Can you see the Risen Christ?

A modern reflection on Jesus appearing to the disciples:

I just arrived in town and have almost nothing. Circumstances are what they are in my life at the moment. There’s a church and people are gathering. I will go to the church just to be a part of a community. I don’t have good church clothes to change into but I’ll put on my best smile.

 I enter in the front door, “Good morning. How are you?”

The people inside look terrified at the sight of me. Nobody seems really sure how to respond to my presence or my question. Am I really that scary looking? Is it the colour of my skin? Is it the rainbow that represents who I am? Is it my clothing? Or is it just the fact that you don’t know me? Why are you afraid of me? I promise no harm to you. I just want to be welcome, to belong.

Look at me. I have eyes and lips and fingers and toes. My heart beats and my lungs breathe. Touch me. I promise I won’t bite off your finger.

“May I join you at your coffee table?” Over coffee we talk about life. My life. Your life. The way in which God’s spirit lives in us. As we speak, I am filled with joy. As we speak, your smile brightens and becomes more real. I can see God reflected in you. I don’t expect you to understand every bit of my life. I don’t expect you to understand all the choices and circumstances that brought me to this place but can you have joy in knowing me? Can you have joy because we share the same spirit of God? Can you see God reflected in me?

Do you see the risen Christ in me? You can be angry at me and at people like me but I refuse to allow your anger and hatred to destroy me. I choose to forgive. I choose joy in my life. Will you choose forgiveness and joy with me and experience the risen Christ among us? Will you continue to live in anger and fear? I hope you will choose the joy of life with me.

The risen Christ appeared among the disciples in a way that they couldn’t recognize. He used his body—the fact that he had a body and the fact that he needed to eat—as proof that he was real and alive. So often, we find ourselves judging others for outward appearances and yet it is in the very body that we judge, that we find the risen Christ. The risen Christ invites us to look at his body and really see it for what it is—not to look through him as though he is a ghost and not to be afraid of the body that can be seen. The risen Christ invites us to touch his hands and feet, to reach out and witness the harm that has been done to his body. The risen Christ invites us to share food together and in doing so experience his presence among us.

Easter Creates Doubt

The story of doubting Thomas is full of–you guessed it–doubt. The disciples doubt that they are safe and so lock the doors of the home where they have gathered. The disciples doubt that Jesus is alive and among them. The disciples doubt that there is any purpose in their carrying on the Jesus mission. The story continues with Thomas doubting the word of the other disciples and even doubting his own eyes until he can actually touch Jesus.

Doubt is a tricky thing. Doubt can make us cautious. If I told you I could sell you some ocean front property in Saskatchewan I hope you would doubt my word. Hesitancy and caution are forms of doubt which might protect us from making bad choices. Doubt is a good thing. When we bring doubt into our faith, it creates room for questions, for debate and for discussion. I believe that doubt is an essential part of our faith and allows us to struggle with God in our lives. It forces us to ask questions of the scripture and of the theology that has been passed to us. Some of these questions might be put aside as trivial. Some of these questions might lead us into a place of turmoil where we remain for years as we wrestle with whatever the question is. Sometimes our doubt may lead us away from the faith that we have been taught.

One of the things I love about the United Church is the ways in which we are encouraged to question, to doubt and to wrestle with what our faith means for us personally and what it means for the world in which we find ourselves. The question of doubt and its role in the disciples’ lives is central in this story.

Sometime after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples have gathered in a home. They have huddled inside, locked the doors, and pulled the curtains. They have gathered and yet they are afraid to gather. They doubt that they are safe.

Around the time of Jesus’ death, Caesar published an ordinance. We don’t know the exact date of this publication but it has to do with grave robberies and was discovered as an archeological artifact. The translation reads like this:

“Ordinance of Caesar: It is my pleasure that the graves and tombs—whoever has made them as a pious service for ancestors or children or members of their house—that these remain unmolested in perpetuity. But if any person lay information that another either has destroyed them, or has in any other way cast out the bodies which have been buried there, or with malicious deception has transferred them to other places, to the dishonor of those buried there or has removed the headstones or other stones, in such a case I command that a trial be instituted, protecting the pious services of mortals, just as if they were concerned with the gods. For beyond all else it shall be obligatory to honor those who have been buried. Let no one remove them for any reason. If anyone does so, however, it is my will that he shall suffer capital punishment on the charge of tomb robbery.”[1]

The disciples doubt their own safety and their ability to protect themselves. We don’t know exactly what happened to Jesus’ body. Maybe the disciples knew. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe some of the disciples suspected others of removing the body. They are all potentially in a lot of trouble with the Romans. They might doubt the trustworthiness of the disciples they are now locked in a room with.

Their doubt might lead to panic. You can imagine the disciples being pretty frazzled by this point in the story. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples when he appears in the room with them is, “Peace be with you.” In other words: Don’t panic. Peace be with you is sometimes translated as keep the peace or be quiet. So when Jesus arrives he is giving the disciples some very practical advice. In the midst of fear and doubt don’t panic but pause and be quiet. In the quiet, listen for God. Breathe in the Holy Spirit. It was good advice that Jesus gave to the disciples and good advice for us too.

In those moments when the world seems like it will fall apart around us we can breathe, listen for God and move forward. Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples to be calm. He sends them back out into the world in the midst of their doubt. They are not allowed to hide because they are uncertain or because they don’t know what will happen next. Jesus expects that this little pause that fills them with the holy spirit will give them the strength and courage they need to continue his mission.

As the disciples try to figure out what happened on that first Easter morning and deal with their own disbelief they might be angry with each other about someone else’s response, something that someone said or did. They can hold onto that anger and hurt but Jesus is asking them to release it. The responsibility for a new way of living and for their response to these events lays with the disciples themselves and their treatment of each other. They cannot fulfil the Jesus mission if they are angry at each other and busy fighting amongst themselves. They must let go of the hurt that the others have caused them. But how do you forgive when you doubt someone else’s behavior, motives or opinions? Jesus is asking them to put some trust in the other disciples. Many of us know how difficult it is to trust people who have let us down in some way. We might doubt their ability to follow through on something or to behave appropriately. Doubt and trust are intimately linked in this story.

And then we come to Thomas. The other disciples had an experience of Jesus and they tried to explain to him what that experience was like. They asked him to trust that they had had an experience which was real. The experience might have been real for them but for Thomas, who had not been there, the experience was just a story—wishful thinking. The story wasn’t his own experience.

In the early church it was common for people to have visions, dreams and experiences that shaped their faith and their understanding of God. Having those types of experiences became the mark a mature faith. As time went on the church became more institutionalized and creeds developed. Faith came to mean affirming statements of faith rather than experiencing faith. Spiritual practices that allowed people to experience God on their own terms were discouraged and so faith became an intellectual practice rather than an experience.

The intellectualization of faith has meant that, in many cases, people who doubt and question no longer feel able to connect to the faith. I firmly believe that scripture and the stories of faith continue to speak to us but only if we are open to doubt. The doubt is the place where we can make meaning out of the stories and where our faith can come alive for us. Belief, only as an affirmation of creed or doctrine, sets walls around our faith and may actually limit our experience of the Holy as we try to fit God into particular images and structures.

Easter allows our faith to be expansive. It widens the realm of possibility. In the midst of a certainty that death is the end of life, Easter creates doubt. In the doubt is where we meet God. Our faith needs permission to doubt, to be cautious, to learn through our own experience. It is in the midst of our doubt that Jesus invites us to experience the risen Christ.

[1]. Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) pg 282.

No Risen Jesus on Easter Morning

As a teen and young adult, I never slept much between Good Friday and Easter. I spent a lot of time and energy wrestling with the story of Good Friday and Easter and the theology that I had absorbed surrounding it.

I had learned—like many of us—that Jesus was sent by God to die for our sins. As a teenager, it didn’t make sense that Jesus died so that I would believe in God. Jesus being sacrificed on the cross didn’t have any personal connection to my life but I had learned from evangelical friends that I needed to be saved in order for to establish my permanent place in God’s love.

My United Church didn’t have a lot to say about Good Friday. Jesus died but there wasn’t an emphasis on personal salvation but there also wasn’t any other explanation for the death. We often skipped over Good Friday. Who wants to spend time dwelling on death? And why do we call it “good” when someone has died?

And then there’s the resurrection itself. There’s the whole question of whether Jesus really was raised from the dead. Was it a physical resurrection or a spiritual resurrection? Maybe someone just moved the body and the whole thing is a big hoax. What does this story have to do with anything in my own life?

You can see why I didn’t sleep much over Easter weekend. Every year I would wrestle with these same questions or variations on them. And the gospel of Mark that we heard this morning doesn’t actually help answer the questions except to leave us with more questions.

The earliest manuscripts that we have of Mark’s gospel end after eight verses. We have a group of women going to the tomb. The stone has been rolled away from the entrance. Someone speaks to them and tells them that Jesus is raised. The women are afraid and run away and tell no one about what happened. End of story.

In this version, the raised Jesus does not appear to anyone. And the women who went to the tomb are so terrified that they will not speak. Is this because of the awe of the moment or fear that the Romans may want an explanation and having been at the tomb the women will be the first suspects?

The story ends and leaves us with questions: Who rolled away the stone? What happened to Jesus? If the women didn’t say anything, how do we even have this story? The story doesn’t try to prove that Jesus was raised to life.

But later writers weren’t satisfied. Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written. So as the other gospels are being written, someone else decided that Mark needed a better ending. So over the next 200 years there were additions made to Mark.

The second ending is short but it does tell us that the women overcame their fear at least enough to tell Peter and that Jesus appeared and gave the disciples a task. This is a bit more satisfying. Some loose ends are being tied up. The women followed through. Jesus was sighted and therefore alive and we are given a reason to believe the story.

The third ending is longer and embellishes the story even more. This later addition to the gospel is where we begin to see the theology that surrounds the resurrection being developed. In this version, there is no fear and angst on Easter morning. Jesus appears right away to Mary Magdalene. And Jesus appears to the disciples and here he supposedly offers salvation in baptism and gives super powers to the disciples. Then Jesus goes to heaven with God. So much of our understanding of that first Easter comes from these later additions to this gospel and the other gospels.

But the original writer of Mark didn’t try to prove the story. It was enough to affirm that Jesus died—we have the witnesses who were at the cross—and the tomb was empty on Easter morning. It isn’t important whether Jesus was actually raised or how he was raised but how the story has meaning for us. I can only tell you what this story means for me. Part of the wonder of the story is that it has a slightly different meaning for each person. What is central and what most Christians can agree on is that there is something powerful and transformational in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

You may have already guessed that personal salvation in the sense of believing in Jesus so I will have eternal life in heaven isn’t central to my theology. I do believe that we have a spirit that continues after our bodies die but I don’t know what form that takes or what that experience will be like. For me the transformation comes in allowing parts of myself that are unhealthy, that prevent me from thriving, to die so there is space for new life to be created. I also believe that Easter has far reaching implications for the world. The transformational power of Easter doesn’t stop with individuals. Jesus’ ministry was about changing this world. Mark particularly focuses on the political aspects of his ministry. Mark places Jesus in direct conflict with the Roman and religious authorities.

We might argue that empire existed in Jesus’ day and that there has always been poverty, violence and oppression. We might argue that there is nothing we can do to change these things. But if there’s nothing to be done, then what was the purpose of Jesus’ life and death? Jesus died for a cause that had no hope of succeeding. But it is in the resurrection that the meaning becomes more clear: Jesus stood against the authorities, against violence and while it appears that the evil won out, the resurrection asserts that good does overcome evil, that life does overcome death. Thanks be to God for this story of  hope.