Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ignorance, Doubt and Fear

The disciples' fear, doubt and ignorance is overcome, by the grace of God -- a sermon for Easter 3

SJF • Easter 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.

It may seem odd in the midst of an Easter season, in spite of today’s weather, that I should be preaching a sermon on the themes of ignorance, fear and doubt. However, that is what we are presented with in today’s Scripture readings. And the irony in all of this, particularly in the part about ignorance, is that the ignorance itself plays a crucial part in the story of salvation, what theologians would call a “happy fault.”

One of the important things to note about ignorance is that it is not the same thing as stupidity. Very smart people can be ignorant; in fact, the smartest people of all are the ones who know when they are ignorant about certain things, and don’t try to pretend they know more than they do. (Someone tell our political candidates, please!) For ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge: not the inability to have knowledge.

The ignorance in question today is the ignorance of those who conspired to bring down Jesus, and to bring him to the cross and his death upon it. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter is beginning to make his case that Jesus is the Messiah — and he will very shortly be on trial before the Council for making that case and thus have the opportunity to make it even more dramatically and eloquently. He has just performed his own first miracle of healing, and the crowds are amazed. And Peter tells them, essentially, “See, Jesus really was the Messiah; he has promised that such things would be done in his name — I did not perform on my own merits but through the power of God that was at work in Christ — this miracle proves it. You and your rulers put him to death but God has raised him to life, and we are eyewitnesses. But I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers.”

Peter is arguing that this ignorance served a purpose, God’s purpose. Jesus himself had prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!” Peter affirms that they were ignorant and that their ignorance of who Christ really was furthered the work of salvation. Had the rulers and the people accepted Jesus, he would not have suffered death at Roman hands at their instigation. There had to be a kind of “suspension of belief” so that salvation could come: universal salvation, to the whole world — not just the delivery of Israel from Roman rule. Had all the people accepted Jesus, and crowned him as merely an earthly king of Israel, he would not have fulfilled his role as the savior of the whole world, not just for this world, but for the next — not just to defeat the power of Rome as an earthly monarch, but by dying and rising to life again to destroy death itself.

In some sense God must have willed that the people and their rulers would not accept Jesus as Messiah, as had been prophesied, in order that his saving death could be accomplished — much as God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart in the days prior to the Exodus in order that God’s glory might be shown in the power of deliverance, when he brought his people out of Egypt with great signs and wonders.

And I called this a happy fault to echo that older and first happy fault of the fall of Adam and Eve. As the old English Christmas carol says, “had not that apple taken been” — had humanity never fallen — the Son of Man would not have had need to become incarnate as one of us to save us from that fall and raise us up again.

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In our Gospel passage, however, we turn to the darker side of ignorance: the ignorance that leads to doubt and fear. Jesus is standing there before his disciples and they still do not accept him as raised from the dead. They think he is a ghost! I suppose their fear is understandable — I would be rather unsettled to see someone I knew had died come walking into the room, particularly through closed doors. But they’ve just been told by the two who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus that they have seen him, and that Simon has seen him too.

Yet some of them still, even with him standing there, and in their startled terror, disbelieve. Even after showing them his hands and feet, the wounds of the nails still visible, they are still disbelieving, though in a somewhat happier way — I guess like someone who finds it hard to believe she has won the Lotto and keeps looking back and forth between the winning numbers on the screen and the same numbers on her lottery ticket. It is hard to believe that something so amazing has happened.

But am I the only one here who detects a little bit of exasperation in Jesus saying, “Have you got anything to eat?” In any case, Jesus then lays out the whole story before them — in much the same way Peter would later do with the people and their rulers — though perhaps a bit more like a very patient teacher with a somewhat slow-on-the-uptake class. He dispels their ignorance by opening their minds to the Scriptures.

And suddenly, for them, the veil is parted. Suddenly it all makes sense. This is what the prophets were talking about when they said the Messiah would suffer. All those bible stories we heard as children, all those psalms we sang in the synagogue, all the sermons we listened to with care, and for that matter the sermons we slept through — this is what it all was about. It has happened, finally, actually happened, for real, in our lifetimes, and in our own neighborhood.

It is this realization, coupled with the descent of the Holy Spirit (which we will hear more about on Pentecost) that empowered the disciples to change the world. Some skeptical modern doubters say that Jesus did not rise from the dead
and that the disciples just made it all up. If that were true then the disciples would have to be the greatest con-men in the history of the world. To “sell” such a con, and risk their lives to do so, would take massive amounts of self-confidence and ample supplies of that Jewish virtue chutzpah, if not the Greek vice hubris. But do the disciples show any evidence of chutzpah or hubris prior to the appearance of the risen Lord? Don’t they do just the opposite: don’t they cower in fear and doubt — even when he appears to them! To think that these fearful, doubtful, weak-willed men concocted a plan to fool the world, and had the gall to carry it out — well, that defies belief. If I doubt anything, that is the most doubtful thing of all — that the disciples made it all up.

No, ignorant doubters and those who live in fear do not act with such conviction and power — power enough just prior to our reading from Acts today to heal a man unable to walk, and in the portion read today to confront a crowd of doubtful, ignorant people with the “good news” that they are all ignorant murderers — but have the chance to be redeemed, by turning to the one whom in their ignorance they handed over.

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There is a powerful lesson for us in all of this: not just not to be too sure of ourselves when we don’t know what we are doing, but to have confidence in him when we do what he commanded us to do. We are not eyewitnesses, but we have the charge to continue the testimony that they so powerfully delivered to us. It began in Jerusalem and it spread to the four corners of the world, and it is spreading still — to new ears and hearts and minds — the saving Gospel that enlightens all ignorance with the grace and majesty of the presence of God with us, still among us, powerful to heal and strong to save. To him be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.


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