April 14, 2024

While in their Joy

Luke 24: 36b-48

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them 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.

 This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

After Easter, our family had a chance to step away from the day-to-day routine, and I had a chance to step away from day-to-day Ministry for a little while. We went as a family to Pennsylvania and visited our relatives in the Philadelphia area. Then when we came back, I turned around and went immediately to Utah to be with a gathering of PCUSA clergy. It helped tremendously that we were in Moab, Utah, which is a beautiful place, and we had a chance to spend three days together, sharing the joys and concerns of our Ministries and learning from each other.

During that time of stepping back, I had a chance to think about our life as a congregation, what it’s been like for us in the last few weeks, and what our life has been like around this Holy Week and Easter season. As a congregation, we have been asked to hold a lot. I’ll give you a sense of what I mean.

On the Saturday before Holy Week, well, the Tuesday before Holy Week, we held a funeral here for a long-time beloved member of our church. And on that afternoon, we learned that another member had died. And on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, we gathered once more and stood and accompanied for a funeral. And then on Sunday morning, Palm Sunday, we waved our palm branches, we followed a donkey down Church Street, and we shouted Hosanna while grief was still in our hearts. And then on Maundy Thursday, we came here for worship, we remembered the Last Supper, and how Jesus was betrayed and arrested. And then on Good Friday, the lights were even lower, the cross was here, and we listened to the story of the Passion of Christ. As the lights dimmed, we focused on the cross, and it was deeply moving. And then two days later, we came back to Easter Sunday, and the lights came up, and everything had become white and joyful and bright, and we sang and we shouted Alleluia. And then only a few days later, we gathered again for a funeral. It’s been one of the most complex Holy Week Easter Seasons that I’ve felt in a very long time in the life of a congregation.

We’ve been asked to hold a lot, and I learned that there is a term for this, a psychological term called affective complexity. That may be a new term for you, but it’s a familiar feeling. It’s what most of us would call mixed feelings, except affective complexity has a little more depth and breadth to it.

Affective complexity happens when competing or differing emotions intermingle together and become mixed up and yet differentiated. Let me give you some examples of what I mean. Let’s say that you come into a financial windfall of some sort. Maybe you get a raise at work or something else, and you’re excited about that. And then you learn that your roof is leaking and you need a new roof, or your car needs a major repair, and you’re grateful that you have these funds, and you’re really disappointed because you didn’t want to spend it on that. Or maybe, like some families in our congregation, you have a child going to college, and you’ve been looking forward to this day, and you’re excited to see them launch into the world and take one really big important step where they will grow and develop into the independent person they are becoming. And yet there is this sadness at the end of a chapter and of letting go. You hold all of that at the same time. That’s affective complexity.

Perhaps you have grandkids coming to visit, and your whole family is going to be gathered for a joyful week in the summer. But you had a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor said they found something and they need to run tests, and they’ll know more later. So you have everyone there, and there’s the joy of this gathering, but you have this other thing you’re holding with anxiety. But you don’t want to share it because you don’t want to worry them unnecessarily or ruin the gathering. So you live with the affective complexity.

Maybe you have a good friend who dies after a long illness, and you are grateful that they are no longer suffering, and you are grieving the loss of your friend, and you are angry that their life is cut short. It’s complex. Maybe like me, you experience some measure of affective complexity this morning when you open the news, and you were grateful that the missile drones headed to Israel did not make it there, and you were angry and grieving about the tremendous loss of life and devastation in Gaza, and you were fearful about a widening war, and you were longing for peace. And it was complex, and all of it happened at once. We are complex people, and God has made us to be complex and hold different thoughts and different emotions at the same time.

Part of what I love about this Resurrection story from the Gospel of Luke is that it has affective complexity. This happened on Easter evening. The disciples were gathered in a locked room, Jesus appeared to them as David said, and they were startled. I counted six emotions that must have passed in the span of five minutes: Jesus appeared to them, and they were startled, terrified, doubting, disbelieving, joyful, and wondering. That’s complex.

Sometimes we think that Easter needs to be met with unbridled joy. The proclamation comes, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!” The church erupts with music and praise and congregation, and sometimes that’s how it is. But you remember that text we read two weeks ago, the women fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, said they left and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. And now we come to another story later that evening with more disciples. Jesus appears again, and more complexity: they are afraid and startled and questioning and doubting and disbelieving and wondering and joyful and hoping, all at the same time.

The beautiful part about this story is what Jesus does. Jesus extends so much grace and patience to them in their complexity. Jesus says, “Here, look, see my hands, my feet. Can a ghost have hands and feet in flesh? Here, touch me.” He shares with them the most vulnerable part of who he is, his woundedness, and invites them to see and touch. He meets them at just the place where they are. And it does something to them, because their terror and disbelieving turns to joy. And the other emotions haven’t gone away, but there’s now joy. While in their joy, they were disbelieving and wondering. And Jesus says again, “Do you have anything to eat? Do you have any fish?” They had some broiled fish, they gave him a piece of fish, and he took it and ate it, to give them that much more proof that he was real, that he had really raised from the dead.

Jesus met these disciples right where they were, in all of their complex feelings and thinking. That’s how God meets us. God meets us right where we are. You see, our emotions can have affective complexity. Our faith life can also have affective complexity. There are times when we hope in God, we want to trust God’s promises and claim God’s good future, and at the same time, we are angry with God, and we want to yell at God and ask God questions. There are times when we want to have faith to believe, the faith that’s been handed on to us, and yet we have doubts, deep doubts, about some of the most fundamental things of Faith. There are times when we experience the joy of the Christian Community. We sing, we laugh, we know fellowship and worship together, and yet there’s this other part of us that’s feeling overwhelmed or left out or like we’re missing something that others must have.

God meets us right where we are in all of the complexity that God created in us. God does not ask us to be at a certain place intellectually or emotionally. The Risen Christ meets us right where we are, right when we are, and how we are, whether we are waving palm branches and marching or whether we’re standing for a funeral, whether we are shouting hosanna or choking back tears of grief, whether we are grateful or afraid or angry at the news, or all three at one time.

The Risen Jesus meets us where we are: sinners in need of Mercy, broken people in need of wholeness, wounded people in need of healing, good people in need of Grace, longing people in need of Hope. Right where we are, the Risen Jesus meets us. Jesus says, “Follow me, trust me.”

The beautiful thing about this quiet Easter story is that it shows us the kind of community that the Risen Jesus gathers around himself. It’s not a superficial community. It’s not a community of plastic smiles where everyone has it together. It’s a community of people in all of their complexity, just as you and I are in all of our complexity.

It’s not all trumpets and lilies. Trumpets and lilies have their place, and Easter is joyful. It is also real, and it is for you. The Risen Jesus meets us right where we are and says, “Peace be with you.” May we receive the Peace of Christ and follow him with humility and honesty, with hope and with trust, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina



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