Sunday, April 12, 2015

Resurrection of the Body. Any questions?

 JOHN 20:19-31
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

Happy Easter! Remember Easter is a season, not just a day here at church. We are finally blossoming into a long awaited springtime. The sun is warming the earth. The daffodils have opened up. New life is bursting forth everywhere.

The church, too, blossoms at Easter. We transform an undecorated sanctuary into a vibrant, multi-sensory experience on Easter Sunday—with flowers and dresses and new ties and alleluias as a brooding lent makes way for a joyous Easter.  But his hasn’t always been the case. As the Easter story continues in the book of John, we discover that the disciples aren’t celebrating. They are confused and locked away in fear.

Who could blame them? They were a bunch of political and religious dissidents who had just watched a public torture and execution of their leader.  They feared they might be next and they did not want to die, even if Jesus did talk about the resurrection with them.

That’s The Resurrection—with a capital T and a capital R—the notion that one day all of the biologically dead would be brought back to life—a controversial and divisive topic among the Jews of Jesus’ day and one that is just as confusing today.  Believing that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead required a leap of faith. The idea that every dead body would rise from the grave was and is unimaginable.

The disciples had been told that Jesus had risen from the dead, but they hadn’t yet seen him. They weren’t sure if this resurrection thing was real or not. When our story starts, they’ve shut themselves off and locked themselves in a room filled with fear and anxiety.

This is where we meet them, cut off from the world where Jesus walked, preached and healed. They are in a room bounded by their fear when the resurrected Jesus somehow makes his way in and stands among them. Thomas, however, is missing.

Peace be with you, Jesus says, as he shows them his hands and his side right off the bat. Seeing his wounds, the disciples recognize him. Here he is, the resurrected Jesus that they had heard about but not yet seen. The disciples must have been astonished, confused and thrilled to be in the presence of the man that they so deeply loved. When Thomas returns to them, they can’t wait to tell him the good news. But as we all know, Thomas doubts.

Thomas says, “Unless I see and touch the nail marks and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thousands of years and many sermons later we still think of him as doubting Thomas and fault him for not taking the resurrection of Jesus on faith.

But is it fair to Thomas to only think of him as a doubter? After all, Thomas is the disciple who after Lazarus is raised says they should all go to Judea with Jesus even if it means death. The other disciples were trying to avoid going.  In today’s reading Verse 24 tells us Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. We can’t say for sure where he was or what he was doing, but he wasn’t there. He wasn’t locked in a room in fear.

When we read about Thomas, we discover that he’s an outlier. He’s brave enough or crazy enough or maybe even faithful enough to risk his life on the outside that locked house, in the world.  And if our Christian history is correct, Thomas continues to the be the outlier going out into the world. He is thought to be the only apostle to take the story of Jesus outside of the Roman territory and is credited with introducing Christianity in India.

The second time Jesus appears to the disciples, Thomas is there. Jesus knows of the conditions Thomas has put upon his believing. But instead of simply showing Thomas his wounds like he did with the other disciples, he invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus meets Thomas where he is, on Thomas’ own terms, and turns his doubt into wonder.

Usually we in the church like to identify with the believing disciples. People with faith and not doubt. But, I’m guessing that every one of us has a doubt or two. Or at least some questions. For example, most of us don’t have any trouble believing in Jesus’ resurrection, but I wonder how many of us believe in The Resurrection that the Bible talks about.

How many of us believe that our actual bodies will come back to life long after we are dead? We stand here every week and recite the Apostle’s Creed and say “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life ever lasting. “ Our creed does not say that our souls go to heaven when we die, but that our bodies will one day come out of their graves. The Bible is  so clear about bodily resurrection that we’ve included it in our creeds. Here are a few examples:

Isaiah 26:19  Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.

1 Thess. 4:6  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

Romans 8: 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

John 6:40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

When Jesus’ disciples hear him talk about resurrection, they must have had their doubts, because he tells them in John 5: 28: Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

I’m going to guess that many of us are a lot like Thomas when it comes to the idea of our bodies coming out of graves. It sounds more like the zombie apocalypse than our idea of heaven. Bodily resurrection is something that we have a lot of trouble understanding. And it may be something we have trouble believing. We have questions. We have doubts.

There are times in our lives, maybe like right now, when we are caught between what we think we know  and what we are called to believe. We can conceive of souls going to heaven, but the idea of bodily resurrection is really, really hard. So we are stuck between our own ideas and the Biblical witness. But, these can the times when we grow in faith and understanding. As the Christian philosopher Paul Tillich says, Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.

To grow in understanding and faith, doesn’t mean we can’t have doubts. But is does mean we have to hold our doubts lightly. We need to be willing to let the doubts give way to wonder and awe when it comes to God.

Unfortunately, it can be easier to put more faith in our own doubts than we do God’s promises. To grow in understanding, we have to let go of what we think we know and trust God. When we trust God, we venture into the realm where things just aren’t provable. Like bodily resurrection for the billions of people who have been on this earth.

When we go back and look at the story of Thomas, we can see that even though his doubts unsettled Thomas, they didn’t cut him off from Jesus. Just like Jesus entered the disciples’ room despite the locked doors and the disciples fear, he entered into Thomas’ heart and head despite his doubts.

Most of us are like Thomas. We entertain questions and even doubts sometimes. But, we don’t need to let them separate us from Jesus. Jesus will still come to us.

However, when Jesus shows up we may have to decide where to place our faith—in our own doubts or in the promises of God. Jesus may walk into in our locked up lives and invite us to explore the impossible. When he does, we shouldn’t cling to our doubts in order to prove ourselves right or feel safe and secure.  If we do, we will miss what God has to offer.

Ironically, it is Thomas, though his doubt and wonder, who takes the disciples’ faith to an entirely new level. The other disciples refer to Jesus as My Lord.  After encountering Jesus’ invitation to touch his wounds, Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God.”

While the disciples saw the wounds of Jesus as proof of resurrection of a human, Thomas’ doubt gave way to wonder allowed him to see further into the identity of Jesus. Jesus, Thomas tells us, isn’t just a man resurrected. He is God himself present in the room.  Immanuel, God with us. The doubter and the outlier reveals a new truth to the other disciples.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe, Jesus says to Thomas at the end. Coming to belief is a dynamic process of faith and doubt. It means letting our doubts be transformed into wonder at what God is doing. It’s giving up being right or absolute in order to be in relationship with God--as crazy as it may sound. We grow in faith, as Thomas did, when let go of our fear, our agenda, and our doubt and follow Christ into an unlikely yet extraordinary mystery of faith. 

We need to be willing to take Jesus’ invitation to see and touch things that make no sense. Jesus walks into our closed hearts or minds in new and unusual ways He invites us to be transformed and live in the fullness of joy.  Not just once, but over the course of our whole lives.

And so I invite you—and your questions and doubts— into the great mystery of faith…Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again. Christ came so that you might have life and have it abundantly and eternally. That is God’s promise. You may question how that happens. But don’t doubt for a minute that Jesus is willing to come to you and invite you to live into that promise.