A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Testimony of Skeptics
April 4, 2013
One of the consistent features of the various biblical Easter accounts is the skepticism of the apostles when confronted with the story of Jesus’ resurrection. In Luke, when the women come from the tomb reporting that Jesus has risen, the disciples dismiss their report as “an idle tale.” (Luke 24:11) In John, Thomas famously doubts the report of his brothers that Jesus has risen (John 20:25), and Matthew says that even as Jesus prepares to ascend into heaven, some of the disciples are still struggling with doubts. (Matthew 28:17).
When Jesus scolded his followers for their lack of faith, he was usually attacking their fears, rather than their doubts. He was entirely unfazed by John the Baptist’s doubts, when John’s disciples reported to him that their mentor was questioning whether Jesus was indeed the Lamb of God as he’d proclaimed earlier. In fact, Jesus greets the news of John’s doubts with a litany of praise for John that exceeds anything he grants anyone else: “Among those born of women, no one is greater than John.” (Luke 7:28) As he later prepares his disciples for his departure, he teaches them to disbelieve claims about Messiah appearing here or there. (Matthew 24:23)
So when the disciples disbelieve claims that Jesus has risen, they are doing exactly as Jesus has taught them. Jesus does not scold Thomas for his doubts in the least. He responds to the disciples’ doubts by doing something for them that he had steadfastly refused to do for others – he offers them “many convincing proofs” that he is exactly who he says he is (Acts 1:3). Among those proofs, Peter later reports that during those days he ate and drank with them, something an apparition could never do. (Acts 10:41)
With his own critiques of religious authorities, his gentle responses to others’ doubts about him, and his instructions to his disciples to disbelieve claims about Messianic appearances, Jesus was not merely tolerating but positively inculcating a healthy skepticism among his followers.
It took much convincing to clear up the disciples’ doubts about Jesus’ resurrection. But once they were finally persuaded, there was no turning back. His resurrection became the core of their message; it stood for them as God’s ultimate vindication of all that Jesus had said and done. It rendered them fearless, no matter what threats were made against them or opposition they endured, because they were now convinced that their death was nothing to fear. Indeed, it was something to welcome with joy, in God’s good time. (See, e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:1-8)
Here is the point I wish to make crystal clear today: The testimony that Jesus rose from the dead comes to us not from a group of gullible wishful thinkers, but from a band of world-class skeptics. Their reluctance, even resistance to believe, means that their testimony is all the more trustworthy. If they had been quick to believe, we might well attribute their claims about Jesus’ rising to wishful thinking. But the Easter accounts tell a very different story, of the disciples as skeptics fighting the Easter story tooth and nail.
Once they were fully convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples manifest a fearless boldness that seems almost beyond belief, given what we know of their cowardice leading up to his crucifixion. Jesus’ resurrection utterly transformed them, and it ought to do likewise for us as well.
Because of Easter, we are free to lay down our lives fearlessly. Because of Easter, we know that nothing has the power to separate us from God’s love. Because of Easter, we can love one another without condition, fully assured that God will do for others what we trust God will do for us, namely to raise us up to be fully all that God has destined us to be, no matter how far short we may yet fall in fulfilling that destiny. Easter not only assures me that all shall be well for me as I trust myself into the hands of the One who turns death into life; it also assures me that all shall be well for you by the same token. The Lord is risen indeed – and because he lives, we shall live also. (John 14:19) Alleluia!
In Easter joy,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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