April 15, 2018

He Opened Their Minds

Passage: Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48
Service Type:

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

The biblical stories of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are full of people’s inability to comprehend what was happening. In the story we are considering in Luke’s gospel the disciples think they are seeing a ghost when Jesus appears. In other stories Mary thinks Jesus' body has been stolen. Peter sees the linen wrappings and can't work out what it's all about. The disciples didn't understand the Scriptures. The angels question Mary, and she still doesn't know what's going on. Then she thinks Jesus is the gardener. You could hardly get more misunderstandings into a couple of paragraphs if you tried.

The point is, of course, that Easter has burst into our world—the world of space, time, and matter, real history and real people and real life—but our minds and imaginations are too small to contain it. So, we do our best to put the ocean into a bottle and fit the explosive fact of the Resurrection into the possibilities we already know about.

At one level the continued puzzlement of the disciples is a mark of the story's authenticity. If someone had been making it all up a generation later, as many have suggested, they would hardly have had such a muddle going on. More particularly, nobody would have made up the remarkable detail of the cloth around Jesus' head, folded up in a place by itself, or the even more extraordinary fact that Jesus is not immediately recognized—when Mary sees him in the garden, in the evening on the road to Emmaus, or when cooking breakfast by the shore. The first Christians weren't prepared for what actually happened. Nobody could have been. As one leading agnostic scholar has put it, it looks as though they were struggling to describe something for which they didn't have adequate language.

1. G. K. Chesterton made this observation—"The point of an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid." Clearly, the disciples in the room with the risen Jesus are struggling to get their heads around what is happening. So, we are told, Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures that “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.”

Like the disciples of this first century there is nothing in our experience of life and death that would lead us to believe resurrection from the dead a possibility. It isn’t in our vocabulary. Let us be clear about what Luke and the other gospel writers are asserting about the resurrection of Jesus. Luke wants us to know that our suspicion that the disciples saw a ghost is incorrect. The disciples already thought that was what was going on. Jesus invites them to touch him and see—“a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” The implication is that the disciples touched him—high fives were shared all round. Luke also wants us to know that this isn’t Jesus’ long lost twin brother showing up, or some other look-a-like. Jesus said, look at my hands and feet—the scars of the wounds of crucifixion apparently still visible—see that it is I myself. The disciples already considered the possibility they were seeing Jesus’ double to explain their experience. No, it was indeed Jesus.

And recall that all the writers insist that the tomb where Jesus was laid was empty. The body wasn’t there and couldn’t be found. The point being that Jesus was in the room with the disciples in his body. Yes, it now possessed different powers—he could enter the room though the doors were locked—but it was him in his body nonetheless. In addition to the invitation to touch him, Luke drives this point home of Jesus physical presence in telling us that Jesus asked for something to eat and they gave him a piece of boiled fish which he ate in their presence.

To underscore the fact that we have no vocabulary for this resurrection event you only need to read the myriad of explanations people have offered throughout history to “explain” this event. The body was stolen; Jesus wasn’t quite dead, resuscitated in the cool of the tomb somehow escaped, married Mary Magdalene and left for Spain; the disciples made it up in an effort to keep the memory of their good friend Jesus alive in their hearts and mind; just to name a few explanations.

I do understand why people struggle to believe what the Apostles are asserting happened. The limits of our minds and imaginations make it impossible to contain it. I believe that, like the disciples, when it comes to the subject of the death and resurrection of Jesus we need out Lord to open our minds. Whatever may be the doubts we struggle with that make apprehension of this story difficult a good response is to pray that our Lord would open our minds to understand that we might cling to faith in him.

2. When Jesus opened the minds of the disciples it was so that they might fasten on to something solid. A mind that always stays open is too subject to the whim of whatever wind happens to be blowing through at the time. Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. The purpose our Lord has in opening our minds is toward something; toward apprehending the truths of scripture; truths that are always pushing us in ever expanding application of their claims. Truths that, like the resurrection, are greater than our imaginations can contain so we keep coming back to them as we grow in our apprehension of their scope and grandeur. Theologian Neal Plantinga observed that too often in the church, we have a far too low opinion of just what it is we have in that thing called The Holy Bible—Our Book.

Jesus asserts that this event of his death and resurrection; the event that is indeed the hinge of history; the event that signals that everything has changed; this event of cosmic significance is understood through the scriptures. To explain what the disciples were experiencing as they physically embraced Jesus in that room; as they looked at his hands and feed; as the detected that he was “flesh and bones; to explain Jesus said, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’

When you read the gospels keep in mind that what we have of Jesus’ teaching is often summary of the salient points. For example, ever since the transfiguration Jesus has been openly teaching that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third say be raised.” (Luke 9:21) Jesus didn’t simply keep repeating this sentence; these are the points that he routinely made as he taught them what he saw in scripture. In other words, now in the resurrection encounter Jesus reminds them how he had been teaching them these things—things they couldn’t understand until this moment.

Jesus they goes on to show them how to read the scripture. The event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection became the prism through which everything spoken in the scriptures was now viewed. The scriptures had always been pointing in this direction and indeed now find their fulfilment in Jesus; the fulfilment you see as the gospel writers connect events of Jesus life to Old Testament scripture. This fulfilment has implications for the truths scripture asserts about the nature of humanity.

Come back with me to the room with the disciples as they try to take in what they are seeing—Jesus in his body is standing there among them, the same Jesus who was crucified, dead and buried. Jesus is there with his body—the physical body hasn’t been discarded, transformed but not discarded. The Old Testament tells us that God created the human in God’s own image. The nature of our humanity is as image-bearers. In the resurrection God reaffirmed the goodness and "image-bearingness" of the human race in the man Jesus Christ. Death and humanity’s death dealing ways do not triumph though it seems so for a few hours. However, on the third day, he rose again.

Jesus Christ risen from the dead exposes as a lie the idea that humans are just miscellaneous evolutionary by-products, to be managed and manipulated at will. The Christian vision of what it means to be human is gloriously underscored by the resurrection of Jesus, and we as Easter people should make common cause with all those who are concerned about the direction our society is going in medical technology as in so much besides. In our society—along with other western societies—abortion is being used to get rid of what we regard as birth defects. Humanity ended Jesus’ life regarding him as defective for a variety of reasons. Jesus Christ risen from the dead witnesses something very different about how God regards human life.

I recently read a review of Emily Chang’s book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. Chang is host of Bloomberg Technology and her book is an expose of Silicon Valley’s corporate culture in which she documents the sexual harassment of women endemic to that culture. The reviewer, Professor Justin Lee, conclude his review with the following: “The most troubling thing about Silicon Valley is not its misogyny. Rather, it’s the nihilistic orientation that is prior to misogyny and sanctions it: the belief that human beings are raw material, to be shaped by the will.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ reaffirms the truth about our human existence that we were made for better things—glory that God has in mind for humanity.

John Waters is an Irish writer, author, and playwright. His published article in the February 2018 issue of First Things titled When I Met Christ chronicles his experience of surgery at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin to remove a cancerous tumour. The hospital used to be run the nuns of the Religious Sisters of Charity. But when secularist politicians objected to the proposed involvement of the Sisters in managing a new maternity hospital the sisters withdrew from involvement.

Waters, in his experience, noted that in spite of the gruesome politics and the almost impenetrable shell of bureaucracy, the principles the nuns generated from their lives into the tradition of St. Vincent’s are still there. Some of the nurses were surprised to hear me put it like this; one explained her own kindness in terms of what she had learned of “interpersonal skills.” This is the bureaucratic explanation. The deeper one is that, at the frontier of a system creaking at the seams, one human being still looks upon another with affection, pity, and mercy, Heart of Jesus to Heart of Jesus, whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not.

“To lie in that bed that first night” continued Waters, “was to be regenerated by the thought that it remains possible for the human person to embody unthinkingly the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The affection we crave in such moments is no ordinary affection—some forced sentimentalism or the ritualistic execution of duty. It is the affection, the one born of the need for a totality to equal the felt vulnerability of the situation. And this becomes possible only by virtue of Christ’s total gift of Himself, because only in Him and in the story of His earthly life is this total affection rendered visible.”

The risen Jesus opening our minds to the significance of his life, death and resurrection to life has ramifications for every area of life. The trajectory of sin and death was halted in him and the triumph of love and life was revealed as he emerged from the grave alive for ever more.

3. One final note. The scriptures, according to Jesus, not only spoke of his suffering and resurrection on the third day but also “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” We see this pattern in the book of Acts such as in today’s reading of Peter’s address—“In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” (Acts 3:18-19)

I observe with you that what God undertakes in the good news of Jesus Christ also includes the proclamation of the news. Put another way, our witness today in April of 2018 to the resurrection of Jesus Christ is foreseen in scripture. In the beginning of Luke’s gospel he describes what he is doing in writing his gospel as handing on to others what had been first handed on to him by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. (Luke 1:2) We do the same—endeavouring to hand it on to others.

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Amen.