A Void Dance

Apr 8, 2018 by

 

April 8, 2018    Easter II

Bob Tees

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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 forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Jesus and Thomas

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

The Purpose of This Book

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

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This is my third service in a row here, after Good Friday and Easter.  I feel like I should get baptized by immersion and stay a while.   But in fact – little known fact – I already was baptized as a Baptist when I was thirteen.    Although I was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church, when I was in grade 8 my mother had a conversion experience and became a born again Christian.  That brought our family into the Baptist church.   These years of immersion in evangelical Christianity had some good things.  The main good thing is that is where I met Leanne, so in a way all the religion I experienced is a footnote.  While it was an influential religious context I later parted ways with the fundamentalism and literalism infecting the theological atmosphere.   During this time I went to a Youth for Christ swim night and when the gospel message was presented I had a chance to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.  With every head bowed and every eye closed I looked up at the leader at the appropriate time and thus signified my acceptance of grace.   Deep down I felt I had more or less already been on the path for a while, but hey, when in Rome do as the Roman Catholics do, and when among Baptists…

This brought me into the new world of Sunday School, which meant memory verses and hard work exploring the King James Bible version of gospel stories.  My brother and I were often quite tired in these classes due to secretly staying up late and watching Saturday Night Live.   I think I remember more about Rosanne Rosanna Danna and John Belushi than the gospel.

With Roman Catholic formation and fundamentalist Baptist streams of religion flowing in my consciousness, the river of faith ran dry in my teen years.   I was a strange kid, a misfit in many ways.  I kept a dog-eared copy of Webster’s Dictionary in my red and blue Adidas gym bag and would often read pages of entries at random to expand my vocabulary.  One day I read the word “agnostic” and immediately became one.   I had profound doubts about whether Christianity was true and it was quite a relief to have a name for it.   Sadly, I no longer have my Adidas gym bag or that Webster’s Dictionary, but I do have access to google and when I googled “Webster’s dictionary agnostic” it told me:

Definition of agnostic. 1 : a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (such as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.

There I was, and stayed true to this definition for a few years – this definition that defined me.   During this time I spoke with a few pastors about my questions.  I thought that was what you were supposed to do – ask pastors questions about faith.   But I found no help.  During this time two bible passages were quite helpful in a way.  The first was in the book of Ecclesiastes, which declares,

 Meaningless, meaningless, says the Teacher,
everything is meaningless.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

This passage struck me as not very hopeful but pretty realistic.  I was surprised it was in the Bible.   The other passage I appreciated was the Thomas story we heard today.   I felt glad that a story was solidly about how hard it is to believe.

To talk today about the Thomas story is to talk about the mystery of Easter, and to be honest I feel humbled and inadequate to talk about Easter.   I feel like a small boy in tiny rowboat on a vast ocean of wonder, adrift on the sea of Being.

The resurrection passages come with a rush of energy.  Jesus enters a locked room.  He speaks peace, he breathes the Spirit into his followers, he empowers them for a mission of forgiveness and reconciliation.   His followers are bewildered and overjoyed.

I find the resurrection narratives complex, strange, joyful and curious.   Jesus is seen but not recognized, then recognized in a moment of joyful realization.   Jesus arrives out of nowhere then disappears just as quickly (perhaps inspiring JK Rowling’s apparating in Harry Potter or Madeline L’Engle’s tessering in A Wrinkle in Time).   Jesus’s body, the firstborn in a new creation, seems to abide by alternative rules of physics, yet he breaks bread and eats fish.    He can be touched but he resists being touched.  To a violent man named Saul the Risen Christ appears in a vison that is both gracious and devastating, and Saul is utterly transformed.   In our time, some interpret these narratives as metaphors for hope, of a life-force emerging from death, as the phoenix rises from the ashes.   Elsewhere in theology, there is a fuller engagement with the possibility that the actual body of Jesus was re-made, reinvested with genesis-life, alive in an unprecedented form of corporeal and spiritual being.

In the resurrection narratives there are moments when people doubt their reality.

Matthew 28: 16-17: Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

Luke 24:39-42 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

John’s gospel takes these brief intimations of doubt and personifies them in Thomas.  Thomas is discounted in popular thought and written off as stubborn and resistant to faith.   I disagree with this.  I think his is an essential voice.   I don’t really like the name “Doubting Thomas”.  It seems dismissive.

This poem by Thomas Troeger gives one kind of voice to the story of Thomas.   Troeger sees the Thomas narrative through the lens of modern skepticism.

These things did Thomas count as real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind
Was keen enough to make him blind
To any unexpected act
Too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The marking of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

Thomas is a materialist, attuned to the tangibles of blood, steel, wood, rock, bone.   Through the poet’s lens, Thomas’s skeptic vision makes him blind.   Thomas inhabits a “small world of fact” (reminiscent perhaps of the “locked room” that Jesus mysteriously enters).

Years ago this poem spoke quite deeply to me, naming the drama of doubt and opening a way to grace, in the beckoning hands of Jesus.   I had been meditating on the Thomas story when out of the blue I came across the Troeger poem for the first time.  It was a gracious synchronicity.  Then, one night I was outside in the forest and while praying I had a sort of vision of the Risen Jesus holding me as a child.  I heard the words, “why do you seek the living among the dead?” (from Luke’s gospel). It was a profound moment of healing and changed my perception of resurrection in a way I can’t explain.

As time has gone on I have become dissatisfied with how Thomas is generally regarded as a stubborn skeptic. I think the Thomas narrative is less about skepticism and more about how people grapple with their experience of the absence of God.   This poem by RS Thomas voices this very well:

 

Threshold   by R. S. Thomas

I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.

I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on

this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?

 

In a way deeper than intellectual skepticism, I wrestle with painful experiences of the absence of God.  We all in our own way have experiences of some kind of void, an abyss in our hearts.   Such a void can be rooted in grief or trauma.  It can also rooted in existential awareness of the mysterious paradoxes of existence.   Tragedy shakes us one moment, and beauty thrills us the next.  Evil brings unspeakable sorrow and distress, while acts of love and self-sacrifice move us to tears and holy silence.  Why did Thomas want to touch the wounds of Christ?  What he seeking empirical proof that the resurrected person was the same man who had been crucified?  Or did he need to know that God comprehends the deep wound in his own soul?

As I reflected on the Thomas story and the poems, I was struck by the theme of touch.   Thomas says, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”    The Troeger poem concludes:  “Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out/ And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.”

The RS Thomas poem:  “What to do but, like Michelangelo’s / Adam, put my hand / out into unknown space, / hoping for the reciprocating touch?”

I thought of many instances of touch when I spend time with hospital patients.   The handshake, the touch on the shoulder.   Sometimes when I bless someone at end of life I put my hands on their shoulders or one hand on their head and speak words of grace and blessing.   Touch is an essential part of the sacred moment. In a recent conversation with an artist at the end of her life we spoke of many things.  I knew her for several months.  During what turned out to be our final conversation we held hands the whole time – clasped hands resting comfortably on the bed –   in an almost casual way, as if this wordless transmission lay in silent parallel with our dialogue.   Can it be that our touch, our handshakes, our embraces participate in the mysterious transmission of resurrection life – peace given among us?

I believe that just as Thomas yearned to touch Jesus, in a deeper way Jesus was reaching to touch him.

I have come to believe that God is like an ICU nurse caring for a comatose patient.  She checks his feed tubes, adjusts the oxygen, speaks reassuringly to him, takes his hand, provides technical care and compassionate care in countless ways, even as the patient is unaware of all the activity around him for his benefit.

We are only vaguely aware of the resurrection life that hovers over us, tends to our comatose souls.   Even in our unawareness the Risen One gives us care and blessing, saying, “hey, it will be okay, we are here for you.  Time to wake up.”

 

Amen.

 

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