Opened minds

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Perhaps you’re wondering, “Didn’t we already hear this story last Sunday where the disciples are together and Jesus comes and says, ‘Peace be with you?’ Why are we hearing this again?”[1] That’s a very good question. Why would we hear the same story again? Because it didn’t take the first time, whatever that’s supposed to mean? Or because it’s so good that the church wants to hear it again and again, like a child with a favorite bedtime story that mom and dad get to tell for weeks? 

Last week’s reading was from the gospel according to John, and today’s reading comes from Luke. The stories are indeed very similar, but each is also unique in its witness; much like we are: together we tell the story of the risen Christ and with our lives we testify to his presence in the world in our own unique ways. There are significant commonalities in how we each present our witness, but there is also much room for the variety of our testimonials. By hearing a story again and anew through the telling of another witness we may discover new dimensions in the shared Easter reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Hearing the story again a week later also means we get to linger a little longer in that moment when the whole world is changed for good. It’s like we get to push the pause button and take all the time we need to look around and see how everything has become new because God raised Jesus from the dead. It takes time for the new reality to sink in and to reshape our imagination, how we look at ourselves now and at each other, how we think and act, now that Christ is risen from the dead; it takes time. “Christ is risen, time to move on,” shouts the world. All the Easter candy has gone on sale, 50% off, then 75%; the countdown is relentless, time to get ready for the next thing, no matter what it is. But the Holy Spirit whispers, “Pause,” and we get to step out of the hamster wheel of everyday; we get to take a breath and look around. We get to inhabit this wondrous and frightening moment when the Easter proclamation of the angels and the women becomes the resurrection life of a people.

It was and is a wondrous and frightening moment. They were talking about what had happened on the road to Emmaus and how Jesus had been made known to two of them in the breaking of the bread. And while they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified; they thought that they were seeing a ghost. They had no words, no concepts for this newness, only the startling experience of Jesus’ presence who clearly was with them, but not like he had been with them before. They saw him, they heard him speak, they watched him eat – and we get to be with them in that moment with our own confusion and doubts, our own questions and our timid imagination that pulls us back from what our minds cannot grasp. Luke uses words like startled, terrified, disbelieving and wondering to draw us into the moment where the newness of resurrection life just erupted.

And how did the peace of the risen Christ begin to rule in their hearts? He said to them, “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.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. To fully grasp the newness and fullness of resurrection life, their  minds had to be opened. Our minds must be opened to take in the newness.

An illustration comes, unexpected perhaps, from the world of seafaring explorers. Elizabeth Kolbert, writing about Christopher Columbus, noted that “what finally distinguishes [him] as an explorer is his reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what he had found. In four trips across the ocean, he never (…) came upon anything remotely like what he had expected: not only were the people novel and strange; so were the geography, the topography, the flora, and the fauna. Still, to the end of his days Columbus insisted that Cuba was part of China, and that he had arrived at the gateway to Asia. He didn’t want to have discovered someplace new; he wanted to have reached someplace old, and, as a result, was blind to the real nature of the world he had stumbled onto.”[2] He only saw what the boundaries of his mind allowed room for, nothing more.

When the first disciples stumbled onto the radical newness of Christ crucified and risen from the dead, they let their minds be opened by the risen Lord. It was the interplay of Christ’s presence and the study of the scriptures in his presence that gave them the words and concepts to speak about the meaning of Jesus in its true magnitude.

Speaking of minds being opened, for fifteen years, Harvey Cox taught a course called “Jesus and the Moral Life” to undergraduates at Harvard. Some of his students were Christian, and many were not, but the content of the course was so compelling that their numbers kept going up until Cox finally had to move the class to a theater usually reserved for rock concerts.

In his book, When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox tells why he initially ended his class with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. The students came from a variety of religious backgrounds, he explaines, but “there was another reason why I had been trying to steer around the Easter story: Classrooms, at least the ones I teach in, are not viewed as the proper venue for testimonies. What is supposed to go on in classrooms is ‘explanation.’ But not only did I not know how to explain the Resurrection to the class, I was not even sure what ‘explaining’ it might mean.”[3] Eventually he realized, though, that by leaving out this part of the story he was not just being unfair to his students, he was “also being intellectually dishonest, a little lazy, and cowardly.” And so he decided that he would “sketch out some of the current interpretations of the Resurrection and suggest that they would have to decide among them on their own. (…) [He] set out to move from silence into at least some kind of conversation.” And when he did, he was in for a few surprises, chief among them a discovery opened to him by the witness of the prophets. “It immediately became evident that stories of raising the dead in the Old Testament did not have to do with immortality. They are about God’s justice. (…) They did not spring up from a yearning for life after death, but from the conviction that ultimately a truly just God simply had to vindicate the victims of the callous and the powerful.”[4] Resurrection hope was a thirst for justice, and the resurrection of Jesus was God’s affirmation and fulfillment of that hope. “To restore a dead person to life is to strike a blow at mortality,” wrote Cox, “but to restore a crucified man to life is to strike a blow at the violent system that executed him.” Cox didn’t ‘explain’ the Resurrection to his students, he opened windows for them to see how the proclamation of the early Christian witnesses was connected to the words of the prophets.

In Luke’s story, it is the interplay of Christ’s presence and the study of the scriptures with him that gave the first disciples the words and concepts to speak about the meaning of Jesus in its true magnitude. Luke tells it like all of this happened on the evening of the first day, but we mustn’t think that there was this crash course in “How to read the Scriptures after Easter” that quickly settled things once and for all. Yes, there was the initial moment of understanding that changed a group of confused disciples into God’s church, but the moment is ongoing: as disciples of Jesus we live in it in order to let the risen Lord himself open our minds so we see him in light of the scriptures of Israel and read their witness in light of his death and resurrection. The risen Lord teaches the church to read the scriptures properly, today as much as on the day when the women returned from the tomb with the happy news that he was alive. As Christians, we read the scriptures in the company of the risen Lord who shapes us as God’s people by opening us to the fullness of their meaning and opening them to us as nourishment for our hungry hearts and minds.

It is always good to remember that, but it is crucial after a week when our Tennessee legislators in the House voted to make the Bible the official state book. Governor Bill Haslam weighed in, as did Attorney General Herbert Slatery, and even Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey commented, “We don’t need to put the Bible beside salamanders, tulip poplars and ‘Rocky Top’ in the Tennessee Blue Book to appreciate its importance to our state.” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris from Collierville was moved to declare, “All I know is that I hear Satan snickering. He loves this kind of mischief. You just dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol, and you’re on your way to where he wants you.”[5]

Thankfully the foolishness was stopped in the Senate, at least for this session, largely over obvious constitutional concerns; but that’s not all. The Scriptures of Israel and the church are sacred to Jews and Christians, and we won’t let the state, any state “dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol.” I don’t know what inspired Sen. Norris, but I couldn’t have said it better myself.


[1] The gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter was John 20:19-31.

[2] Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Lost Mariner,” The New Yorker (October 14, 2002)

[3] When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 273-274.

[4] Ibid., 274.