at the end of his last sermon: I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Fear not, friends. Open your minds to understand the scriptures. They tell the story of the God of life. It’s a story unfolding today. And you are part of the story. Read and see. See and believe. Believe and live.
~ Pastor Jon