(Luke 24: 36-48; Psalm 4: 4-8)
So our scripture today from the gospel of Luke begins rather awkwardly: While they were talking about this…. That’s how it starts. And so right off the bat there’s more we don’t know than we do. We know there’s some talking going on. But we don’t know who’s doing the talking, nor do we know what it is they’re talking about it.
And you know what this reminds me of? This reminds of people – and you know the type I’m talking about – people who, when they start talking to you, you immediately feel as if you’ve been plopped down in the middle of a conversation you know nothing about. You know folks who do this? I have a good friend who does this to me all the time. He’ll call me up on the phone: Hey, Steve! So listen – I spoke with that guy, and he thinks the first idea is much better than the other one, but not unless it can happen on a different night at the previous location. How’s that sound? Drive you nuts! Your brain has to go into multitasking mode, as one half keeps listening to what the person is saying, while the other half is sifting through mental file cabinets of previous conversations, trying to figure out what this guy is talking about!
While they were talking about this… Like your high school English teacher always told you, you have to read back a little bit. Get some context. Because scripture, like so much in life, never happens in a vacuum. We read back into the 23rd chapter of Luke and we see that “they” are the disciples – women and men and, more specifically, the two who had walked on the road to Emmaus that we talked about Easter Sunday. And what was it they were all talking about? Well, they’re talking about Jesus, as most people were. This incredible news that was slowly starting to get out – that on that Easter Sunday morning long ago, the stone was moved, the tomb was empty, and Jesus was alive again! So perhaps understandably so, the people who had walked and talked and lived and laughed with Jesus for the last three years were, in fact, talking about Jesus.
And that’s when it happened: While they were talking about this, while the disciples were talking about Jesus, Jesus himself stood among them. All of the sudden, it reads; as if he appeared out of thin air like something from a Harry Potter movie. Came into the room and into the presence of his closest friends, Jesus did. And he greets them simply by saying, “Peace be with you.” If this took place in 2015, I have to wonder if he would’ve said something along the lines of, “What’s up!”
Never has a simple friendly greeting been met with such animated response. Those disciples were terrified. Absolutely terrified! Because it’s one thing to talk about Jesus being alive again; toss it around in your head a little bit. But it’s another thing entirely to be confronted with that risen Jesus, in the flesh – right there in the room with you. And so they were terrified. They were scared to death. In fact, they actually thought for a second that they were seeing a ghost!
Have you ever had an experience where you thought you saw a ghost? And not in a haunted house at Halloween or something like that, but some “presence” that you weren’t expecting and couldn’t explain? You remember that surge of adrenaline, that kick to your heart rate, that quickness of breath that shot through your body?
That’s what those disciples were feeling here: While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “What’s up!” They were terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.”
And, you know, I love the way Jesus responds to this:
Jesus walks into the room and the place goes crazy. And what does Jesus basically say to them? He says, Y’all, stop freaking out! Stop freaking out! He shows off his legs and limbs to prove he’s not some figment of their imagination. He even eats a piece of fish to prove it’s him, it’s really him – because as everyone knows, ghosts don’t have much of an appetite.
Stop freaking out! But really, Jesus, can you blame them? Can you blame them for being more than a little overwhelmed by this strange turn of events? I mean, let’s shoot straight here, shall we? One of the foundations of life on this planet, for however many years it’s been around, is this: dead people don’t come back to life. They just don’t. But even more than that, when we think about it, our hopes and our dreams – the outlandish things we long for and wish would happen – our hopes and dreams are called such for a reason: because more often than not, they never become anything more than just hopes and dreams.
Which kind of makes us wonder, I think, if what those disciples were freaking out about was not just that Jesus was in the room with them, but more to the point, what it meant that Jesus was in the room. That death had been defeated and that Jesus really was who they hoped he was; who they dreamt him to be. I mean, think about it – Jesus Christ, the risen son of God. Man, that’s enough to freak anybody out! You know, sometimes it’s not our worst nightmare that frightens us, but the potential of the most wonderful thing happening that can scare us silly.
What are you afraid of? It’s more than just a question Jesus asked those disciples. It’s a question asked countless times in life, in all kinds of contexts. I remember it being asked of a locker room full of football players in the 2000 movie The Replacements. Prior to a new professional football season, the star players went on strike. So teams had to stock their rosters with second-rate rejects who just the week before were working in grocery stores or factories or – in one case – in prison.
The head coach, played by Gene Hackman, was faced with the daunting task of uniting this motley crew of misfits into a cohesive team in just a few weeks. And it wasn’t just X’s and O’s he had to work on. These players were struggling just to get along. They didn’t believe in each other. They didn’t believe in themselves. So in one of their last team meetings before the first game, Coach gathers the players in the locker room and asks them: What are you afraid of?
After a long and uncomfortable pause, a 300 pound former sumo wrestler named Franklin raises his hand. And Franklin says, “Spiders! I’m scared to death of spiders.” Another guy nods in agreement, and a third chimes in: “Yeah, man, spiders creep me out too!” Coach shakes his head in annoyance: “No, no, I’m talking about on the football field. What are you afraid of on the football field?” Franklin, with a quizzical look, says, “Spiders on the football field?”
Now they’re talking. Someone else says they’re afraid of roaches, another can’t stand poison ivy. The kicker who has played soccer all his life despises roller coasters. The receiver with the long mullet says haircuts terrify him.
They’re obviously not getting what the coach is going for, until Falco speaks up. Falco, the all-star college quarterback who got injured at the end of his senior year and never fulfilled all the hype. Falco raises his hand. And he says, “Coach, I’m afraid of quicksand. I’m afraid of quicksand, but not the way you think. See, you’re playing football. You’ve won awards, they say you’re gonna go high in the draft, make a lot of money. They tell you you’re set. And then you get injured. And you try to work your way back, but then one thing goes wrong… and then another… and another. And the harder you fight and the more you hope, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move, you can’t breathe, because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”
And now the room is quiet; and all the other guys are nodding their head in agreement, because this is the one fear they all share. The fear of hopes and dreams unrealized and unachieved. The fear that nothing will ever change.
You know what the crazy thing is? In a sense those disciples in that room, right before Jesus walked in, in a sense their lives would’ve been so much easier had Jesus just stayed in the tomb. Easier in the sense that that’s exactly what they and everyone else was expecting. Yes, they would’ve mourned the loss of a dear friend. Yes, they would’ve been devastated at the end of his mission and his dream for the world, for God’s kingdom on earth. But sometimes, sometimes it’s easier to live in a world where you can see what’s coming, where you know what to expect, and where hopes and dreams stay hopes and dreams.
But it wasn’t going to be easy, was it? The stone was rolled away; the tomb was empty. And Jesus came to them in a room and scared them to death, this man who had defied death, this man who said “What’s up!” and told them to stop freaking out, even though they had every right in the world to. Told them they didn’t have to be afraid anymore.
How many times have you heard someone say to you, “Don’t be afraid” when being afraid was exactly how you felt? You know, if there is one thing the Bible says to us over and over and over again, it is not to be afraid. Literally. Did you know that the phrase “Do not fear” appears 58 times in the Old and New Testaments combined? 58 times! More than anything about who we should or shouldn’t vote for, more than anything that’s allegedly in there about homosexuality or other cultural divides so often promulgated by people of faith.
Fifty-eight times, the Bible tells us “Do Not Fear.” Fifty-eight times, God implores the faithful not to be imprisoned by their anxieties, not to be afraid of the amazing and wonderful things God can do in their life, in this world. Fifty-eight times, God implores us to dare to dream – I know that sound terribly cliché, but it’s true, because dreaming and hoping are the very embodiment of non-fearful living. Fifty-eight times, God proposes a radical alternative – to replace fear with hope, hate with love, prejudice with acceptance, indifference with compassion, judgment with forgiveness. All of which accompanied Jesus out of the tomb on that Easter morning.
So tell me something, Trinity Presbyterian – tell me what YOU are afraid of. And you know I’m not talking about spiders or poison ivy or roller coasters, right? No, what are those things that keep you from latching on to the reality of the resurrected Christ who is sitting there with you, right now? Now that Easter is in the rearview mirror, now as we move into the life that awaits us, what things make you live fearfully and keep those hopes and dreams at bay?
Because Jesus was spot-on when he told us: We’re the witnesses. We are! I mean, we may not have been in the room with the disciples way back when, but you know what? We are here right now. And since we’re here, and since the risen Christ is here with us, we are alibis in this amazing, freaking-out-worthy venture we call the Christian life. And you know what that means? That means we are automatically part of that same hope and same dream that caused suck a ruckus all those years ago, where our worst fears were transformed. It’s like one commentator said:
Wherever there is inhumanity, exploitation, discrimination and hopelessness, Jesus invites us to be witnesses to God’s intention to bring peace, unity, harmony, love, compassion, grace, justice, and mercy to a broken world.
So freak out over the risen Jesus, if you must. But don’t stay freaked out. Because one day, Jesus’ presence and God’s hopes and dreams for us and for the world will not be something unexpected. It will just be exactly the way things are supposed to be. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God; and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
 Feasting On The Word commentary, Year B Vol. 2, 429.