Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Creativity and Procrastination

I'm on my way to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, MI. I'll be facilitating a discussion circle on creativity and preaching while I am there, and during my eight hour train layover in DC today, I'm sitting in a sweet French cafe enjoying a latte. My intention was to work on the outline for my discussion circle... so obviously I'm blogging instead.

I preached this past Sunday, which was the second Sunday of Easter. Oddly enough, I preached on this same Sunday last year, so on the topic of creativity and preaching it's worth noting that this was a challenge. I found myself thinking, "I like what I said about Thomas last year; can't I just preach the same sermon over again?"

I did write a new sermon, of course, but the first one has been on my mind, along with how preaching on the same texts multiple times relates to the circle I'll be leading, so I decided to share the first sermon here:

The Miracle of Faith: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

It's late in the evening, and the disciples are gathered in secret, huddled in a circle, maybe, talking in hushed tones. So much has happened in a week. So many of their hopes dashed. Their expectations of  power and glory breathed their last breaths on Good Friday. It is finished.

Yet there are rumors. Rumors that the tomb was found empty that morning. Have grave robbers stolen Christ's body? Or is it as Mary told them – has he been seen, alive, somehow, despite what they saw, contrary to everything they know about the permanence of death?

Jesus words in the days leading up to the crucifixion must haunt them. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). How had they not understood that this was what was coming? Or, did they still not understand what Jesus had been trying to tell them?

On Easter Sunday we proclaimed, “He is risen!” as we do every year. There is some holy mystery in reenacting this process of death, burial, and resurrection again and again. The repetition forms us to dwell in that place of expectation, even though we believe that he will rise – that he has in fact already risen. We tend to think of history as moving forward, a narrative of progress, fixed points on a straight time line, yet in the church we return to this moment over and over again, reliving the transformation from darkness into light.

And today, having walked through the wilderness of Lent, through Jesus' death and burial, to Resurrection Sunday, we stand on the other side, where Easter continues with stories of Christ's post-resurrection appearances. He is risen, and his disciples, unlike us, are experiencing that miraculous absurdity for the first time. As far as they know, he has died. So now, they sit together in dark corners, ask in hushed whispers, “Can it be true?” Can what Mary saw be true? They keep the doors locked against the authorities, and live in fear of the danger their association with Jesus might bring. They might feel secure, for a little while now, barricaded in a back room.

It is then that Jesus shows up. His traditional greeting, “Peace be with you,” takes on a little extra meaning for me, as it's hard to imagine that the disciples weren't afraid. Not only did they think Jesus was dead, the doors are locked. He is risen – and he has learned to walk through walls!  They probably needed to be calmed a little, fearful and joyful all at once.

Someone was missing, though: Thomas. I wonder where he was that night, while the others gathered in secret. Wandering the streets, maybe, trying to make sense of what had happened between Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and the events of past week. What now? How does one go on living when the one you have devoted your life to has died?

I have always resonated with this story about Thomas, perhaps more than any other story in the gospels. I want to see, to touch, not just to be told to believe. I know that I am not the only one who turns to this skeptical disciple for some comfort and reassurance that disciples doubt, too. Thomas's doubt plays out in an unexpected way, though. It's tempting to juxtapose the believing disciples with the doubting Thomas, but let's look again.

Jesus appeared to the disciples; they saw his hands and his side with their own eyes, and rejoiced. Now Thomas is getting a secondhand account from them. With all the turmoil of recent events, it must be disconcerting to hear his brothers say they have seen the Lord. There is a precision and carefulness about Thomas and his probing questions. They've been through a lot; might the disciples just be imaging things? After all, a flesh and bone person cannot enter a locked room without opening the door, not to mention a dead man.

Yet Thomas doesn't completely refuse to believe. He says “unless.” So much hinges on that unless. Unless I see the mark of the nails, unless I put my fingers in the holes, unless I can put my hand in his side, I will not believe. Of course the others believed – they had seen. In that “unless” there is some willingness to imagine that what they are telling him is true.

After all, there are some who would disbelieve a miracle even when it has happened before their own eyes – some who would try to explain it away. He wasn't really dead in the first place, maybe, or it was all part of some big conspiracy. This is impossible. People who are dead stay dead.

When Jesus appears to Thomas and says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” it doesn't seem to me that he's referring to the other disciples. We, on the other hand, celebrating Easter again and again – we only have the accounts of others, in the gospels. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, walking, breathing, talking; we cannot touch his open wounds. We did not watch him die, or experience the absurdity of him walking through our walls three days later.

Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that Thomas's request was not ignored. “Unless I see... I will not believe.” Bold words. Jesus comes to him, greets him as he did the other disciples, with words of peace. Does Thomas recoil? Question whether this is really Jesus, some phantom hallucination, or worse? No. He cries, “My Lord and my God!”

In thinking about Thomas, Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov comes to my mind. Dostoevsky describes the young Alyosha, who is known as a holy fool, as a realist, which at first I find strange. Isn't Alyosha, who has been living in a monastery, the faithful one, and isn't his brother Ivan the intellectual, the skeptical realist? The description reads:

Oh, of course, in the monastery he believed absolutely in miracles, but in my opinion miracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe then, precisely because of his realism, he must allow for miracles. The Apostle Thomas declared that he would not believe until he saw, and when he saw, he said: “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle that made him believe? Most likely not, but he believed first and foremost because he wished to believe, and maybe already fully believed in his secret heart even as he was saying: “I will not believe until I see.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, chapter 5.)
Perhaps rather than thinking of Thomas merely as doubter, we can also understand him as one who has faith enough to ask to see the miracle of the resurrection with his own eyes. In his own heart, didn't he  want to believe? Is that sometimes all that we are capable of? Interestingly, we're never actually told whether Thomas touches Jesus. He doesn't say, “Okay, you proved it.” His response isn't as calculated or careful, perhaps, as his initial words to the other disciples were. When Jesus stands before him, Thomas recognizes him as the living God.

So Thomas's curiosity leads to something good. Ancient commentators seem to wonder a lot about why he was so concerned with seeing Christ's wounds in particular. “Why Thomas, do you alone, a little too clever a sleuth for your own good, insist that only the wounds be brought forward in testimony of faith?” Thomas's doubt focuses on the wounded Christ, which while it seems to be important proof that this is the same man who was in fact crucified, begs the question: what if the wounds had been healed? After all, if a man can rise from the dead, surely he can heal some nail holes? I'm not convinced that it is the wounds, ultimately, that convince Thomas, though.

Jesus has performed signs and wonders – has healed people – throughout the gospel of John, culminating in these post-resurrection appearances. Thomas finds himself face to face with the God who has done so many signs and wonders, in fact, that “if every one of them were written down...the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Perhaps the doubting Thomases of the present need to see that God continues to work more signs and wonders in and through us, now. We need to see signs of life, not merely wounds. We need to remember not merely Jesus' suffering, but his love, love which heals, love which gives life. What is it that moves Thomas to his proclamation? Not the wounds, but the sight of Jesus, alive. Because he lives, we live – he breaths spirit into our broken bodies, resurrects us from our pain and brokenness, to wholeness, to healing.

Another of today's passages, from 1 Peter, expresses this as birth: “By [God's] great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). This image is echoed a few chapters back in John, also, when Jesus said to the disciples, “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (16:21).

Jesus gave birth to us, and delights in our lives, breathes on us and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). Rather than living in fear, like the disciples locked in a back room, we can breathe spirit and truth into the lives of those around us, so that we might participate in the work of healing the world, that our bodies might live as signs that he is risen.