Second Sunday of Easter
Our first reading was the traditional gospel story for the Second Sunday of Easter in which we heard the story of Doubting Thomas for John 20:19-31. This was followed by a video in which Richard Holloway retells the story of Peter’s denial and the encounter between the resurrected Jesus and Peter. You can view the video here . This was followed by the gospel reading from John 21:15-20 You can listen to the sermon here
A long time ago my father was in a car accident. His hand was crushed in the accident and despite the doctors’ best efforts it wouldn’t heal properly. So, several months after the accident the doctors amputated one of my father’s fingers. When my father was still recovering from the surgery, my niece Sarah was just a baby. To this day, I believe it was the joy that only a first grandchild can bring that got my father through those painful weeks after the surgery. Now it just so happens that a few years before my Dad lost his finger, my sister-in-law’s father also lost one of his fingers in an accident at work. So, both of Sarah’s grandfathers were missing the forefinger of their right hands.
Now, I never really thought much about this bizarre coincidence until one day, when Sarah was about three years old, and I introduced her to a friend of mine called Ernie. Now Ernie loved children and so he tried his best to make friends with Sarah, but she was going through one of those shy stages and so Ernie couldn’t make any headway at all. In desperation, he explained to Sarah that he had a granddaughter just the same age as she was and that one of his favorite things in the whole world was being a grandfather. But Ernie’s announcement didn’t impress Sarah one single bit. In fact, little Sarah put her hands on her hips and declared that Ernie couldn’t be anybody’s granddad at all. At this point I decided to give Ernie a hand and so I assured Sarah that Ernie was indeed a granddad, in fact, not only did Ernie have a granddaughter that was the same age as Sarah he also had a little grandson who had just been born. Well this was the final straw for Sarah. She told me in no uncertain terms that Ernie couldn’t be anybody’s granddad because Ernie had too many fingers. For Sarah, at the tender age of three, because both of her grandfathers only had three fingers on their right hand, then surely all grandfathers must have only three fingers on their right hand.
Based upon the available physical evidence Sarah came to the only possible conclusion. The idea that a grandfather could be somebody who had ten fingers was unimaginable. All too often, we restrict our vision of the person in front of us based upon our past experiences of that person or indeed, our past experiences of people like that person. Our inability to envision what someone might be, or become, can have tragic consequences. It’s bad enough when we limit our vision of someone based on their physical appearance, or physical challenges, but when we insist upon limiting our vision of someone based on that person’s past behavior, we run the risk of limiting what just might be possible.
Most of us have had the experience of growing into quite competent adults who function very well in the world, only to be reduced to behaving like a child when we return to our parents’ home, or get into it with one of our siblings. We find ourselves resorting to a level of immaturity that belongs in our past not our present. Some of you can’t stop seeing your children as children, even though you know that they are perfectly capable adults, in your eyes they will always be your baby. Seeing what we’ve always seen rather than envisioning what might be is a trap that gets in the way of all sorts of human potential.
I remember when I was 31 years old, going to visit my parents to tell them that I was planning to quit my job so that I could enroll in university to complete a four-year undergraduate degree in religious studies followed by a four-year master’s degree so that I might become a pastor. I remember my Dad shaking his head in disbelief. Dad had seen me start all sorts of things and heard me express all sorts of wild dreams. Based on my past behavior, this was just one more wild idea that would come to nothing. Dad couldn’t quite see me pulling it off. I remember Dad saying that I’d be forty years old before I finished school. What was I thinking? I told my parents that if I was going to get to turn 40, I might as well turn 40 with a master’s degree. That’s when my mother said, “Go for it.” I’m not sure if my mother could envision me as something other than she’d always known me to be, or if she was just trying to be nice. But Mom’s words helped me to envision myself as something other than I was. Go for it, was all the encouragement I needed to help me envision transformation.
New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, challenges us to believe whatever we want about the Easter stories, but now can we talk about what they mean. Borg sees resurrection not as the physical resuscitation of a corpse or as the promise of life after death, but rather as transformation. Christians and non-Christians have been arguing about the nature of the resurrection ever since the first rumors of an empty tomb began to circulate. Not even the anonymous gospel-storytellers could agree on the nature of the resurrection. So, let’s take up Borg’s challenge and believe whatever we want about the nature of resurrection, and move on to trying to see what resurrection might mean for us, here and now. Something happened, we know not what, to transform a frightened, grieving, demoralized, hopeless, group of would be followers of Jesus, into a movement that changed the world, and indeed continues to challenge us to become something more than we are. Nowhere is that more evident than in the story of the Apostle Peter’s transformation. According to the anonymous gospel-story teller we call John, whatever happened in that tomb transformed Peter into a leader in the movement that developed after Jesus’ life ended. We must remember that the anonymous gospel-story teller that we call John was writing at the end of the first century, some 60 to 70 years after the rumors of the empty tomb began. Marcus Borg would remind us to ask, “Why did the writer of the Gospel According to John write the story the way that he wrote it?” What was this anonymous gospel-story-teller trying to tell us about the resurrection?
The story of Peter is the story of transformation. It’s one of the reasons I wanted you to watch Richard Holloway’s beautiful retelling of Peter’s story as it is, from John and later in the stories that were told about Peter that didn’t make it into the New Testament. The transformation of Peter from denier to faithful follower and teacher of the way is a story of hope; a story that holds out the hope that all of us can be transformed by the power of resurrection. Notice that the story of Peter is not a story about being saved from sin, or about life after death. The story of Peter is a story of someone who struggled to make sense of it all, and yet found a way to be more than he believed he could be. Transformation.
Does the story of the resurrection have the power to transform us? Marcus Borg’s challenging question, “Why did the writers of the gospel write the stories about Jesus they way in which they wrote them, what are they trying to say to us?” this challenge could just as easily be asked of us. Why do we tell the story of the resurrection the way in which we tell it? What are we trying to tell the world? Are we trying to tell the world that a miracle happened 2000 years ago? Are we trying to sell the world on a deal, believe in this miracle and you will get to go to heaven?
Let’s suppose for a moment that this is our motivation. A miracle happened 2000 years ago. OK, so what? What difference can that possibly mean now? That’s the past, what has God done lately? Just look at the world! Why doesn’t God resurrect somebody now? How can a 2000-year-old miracle buy me a place in heaven?
Then there’s the question of Heaven. This is the 21st century, are we still trying to sell people on the idea of heaven? If there is a God, and there is a heaven, surely this God is a big enough fella not to hold it against me for using the brain he is supposed to have given me to suss-out that this whole believing in supernatural resuscitations, is a requirement of the faith? OK, I know that I’ve set up a bit of a straw-man argument here; I’ve stated the argument for believing in the physical resurrection as part of a bargaining chip to get into heaven, and I know that the theology is far more complicated than that. But if our motivation for telling stories about the resurrection is to convince people that resurrection is our ticket to eternal life, then at some point our motivation is going to be challenged for what it is, in its simplest most basic form. But what if our motivation for telling the story shifts from trying to convince people about the nature of the resurrection to telling people about what resurrection might mean? What if we begin by trying to set aside the meanings that have been layered upon the rumors of the empty tomb, and just read the stories for what they are, stories; stories that can do what all good stories do and that is communicate meaning? What meaning can we derive from the story of Peter?
Can we begin to see Peter as a follower of Jesus teaching, who was so inspired by the Way of being in the world that Jesus was advocating, that he chucked in his job and left his family behind in order to support Jesus, to become a part of changing the way in which his people lived in the world in which they were being persecuted? When it all fell apart and the going got really tough, Peter did what we all might have done and saved himself and abandoned his beloved Jesus. Can we see ourselves in this story? We’ve all been there. We’ve all failed to be who we wanted to be, or who we’d risked it all to be, or who we thought we were. We’ve all been so low that we couldn’t see a way forward. Then something happened, something Peter had known in his friend Jesus, the very things that inspired Peter to follow Jesus and to take such enormous risks for Jesus, the presence of God that Peter saw in Jesus, something happened and Peter was able to see them and know them again.
Did it happen exactly the way the story-teller wrote it? Does it ever happen exactly the way the story-teller writes it? What does this mean? For us? Here? Now?
We too have wanted to follow Jesus. We too have been excited by the teachings of Jesus. We too have seen and heard the teachings of Jesus and in those teachings, we too have seen a Way of being in the world that can transform lives and nourish and sustain a Way of being that promises peace through justice. When push comes to shove, we too have failed; failed to live up to the vision we have of ourselves, or failed to embody the person we hoped to become. Can the story of resurrection transform us? Can the story of Jesus’ presence and way of being in the world living on after Jesus’ death, transform us?
I remember my little niece Sarah sitting on the couch with my Dad, and pointing to the stub where his finger used to be and saying, “ooowie Poppa, ooowie.” A little girl looking at her Poppa and recognizing his pain. “ooowie Poppa, ooowie.” I can still see my Dad, reaching out and embracing Sarah and telling her that it’s all right now, because he has her to kiss it better. Sarah reached out and touched Dad’s wounded hand, and stroked it before kissing it all better. In that gentle kiss, I could feel all the LOVE that has ever been and ever shall be. That gentle kiss will live in me forever and I suspect that the LOVE that gave life to that kiss will live in my Dad and most certainly in Sarah. Now that I’ve told you the story, the LOVE that gave life to that kiss lives in you. Does it have the power to move you in any way? I hope so. Otherwise I would not have told you this story the way in which I told it.
Easter is a 50-day celebration of resurrection. The question we have on this Easter day, is does the story of the resurrection have the power to move us, to transform us? As our Easter celebrations continue, we will continue to explore the stories of the resurrection and the ways in which resurrection stories can continue to touch us. Can the way in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us from doubters like Thomas and deniers like Peter into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world which can nourish, ground and sustain the kind of peace that the world yearns for? That is our question. That is the question that the risen Christ left with the rag tag bunch of followers of Jesus so long ago. Generations of followers of the Way have lived their answers to the question of resurrection.