April 3, 2016
I really enjoyed the scholarship that was the foundation for the Lenten series “Sensing the Gospel.” Professor Matt Skinner introduced the series saying, “In Jesus Christ, the salvation God provides cannot be reduced to an idea or abstraction. Salvation happens, instead, in human flesh. Indeed, God arrives as human flesh….People encountered Jesus in their own bodies. These were real people in real contact with a real man from Galilee. Even today, we encounter God and God’s salvation in embodied ways – in our bodies’ abilities to perceive familiar realities and to interpret new ones.”
The series looked at our five senses—touch, sight, taste, hearing, and smell – and explored the ways in which our senses are involved, or could be involved, in the life of faith. It was a reminder that we celebrate and worship the God who would not be an abstraction, the God who refused to be remote. We celebrate and worship the God who gets “dirty,” immersing God’s very self in human life. Jesus was a human being who touched others, who saw people – even those the world around him dismissed or ignored, who listened to friends and enemies and strangers, who feasted in various homes, tasting and smelling the meals offered him. Jesus was a sentient being!
Now, if we keep that in mind as we hear the story of Thomas, perhaps our perceptions might change. I think of Thomas as the scientist – experimental, not theoretical. (Big Bang Theory – Leonard, not Sheldon!) He wanted to touch, to feel, to see, to hear – to prove in the world he inhabited – that this resurrection story was real! His was a questioning faith. We already knew that about Thomas. After all, he was the one who had said to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” So, what he had heard from others, that Jesus had appeared to them, did not make sense in the world that he knew. However, he did not walk away. He stayed with the group, with the other disciples. He remained to question.
Isn’t it interesting that through the centuries Thomas’ desire to have proof – proof that he could see and touch – has been belittled, condemned and dismissed as an example of an inferior faith? We hear in Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt, but believe!” a rebuke of Thomas. “Why couldn’t he just believe?” we ask. “After all, his friends told him the good news!”
Yet, we worship the God who chooses to be known to us through creation itself. We follow Jesus who calls us through the waters of baptism and is known to us in the breaking of the bread. Jesus did not condemn Thomas. He invited Thomas to touch and see – to explore a new reality – death had been conquered.
Somewhere, in the history of Christianity, we became highly influenced by philosophies that disparaged the physical world. The world was seen as fallen and corrupt – something to be distrusted. God is “other” – outside and beyond the world in which we live. Somehow, we are to shed our connections with this faulty creation and make the leap to be with God. Faith is a leap from knowing into unknowing – from the earthly into the divine presence.
But, the incarnation itself challenges that view. God is not some remote, abstract concept. God is the One who created, who was present in and through Jesus the Christ, and who comes to us through the Holy Spirit. God chooses to be present as we touch and feel, as we taste and see, as we encounter this beloved creation.
Years ago, I was introduced to meditation that had its roots in Eastern religions. The aim of meditation was to let go of the self and become one with the cosmos. (That may be a very unfair characterization!) The best, deepest Christian practices have as their goal deepening one’s connection with God who is present – in our world and in our very beings.
Now, consider the first part of this story. Jesus met with the disciples – and breathed on them. Breath – it’s part of being a living being. We breathe! We take in oxygen. We exhale. We are connected to this earth – to the cycle of life. Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit’s presence does not take us out of the world, but equips us to live as God’s people in the world. We are the ones who are invited to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear God’s very presence in the world so that we might share it with those who need to know that God is here – not remote, not sitting far off in judgment – but here, inviting us into life-giving relationship.
I invite you to look at the questions for reflection that are in the bulletin. They came from the Feasting on the Word resource. “What might happen if, like Christ, we invited those shut down by life to explore our wounds?”
Wow! The resurrected Christ invited Thomas to explore his wounds. We know this. But do we really think about this? God didn’t erase the signs of the crucifixion in the resurrection. God resurrected the wounded Christ.
I pulled an old book, The Wounded Healer, off my shelf this week, as I was thinking about this question. The sub title is In Our Own Woundedness, We can Become a Source of Life for Others. The book is a classic by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic Priest. Nouwen explores a new style of leadership, particularly Christian leadership. He challenged old ways that promoted aloofness, separating oneself in a “helping relationship.” Instead, he said, “no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with [one’s] whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian [service] is to give your life for others… [that] means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh, and to make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.”
The risen Christ bears the signs of having cried with those who cried, laughed with those who laughed – and given his life, fully, to the human experience. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side!” he said to Thomas – he says to all.
Nouwen asks, “Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his or her own heart and even losing his or her precious peace of mind? In short, who can take away suffering without entering into it?”
I had a colleague, years ago, who struggled in his job as he and his wife went through a separation and then divorce. Sometime after everything had settled down, he apologized to the congregation because he knew that he had struggled with each and every sermon. He didn’t preach about what was happening – he just struggled to find ways of telling the good news as he was journeying through a difficult part of his life. The congregation’s response surprised him. “Those were your best sermons.” They came from a place of honesty, from a place of woundedness. They saw in him, not some veneer of perfection, but a human being who was striving to know God in this world that still wounds.
How many people avoid the church because we stress some notion of perfection or triumph that doesn’t connect with people’s lives? As you know, I kind of like music. Years ago, I heard a preacher say that he wouldn’t let any sad hymns be sung in his church because God’s news is good news. I worked with a church musician who refused to play any hymns in a minor key (sad sounding key) except during Lent. They wanted church to be a place that denied the wounds of the people who came. So church was a place for smiles that hid pain, for superficial politeness.
We reflect a culture that too often denies the pains of people – a culture that is uncomfortable with weakness – so we condemn those who appear weak and do everything we can to make sure others don’t perceive us as weak. We look for vulnerabilities in those we do not like so that they, too, can be dismissed.
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
Nouwen shared a wonderful Jewish story from the Talmud.
Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah, the prophet, while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave…He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
Nowen concludes, “The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor… waiting for the moment when he will be needed. So it is with the [Christian]. Since it is [the Christian’s] task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, [the Christian] must bind his or her own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when he or she will be needed. [The Christian] is called to be the wounded healer.”
Thank you, Thomas. You questioned, you explored – you reminded us that God came and comes to us in this very creation. God chooses to be known through the very senses we have – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. Thank you, Thomas. You reminded us that the wounds of living, wounds the world might disparage, are, instead, a sign of God’s redeeming presence.