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.

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