Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Here we are still in the early days of the fifty daylong celebration of Easter and I’m already wondering how long we should keep chanting that Christ is risen! Sometimes, it seems that after the first flush of Easter Sunday’s excitement, our shouting that Christ is Risen sounds a little like we doth protest too much. The crowds of Easter are pretty much gone and churches all over Christendom are trying to keep up the excitement with the remnant of believers who turn up at church more often than Christmas and Easters. Our shouts of Christ is risen seem a little feeble; almost as if we are trying to convince ourselves that the celebrations of last Sunday actually mean something. After all it’s pretty safe to shout that Christ is risen in church. Nobody is going to challenge us in here about what we mean by that. But what if we were shouting that Christ is risen on the street corners or at work? Would we be comfortable telling people what we mean?
Christ is risen! Are we really willing to shout when it comes to declaring our belief in the resurrection? And if we are willing to shout about the resurrection, what is it that we would be shouting about? After all people have been arguing about the resurrection ever since the rumors about the empty tomb first began and after 21 centuries we still can’t agree what happened to Jesus after he died. Over the centuries the word resurrection has taken on so much baggage that it is difficult for many of us to talk about resurrection because we all bring so much to the conversation whenever we try to discuss it. Most of us grew up believing that we needed to believe in physical resurrection in order to belong. So we have learned to accept that resurrection means the physical resuscitation of a corpse. Yet even the stories that we tell in church don’t necessarily insist that Jesus physically rose from the dead.
The Irish novelist who wrote the famous book about his childhood in Ireland called Angela’s Ashes, also wrote a less famous book about his early years as a teacher in the United States. The book was called T’is and even though it didn’t sell quite as well as his first novel, McCourt’s I love it because it lends some keen insights into a teaching and teaching is one of the things I love about being a pastor. McCourt tells a story about Humpty Dumpty that illustrates some of the difficulties we face when we begin a discussion of the resurrection. McCourt tells his class the story of Humpty Dumpty to his class and for a whole class period there’s a heated discussion of “Humpty Dumpty” itself. (I’m using the term “itself” because no where in this English nursery Rhyme does it indicate what gender Humpty Dumpty is) In McCourt’s class Humpty Dumpty’s gender was automatically assumed to be male. But it was the sixties and so nobody argued about Humpty’s gender when McCourt recited the well known rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the kings horses And all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Then Frank asked his class what is going on in the nursery rhyme and all the hands shot up to say things like: This egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know that you can never put an egg back together again. I mean it’s common sense really. That’s when Frank asked the question that set the class at odds with him. “Who says it’s an egg? Of course it’s an egg! Everyone knows that! Where does it say that it’s an egg? The class is thinking. They’re searching the text for egg, any mention, any hint of egg. They just won’t give in. There are more hands and indignant assertions of egg. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never any doubt that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. They’re comfortable with the idea of egg and why do teachers have to come along and destroy everything with all this analysis. McCourt insists that he’s not destroying. He just wants to know where they got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg. Because the class insists, it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture must have known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg. So Frank says, All right. If you’re content with the idea of egg we’ll let it be but I know the future lawyers in this class will never accept egg where there is no evidence of egg. And so by tacit agreement Humpty Dumpty becomes now and always an egg. (I am indebted to Bernard Brandon Scott’s reminder of the story about Humpty Dumpty in Frank McCourt’s novel “T’is”)
For me the subject of the resurrection of Jesus has a great deal in common with Humpty Dumpty because by some sort of tacit agreement it was decided long ago that the resurrection of Jesus just has to be a physical resuscitation of a corpse; this despite the fact that the earliest writer on the subject of the resurrection, the Apostle Paul denies that the resurrection of Jesus was a physical resuscitation of a corpse.
In First Corinthians 15, the part that is not included as part of lectionary of Sunday readings, the Apostle Paul clearly teaches that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, but he also makes it absolutely clear in much the same way as Frank McCourt teaches, that Jesus was not raised physically. The Apostle Paul writes: “Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?” What a stupid question! The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body God designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body. Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another. And star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.” The Apostle Paul wrote this somewhere between the years 50 and 65. The first Gospel to be written, somewhere after the year 70 and probably before 80; the gospel according to Mark never mentions a physical resuscitation of a corpse only an empty tomb. The later gospels according to Matthew and Luke don’t insist on a physical resuscitation of a corpse. We have to wait until sometime around the years 90 to 120, some 60 to 90 years after the life and death of Jesus to find stories that imply that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Yet, the vast majority of Christian institutions insist that in order to belong we must believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.
I’m not much of a believer. Oh, I want to believe! I’ve struggled for years to believe. But believing just goes against my nature. You see I’m a doubter. My natural instinct is to doubt. My first reaction, even to things I can see is to question. I can’t help it, that’s just the way God made me. I used to feel bad about being a doubter. Most of the signals that the church has ever given me are that doubting is a bad thing. I mean take this mornings Gospel for example. Every Easter I’ve ever spent in the church all, 41 of them, you no sooner hear that the grave is empty and that Christ is Risen, when the Second Sunday of Easter arrives and there standing right in front of us is doubting Thomas. Poor old doubting Thomas, how’d you like to go down in history as poor old doubting Thomas? I mean, the fact that you were a faithful disciple of Jesus, that you stuck around with Jesus’ followers even after it was clear that Jesus had been executed and that you too might die at the hands of his executioners, and that after you saw Jesus with your very own eyes you went on to proclaim the resurrection for years and years, and that according to some legends you even traveled as far as India to spread the word. But none of that means a hill of beans cause you’ll always be doubting Thomas. You don’t hear people say sniveling denying Peter. Peter didn’t have enough faith to walk with Jesus on the water, he argued with Jesus and when push came to shove Peter denied Jesus not once, not twice but 3 times; but do we call him denying Peter, no we call him St. Peter. And what about those arrogant brothers James and John who had the audacity to demand to sit next to Jesus when all was said and done, we don’t call them arrogant James or power hungry John, no it Saint James and Saint John if you please. There’s Paul who never even met Jesus and who used to try to kill Jesus’ followers but we don’t call him murdering Paul, it’s St Paul this and Saint Paul that. But poor old Thomas, who said what we all would have been thinking, said it out loud and got it out in the open, and suddenly for all eternity he’s doubting Thomas.
Nobody wants to be a doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas is a syndrome a condition you simply don’t want to catch. Thomas’s negatives are through the roof! Over the centuries the church has made it clear that doubting isn’t a characteristic to be admired. Blessed are those who believe! I got the message loud and clear! But I’m just not wired for belief. I’m not the trusting kind. I’m a cynical so and so, and I come by it honestly. Cynics raised me, and I was educated in a system that thought me to test everything. At school I learned how to question ideas, theories, and philosophies. I learned well not to believe everything I read, that the news media can’t be trusted any more than the advertisers that sponsor the news. I’m skeptical of commercials and I never believe a word politicians say. I don’t believe my bank when they tell me stuff and I certain don’t believe a word any corporation tells me. And I know darn well that if they say, you know the “they” I’m talking about, if they say don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe, I’m sure as, you know what not gonna believe them. Cause they never tell the truth. Let me tell you something if the Risen Christ walked in this sanctuary and said here I AM Dawn, take a good look at the wounds on my hands, it’s me Jesus, I doubt that I would believe I was looking at anything other than a figment of my imagination; a dream perhaps or an hallucination?
Poor old Thomas gets a bum rap if you ask me. If you ask me the church is full of doubters. All of the really good theologians of the church were doubters. Martin Luther himself was a doubter. Doubt is not the opposite of belief. The opposite of belief is unbelief. Doubt is an important ingredient of faith. My search for the unbelievable, unseen Jesus led me all the way to seminary. My doubting nature has fueled my quest for the historical Jesus. My doubts and my questions haven’t hindered my faith. On the contrary my doubts and my questions have fed and nourished my faith. Take the story of Thomas for example. Scholars, historians, and theologians have had a field day with this particular story. So, I can tell you that this story only appears in the Gospel of John, which wasn’t written until 60, 70, 80 maybe even 90 years after Jesus was crucified. An eyewitness to the life of Jesus did not write the Gospel According to John. The Gospel According to John was written by someone, we don’t know who, who lived in a community that was persecuted by the Romans. Long after the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered the Jewish people to the far corners of the Empire in a time when Christians were routinely thrown to the lions. The Gospel According to John was written to a community that was struggling to believe in the unseen Jesus. There are a good many scholars who believe that the character of Thomas was used as a sort of literary device to play the part of the common folks who were struggling to believe despite their own doubts. The Gospel According to John was written to a community that was trying to understand the experiences the first followers of Jesus; a community that was struggling to understand what kind of Messiah Jesus was, a community struggling to understand how their Messiah the one their people had waited so long for could actually be someone who their very own oppressors managed to execute and yet who managed to live on in the hearts and minds of his followers. For them his message and his life could not be reconciled with his fate. He had so deeply opened his followers to God, to one another and to themselves. He had so lovingly called them to a new humanity not bound by tribe, prejudice, or even religion. Jesus had taught them to love their enemies, to value each person whether that person be a leper, a woman taken in the act of adultery, a Samaritan, the rich young ruler, a tax-collector, and sinners of every kind. How could God say ‘no’ to what Jesus was and still be God? But Jesus had died, it was even said by some that Jesus died forsaken by the God he served. They couldn’t make sense out of these apparent contradictions. How could someone open so many to such a new understanding of God, die in such a miserable way? How could a convicted criminal live on? And even if Christ was alive in the hearts and minds of his followers, how could such a Messiah save them? Thomas spoke for a good many of those early followers, when he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in Jesus hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in Jesus’ side, I will not believe.”
Thomas speaks for a good many of us. We too want to see Jesus. For who can believe in things we cannot see? Some of us live our lives as though seeing is believing. But the older I get the more I realize that there is so much that I see that I cannot believe. There are so many things that I see that I know I’ll never understand. I’ve been trying to figure out how those little people I see in that box in my living room get there, but even though I’ve had the idea of a television explained to me over and over again, I have know earthly idea how a TV actually works. I see people talking into cel phones every single day and I still don’t understand how voices travel though time and space. There are so many other areas of my life, for which no amount of scientific knowledge or technological savvy or historical data could ever help me to understand or believe. When I engage in the deeper questions of the purpose and meaning of life, when I face relationships that require reconciling, or when I struggle with life’s tragedies, I need something greater than what the current circumstances offer. When situations arise that leave me speechless or that are just too horrific for my thoughts, I need more than what I can engage with my five physical senses. I need to believe and trust in things I cannot see.
I spent a good deal of my life doubting the resurrection and trying desperately to believe that Christ was physically raised from the dead. I wanted concrete physical proof. I figured that if Jesus didn’t actually physically rise from the dead then Christianity was nothing more than wishful thinking. I’ve never found that proof and even if I did find it, I doubt that I would believe it. The truth is that it no longer matters much to me. My best guess after all these years of searching is that Jesus resurrection was about so much more than a mere physical resuscitation.
In story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth something of the nature of God has been revealed. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth God’s grace is revealed. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we see a picture of God who is love. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we see the promise of abundant life for all! In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we see a vision of the Reign of God where justice and peace abound. The Risen Christ reveals to us the love of God, the grace of God, the peace of God, the passion of God for justice and the promise of abundant life in God. Like Saint Thomas I hear the Risen Christ speak: “Peace be with you,” and I no longer feel the need to see the marks on his hands or put my hand in the wound in his side. The peace of Christ is what I live for. I have experienced the living Christ over and over again as the dreams and visions of Christ’s followers have become the body of Christ, and reached out to extend Christ’s peace to the world.
Do I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life ever lasting? The truth is, that like Saint Thomas, I too have questions. Do I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life ever lasting? I have experienced the Risen Christ in the body of Christ that is the church. I believe that Christ has no hands but our hands, for we are the body of Christ. Christ lives through us, just as surely as Christ lived through those who first believed in things not yet seen. So, in the presence of such a great crowd of witnesses, with all the saints of every time and place, I can say, “Yes, I believe!”
I believe in the power of the Risen Christ to work in the Body of Christ to bring God’s reign of justice, grace and peace to life. Yes, I still have my doubts. There are days when I wonder if the Body of Christ that is the church is up to the task of ushering in God’s reign, or providing a vision of abundant life for all. But I choose to place my trust in the God Jesus reveals.
There’s a story about a pre-civil rights African American community in Florida. The story says that during times of political elections, this community would rent a voting machine and go through the voting process. Now they knew that their votes would not be counted, but they voted anyway. When white people used to ask them why they did this every year when they knew that their votes wouldn’t be counted, they would answer that, they “we’re practicing so they’d be ready come the day.” Believing in what is not yet seen means we practice or behave as if it already exists.
Martin Luther King said that, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Belief in something you can’t see requires vision; the ability to see beyond what is and then to act as if it is so. What I can see in the church isn’t perfect by any means. But my faith is not in the church, my faith is in a vision of God that is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. My faith is about practicing the love of God that is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Doubting Thomas has become for me a character who encourages the faithful, not to give up our doubts, but to embrace them, because I have come to believe that doubt and faith are partners. So, I embrace my doubts and live in my questions.
By the way, there’s one very important thing about the story of Doubting Thomas that I haven’t mentioned. Do you realize that nowhere, and I do mean nowhere in the story of Doubting Thomas does it actually say that Thomas doubted. The word doubt does not appear in the story. Thomas was and is faithful. Let the same faith live in us! “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!” Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
So let us practice resurrection by embodying the love of God that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveals and let us be Christ’s body here and now!