Sunday, April 15, 2007

Easter 2C

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Isn’t it interesting how very young children so adamantly believe what they see, and that they also see more than we adults can believe. I remember studying in a child psychology class the principles of object permanence and conservation, how matter really matters to young children. If you show a stuffed animal to a young child, and then hide the animal behind a piece of paper, she won’t look for it – when she cannot see it, for her it does not exist. And if you show a child two identical glasses filled with the same amount of water, and then pour all the water from one glass into a glass that is taller and skinnier, he will tell you that the tall, skinny glass has more water in it – when he sees it, for him the difference in water level means a difference in amount. Matter really matters – children believe what they see, hear, taste, touch and smell.

And yet…also for very young children, stuffed animals talk, imaginary friends play, tricycles travel at lightspeed through outer space, and delicious casseroles are made out of leaves and pebbles and sand and water. Matter really matters, but there is much more to matter than meets the eye.

As we grow older, though, these relationships between seeing and believing become somehow reversed. We eventually learn that a stuffed animal behind a piece of paper does in fact still exist, but it no longer talks to us. We know that different sizes and shapes of containers will displace the same amount of water differently, but none of them will make a casserole if you add leaves and pebbles and sand. Matter still matters, but we find ourselves somewhere between no longer believing everything we see, hear, taste, touch and smell and yet demanding this very sort of evidence in order to believe.

Jesus was dead – there was no doubt about that. Thomas had seen the awful cross and heard the last gasping breaths as he felt hot tears roll down his own face. Not so very long before, they had all been with Jesus when they received word that their dear friend Lazarus was ill. Jesus wanted to go to him. It’s too dangerous, the disciples insisted. It’s too near Jerusalem – the last time you were there you were nearly killed! We won’t let you go. When Jesus silenced them with the news that Lazarus was already dead, it was for once not Peter who spoke up, but Thomas, sullen but determined to keep following. If Jesus is going, at great risk to himself, let us also go, that we may die with him, Thomas said.

Some time later, at a house in the heart of hostile Jerusalem, the disciples had what would be their last supper with Jesus. He told them many things that night about himself and about them and about how he believed in them. At one point he described a place with many rooms, a place where he would soon be going and where he would one day take them, and then he said they knew the way to that place. But Thomas couldn’t follow Jesus’ words, and he blurted out, Jesus, what are you saying? We don’t know where you’re going! How could we know the way? Thomas, you’re looking right at it – don’t you see? replied Jesus. I am the Way…

But the way had led to a cross, and now Jesus was dead. For two days and two nights Thomas and the others who had followed Jesus this far sat stunned inside the house, doors locked and curtains drawn against their fear of following him to their own deaths.

Perhaps they needed supplies – water, bread, oil for a lamp. Perhaps they needed to send word to other followers hiding in other homes. Perhaps he just needed to breathe air not so heavy with grief. We don’t know why Thomas left, or when exactly. We don’t know if he was there when Peter and John rushed back with astonishing news of an empty tomb, or when Mary Magdalene rushed back to tell them she had seen Jesus alive.

We do know that while Thomas was gone, Jesus came and stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side, and said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In nearly every account of Jesus appearing to his followers after his resurrection, they do not recognize him. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was simply another traveler. In Luke’s version of his appearing in a room full of disciples, they think he is a ghost. Jesus was dead – there was no doubt about that.

Matter matters – why else would God have created it and called it good, why else would God have become flesh and dwelled among us? Matter matters, and so it was that belief in the resurrection began not at the door of an empty tomb but rather in personal encounters with the Risen Jesus. Many scholars agree that these were the first stories told about the resurrection – angels and rolled away stones and neatly folded linens would be written about later. Belief began in the presence of Jesus when they saw his wounds, heard his words, felt his breath move across their chaos and create in them a new life.

Thomas, then, isn’t so unusual in his doubting, in his desire to see and touch what he wants to believe, but what he can’t believe. And it isn’t so unusual for Jesus to grant him his desire. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. In that gracious offer, Thomas suddenly sees beyond what his eyes could ever comprehend and utters the most complete and powerful confession in John’s gospel, My Lord and my God!

John tells us that Jesus looked at Thomas and said, Have you believed because you have seen? And then his next words, if they were also spoken to Thomas, sound like a gentle reprimand, Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Consider, though, that in none of the resurrection appearance stories does Jesus admonish doubt – instead, he commissions those who can hardly believe what they are seeing and hearing to go out and help others to see that life is possible, love is unconditional, grace is abundant, and forgiveness is free. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe, Jesus says, bringing Thomas into the mission begun a week earlier when the air heavy with darkness and grief had become all light and Spirit-filled. Blessed are those who have not seen…Thomas, let them see me in you…

Thomas and all the rest would be the first to tell the story to those who had not seen Jesus, not the way they had, anyway, when they were accompanying Jesus on dusty roads, through crowded towns, across raging waters, in a house in Jerusalem. But matter matters – the people would see Jesus in the signs and wonders performed by the disciples, they would hear Jesus in the disciples’ preaching and teaching, they would touch Jesus in the disciples’ outstretched hands. And some would come to believe, and then they would tell the story….so that still others would come to believe, and then they would tell the story….until one day, someone told the story to us.

We are among those blessed by Jesus that day, we who have not seen and yet have come to believe. We are among those who have received the Holy Spirit in baptism and are commissioned to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is more than a pretty story, more than something to believe in or not. Resurrection is a way of life, of living. Resurrection is about being transformed from people who just live until we die into people who live because Jesus lives.

And so it is not only our telling of the story, but our living of it that bears witness. Indeed, many of us came to believe not just because someone told us about Jesus but because someone was Christlike to us. The Reverend Mary Morrison writes, “Whenever we practice forgiveness, whenever we overcome the power of death in its many forms – hatred, violence, indifference – the spirit of Christ is alive and well in believers and resurrection life is expressed again in this time and place. We can’t ‘prove’ the resurrection, but we can be fingers pointing to it whenever we are signs that the life of Christ has not been extinguished, but is enfleshed in us and in every Christian community.”

Matter still matters – how well we know this in a church where water is poured across our brow, the sweet smell of oil anoints us, we chew and sip bread and wine, we embrace one another in peace. Week after week we encounter Jesus through what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell. The risen Body of Christ is here – right here, in us and through us, and we are called to be his Body out there. “Christ has no body now but ours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila. “Christ has no body now but ours; no hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses people.”

The story of Thomas encourages us to engage our life in Christ using all our senses. It is far more than a story about doubt – instead, it is a story about following, about becoming, about being a witness to what we have seen and to what we have not seen but still believe. It is a story about how the Resurrection of Jesus Christ works within us who, like Thomas, are sometimes brave and sometimes very much afraid, sometimes open to mystery and sometimes demanding evidence, sometimes believing and sometimes doubting, sometimes seeing things we can’t believe and sometimes believing what we cannot see. It is a story about being blessed because we are matter and because we do matter.

Let us pray together the collect for today. Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Day C

Episcopal Church of the Advent, Sumner

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:14-17, 22-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Luke 24:1-10

Legend has it that, not so very long ago, a certain Mississippi Delta priest stepped into the pulpit on Easter morning, looked out at the congregation and preached one of the most powerful Easter sermons ever heard, although it was only five words long. “It’s true,” the priest said with conviction. “It’s all true. Amen.”

I wonder if Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women began with those same words when they arrived breathless at the place where the rest of the disciples were hiding in fear and doubt and grief. It’s true; it’s all true! Everything Jesus told us – it’s all true! We went to the tomb to anoint him in his death, but he is alive. He is not there, but has risen! It’s true; it’s all true!

I wonder if Peter began with those same words when he proclaimed the good news to the gentiles. It’s true; it’s all true! Everything you have been told about Jesus – it’s all true! We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear...It’s true; it’s all true!

I wonder how Peter felt when the gentiles to whom he preached – a Roman centurion and his family – believed and were baptized immediately, whereas Peter and the rest of the disciples had not believed the women’s story of angels and empty tombs. In the verse just following our gospel reading this morning, Luke tells us that the women’s words seemed to the disciples to be nothing but an idle tale – it couldn’t be true. None of it could be true.

Angels and empty tombs, life after death – they had seen Jesus do extraordinary things, but this they could not believe. Resurrection was no more a category in their minds than was hope in their hearts. They had seen Jesus die, and with him everything in which they had dared to believe about the power of God to save.

There is really nothing new about contemporary challenges to the truth of the empty tomb – the disciples themselves were the first to doubt, to question, to find it hard to believe. The book of Acts contains numerous accounts of those who considered it an idle tale, such as one Roman governor who noted that even the Jews had certain points of disagreement about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. History is full of women and men who claimed that none of it could be true. An empty tomb proves nothing; as one historian pointed out, it is simply “Public evidence for a mystery.”

In the opening verses of his gospel account, Luke tells his readers that it will be an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. It’s true; it’s all true…And so Luke would have us understand, in an orderly way, how events took place on that first Easter morning. The women go to the tomb, find the stone rolled away and the body missing, and are told by angels that Jesus has risen. They go back and tell all this to the disciples, who do not believe them. Peter – whether hoping the women are right or wanting to prove they are wrong, we do not know – goes to the tomb and discovers that, indeed, the linens are there but Jesus is not. Then he went home, Luke writes, amazed at what had happened.

An orderly account of truth? Public evidence for a mystery? Either way, Luke knew that an empty tomb by itself cannot compel faith – in fact, it is just as likely to confound it, for tombs can be emptied in many ways. And so Luke’s story continues with appearances by the risen Jesus to those who had followed and loved him, beginning that same day with two weary disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize Jesus until he sat at dinner with them, took bread, blessed, and broke it. Soon after, he appeared to a room full of disciples who also did not recognize Jesus until he invited them to touch him, and he ate with them, and reminded them of words he had spoken to them before he had died.

It is an orderly account, as Luke claimed it would be. But many scholars agree that the first stories of resurrection that were told, before any were ever written down, were not stories of an empty tomb but, rather, stories of Jesus appearing to his followers, personal encounters with Jesus. In these encounters, belief in the power of God to save was resurrected, given new life. You are witnesses of all these things, Jesus told them, and according to Peter, Jesus commanded them to preach to the people and to testify that he was the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead – and so they told the story. It’s true; it’s all true! Everything that Jesus told us – it’s all true!

Some people said it was an idle tale. But some people, like the Roman centurion to whom Peter preached, believed. And so they told the story. Some people said it was an idle tale. But others believed, and so they told the story…until one day, someone who did not think it an idle tale told us.

On this Easter morning, we are the ones who are witnesses. The tomb is empty. We are the ones commanded to preach. What shall we say? Resurrection is more than a historical event, a publicly evidenced mystery. It is more than a pretty story, more than just something to believe in or not. Resurrection is a way of life, of living. Resurrection is about being transformed from people who just live until we die into people who live because Jesus lives.

And so it is not only our telling of the story, but our living of it that bears witness. Indeed, many of us came to believe not just because someone told us about Jesus but because someone was Christlike to us. St. Francis once wrote, “Preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.” Are we limited to talking about what Jesus did, or can we show what Jesus is doing here and now? Can we speak of the risen Christ in the world, the church, our communities, our lives? Do we, as we state in our baptismal vows, proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

Let us tell the story, not only with our lips but in our lives. Some people will say it is an idle tale. But others will believe…and so they will tell the story…Let us be encouraged by the first believers, who together with the latest and with everyone in between, struggled deeply and daily with doubt and faith, despair and hope, grief and joy, guilt and forgiveness, loathing and love. Let us believe the first believers and stand on the shoulders of other believers across time and space, who have believed and lived and taught that God raised Jesus from the dead. Let us join their Easter chorus, saying, Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia. It’s true; it’s all true! Amen.