I know what it is to awake to the morning light, wishing it had all been a dream. For a few moments, I allow myself to be hazy. Maybe it was a dream?
“The unthinkable happened,” my brutally honest mind reminds my heart.
The death of a precious one, the betrayal of a friend, a shattered dream: the times we hope our longing for unbelief would prove true.
This is where Jesus’ followers exist when rumours of his resurrection surface. They are swimming deep underwater, hoping to come up and learn the man they believe to be God is not dead.
Apparently, to believe he conquered death and rose again was just too much to take on. Unbelief riddles the Easter story.
Early Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and some other women go to Jesus’ tomb at dawn as an act of devotion and grief. As many women are, they were doers, and they longed to do the proper thing for this man they loved. They gathered spices to anoint his broken body. Undoubtedly, there were few words on the way. A heart incredulous with grief cannot speak. They voiced one concern among them: “How will we move the stone from the entrance of the tomb?”
I wonder what thoughts jarred them when they found the tomb not only open, but presided over by angels? It is no wonder they fell frightened to the ground.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has risen,” the angel proclaimed.
They came up believing the nightmare was over. Seeing and hearing angels gave them the courage to believe the resurrection plain before their eyes. The pieces of their faith regarding who Jesus claimed to be, fell into place in a way they never imagined possible. They raced off to tell the disciples.
Categorized as an “idle tale,” the men did not believe their report. The disciples knew the integrity and character of these ladies. What kept them from belief in the words of their trusted friends? Much was in the way. Cynicism sits on the throne of one’s psyche when hurt has taken root and sprouted up twisted in the soul. Was there a cultural prejudice in play, because women delivered the story? Perhaps—the basest part of us tends to appear when we allow emotion, anger and hurt to reign.
Just two of the apostles were open to believing. Peter and John were at least willing to give the report a chance. While the others stayed put in their muddled grief, these men ran to the tomb to experience whatever truth they might find. They sprinted towards the risk of disappointment, because Jesus might have risen from the dead. To allow hope to invade sorrow is a courageous act.
Seeing was believing for John, though he admits in his own gospel, at that moment, there was not a place for the resurrection to fit into his understanding. We summon personal humility to open our heart first to believing and then to receiving a concept that sits in paradox with our previous cognitive revelation. A human soul who surrenders to the realization that God can do something beyond what they might have imagined possesses the sort of faith in which God delights.
On Friday night, Jesus had asked his closest friends, Peter, James and John, to pray with him as he faced death. The three of them could not keep their eyes open; they gave into weariness and let him down when he had asked for the support of their presence.
The nightmare began after the time of prayer. Anger surely burned within Peter’s heart when one of their own, Judas Iscariot, led a band of soldiers intermingled with temple leaders to arrest Jesus. The sacred place of prayer, known to Jesus’ inner circle, was desecrated. Disillusionment might be blamed for Peter rashly drawing his sword, cutting off a servant’s ear. Worthlessness coupled with embarrassment were the likely sentiments that rushed in when Peter relived that scene. He didn’t stand capable of defending Jesus in a way which led to rescue. Jesus rebuked him and performed what Peter assumed was the last of his miracles by healing the servant’s ear.
At the Passover meal earlier that evening, Peter made this brave promise to Jesus: “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.”
Jesus foretold the exact opposite in response: “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times you know me.”
Several hours later, fear took over, and Peter did exactly what he declared he would not do. Like a scene from an epic drama, he vehemently denied knowing Jesus for the third time that evening, the rooster crowed, and Jesus turned to look at Peter.
He wept bitterly over his own failure to stand loyal to Jesus. Disappointment with our own selves can be a barrier to belief.
“We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.” – Emily Dickinson
Luke’s gospel describes Peter “marvelling” when he walked away from the tomb on Easter morning. Does this mean he believed or was he still grappling with grasping the meaning of those grave clothes lying in the vacant tomb?
The proceeding two days, Peter’s grief must have been the heaviest kind: that which is laced with shame, regret and remorse. Contemplating the reality of Jesus as risen Lord feels intimidating to a wandering heart.
Jesus appeared to the band of the disciples two times before he stood on the beach one morning and called out to Peter, John, Nathaniel and Thomas who were fishing,
“Do you have any fish?”
Their negative reply led him to tell them to cast their nets on the other side and they suddenly caught a massive amount of fish. John recognized the power displayed and proclaimed,
“It is the Lord!”
At that, Peter quickly dressed and dove headlong into the sea and into a firm belief that Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a truth he could build his faith upon. An intimate conversation between Jesus and Peter took place after their fish breakfast that morning. Vulnerable before Jesus, Peter received the beautiful opportunity to declare his love to his friend and Lord who he had given up for dead. Peter set aside the barricades of grief, regret, and failure to embrace his risen Savior. Jesus did not side-line Peter for his failings, but commissioned him to love his church and gave Peter the incredible experience of leading the growth of the church on the day of Pentecost.
Where was Thomas when Jesus first appeared to the disciples that first Easter evening? Ten of the eleven remaining men gathered. Why was he not there? Perhaps he had an obligation or family engagement, but that is doubtful as he wasn’t staying in his hometown. Community can feel too hard when our heart is breaking, and Thomas likely was not up for a gathering of any kind.
“Let us also go, that we may die with him,” Thomas had stated when the group left to travel to Bethany for Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Based on this snide comment in the face of fear, even a generous character sketch of Thomas might include the words cautious, cynical, or pessimistic. His personality seemed bent to expect the worst, and this can make it a soul-stretch to believe the supernatural.
When his friends assured him they had seen Jesus risen, he did not believe them. He put some protective standards in place for himself with this declaration:
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
The trust he must have developed with these men in three years of travel, comradery and experiences with Jesus appears to have shattered with the disillusioning death of this man he believed to be God. The eyewitness account meant nothing to his hardened heart. Unless given the chance for his senses to experience the physical evidence of the resurrection, he would emphatically remain an unbeliever.
It is just like Jesus to meet people when their faith needs him most, and that is what he did for Thomas. He entered through a locked door eight days later and gave Thomas permission to touch his body that was broken for him.
“Do not disbelieve, but believe,” the Christ entreated him.
Jesus offers the same invitation to humanity today.
In the United Kingdom where I live, Mother’s Day is celebrated in March. The end of February brought several emails to my inbox asking if I would like to opt out of receiving correspondence that mentioned Mother’s Day because it is a hard day for many. Half of my pregnancies ended in miscarriage and one of my children is adopted; the pain and complexities associated with motherhood are not foreign to me. I understand as we reach the one year mark of a pandemic, many mother’s lives have been lost this year. However, I would like to call into question the ideal of isolating oneself emotionally to the point of not being able to receive an email from a department store advertising gifts for mothers in reference to a holiday which honors them. I infer that if such an email causes one to grieve, then perhaps they need to grieve. Avoiding emotions and processing is not a healthy direction for society to propel itself. I fear for this generation, the emotional discomfort necessary to wade through to believe is a new barrier to faith our ancestors did not have to hurdle.
After the year this world has lived, you may be in the place of waking up each day to a grief that washes over anew and do not feel you can make it through the day. Guilt and shame may be the center of your sorrow and it is hard to believe that forgiveness could be yours. It could be you do not believe God desires a relationship with you based on a convoluted misconception of who God is. Maybe you are wired to expect to be let down, or perhaps this is where life has taken you and the thought of being vulnerable enough to believe Jesus is a Savior feels impossible. No matter who you are, where you are from or what you are walking through, belief can be hard to grasp. As displayed in the faith journeys of those who walked closest with Jesus while on earth, belief can have emotional, intellectual and spiritual barriers to scale.
“. . . for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, ESV)
The reward is worth whatever it takes to seek.
“My Lord and my God!” was Thomas’s response to Jesus’ invitation to believe. Faith requires openness and honesty with ourselves regarding our unbelief and what is holding us there. As he demonstrated throughout the Easter story, Jesus has more than enough grace to handle our unbelief. Come to him!