Third Sunday of Easter (18 April 2021)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
They were startled and terrified,
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
He said to them,
“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.
Touch me and see;
for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,
he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then 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, 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.”
She led a double life. For years, no one knew what she was up to in her spare time. Unexplained withdrawals from the checking account. Unexplained absences from work. Unexplained day dreaming and indecipherable doodles on notepads all over the house. She later told her family that she had kept this enormous secret from them because she was afraid. Afraid of ridicule. Afraid of judgement. Afraid of doubt. Afraid of unsolicited advice.
She did not reveal the nature of her secret until she had a manufacturer and investors—people apart from her inner circle who believed in her idea, but whose questions and doubt were not so personally painful.
What was that idea? The terrifying idea that caused her to hide in fear? Spanx. Formally known as “shapewear.” Her big, terrifying idea was underwear. You’ve probably got a pair or five in your house at this very moment.
It probably seems silly now, but she was so afraid of judgement that she kept this secret from everyone close to her. After all, if her idea was as stupid as she had feared, she didn’t want anyone to know.
I have a secret, too. Nothing so exotic as a double life or a multi-billion-dollar manufacturing scheme, but a project unknown to all but a few. Once a month, in an undisclosed location, I meet with a clutch of other secret keepers. Over brown bag lunches and cupcakes from Sweet Allies, we write. Lyrics. Essays. Novels. Non-fiction. We share our writing with each other, and no one else. Crafting sentences. Critiquing ideas. Urging each other to keep writing. Even if no one ever sees it. Even if we fear it might be stupid.
At our last clandestine gathering, one of my underground writer friends shared a chapter of an under-construction book, years in the writing. The chapter is titled simply, “Believe,” a fascinating analysis of the nature of belief—not just religious belief, but the beliefs that drive our lives. The beliefs so central to who we are, we don’t even acknowledge them. At our last meeting, we parsed two particular aspects of belief: “empowering beliefs” and “limiting beliefs.”
The concepts are captivating enough on their own, but since my public persona as a mild-mannered midwestern pastor causes me to sift everything through a biblical lens, I realize this parsing of “belief” has Easter impact, as well. Here’s how.
An empowering belief is a deeply held conviction that urges us on, that empowers. “My vote counts,” is an empowering belief. “My ideas have value,” is an empowering belief. “God is good,” is an empowering belief. Without conscious assent, these ideas inspire my public, private and pastoral life.
A “limiting belief?” As evidenced by the Spanx story, one limiting belief is “My ideas are stupid.” Such a belief stifles creativity, inhibits action. Other limiting beliefs have more dire consequences.
If you are a young black man in a US city, chances are that many of the men in your life have been imprisoned or killed before the age of 30. Why should your life be any different? You may, without knowing it, have adopted the limiting belief that you have no future.
If you grew up in either great poverty or great wealth, your parents might have been absent a great deal; chances are you were alone for long periods of time. You may, without knowing it, have adopted the limiting belief that no one loves you.
A friend grew up in a home with a severely disabled sibling, whose care, understandably, occupied all the family’s time and attention. Though she loved her sibling, she grew up believing that her own needs didn’t matter. She honestly believes that, in her family, she is invisible.
These limiting beliefs—“My ideas are stupid;” “I have no future;” “No one loves me,” “I am invisible”—drive our lives as surely as do the empowering ones. And sadly, when limiting beliefs are accompanied by guns, by poverty, by racism, they can kill.
Today is the Third Sunday of Easter, and for three weeks in a row, we have been immersed in stories easily characterized as “limiting beliefs.” The stone is too large. Jesus has been dead too long. Resurrection was a rumor. The male disciples dismissed the women because—”limiting belief” alert—women can’t be trusted.
Why is it that disciples failed to recognize Jesus after the resurrection—in the Garden, on the Emmaus Road, in the Upper Room? Was he masked? Disfigured? No, I think the disciples’ limiting belief that death means “done” prevented them for seeing his resurrected form. Even when he stood before them alive. They had been taught to believe that dead is dead, and no amount of hoping or wishing or resurrecting could change that.
So, after the resurrection, which must have been exhausting all by itself, Jesus had to spend the next many weeks convincing people, over and over again, that he was alive. “Hear my voice! Look at my hands! Look at my feet! Watch me eat!”
There was no place in their heads, hearts or belief systems for “resurrection.” What they believed about both life and death limited their ability to believe the most empowering belief of all: “Christ is Risen! Risen from the dead.”
Up to this point, you may have been with me for the Spanx story, for my quick analysis of empowering and limiting beliefs. You might have nodded along as I described the disciples’ disbelief in a resurrected Jesus—it’s a familiar tale. You might even have the spiritual bandwidth to accept that Jesus was raised from the dead, though, to be honest, that’s a stretch for many.
And while belief in Jesus’ resurrection is an essential component of what it means to be Christian, there is a second part to that belief, a flip side, the truly empowering part. It’s the second part that is most difficult for us to comprehend. Christ is alive AND Death has been destroyed. You can’t have one without the other. Because here’s what we believe; here’s what empowers us: Christ’s life gives us life. Now and forever.
On Thursday, I stood at the graveside of a much-loved daughter, wife, mother and friend, felled by cancer. What did we say over her grave, through our tears? “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Of course, we believe that she—a baptized, faithful, loved and loving child of God—knows Easter life with Christ, in a resurrection like his.
And what of others who have died?
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who died peacefully in old age.
Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old killed in an altercation with police.
Bernie Madoff, a convicted felon who died ignobly in prison.
If we believe, and we do, that Christ lived and died for sinners, we also believe that all of these—the loved, the royal, the young, the convict—know life in Christ.
Here’s the funny thing about our beliefs, though. Our beliefs may empower or limit us, but they don’t have the same effect God. For example, while you might look at any of those recent, very public deaths and have a strong opinion about God’s next steps: something like, “Ugh. I hope he rots in hell,” or another similarly subtle conclusion, God is not bound by it. Instead, God says, “Huh. Thanks for sharing. Not your call.”
Our inability to imagine God’s future for us, doesn’t limit God’s ability to accomplish that future. Our hatred of others, doesn’t diminish God’s love for all.
But what of those they left behind? What does the resurrected life look for a grieving family dear to us, for a queen and country, for another South Side family, for the victims of a white-collar criminal? Is life possible for them, for those who grieve?
Here’s what we believe, in an empowering way. God promises life, in Christ, for all. Not only those of whom we approve. And not only after death.
If life is possible, in Christ, on both sides of the grave, how then do we live?
Think of all those daily deaths we die—the public humiliations, the tattered dreams, the unmet expectations, the untold lack and loss in our lives. I believe that God has power over them all. I have learned, from faithful people like you, the following empowering beliefs:
Forgiveness is free.
Tomorrow is God’s.
Abundance is ours.
Love is alive.
And while, in any given moment it may be hard to see God making life in what looks like death, we don’t live moment to moment. We live in God’s time, confident that God is unfettered by our limits, undeterred by our roadblocks, unmoved by our objections.
And though our limiting beliefs have no impact on the way God acts, they do alter our actions. Though God forgives, we may choose not to receive it. Though God is already imagining tomorrow, we may choose to live in the past. Though we have all we need, we may choose to want more. Though love is all around, we may choose to nurse hate.
Our lack of imagination, our nurtured negativity, our limiting beliefs don’t limit God—they limit our ability to see God at work. In life and in death.
So, Pastor Post, you say to yourself. This is all fascinating. But what happened to that gospel reading from Luke 24 that you read to us about . . . two days ago? You know Ghost Jesus and “give me something to eat!” and “you are my witnesses?”
Don’t worry. I’ve not forgotten.
The disciples had limited imaginations, believing only what they had been trained to believe, seeing only what they expected to see. That’s why when Jesus, fresh from the grave, stood among them, “Ta da!,” they regarded him a stranger. He was left saying, “Hello! Hello! It’s me here!”
That’s why Jesus did everything but stand on his head to demonstrate that it was him. “See my hands and side,” he said. “Watch me eat,” he offered. “Listen to my voice.” He had to overcome the limits of their beliefs, in order to empower them for what was next.
And what was next? More disappointment. Jesus would soon leave them again, ascending to the right hand of the Father. And what then?
He empowered them. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus promised. “Everything you have heard and seen and learned from me, you will tell.”
As he said to Thomas in last week’s gospel, “Do not doubt but believe. And now, get out of here.”
Some limiting beliefs have limited consequences. Had Spanx never been invented, our clothing might fit a little differently, but there are worse things.
But when we believe that there is no future, that we are unlovable, that death has the last word, we limit not only ourselves but also our ability to do the one thing Jesus asks us to do.
Jesus’ resurrection empowered him—and us—to speak peace.
Jesus’ resurrection empowered him—and us—to forgive.
Jesus’ resurrection empowered him to send and us to be sent.
Jesus’ resurrection empowers us. To believe. To tell. To live.