This moment will not last forever. We will get back together physically when it is safe to do so, but we will not be the same. We will, like the resurrected Jesus, still bear the scars of this wilderness journey.
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
The Scarred Messiah
You never know where Jesus is going to show up.
In John’s gospel, Jesus shows when the disciples can’t go out—they’re all locked up inside a house out of fear of what might happen to them if they go outside. As one of my friends told me this week, “There’s a part of this story we never quite understood in the way we do now.”
It is funny, but not in the “ha-ha” way, how our theology really shows its cracks and stains in extreme circumstances. It’s not just Thomas, I think, but all of us, who want to see and touch the physical presence of the body of Christ. In a time in quarantine, when the church, the body of Christ, cannot be physically present for one another, especially in times of grief, the loss is profound.
This is what the church does when it is at its most faithful—like Jesus did for those frightened disciples, the church shows up. At the time of death or severe illness in your family, or when someone you love is in trouble, once the church hears about it, you better make room in your fridge because it will soon be overflowing.
Though we count ourselves among those Jesus blessed when he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” the fact is we have seen, and touched, and been embraced by the risen Christ in the bodily presence of our sisters and brothers who show up in the midst of our moments of grief and fear.
That is one of the things that makes this quarantine so difficult for the church—we cannot show up in the way we have always taken for granted.
When we read these resurrection stories, isn’t it striking how surprised the disciples are? According to the Gospel-writers, Jesus had been telling them all along, “I am going to be crucified, dead, and buried; then on the third day, I will rise from the dead.”
And yet, when it happens, the disciples are dumb-struck with surprise. Just because they lived before the scientific revolution doesn’t mean they weren’t familiar with the rules of the universe—that when you’re dead, you’re dead, that’s it, game over, there’s no refund on the entry fee.
The irony in the gospel of John is that when Jesus speaks figuratively, to Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the pharisees who are blind to Jesus’s signs, people take him literally.
But, when he speaks of his bodily resurrection, for instance to Mary and Martha, people say, essentially, “There he goes again with that metaphorical, esoteric, head-in-the-clouds mysticism again. What on earth is he talking about?”
So, when Jesus shows up, to Mary in the garden, to the frightened disciples hiding behind closed doors, to fishermen on the beach, their world is turned upside down. They have to get reoriented to a new understanding of reality.
In the late twentieth century, the Jesus seminar, a group of biblical scholars, read the Gospels through the lens of a single question, “What really happened?”
They applied all their historical, textual, and academic tools to discern which parts of the gospel accounts were historical, things Jesus actually said and did, and which parts were composed by the early church as they formed their theology.
The most interesting thing about the Jesus Seminar to me was how their conclusions matched their denomination’s tradition. For the Catholic and Anglican scholars, the resurrection was all about the church’s development of the sacrament of communion. For the Reformed scholars in the group, the resurrection stories were all about the early church’s struggle to understand Providence—how God provided for the church even after the death of the Messiah.
I have come to see the Jesus Seminar as the voice of the disciple Thomas echoing through the ages. Just show me the evidence, they said, along with Thomas. Let me touch and see what those who came before me saw and touched. While much of the Christian church portrayed the Jesus Seminar as a bunch of skeptics or heretics, I think the question they asked of the gospels reflected a very traditional and conservative stance: show me the evidence. The fact that they spend their academic energy on this question, “What really happened?” revealed a deep yearning they had to touch, to see, to know the presence of Jesus in their own lives.
A colleague says that verse 26 in today’s Gospel reading may be one of the most important for him: ”A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.”
Thomas and the other disciples disagreed on the most fundamental question of the Christian faith, whether or not Jesus had risen from the dead. But, they lived with that disagreement. Thomas did not believe, but he stayed with them. The other disciples believed, but they did not reject the skeptic among them. They stayed together.
I have a colleague group of nine friends, Presbyterian ministers in different parts of the country. We get together once a year in the fall to do something creative, get caught up with each other, and learn a bit of theology together through a book, an artist, or a scholar we invite in.
Ordinarily, since we live so far from one another, spread out from here to New Mexico, we are physically present with each other only that one time per year. The rest of the time, we email or group message. It’s not the same as being together.
Since the quarantine, however, we have a new habit—every Friday night for the last month, we have gathered in a virtual meeting for an hour or two on Zoom. We catch up and we share what we plan to preach on Sunday and the retired guys tell us what they would say if they were preaching this Sunday.
A recurring theme in our conversations is this: we have been saying for 30 years that the church of the future will look different than the church of our youth, but we don’t know exactly how.
None of us predicted it would look like this.
Like the disciples who were blown away by the physical presence of Jesus behind locked doors after they had seen him die, we can look back in retrospect and say, “Shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Haven’t the epidemiologists been predicting this all our lives? Didn’t they tell us, with AIDs, Ebola, SARS and MERS, that something more contagious was bound to come along and we needed to be prepared for it?”
And yet, we never made the leap. We never really envisioned the implications or how we would do this until it actually happened. Almost all of the clergy and churches I know started scrambling last month to figure out how to be the church, how to do worship, how to provide pastoral care, how to serve the needy, how to keep the church financially healthy while we are scattered, behind locked doors in our own homes.
I am feeling nostalgic for the church as it used to be, not only the church of my youth, but the church of two months ago. But, as one of my colleagues reminded us, “The maintenance costs of nostalgia always exceed the cost of making an impact now.”
This moment will not last forever. We will get back together physically when it is safe to do so, but we will not be the same.
We will, like the resurrected Jesus, still bear the scars of this wilderness journey.
Going forward, we will rarely have a worship service that is not live-streamed or somehow accessible for those who need to be at home. I don’t think we will ever again take for granted the blessing of crowding into a room together to sing and pray and laugh and worship God.
For the rest of our lives, more than ever before, we will feel blessed and never burdened by the opportunity to show up for someone—to bring comfort food or provide a shoulder to cry on.
Even in the grief of losing our loved ones, we will be thankful for the gift of being able to hold hands with the sick or the dying, to provide a physical sign of Christ’s presence at all times, in this life and on the way to the next.
And here is where I have discovered a fault line in my theology: in this feeling that Christ’s presence depends on our physical presence with one another.
Saying it aloud reveals how silly it is.
The story of the resurrection is the story of Jesus showing up; not because we invoke his presence, not because we show up in his place while he is occupied with heavenly things, but because he is alive and set loose in this world even when we are not.
Whether we invoke his presence or not, Jesus crashes the party.
I don’t sleep well on a bus. But, years ago two of our daughters were in the high school band, and Nancy and I went on a band trip on a bus from Texas to Colorado as chaperones. My choice was either to get some sleep on the bus or go 24 hours without any sleep, so I managed to slip in a few winks between Wichita Falls and Amarillo.
In my light sleep, I began to dream. I dreamed of music, “Little Red Corvette,” by Prince. Although in this life I have two left feet, in my dream state I began to teach Prince the dance steps that he performed on his music video. There’s this part where he jumps up in the air, lands on the stage in the splits, and then pops back up and twists around (I would be glad to demonstrate it for you now, but this robe would get in the way.)
When I got to that part, I suddenly popped awake, and I was just me again, two left feet, but, as you might have guessed, the music playing on the bus was “Little Red Corvette.”
The overlapping of dream and band bus disoriented me for a few seconds, but only a few seconds. Only the music was real. I was not really dancing down the aisle of the bus like Prince, as proud as that would have made my daughters.
I remembered this dream as I considered the resurrection stories of the New Testament.
Talk of resurrection was, before it happened, a dream, a mystical state unknown and incomprehensible to the disciples.
But, when Jesus shows up, the dream and the reality come together. The wounded Messiah heals this world. The prodigal returns home to the embrace of the Father. Heaven and earth collide and the kingdom of God takes over. Doubt gives way to faith, forgiveness becomes possible, the needy are cared for, the spirit comes in the breath of Jesus and in the wind, and the church takes form.
And though it may seem a dream when we live as one people, share one heart and one soul, share worldly goods as though they belong not to us, but to the One who has given them, respond to evil with grace and kindness; yet, we live with the promise that we will someday awake with a start.
“In the twinkling of an eye,” we will find ourselves living in a world redeemed, a world in which God will wipe away every tear from our eyes; a world in which death will be no more; we will find ourselves living in that home we can now sometimes hear in the distance, a crowded home where there is music and dancing.
Thanks be to God. Amen.