Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hands and Feet -- A Lectionary Meditation

Hands and Feet – Signs of an Embodied Faith

            The Christian faith is an embodied one.  It draws this sensibility from its Jewish roots.  A close look at the Hebrew Bible reveals a faith concerned about community, land, bodies, equity, and justice.  It is a this-worldly faith, and Christianity, though it can drift off these moorings, draws from this same well.  

The Easter message, which celebrates resurrection, may have its “spooky side,” but it also emphasizes physicality.  In the Gospel accounts of Luke and John, Jesus reveals himself wounds and all.  He may walk through walls, but his body can be touched and he even has something to eat.  He’s not a ghost, even if something has changed.  Now, we can debate the merits of the various theories of what happened on Easter morning, but if our attempts to reconcile our faith with modern historical/scientific world views undermine the physicality of this faith then we may be losing something important.  We may have to hold some of this in tension, understanding that we simply can’t make complete sense of the Resurrection, at least in human terms.  I’m well aware of David Hume’s challenges.  People don’t rise from the dead every day, and so skepticism is warranted.  But, as we wrestle with these questions, let us also keep in mind the importance of the body to the faith.  Ours is not a docetic faith.   Jesus didn’t just appear to be human, he was human.  The Cross and the Resurrection serve to bear witness to this physicality, as does the Eucharist.  Although the Greeks saw the resurrection, which Paul preached, as folly, in our desire to pursue a deeper spirituality, let us not lose this witness.

            In the lectionary texts for this second Sunday of Easter, we continue to hear the message of resurrection.  Each text bears witness to the ongoing importance of this message to the life of the church as it moved away from direct contact with the original participants in the story.  The readers of these texts stand at least a half-century removed.  They are likely Gentile Christians living far from the land where Jesus walked.  None of them saw the resurrected Jesus, but they have embraced, or are being asked to embrace, the testimony of those who had passed on the story to them.  It requires a great degree of trust in the story tellers. 

            Although there isn’t a first reading from the Hebrew Bible this week, there is the reading from Psalm 133, a brief but powerful song celebrating the beauty and glory of unity, a song that fits nicely with the reading from Acts 4.  In this passage from Acts 4:32-35, we’re informed that the Jerusalem church, at least for a time, lived in community, sharing what they had, so that no one was in need.  This occurred because they were “one in heart and mind,” a statement that surely finds an echo in Psalm 133 (along with Philippians 2:1-11).  Their concern for each other echoes principles found throughout the Hebrew Bible, which commands the year of Jubilee.  Whether or not these principles were truly put into practice, they bear witness to a divine concern for equity in the community.   In this account of the early community life, we might even see the roots of communism.  In our day, when the message seems to be a “Randian” one of everyone is to be out for themselves, the embodied spirituality of these early Christians was very different.  Liberation Theologian Jose Miranda writes:
The notion of communism is in the New Testament, right down to the letter--and so well put that in the twenty centuries since it was written no one has come up with a better definition of communism than Luke in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35.  In fact, the definition Marx borrowed from Louis Blanc, "From each one according to his capacities, to each one according to his needs," is inspired by, if not directly copied from Luke's formulation eighteen centuries earlier.  There is no clearer demonstration of the brainwashing to which the establishment keeps us subjected than the officially promulgated conception of Christianity as anticommunist.  [José Miranda, Communism in the Bible, Robert R. Barr, trans., (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982), 7]
Whatever you think about Miranda’s interpretation, it is clear that something powerful was happening in that community and it continues to bear witness in our day.  As we hear this message, which declares that “an abundance of grace was at work among them all,” we also hear the centrality of the resurrection message.  As they were sharing life together, caring for one another, the Apostles continued to bear witness to the Resurrection.  The Apostles did this with words, but the community, I would say, did so in deeds, which were remembered long afterward.

            The gospel and epistle readings are Johannine.  Whether or not they came from the same pen, they emerge from the same context, and there is a similarity in message here.  The author of 1 John announces that the witness given here is based upon eyewitness testimony.  In other words – you can trust us.  What we declare, we’ve seen with our eyes, and touched with our hands.   “What we have seen and heard,” the writer declares, “we announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us.”  Now this witness seems rather cold, exclusive, and even coercive.  It would appear that the writer is holding over others their own experience with Jesus.  Trust us, because if you want to join in the fellowship, believe what we say.  God is light; there is no darkness in God.   You can’t walk in darkness and be in fellowship with God.  Darkness involves walking on a path separate from the one God sets forth.  The way of light emerges from the blood of Jesus, which cleanses from sin, and we all sin.  To declare otherwise is deception.  So confess and God is faithful to forgive and cleanse us.  When we do sin, we have an advocate, an attorney, who will go before God and argue our case.  Jesus is the righteous one and he is the means by which God deals with our sins.  He is the door, the entrance point into the light.  And of course, the author(s) insist that they can make this claim because they have seen and heard the truth from Jesus. 

            This passage full of troubling statements.  At points it offers a rather dualistic vision – light versus darkness.  You’re in or you’re not.  We have the truth, so trust us.  I know that many modern Christians have difficulty with the whole concept of sin and atonement.  I understand the concerns.  I wrestle with these questions myself.  I’m not a penal substitutionist, but something happened with the cross that the biblical witness suggests has implications for my relationships with God and with neighbor.  As for the sin issue, I’m a realist.  I look around and I see the presence of evil.  People do bad things to each other.  We may not be totally depraved, but there is some depravity in our midst.  So, whatever we make of these statements, I take comfort in the message that we do an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous One.

            In the gospel reading from John 20, the followers of Jesus find themselves gathering behind closed doors on the first day of the week.  It’s evening, and it would appear that this is still the day of resurrection.  Mary, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple have returned from her visit to the tomb, which according to the Gospels is now empty.  Mary alone has received a visitation from Jesus.  She has declared that Jesus is alive, but it would appear that the rest of the disciples, now hiding in fear, can’t accept the testimony.  Could it be that her gender is an issue?  Whatever the reason, they are frightened, and they need assurance.   

As we listen to this story, which implicates the Jewish leaders, it’s important that we be aware of any anti-Jewish sentiment that can creep into the story.  Even if the authorities the disciples fear are Jewish, this doesn’t implicate the Jewish people – something the texts sometimes suggest. 

So here we stand with the disciples (and not just the Twelve), who are visited by Jesus.  Since the doors are locked, it would appear that Jesus has walked through walls.  This is no ordinary body.  And says to them “Peace be with you.”  As he does, he shows them his hands and his side.  This may be a new body, but it retains the marks of death.  They see and they believe, and he gives them a commission.  As the Father sent me, I send you, and then upon them Jesus breathes the Spirit.  This is John’s Pentecost.  And with the Holy Spirit comes the permission/commission to forgive the sins of others.  God gives to them the responsibility to forgive and will do as requested.  This is an embodied witness.  It is earthy, physical. 

            The story continues.  One of the Twelve is absent.  We’re not told why Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared that night, but he simply wasn’t there.  When he rejoins his companions, they tell him:  “We’ve seen the Lord!”  Thomas’s response was simple – I need to see this for myself.  He was no more ready to receive their witness, than they were ready to receive Mary’s.  Why should he?  He wants to see and touch what they saw and handled.  I won’t believe, until “I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hands into his side.”  This demand has led to the appellation:  “Doubting Thomas.”  But is this fair?  Is Thomas a skeptic or a realist?  Is Thomas here in the story as a reminder to us that the claims of resurrection are difficult to affirm and must ultimately be taken by faith? 

Eight days later, on another first day of the week, Jesus again appears to the community, and Thomas is present.  Jesus addresses his questioner.  Like many I’ve taken Jesus’ response to Thomas question as a rebuke, even as I’ve identified with Thomas.  It’s not that I’m so much a skeptic, as I tend to be an empiricist.  I need evidence.  Thomas wanted evidence.  I appreciate his analytical nature.  I think Jesus did as well.  But remember John’s Gospel addresses a community living perhaps sixty to seventy years after these events take place.  They were likely not alive when this happened.  They can’t see and touch the body of Jesus.  They have to take the testimony on faith, and the testimony is at times difficult to comprehend, because as David Hume so boldly suggested, people don’t rise from the dead on a regular basis.
Jesus’ response to Thomas isn’t one of ridicule, but a word of grace to a community that must trust in this message without the “proof” that Thomas desired.  I appreciate what David Lohse has written about Jesus’ response: 
“I think Jesus is blessing all those from John’s community up to our own – who have managed to believe without the benefit of direct experience; all those, that is, who have managed to come to faith that is not the opposite of doubt, but which lives with doubts and yet still finds a way to believe.” 
We are, Lohse writes, Resurrection People.  We believe, we trust, our lives to this message, without having all our questions answered.  Doubt is part of the equation.  We continue to wrestle with the message or Resurrection, but in it we find affirmation – God is with us.  Death has lost its sting.  Our focus is not on heavenly escape, but on living an embodied faith in the presence of God, one that leads to a community that is “one in heart and mind,” where grace abounds.  

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