Monday, April 12, 2010
One does not have to change too many channels on TV, these days, to find some sort of program about the supernatural. This, in and of itself, tells me that we have a fascination with these sorts of things. Even our movies, from “Ghost Busters” to “Avatar” appeal to our attraction to other worldly things. I have to admit, I am sort of drawn to these things myself.
Since I was a child, I have had this fascination and fantasy of going to the Northwest and look for Sasquatch or Big Foot. Just ask my family, anytime a program comes on about Big Foot, I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
I am going to go out on a limb here; when you think about the Gospel reading for this past Sunday (John 20:19-31), Jesus appearing to the disciples is not really that much different than a Big Foot story. After all, the only evidence we have of Big Foot are eye witness accounts, some questionable film footage and some plaster casts of foot prints that any creative person could recreate without too much problem.
Jesus’ resurrection is only an eye witness account. We have more evidence for Big Foot than Jesus coming to life again! When it comes to my own life experiences with death and dying, I have learned with fairly strong certainty that dead things just don’t come back to life. Having been a person who spent the early part of my career as a funeral director, this conclusion is even more firmly planted in my head. Like most of us, it is very easy for me to identify with Thomas; I want the proof, show me the hard facts, the numbers… Thomas is not really any different than the rest of us.
John in writing his Gospel, knew that the resurrection was going to be a very hard thing to sell, even in his day. The Gospel of John, as we know now, was written nearly a full century after the event of the resurrection. The stories of Jesus and his life were at best second or third hand at this point. John was writing to people that were born after the resurrection and had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. There might have been a few eye witnesses around, but those folks would have been way on up in years. John’s problem was in the continuing problem of the Church to give witness to the resurrection at a time when Jesus was no longer around to be seen or touched. Then as now, it was very easy to doubt the truth of the story; hence, John’s use of the story of Thomas.
By detailing Thomas’ reluctance to believe, John takes the words right out of our mouths and puts them into to Thomas’ instead. John does this so that we have the clear opportunity to ask ourselves howwe come to believe; or not believe for that matter. Thomas was a bit different than the other disciples which might be an explanation as to why he was not there in the room with the other disciples the first time Jesus appears. After all it was Thomas, back when Jesus was trying to return to Bethany to see Lazarus (which was deep in enemy territory for Jesus) and despite the other disciples’ discouragement, who said, “Let us also go, so that we might die with him”. At the table of the Last Supper, when Jesus told his disciples to not be afraid because they knew the way to where he was going, it was Thomas who said, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas was bit of a maverick. He was not a blind follower. He was a brave literal-minded kind of guy who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only if he knew for sure it was the right thing to do. Maybe you know some folks like that yourself. Those people that are full of integrity who refuse to go along with the crowd just because it is popular. Thomas was just this kind of guy. It would have been very easy for him to have succumbed to the peer pressure and just believe, because they all said they had seen Jesus. He could have said, “okay, I believe you, what next?” But Thomas did not. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Thomas is simply a stand-in for all the rest of us who want to see it for ourselves before we are convinced that any of it is true.
On top of the absurdity of a dead man coming back to life, it would have been risky and still is for us today to believe in something as outlandish as the resurrection. It would have been very risky indeed for the disciples to have bought into a resurrected Messiah immediately following his implication by the Jewish leaders and execution by Rome. The Gospel reading records that the disciples had gathered together. They had gathered in secret, huddled together behind closed doors. They were afraid that the fate that had overtaken Jesus might just come upon them. In the eyes of their governing authorities they would been categorized as rabble rousers and troublemakers. They would have been perceived as Jesus had been perceived, as an up-setter of the status quo. After all, those that rock the boat take the risk of being tossed overboard! They were genuinely afraid.
They had been told and been witnesses of their Master’s execution and now this strange tale of being seen alive by his closest female friend. Well, it would not be unreasonable to blow this tall tale off and simply assume that Mary was a bit hysterical from her grief. But they too were grieving left crushed, defeated, afraid and alone. The dream was dead. For all practical purposes, this should be the end of the story. Jesus was crushed by the people that saw him as a threat. One more innocent victim of the prosecuting authorities. Now that the trouble had been dealt with perhaps stability might return to the community, a community still under the domination of the powers that be, but a community relieved of their nuisance. The powers that be closed the book on Jesus; done deal. The disciples also thought it was the end of the story.
Then, in a very strange and supernatural turn of events, here is Jesus alive and well, all of the sudden in their midst, just like old times. And his first word to them, which will be repeated, is “peace.” But why “peace?” If you had seen God’s chosen murdered and then come back to life what would you be expecting; especially if you had deserted him, denied him, betrayed him? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to expect a vengeful God giving the disciples what they deserve for going AWOL and not being loyal to their leader. Humanity had effectively decided against God in rejecting his agent. Surely, God must be angry. Jesus’ announcement of peace removes that fear. Jesus announcement of peace says God is not like that. Unlike the political and military machines whose peace must be ever gained by continually beating down and overtaking their foes, Jesus word of peace puts an end to old way of doing things.
Even with Thomas, Jesus understands his doubt and does not dismiss him from the circle of friends even though Thomas did not trust what his cohorts had told him. Jesus did not admonish or scold Thomas for his disbelief. Instead Jesus comes back and repeats the whole scene for the benefit of Thomas. It is transformative, it demonstrates that neither he nor his Father participate in retaliation or revenge. It is more than a greeting, “Peace be with you”, it is the offering of a whole new existence and a whole new way to perceive God.
The announcement of the Risen Lord is the foundation of all Christian faith and theology. It is the very basis of our existence as followers of Christ. Truly the experience of encountering Jesus in that closed room transformed lives. It turned a bunch of rag tag followers who were terrified and running scared into a Church that survives to this day. It turned those followers from cowards into leaders that stood by their conviction that Jesus was alive. As we see in our reading from Acts for this past Sunday (Acts 5:27-32), the disciples’ resolve and conviction about Jesus had changed so drastically that they were willing to defy a straight order by the Jewish Council to stop saying Jesus was alive; the very people they had been running from that night in the closed room.
Believing in the resurrection is something we all must wrestle with. We are outside the circle of this story by thousands of years. As if to speak over Thomas’ shoulder to the rest of us, we hear Jesus say ,“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen but have come to believe.” Those who were witnesses to the resurrection knew they had encountered something extraordinary had happened in their lifetimes. The stories they have left us with in the scriptures, beg us still to take their word for what they are sure they saw.
I cannot offer any sort of empirical evidence of Jesus being raised from the dead; there is none. But what I can do is point you in a direction in which we can encounter the risen Lord; an encounter just as valid as the disciples’ encounter that evening in the closed room. The good news is that we don’t have to go far to see and experience that.
There is the story that aired this past week on NBC about Marcia Merrick who for the past 40 years has gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to make 400 sack lunches and then take them into the streets of Kansas City, MO to give to the homeless people living there. She not only hands out the sack lunches, but she spends timing talking these people without homes and giving a long awaited hug or kind word. I don’t know if Marcia is a Christian or not, the story did not say; but surely Christ is risen in this woman…
There is also the ongoing story of my friend Harry Chase who lives in Knoxville and drives every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to Jellico, in Campbell Co. TN to work as a volunteer in the Maplewood School for preschool kids who are born into families where the cycle of poverty seems to never end and domestic violence, drug abuse and alcoholism is the norm. You don’t have to talk to Harry long to realize his compassion for these kids and their families. He is making a difference one child and family at a time; surely Christ is risen in this man…
Then there is the story of us here today. We come week after week toreceive renewal, affirmation and hope in the risen Lord. For us we can hear the words of Jesus echoed week after week, “Peace bewith you” and “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe”. There is this encounter with the risen Lord every time we come to this table together.
We receive Christ together as one living body. “By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit…” we receive the living Christ. There nothing we have to do to receive this gift, except to hold out our hands and receive the body and blood of Christ. And despite all of our doubts and desire to have proof, we are still part of this living body and blood of Christ. We encounter the risen Lord through each other. Through us, Jesus truly lives… Alleluia, Christ is risen!