Monday, April 24, 2006

Easter 2 - Year B

“Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross, and then, most probably, his rotting corpse was thrown in a refuse heap to be devoured by dogs, jackals, and carrion birds. Like most other victims of crucifixion, he was not accorded the dignity of a decent burial. It is unlikely that Jesus’ disciples, who had abandoned him, knew anything about his fate until several days or weeks or even months later. Certainly, they were not on hand to witness his final hours. They created the stories of Jesus’ suffering and death to fit their own narrow interpretation of certain texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. As for the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Jesus, these are myths invented by the early Christian community. They intended to convey the community’s conviction that the things Jesus’ stood for die not die with him but lived on in the people who bore his name. In other words, Jesus did not rise from the dead but his teachings survive in the hearts and minds of his followers.

“If you don’t like the sound of that, how about this? Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea bribed the Romans to take him down before he expired and then carried him away to recover from the ordeal in secret. His post-crucifixion appearances to friends and disciples are thus “explainable.” Or perhaps it was someone who merely looked like Jesus who was crucified while the wily Galilean slipped away to live in comfortable domesticity with Mary Magdalene or some other agreeable companion. Why stop there? Maybe the man named Jesus never existed. It could be that he is merely a particular manifestation of a universal religious symbol. The stories about him contain “sublime spiritual truths” (Tom Harpur) accessible to everyone but have no basis in anything that really happened.

“I’m guessing you probably heard or read about some of these theories during the last few weeks. The Jesus Papers. The Gospel of Judas. The Pagan Christ. Books like these, and news stories about them, seem to emerge with the lilies every Easter. Sometimes they come from folks who are hostile to the faith and are trying to expose Christianity for the fraud they think it is. More often, however, they are presented by people who want to save Christianity from the Church and from itself. Convinced that no enlightened, educated person in our day and age could possibly believe what the New Testament says about Jesus and what the church traditionally taught about him, especially about the resurrection, they hope to make it all plausible and therefore more marketable. People can swallow it easier, they think, if we drain all the hocus-pocus from the Jesus stories. (adapted from a sermon by John Moses, Somehow He Got Up)

These folks simply don’t believe it could happen. And if you think about it, the resurrection story is pretty crazy. The women at the tomb, we heard last week, ran away from the news that Jesus had risen, because “terror and amazement had seized them.”

Today we hear about Thomas. Tradition calls him “doubting Thomas.” I don’t think he doubted in the way we often think about doubt; this was no existential crisis Thomas was experiencing. This wasn’t an intellectual puzzle, nor was it some philosophical conundrum that haunted his psyche. His doubt was more ground level. He was being realistic. Probably still grieving, traumatized by his friend’s death, and terrified that he might be next, Thomas was incredulous when folks tried to tell him that Jesus was alive. How could they talk about the dead that way? Why smudge an already difficult time with fairy tales about empty tombs and angels in white? Jesus was dead. And there was every indication of him staying dead.

“Unless I put my hand in his wounds of his side and fingers in the holes in his hands, I will not believe you.”

He needed proof that he could put his hands on.

I know that in my life, faith is in an on-going smack-down, drag ‘em out, cage match with doubt. Living under the same roof with those two is more pain than pleasure. One always fights for dominance. Faith is hard. Certainty is easier. But Jesus asks that we take the narrow road of faith rather than the six-lane highway of certitude.

I had a funeral this past week for a man who didn’t say very much. He wasn’t a churchgoer. One could hardly say that faith was a part of his life. I visited with him a few times because he had cancer and had very little time left. And he knew it.

When I asked him to pray, he looked away from me and said, “Yes,” and his eyes clenched, making sure each word given its proper due. When I offered him the sacrament of Holy Communion, his words were hesitant but his eyes were hungry.

He knew he was going to die. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him in death. For all he knew, and as much as any one else knows, when he closed his eyes for the last time and his heart stopped beating, he would never open them again.

And yet - he prayed. And he meant every word. He received Holy Communion with a quiet expectation that God was somehow involved in the eating and drinking. Was his an act of faith or an act of fear? When you’re staring death in the face you’ll try anything – even prayer. Maybe it’s not fair to make that distinction. Life is too messy with mixed motivations to draw easy distinctions between faith and fear. Death is too unknown to ask that fear be bled dry from its approaching arrival. Maybe faith and fear are two sides of the same coin. Kissing cousins. Or enemies who can’t live without each other.

The women at the tomb were seized with fear and Thomas doubted because they were being confronted with things they couldn’t possibly understand. Are we any different?

Faith is about trust, not about knowing things for sure. Faith is about being terrified, hopeful, and angry all at once. It’s about living our lives with the hope that God’s promises are true, that Jesus has really risen from the dead, and that, when our day comes, we will join him in his resurrection.

We can try to make the faith palatable so a skeptical world can swallow it. But I don’t think that’s what we are called to. Nor are we called to absolutize Christianity, as if Christianity can exist as disembodied truth, independent of actual living. Un-incarnate.

Jesus’ message of salvation may not be easy to understand. But whoever said it should be? Even those closest to Jesus didn’t get what he was about. Jesus asks that we have faith, to trust. And as most of us know, that’s not as easy as it sounds. There are days when faith and life collide and you’re not sure which one will emerge intact.

When books like The Jesus Papers, The Gospel of Judas, and The Pagan Christ dismiss the essentials of our faith on the grounds that Christianity doesn’t conform to our already established worldview, they forget to leave room for a God who transcends all philosophical categories and ideological systems and who blows open all preconceived notions of who God is and how God acts in the world. They have already rejected the resurrection because they have already decided who God is.

The other side is fundamentalism, where absolutism and certitude leave no room or reason for faith – all questions about God and life and how the two intersect are put in a neatly wrapped box with a bow on top where there should be a cross.

Faith does not mean all our questions are answered. Faith means we will trust in Jesus’ message of salvation in spite of our questions. This doesn’t mean that we stop questioning. It does mean that trust goes beyond the limits of what we can know as fact, that God lives within and among us and helps us to live our questions as well as our faith.

We question and doubt because we are not God. We don’t have all the answers. And that’s okay. That’s not our job. Christianity is not about a set of beliefs to be affirmed. Christianity is a way of living and loving in the world. It’s about being deathly afraid yet still holding out our hands ready to receive Christ in our eating and drinking. It’s about putting our fingers of the world’s wounds and daring to see the risen Jesus present with them.

The world will not find Jesus credible because we sap all the hard stuff from the biblical stories, but will receive Jesus when we bear witness to his resurrected life, with honesty about our doubts and fears, yet still hopeful: Jesus has risen from the dead to bring new and everlasting life to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.


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