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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“It Could Happen To You!”

Third Sunday of Easter

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Luke 24:36-49

A New York cop named Charley is having coffee in a little diner. Finished, he reaches into his pocket to pay and leave his usual tip, but finds that he has just enough money to pay for the coffee. There’s not enough to tip the waitress. Embarrassed, he offers the waitress a choice. He promises to return the next day with a double tip. Or, taking a lottery ticket out of his billfold and holding it up, he promises to split the winnings, if any, of the lottery ticket he just purchased for that evening’s drawing.

Now, Yvonne didn’t need to hear that. She’s had a bad enough day without losing a tip. In fact, her life is the pits. She hates her job as a waitress. Her runaway husband has run up her MasterCard balance so high that just that afternoon she’d been in court to declare personal bankruptcy. Could things get worse? Still, she’s good natured about it. She smiles helplessly at her bad luck, turns down Charley’s offer of tomorrow’s pocket change, and jokingly takes Charley up on his offer of half of the lottery ticket’s potential winnings.

Well, as Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” The ticket beats the incredible odds, and wins four million dollars. Charley comes to the diner the next morning to give Yvonne the good news. Her tip for serving a cup of coffee isn’t a mere two bits ($0.25), but two million dollars! Well, you can imagine Yvonne’s reaction to this good news. At first, utter disbelief covers Yvonne’s face. “No. No. Why are doing this to me? Is this some sort of cruel joke? No. It couldn’t happen!”

Then, as Charley insists he’s not joking, a tiny flicker of hope registers deep inside Yvonne. She dared for just a moment to believe Charley’s good news was true. “Yes? Yes?” She asks with her eyes widening. “Can it really be true?”

But disbelief wedges its way back into Yvonne’s mind. She had, after all, only yesterday accepted her fate. Bankruptcy. “No! No!” she says, shaking herself back to reality. Her emotions are a slowly congealing mix of belief and disbelief. But facts are facts. Charley’s gift was really, genuinely hers! So, ultimately, we spectators know that her joy will demolish her doubts.

Yvonne’s glimmer of belief grew stronger as Charley’s smile and excitement gradually thawed her skepticism. Charley’s smile was saying, “It could happen. It has happened. It has happened to you.”

“Yes?” Yvonne asked again.

“Yes!” Charley exclaimed.

“Yes!” Doubts cast away, her question now turns into cheerful exclamation “Yes!!” As the size of Charley’s gift grips her, she suddenly finds herself dancing, swirling through the tables of customers, contemplating her new life, a life forever changed by Charley’s free gift. The little New York diner is the scene of unexpected, overwhelming, hard-to-believe joy.

Now let me take you to another scene of unexpected, overwhelming, hard-to-believe joy. This story comes, not from New York via Hollywood, but from Jerusalem via the New Testament. It comes from our Gospel lesson for today, from the Gospel of Luke.

The scene is a little bit like the little New York diner. There’s fish on the grill, and sadness and confusion in the air. The disciples of the slain Jesus have come together for a little refreshment. They have accepted their fate. Their leader was dead. Their hopes that Jesus would redeem Israel were bankrupted. Kaput! Hadn’t Jesus said as much while hanging on the cross? “It is finished.” Like Yvonne, they had accepted their miserable fate.

Did they dare think their rabbi could defeat death? What are the chances of that happening? One in ten million would be good odds. Defeat death? No one ever had! The chances were more like one in ten billion, one in ten zillion, one in infinity!

Yet, there He was. Jesus in their midst. Or, was it an illusion? Maybe Jesus wasn’t really in their midst, but only in a mist? How does Luke describe their reaction? “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” (Luke 24:37) Could Jesus really be standing among them? No, the news is too startling. Can’t have happened. So Jesus tries to assure His friends that what they are seeing is real. The impossible has happened. “Why are you frightened? Why do you have doubts in your hearts?” Jesus is saying, “It could happen. Not only could it happen, but it has happened. And it has happened to you!”

How do the disciples receive such wonderful news? Like Yvonne, they swing back and forth between excitement and the horrible possibility that someone is playing a cruel joke on them. “They still didn’t believe it,“ says Luke, “because of their joy and amazement.” (Luke 24:41)

Last Sunday, churches around the world read the story of doubting Thomas, and we were reminded of the difficulty in believing such impossible news, of our own wavering between faith and futility, of how hard it is to accept that the impossible has come true. “The disciples didn’t believe, because of their joy.” They must have been thinking, “How can this be? Such a wonderful thing is impossible. It couldn’t happen.”

Today, the Third Sunday of Easter, is a time when the Good News is sinking in, and we begin to dance among the world’s tables like Yvonne, realizing that our lives are changed forever because, not only could it happen, but it happened to us! The Good News that the agony and death of Jesus, the darkness of His tomb, and the glory of His resurrection – all happened for us! As that message sinks in, our joy can’t be quenched.

The followers of Jesus continued to experience Him after his death and resurrection, but in a radically new way. They no longer experienced Him as just a flesh and blood man, but as true man and true God. They no longer experienced Him as limited by time and space, but as one who could be experienced anywhere, any time. Jesus is not a figure from the past, but of the present. It could happen. It could happen to you!

Jesus is alive. And now and then someone desperately sensing their need, the bankruptcy of their hope, hears with wonder – as if for the very first time – that wonderful message of God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus’ death and resurrection. They can’t believe God would be so giving. They don’t believe, because of their joy.

In the movie I’ve been referring to today, when Yvonne finally accepted Charley’s gift, she said, “Why? You don’t have to give me this gift. Why are you doing this?”

Charley’s reply is classic: “Because a promise is a promise.” When we accept God’s great gift, we might ask a question similar to Yvonne’s: “God, why are you doing this? I’m unworthy of such a gift.”

I like to think that God’s answer is something like, “Because I have promised, and a promise is a promise. Long ago, in the Garden, your parents disobeyed. Death came to humankind. But even then I promised to send a Savior, the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent. It has now come to pass! It has happened!

“And when my Son, your Savior, was hanging on the cross, He was accomplishing the task for which I sent Him. He didn’t say, ‘I am finished.’ He said, ‘It is finished!’ His task was finished.”

And now it has happened. Death is defeated. Death has been swallowed up in victory! It could happen, and it did happen – to you! The victory is yours if you will accept this free gift. Praise the Lord!


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