Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Believing is Seeing: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

photo by Dewitt Jones

The accounts of the appearances of the Risen Christ that we find in the Gospels are varied, but there is a shared concern that runs through all of them.  They all indicate both continuity and discontinuity between the body of Jesus before his crucifixion and the risen body of Jesus.  It is the same body, but different.  It has undergone a transformation.

This is communicated in a number of ways.  The Risen Christ bears the scars of his torture, yet his disciples have difficulty recognizing him.  He eats and drinks with them in quite ordinary ways, but his appearing and disappearing do not seem to conform to the physical laws governing the movement of normal bodies in time and space.   These various accounts testify that whatever else it may be, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not an immaterial apparition or the resuscitation of a corpse.  We are not dealing with a ghost or a zombie.   Jesus continues to be present to his disciples in a new way, but in a way that is continuous with his embodied existence.

John’s Gospel, which was the last of the four Gospels to be written, is concerned to be clear about the resurrection of the body in response to those who said that Jesus wasn’t really human and didn’t really die.   John wishes to counter Gnostic teachers who viewed Jesus as a divine being, who only appeared to die, and for whom salvation is about escaping from the body.  John, in keeping with Orthodox Christianity and in spite of his high Christology, affirms the paradox that Jesus is both human and divine.  Salvation is not about escaping from life in the body, but rather transforming life in the body. 

There is a pastoral concern in John’s resurrection accounts as well, particularly in today’s reading, which prominently features the apostle Thomas.  Written sometime between 90 and 110 CE, some 60 to 80 years after Jesus’ ministry, John’s Gospel appears at a time when the first generation of disciples is dying, including the apostles who witnessed the resurrection.  This raised the question:  is the faith of those who did not actually see the risen Christ as valid as those who did?  John wishes to assure us that faith based on the testimony of the apostolic witnesses is as valid, perhaps even greater, than the faith of those witnesses themselves:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). 

We see a similar concern in I Peter, another late New Testament writing.  “Although you have not known him, you love him; and though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (I Peter 1:8-9).  In loving Jesus we become like the object of our love, thus sharing in his life and joy.  We are transformed by entrusting ourselves to the mystery that we cannot comprehend.  “Believing is seeing,” rather than “seeing is believing.”

The problem with Thomas is not that he doubts the Resurrection per se.  Remember, Thomas was present when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  The problem is that he doubts the testimony of the other disciples and so is not open to entrusting himself to Jesus again.   Thomas was certain that their final journey to Jerusalem would end with Jesus’ death; when Jesus announces that he is going there, Thomas tells the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). 

Thomas was fixed on what was wrong with the situation.  He could not see any other possibilities beyond the finality of death and defeat.  Perhaps, too, he was fixed on his own guilt at having failed to have the courage to die with Jesus as he had so boldly professed before the crucifixion.  When push came to shove, Thomas failed to keep trust with Jesus.  In his grief and guilt and utter failure, it may just have been asking too much for Thomas to trust again. 

And yet despite his doubt, there was something about the other apostles that kept Thomas connected to them because we find him gathered with them a week later.   The other apostles are willing to share the space of shame with Thomas, inviting him to join them as they reconstitute themselves as a community struggling to accept forgiveness and the possibility of new life.  It as he is inducted into this forgiven and forgiving community, that Thomas, too, comes to see Jesus; or, rather, Jesus reveals himself to Thomas.  Just this bare willingness to entrust himself to the care of his brothers is enough to bring Thomas into an encounter with the abyss of divine love overflowing in the new life present in the risen Christ.

As Archbishop Rowan Williams has noted “There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness” (Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, p. 109).

The Risen Christ is present in the community of those who are renewing humanity – indeed the whole creation – through lives that communicate the healing love of God.  We may not know Jesus or see him as the apostles did, but we can be swept up into the vision of God’s kingdom that he released into the world.  As Peter said, we can love Jesus and so come to trust the power of his vision and share the joy that it inspires.  That trust can lead to healing.

Not everyone is a St. Peter or a St. Teresa of Avila, who seemed to have an intimate conversation with Jesus before she finished breakfast every morning.  But all of us can attend to the testimony of the apostolic witnesses and test the authenticity of the reconciliation practiced in communities of people who gather in Jesus’ name.  We can become sharers in that witness and life giving practice, and so make Jesus’ vision real in the world.  We can become his risen Body together.  If we believe, we can see Jesus risen in our collective life of love and forgiveness.

Dewitt Jones has helped me to understand better this relationship between vision, perception, and reality.[1]  For twenty years, Dewitt was a photographer for National Geographic, an experience that forever shaped his life.   Even as a boy, long before he ever dreamed of taking pictures for it, the magazine’s vision of the world enchanted him. 

That vision was simple but powerful.  Whenever Dewitt was sent out on an assignment, he was given the charge to celebrate what is right with the world.  He learned to trust that in every place, there was natural beauty and human goodness to be discovered.  He learned that if he believed it, he would see it.  Wherever he went, he believed there would be a beautiful landscape.  And it was there.  He believed that there would be wonderful people.  And they were there.  He focused on what there was to celebrate, and there was much and more.  It was revealed to him through his camera, and you have only to see his photographs to believe his testimony.

The Geographic’s vision shaped his perception, and his perception was drawn to dimensions of reality he would otherwise have missed.  This vision unleashed a depth of passion and creativity he didn’t know he had, and it revealed to his perception a world of transcendent beauty, of which humanity is an integral part.  The more he celebrated this beauty, the more this vision conflicted with the dominant paradigm of reality that is shaped by a fearful perception of scarcity and competition.  That is not what nature was showing Dewitt.  When he approached a virgin forest, it didn’t communicate to him, “There is only one good picture here and only one photographer will be able to get it.”  No, the forest said, “How many rolls have you got.” 

With a little patience and perseverance, Dewitt always found a perspective that transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary.  If we believe it, we will see it.  And when we celebrate what is right with the world, when we fall in love with it, the energy we need to fix what is wrong with the world is liberated.  Dewitt quotes Michelangelo, “I saw an angel in the stone and carved to set it free.”

For Jesus, it was the vision of the kingdom of God that shaped his perception of reality.  It was a vision of God as creative, generous, and forgiving.  It was a vision of human relationships in which holiness, rather than impurity, is contagious, in which healing and reconciliation are available to everyone.  It was a vision of a world in which there is more than enough food, water, clothing, joy, and love.  Jesus celebrated what is right in the world – the kingdom of God has come near you – and liberated the energy to heal what was broken in the world.  His vision shaped his perception.  Thomas could see only death.  Jesus saw resurrection, and the reality of love’s triumph over sin and death was revealed through him.  Those who believe it, see it to this day. 

The appearances of the Risen Christ are not a deus ex machina, a divine contrivance to set everything right in the end.  They are a commissioning to share the vision of the kingdom of God.  “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you release the sins of any, they are released; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21-23).

The Holy Spirit is the Paraclete, the advocate or defender of victims, the energy to fix what is wrong in the world.   Sin in this context has not yet acquired the moralizing overlay we have come to know; in its root meaning it is more like “brokenness.”  Our commission is to release the victims of this world from their brokenness, to reconnect deeply with the earth, with each other, and with God, who is the source of our peace – of all that is right with the world.  That is what Jesus was sent to do, and we are invited to share in that mission of celebration and healing.  If we believe it, we will see it.  Christ will be raised up in our lives, drawing the whole world to himself. 

[1] Dewitt Jones’ story is shared in the short film, Celebrate What’s Right with the World with Dewitt Jones.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It Is All Gift

Today is my birthday.  In thinking about the tremendous gift of this singular, precious life that I enjoy, I’m filled with gratitude for the many people and events that have created and nurtured this gift.  Like all of us, I owe an immeasurable debt to all that has massively preceded and surrounded me to make “me” possible in every moment of my existence; an immeasurable debt to that “all” that I name “God.”  

Or do I?

What does it mean to owe such a debt?  David Graeber has written a massive tome[1] exploring that question and why this sense of gratitude is framed in terms of owing a debt.  He quotes from the Brahmanas:

In being born every being is born as debt owed to the gods, the saints, the Fathers, and to men.  If one makes a sacrifice, it is because of a debt owing to the gods from birth . . . If one recites a sacred text, it is because of a debt owing to the saints . . . If one wishes for offspring, it is because of a debt due to the fathers from birth . . . And if one gives hospitality, it is because it is a debt owing to men.  – Satapatha Brahmana 1.7.12, 1-6 (Graeber, p. 43).

Graeber notes that this Indian text is written between 500 and 400 BCE – around the time of Socrates.  This is about the time that a commercial economy and institutions liked coined money and interest-bearing loans are becoming commonplace features of ordinary life.  The intellectual classes in all of the Axial Age civilizations are grappling with the implications:  “What does it mean to imagine our responsibilities as debts?  To whom do we owe our existence” (Graeber, p. 67)?

In commenting on this Indian text, Graeber offers a contemporary formulation.  “We owe our existence above all:
  • ·      To the universe, cosmic forces . . . The ground of our existence.  To be repaid through ritual:  ritual being an act of respect and recognition to all that beside which we are small.
  • ·      To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most, that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape  . . . We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
  • ·      To our parents, and their parents – our ancestors.  We repay them by becoming ancestors.
  • ·      To humanity as a whole.  We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence life, possible” (Graeber, p. 67).

 Graeber goes on to note, however, that this primordial debt is actually nothing at all like a commercial debt.  Our relationship with “God” and with creation, including humanity, is nothing like a commercial transaction.  Perhaps that is the point:  the absurdity of thinking of our responsibility to these relationships as a kind of debt.  Why does Graeber think this?

Commercial transactions imply both equality and separation for purposes of the exchange.  But the examples given in the Brahmanas are about overcoming separation:  becoming a sage, becoming an ancestor, acting with humanity to become human – thereby canceling any notion of “debt.”  Second, one cannot bargain with the gods because they already have everything, or with the universe because it is everything – including me. 

The list of primordial debts actually undermines the idea of debt, by showing that one is in fact not separate to begin with, but rather a part of the whole.  One is in no way equal to “God” or the universe and therefore has no place from which to gain any leverage in a transaction of any kind.  Perhaps the point in enumerating this list of primordial debts is actually to recognize that it is utter presumption to seek to achieve a separate, autonomous existence from which I can bargain with “God” or cancel my obligations to others by paying a debt.  It isn’t just that the debt cannot be repaid, but that they very idea of being able to stand over and against the rest of reality, such that I would be in a position to negotiate a transaction that would settle my responsibilities once and for all, is absurd.  

As Graeber puts it, “Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe.  Our guilt is the presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place” (Graeber, p. 68).

I wonder if the New Testament language of Jesus’ death and resurrection being a ransom setting us free from slavery (the ultimate form of indebtedness) doesn’t operate in a similarly paradoxical fashion:  Jesus cancels our “debt” to demonstrate the absurdity of our thinking we are separate from God and one another in the first place.  There is no debt.  There is only gift.  Do we have eyes to see it?  Will we respond with gratitude?  Or will we remain locked in futile attempts to pay a primordial debt?  

Life isn’t all debt.  It is all gift.  And that is something else entirely.  I don’t wish to pay a debt so as to cancel a relationship (or have it paid for me).  I wish to share the gift so as to deepen the relationship with everyone and everything. 

The Kingdom of God as cosmic debt cancellation policy:  I’m down with that!

[1] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (London:  Melville House Publishing, 2012).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Tattoos, Resurrection, and the Womb of Forgiveness

Alan MacWeeney for The New York Times

When I think of the resurrection of Jesus, I think of Leslie Jamison’s tattoo.  You may have read about it in The New York Times last weekend.[1]  She wanted a tattoo to mark a major transition in her life or at least her desire to be in a new place:  a place of forgiveness after breaking off a relationship with the man around whom she had built her life for four years.  She didn’t want just any old tattoo.  She wanted inscribed on her left arm, in Latin, the words of the Roman playwright, Terence, “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”  It was to be a sign of her acceptance of her humanity and that of her former lover, in all its brokenness, marking the start of a new life.  This desire would be embodied in her very flesh for all to see.  Everybody should be down with that, right?

Wrong.  Right from the start, her tattoo provoked unexpected reactions.  The whole idea perplexed the tattoo artist.  Wouldn’t she prefer an image, something a little less provocative, maybe a nice dragon?  She went right from the tattoo parlor to the drugstore to purchase the necessary aftercare supplies.  The woman at the counter, of course, asked her what the tattoo said.  When Leslie told her, she just stared at her for a long while.  Then she said quietly, “I think there is so much evil in the world and so much good.” 

Her father wrote to her from the Rwanda Genocide Memorial:  “Do you really believe what the tattoo says, even about perpetrators of genocide?”   First dates turned into heated philosophical conversations that turned into last dates.  The tattoo was supposed to represent a new freedom but it began to feel like a shackle, a reminder of how hard it was to heal the hurt of the relationship that had ended, much less forgive the hurt caused by radical evil in the world. The tattoo turned her body into a conversation starter, as if she were pregnant.  But just what is being born here?

I don’t know how Leslie would answer that question, but it strikes me as a beautiful, ordinary experience of resurrection.  What is being born are a set of relationships with friends and strangers and even enemies (or, at least, exes) shaped by forgiveness and the desire for reconciliation.  She is being transformed by a love radical enough to embrace and overcome radical evil, a love that tugged at the edges of her awareness and grasped her through the words of the Roman poet, embodied now in her very flesh.  It isn’t just a nice idea.  She has to live it.

This experience of resurrection, of new life, is unexpected and fearful and joyful.   Leslie is like the women at the empty tomb who are suddenly met by Jesus:  “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  It isn’t exactly what Leslie anticipated, but she has been grasped by a Love that keeps pulling her forward in its wake. When we encounter it, the force of this Love is surprising and powerful, setting us off in new directions we hadn’t planned on going.   It changes us in ways we can’t easily explain, brands us like a tattoo that the whole world can see, and sometimes evokes reactions that we’d rather avoid. 

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s radical love, God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to himself.  In Christ Jesus, nothing human is alien to God; all is forgiven.  This love resurrects: gives new life without preconditions if we are willing to accept it – if we risk being changed by it.  This love is embodied in Jesus; in the bread which is his body taken into our bodies; in we, who together are the Body of Christ, the social reality of relationships marked by forgiveness and the desire for reconciliation.  This resurrection life centers in Jesus and radiates out in an ever-expanding circle to include everyone and everyplace. 

Even so, the reactions provoked by Leslie’s tattoo can’t be taken lightly.  Can everything and everyone be forgiven?  Should they be?  Is love more powerful than evil, more powerful than death?  That is what the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead would have us believe.  It is, finally, a matter of trust, a decision to orient ourselves, our very bodies, toward the world in a particular way.  It is not a truth to be argued so much as to be lived.  We embody our belief – we get the tattoo, so to speak – and then we see what happens. 

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela expresses this beautifully in her essay, “Forgiveness and the Maternal Body.”[2]  Pumla is a South African psychologist invited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to help develop South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  She is primarily responsible for the creation of this forum in which South Africans were able to confront their traumatic past with honesty, creating the possibility for forgiveness and a new future.  Pumla explores how actual encounters between perpetrators of violence and their victims were driven by a desire for reconciliation rather than vengeance, and a sense of responsibility for the well being of the whole community.

She tells the story of a black former police informant who infiltrated a group of seven young black activists from one of Cape Town’s townships during the apartheid regime.  The informant pretended to be a member of the then banned African National Congress, sent by his commander to train young activists.  He gave the unsuspecting activists a crash course in the use of firearms, and then lured them into a police trap to be killed.   It was a common practice during the apartheid regime, designed to instill fear in the black population.

Under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the police informant came forward to confess his crime and ask forgiveness from the families of these young men.  During a hearing, he met with the families.  He was visibly shaking as he explained why he had asked to see them.  Only the mothers responded.  They were visibly angry, calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” who had sold out his own people. 

At one point, the man looked at the mothers and addressed them as “my parents” and asked their forgiveness “from the bottom of my heart.”  There was a long silence.  Finally, one of the mothers spoke.  She had not planned to, but was surprised to find herself overcome by inimba, the feeling a mother has when her child is in pain, emanating from the area of the womb.  She said to him, “You are the same age as my son Christopher.  I want to tell you, my son, that I forgive you.  I am at peace.  Go well, my son.”  The families then embraced him.

Reflecting on this encounter, Pumla writes, “There is something uncanny, even perverse, about victims gaining a sense of repair and restoration by connecting with, rather than separating from, a perpetrator.  Yet these encounters open up the possibility for the beginning of a new phase of relationships, effectively changing the story of past trauma – not so much by burying it but rather by transforming its meaning from a story of violation and human destruction to a story of transcendence and human connection.”  It is done face to face, embodied in tears, shaking hands, and tender embraces.  It requires extraordinary courage.

Through inimba, a compassion that transformed the “other” into a “son,” this mother gave birth to a new reality.  I like to imagine the resurrected body of Jesus as such a maternal body, a body animated by inimba. This inimba is powerful enough to transform no-bodies into some-bodies and enemies into friends; even death into life.  The force of this inimba visibly changes us, marks us, like a tattoo.

Leslie getting a tattoo to remind her that she is human, and so must forgive other humans; a South African mother, moved by inimba, giving new life to her son’s murderer: that is what the resurrection of Jesus is like.  It makes a new creation where all is forgiven so that we can begin again. It’s all about radical love. The only question is:  how much of it can we stand?

St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “From now on let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”[3]  Now that is some tattoo! And it isn’t removable.  Like Leslie, we are just going to have to get used to it and learn how to live – and love – again.  We are reborn in the womb of forgiveness.  Amen.

Note:  My use of Jamison’s tattoo and Gobodo-Madikizela’s beautiful expression of inimba were inspired by the Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus’ Chrism Mass homily at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Tuesday in Holy Week, 2014.  I’m grateful to Bishop Andrus for bringing these essays to my attention.

[1] Jamison, Leslie.  “Mark My Words.  Maybe.” The New York Times.  Web.  April 12, 2014.
[2] Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla.  “Forgiveness and the Maternal Body:  An African Ethics of Interconnectedness.”  Essays on Exploring a Global Dream. The Fetzer Institute.  Web.  January 28, 2011.
[3] Galatians 6:17.