Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Apr. 26 2009.
He was a brilliant man, one of the most accomplished of his time. In fact, he’s been called the father of modern science. His name was Galileo, and his resume was nothing short of spectacular. Yet he died a sad death, spending his last years a broken man under house arrest.
His offense? He dared to assert that the sun and not the earth was at the center of our solar system. The Catholic Church of the 17th century was not buying it, and thought Galileo’s teachings contradicted the Bible. The Church was not open to any other model of cosmology, and so the church fathers convicted Galileo of heresy. We might say Galileo was a casualty of closed minds.
Now, in fairness we have to admit that there’s a time for all things, including closed or at least skeptical minds. If someone proposes that 2+2 now equals 5, we ought to be skeptical. If someone tells us we can do whatever gives us pleasure and suffer no consequences, we ought to seriously question that advice. If someone offers to sell us some prime real estate in the Everglades of Florida, we would do well to close our minds very quickly to that investment option. Gullibility is no virtue, and timely skepticism is no vice.
That said, I want you to consider that it wasn’t the open-minded people of his day who gave Jesus the most heartburn. It was the people who minds were closed like steel traps. Sometimes we Christians act like it’s only open-minded relativists willing to believe anything who are the chief opponents of our faith. But ironically, it was close-minded scribes and Pharisees that created far more trouble for Jesus than pagan, anything-goes sinners. And it wasn’t just the scribes and Pharisees that were closed-minded—so were Jesus’ own disciples. It turns out their view of reality didn’t allow for a suffering Messiah in for a Messiah raised from the dead, and that generated all kinds of problems for the Risen Christ.
This week, I ran across a quote about aging written by Madeline L’Engle, an Episcopalian who wrote 60 books for children and adults before she died at age 89 in 2007. L’Engle wrote, “My hope, each day as I grow older, is that this will never be simply chronological aging—which is a nuisance and frequently a bore…but that I will also grow into maturity, where the experience which can be acquired only through chronology will teach me how to be more aware, open, unafraid to be vulnerable, involved, committed, to accept disagreement without feeling threatened…to understand that I cannot take myself seriously until I stop taking myself so seriously—to be, in fact, a true adult.”
That quote has made me wonder about myself. Can I honestly say at 56 that I want “to be more aware, open, unafraid to be vulnerable, involved, (and) committed…”? More to the point, I believe on this Third Sunday of Easter that the Risen Christ is asking us all, “How open are you to being open to me, and open for me?”
There are lots of ways you could summarize today’s scripture. But the summary I would offer is this—disciples of Jesus are called to open up at every level to Jesus. And this is no small challenge, because most of us struggle with this kind of openness where Jesus is concerned.
At least we’re in good company. The disciples of Jesus, who were physically closer to him than anybody except his own family, struggled mightily to be open to the mind-boggling reality of Christ. Read the Gospel of Luke, and you’ll see the disciples flounder about on more than one occasion because they didn’t have a category for what Jesus was saying or doing.
For example, according to the 18th chapter of Luke Jesus took the disciples aside and said, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again” (vv. 31-33).
Then Luke adds this commentary: The disciples did not understand any of this. It’s meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about (v. 34).
In other words, as Jesus talked about the end of his earthly life, and the beginning of his resurrected life, the minds of his disciples simply shut down. Jesus might as well have been talking about the sun being the center of the solar system to people who believed the earth was the center of the universe.
Because where the suffering of the Messiah was concerned, the minds of Jesus’ disciples were closed. Messiahs did not, by definition, suffer and die. That was as solid a certainty as that 2+2=4. And if by chance they did die, they certainly didn’t rise again from the dead. It was simply common knowledge—even to people who lived long before Galileo helped usher in the scientific revolution—that dead people did not rise from the dead.
Now maybe we understand the state of things on that first Easter Sunday when Jesus started showing up after his death and burial. Remember, Jesus predicted he would rise from the dead. Furthermore, earlier that Easter Sunday several women claimed they had seen the Risen Christ. Later that day two men claimed to have seen Jesus as they were walking on the road to Emmaus.
After seeing Jesus, Luke reports in chapter 24 that these two men returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven (disciples) and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon (Peter)” (vv. 33-34).
In other words, there was general agreement among the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead because even Peter talked about seeing the Risen Christ. But apparently it was only true in theory, just like it’s theoretically true that the stock market could rise again from the dead and return to 1400 by the end of this year, but how many of you will cash out your savings and put it all in stocks?
This is the mostly closed state of mind Jesus steps into when he suddenly appears before the disciples. Talk about impeccable timing! While his disciples are discussing the remote possibility that Jesus is alive, he shows up, scaring them out of their minds. They think they are seeing a ghost, an apparition, not the Risen Christ.
So Jesus says, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” Is Jesus serious? Surely he can understand why the disciples might be shaken up seeing a dead man raised to new life! On the other hand, Jesus seems genuinely irritated that the disciples are having a hard time accepting his resurrection from the dead, and he blames it on their minds…their closed minds.
So what does Jesus do? He says, in effect, “Open your eyes!” “Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
These days we’ve been talking a lot about discernment in our church. If you’ve been part of these conversations, you know that the practice of discerning the will of God is built on the habit of discerning the presence of God. In other words, we’ve been working on cultivating the art of opening our eyes and seeing the Risen Christ in our midst.
Some people look at a blooming dogwood tree and see a beautiful blossom. Some look more closely and see the handiwork of God. Some look even more closely and see in the markings of the dogwood blossom the nailprints on the hands and feet of the crucified and risen Christ. Most people hearing my voice right now are sighted people. But some of us need to open our eyes and see Jesus in our midst.
The disciples open their eyes, all right. In fact, their eyes are wide as saucers! But there’s still a problem. They still did not believe (the resurrection) because of joy and amazement. In other words, a Risen Christ was too good to believe. In other words, their minds still weren’t prepared to believe what their eyes were clearly seeing.
So, Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence to verify still another way that he wasn’t just a special effect ghost. He reminded them that he had given them a heads up on more than one occasion that his crucifixion and resurrection would fulfill the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.
And then comes the key phrase of the passage: Then Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
Then Jesus opened their minds.
Do you ever wonder why people could see the same beautiful world you do and not see the handiwork of a Creator? Or how they could read the same scriptures you do and not come away with faith in Christ? Or see the same church you see alive 2,000 years after the birth of Christ and chalk up its continued existence to be fluke of nature?
Here’s the key—these people have minds that are closed to the existence of God and the resurrection of the dead, and so no evidence, no matter how compelling, will convince them.
We talk a lot around here about having renewed minds, and how essential renewed minds are to spiritual transformation. But this passage reminds me that before renewed minds can ever be a possibility we must have open minds. Our minds must be open to the possibility that there is a God, and a scripture inspired by God, and a Christ raised by God, and a church sustained and empowered by the Risen Christ.
My friends, how open are your minds to these realities? Are you at least open to being open?
And still, Jesus is not done. He proceeds to tell his disciples that they will be called to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations. This preaching assumes, of course, that the disciples are first open to the need for their own repentance. And that assumes the disciples are open to seeing themselves as they really are in the presence of God.
Some of us are stuck in our spiritual growth because our souls are closed, off-limits to the probing presence of God. Last week, a member of our church just happened to share a copy of a poem written by Emily Dickenson as I was preparing for this sermon. The title of the poem is, “Emily Dickenson on Etiquette”. It reads,
“If God came calling at my house
I’d ask him in for tea
And comment on the lovely day
That brought such Deity.
“I’d ask him were his angels well,
And if his saints had dined;
Somehow I’d steer the table talk
On well-accepted lines.
“But should he fail to take the hint
And probe my soul in two,
I’d rise a little formally
And end the interview.”
How willing are you, really, to invite the God of the universe into your private world? How willing are you to let the Risen Christ “probe your soul in two”? Until you do you’ll never know that you’re not the center of the universe. And you’ll never know what God can do in your life.
Once we’ve opened our souls to repentance and the forgiveness of God, we’re ready to share the forgiveness of God with others. That would, of course, mean opening our mouths for Christ. And that would mean being open to the potential God has placed in us to be on mission for him.
How open are you, really, to being on mission for Christ? To open your mouth for Christ? To live like an open book so others can see Christ in you?
Let me tell you what many Christians are like. They’re like dogwood blossoms that never open, that stay cocooned in closed minds and shrouded souls. How sad. But how beautiful are those dogwood blooms that open into blossoms, becoming a visual feast not only to our eyes but our souls.
My friends, if we want to follow Jesus, it’s time to open our eyes and minds, as individuals and as a church, to whatever Christ wants, whenever he wants it, however he wants it. When we do, we’ll have a beauty that will put even blooming dogwoods to shame!