When I became the rector at the Church of the Advent so many years ago, there was a couple in the parish named Bartberger. They were about two decades older than me which put them in their mid-sixties or so back then. Two of Helen’s passions were Girl Scouts to which she had devoted most of her adult life long after her own daughter was grown and gone, and altar flowers which she oversaw with diligence. Charles was an about-to-retire engineer and served as a reader and chalice bearer at the early service. They were both devoted to God and faithful members of the congregation.
I tell you this because Charles and I had a recurring conversation through the years that lasted right up to the time of his death. Every now and then during the course of a bible study or in response to a sermon or because something else triggered it in his mind, Charles would say something like, “I believe in the resurrection, but I just can’t understand if everyone’s body is resurrected how we’ll all fit into heaven. It just doesn’t seem possible.” He was a very educated and deeply thoughtful person, but like a number of people I’ve known through the years, especially those drawn to subjects like math or science, Charles had a definite tendency to think concretely. When you think about it, that’s not a bad trait for someone who’s an engineer. Their job is to conceive and design concrete things that are actually going to work…and be safe for those who use them. It’s not that my friend and parishioner didn’t have an imagination. It’s that his imagination was very much shaped by logic and feasibility. Even on his deathbed I was never able to find a way to talk about this that made sense to him. A day or two before he died, we finally agreed he would soon know the answer to this nagging question.
Most people, even dreamers, have a tendency toward concrete thinking especially when something challenges our logic or understanding of how things work and what is and is not “possible.” That’s what happened in the gospel last week when Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was alive and well until he saw and examined for himself the evidence that this preposterous story was true. Unlike Thomas last week, the crowd in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles who had witnessed Peter and John healing the lame man knew what they had seen and were convinced that it was real. In that time and place, itinerant wonder workers claiming supernatural powers were a dime a dozen, but this was still a pretty spectacular display of power. What Peter wants them to know is, that unlike the run-of-the mill healers they were used to seeing, he and John did not do what they had done using their own power…supernatural or otherwise…as the other healers claimed to do. He wanted them be clear that the power they saw in this event was God’s power not theirs. He wanted them to understand that this power was directly tied to the recently crucified Jesus whom God had sent and who was now alive.
There is a much studied and well known phenomenon called the willing suspension of disbelief. The willing suspension of disbelief. What that means is that we can choose to put aside our skepticism about something at the right moment and for the right reason. It’s what we do without even thinking about it when we watch a fantastical movie or television show or play or when we listen to story or a joke that we know has no basis in reality…but which happens to be very entertaining. We can and do choose to put aside the illogicality of something when it doesn’t call into question or threaten the logic and beliefs that give stability and meaning to our life.
There are a number of occasions in the gospels after the resurrection when Jesus appears to his followers to reassure them that he really is alive like the one we hear from Luke this morning. Not surprisingly his appearing and disappearing at will from their presence, defying the reality of locked doors, solid walls and the finality of death tended to scare them. So I find a kind of gentle understanding when he shows them, even as he chastises them for not believing, that he really is alive. “Look at me,” he says, “touch my wounds if you need to. Even better, give me something to eat.” It’s only after he’s made his physical presence among them a concrete reality that he explains again how all that has happened was a fulfillment of what scripture promised.
Each of us carries within us a unique mixture of skepticism and openness to mystery that develops throughout our lives and is shaped by many factors. What we are called to do is value both these qualities and seek to balance them as we live out our life. Both are critically important. Skepticism for example. A few weeks ago our phone rang. It was not a number I recognized so I didn’t answer. Just a few minutes later it rang again. It was the same number so I decided to answer it in case someone we knew was really trying to get in touch with us. A woman’s voice said, “Hello Mrs. Martin. I am pleased to tell you that you have won a prize that amounts to an astounding $8.4 million!” I interrupted and said, “Please take us off your call list,” but this woman was not to be deterred. We proceeded to argue, me saying that I wanted to be taken off her call list and she insisting that I had won $8.4 million. I finally asked why I had won this “astounding” amount of money. This is what she told me, “For paying your electric bill on time and using your credit card.” With that, I again said to take me off the call list and hung up. Hardly a minute later, the phone rang again, and as I cranked up to give her a piece of my mind, she interrupted and said, “Goodbye, stupid,” and then she hung up on me. I just sat there and laughed. I didn’t find out what information I would have to divulge to collect that bonanza, but I worried about how someone less skeptical than me might respond even to that very unsophisticated come on.
Both skepticism and openness to mystery are critically important. Openness to mystery for example. You and I can never have access to the same kind of physical reassurance that Jesus’ first followers had. If we want to be open to the mystery of the Divine, what we have to decide is whether we deem those first witnesses of the resurrection to be trustworthy, and whether we’ll be open to more recent evidence in our lives and the lives of other people we know that will allow us to trust that what happened so long ago was real and that it still matters today.