Reach

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

The gospel text this week moves me – has always moved me. It’s something about John’s depictions of the vulnerability of the risen Christ, the generosity with his body, and the very relatable Thomas. It is breath and touch, joy and blessing, a different ending to a crucifixion marked by betrayal of friends and brutality of the state.

But somehow, this text feels different to me this year, here in what we hope are the late stages of the pandemic, here in the midst of the George Floyd trial and anguished witness’ testimony to his murder – even here in all the mundane daily losses we hardly know how to mark. We have loved ones we haven’t embraced for a year, faces hidden behind masks so long that we wonder if we are forgetting what of another we used to know, missed traditions and rituals. I haven’t received bread and wine in over a year.

For many of us, it has been a season of grief upon grief, of challenge, of fear, of pain, and without the practices of togetherness to which we are typically accustomed when faced with the worst, we are sitting on wells of need and ache waiting for relief.

Without Thomas in the midst of this story and its emotional resonances with our current moment, I would frankly find it challenging to stomach a passion story that ends in resurrection. That shift from Friday crucifixion to Sunday resurrection feels too abrupt. I’m still back there somewhere in the hollowed out shock of the sudden upheaval. I need Thomas, for he is true. I need him post-resurrection in the gospel of John and I need him in April of 2021. His witness to disbelief acts as a foil to those who would be sentimental about resurrection, who would move too easily to optimism and falsely name it as hope.

Often this week in reading articles about the trial, I have thought of my neighbors, some of whom surely knew George Floyd. He grew up here, in my neighborhood in Houston. Cuney Homes where he mentored young men is mere blocks from my home here in Third Ward. I see his face on half a dozen murals anytime I go anywhere.

We watched his death, all of us – or we chose not to, knowing that we might not come back from what we saw, haunted by eight minutes, his anguish, and our helplessness on the other end of a screen. But we know the story. We can’t shake the story from our knowing or undo it; that is its own kind of anguish.

What if I weren’t a virtual bystander to his death, but instead his friend? And what if tomorrow my neighbors told me that Floyd had resurrected from the dead, that they’d seen him alive?

Even if I could believe, even if I could overcome my skepticism and make my way to joy, would resurrection erase the gravity of the brutality? Would it erase the losses of Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Emmitt Till? Would it erase the history of a state with its sights trained on black bodies?

I wonder if this is close to where Thomas is. His doubt isn’t simplistic, a mere inability to “just have faith” somehow. But his disbelief of the testimony he has heard about Jesus is closer to that hollowed out shock about what has happened, no firm ground to stand on, no equilibrium from which to even weigh the possibility that such news could be true. And in the background, the history of an empire which crucifies as spectacle.

In Thomas’s insistence on seeing and touching the wounds, I wonder if what he is truly grasping for is a grounding in reality and some proof that he has seen what he really saw, that he didn’t make up the crucifixion of Jesus, but that what happened has really happened. The portrait of Thomas in John’s gospel is the portrait of a man unmoored from the life he had counted on and the community that has carried him to this moment. From Last Supper to crucifixion horror to resurrection hope in less than 96 hours feels like a certain kind of whiplash. In the disorientation he reaches for the flesh, for body, for the materiality of Christ to reorient him. 

In Thomas, we are free to be real about what this year has cost us. We are free to weigh the context of this year against the history and political tides that have brought us to this moment. We are free from the need to tie life up with a churchy bow and a bible verse, dismissing the gravity of death that has been perhaps more poignant this year, but truly marks every year.

There is no shame in this.

There is no shame in being honest about death, about pain, and perhaps the doubts which may have plagued us.

Thomas is the foil to that urge to rush past the reality of suffering and into sentimentality about the gospel story. I’m reminded of Mark Labberton’s words in the foreword to Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care:

“Hope, first of all, must be realistic. That is, hope can be hope only if it admits that which is darkest while urging toward the light. Nothing glib, or blind, or deflective toward the depth of despair could be a contender for hope. If hope has not first been silenced before the profundity of evil and loss, then such a two-dimensional offering is more scandalous than fruitful…. Hope is more like a treatment plan than an adjustment: in other words, hope takes time to shift toward healing.”1

There is no shame in pausing, in reaching toward the wounds to feel where the nails have been, before running headlong into the hope of the resurrection. 

Don’t be too quick, for in rushing forward past our reality we risk cheapening the quality of our hope and the profundity of the Easter reality breaking in. Even in reaching toward the wounds to honor the pain, we ultimately reach for Christ’s resurrected body. The reach toward the real and the reach toward hope that defies the real in order to define a reality more real than what we can presently see are one in the same move; in either case, we are met with Jesus and he is compassionate. Our frailty is known now from the inside out.

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” he says to Thomas and to us.

Go ahead: Reach.

1Labberton, Mark. Foreword. Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life, by Makoto Fujimura (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017), 9.

 

Courageous Witness

Easter Sunday

 

 

 

Acts 10:34-43

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

John 20:1-18

 

The story of Jarena Lee, the first woman licensed to preach in the AME Church, is fascinating.  Hired out as a servant at the age of seven and separated from her mother for fourteen years, Lee struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide for much of her youth.  She is convinced that she will never find happiness here on earth.  Then, at age 21, she sets out for Philadelphia, where she finds an AME Church and a caring pastor named Richard Allen.  They quickly become the family she has never had.  Within three weeks, she experiences conversion in the midst of a worship service.  She leaps to her feet and declares that God has pardoned the sins of her soul and she tells of the wonders and the goodness of the God who has clothed her with salvation.   Read more

Two Versions of the Resurrection

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-35

One way to tell a story about the resurrection is the one we find in Luke’s gospel. The disciples on that road to Emmaus seem to have been in Jerusalem through the whole week-long events that took place: the parade on Sunday, the crucifixion on Friday, the attempt to anoint Jesus’ body with spices on Sunday.

When the spice-bearing women return with a report of angels proclaiming Jesus was risen, these two Emmaus disciples appear not to know what to do with this information. They must be thinking to themselves that the women’s account can’t possibly be factually true. Some other disciples go test the theory, but apparently see no angels, but no body either. Read more

A New Story

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 28:1-10

It would be a vast understatement to say that the moment we’re currently living through has a certain strangeness to it. At least once a day, I am struck by the thought that I’ve never experienced anything quite like this, and I suspect I’m not alone. In a matter of weeks, we’ve been collectively immersed into a new vocabulary, a new set of practices, and maybe more than anything, a tsunami of information that threatens to overwhelm us. Individuals in power, journalists pursuing an angle, researchers armed with data, and conspiracy theorists with an agenda—everyone has a chart to display, a forecast to project, a meme to share, a cure to hawk, and an axe to grind.

Across a vast array of platforms, a dizzying collection of narrators are telling us their disparate versions of a common story, and it’s not an easy story to digest. When we cut through all the details and all the data and all the differences, it’s ultimately a story of sickness and grief and loss that spans from China to Italy to points closer to home. It’s a story about our limitations, a story about mortality, a story—as much as we hate to say it—about death. And in this respect at least, despite the profound strangeness of the moment, we can find some common cause with generations of people who have lived before us. Because from the beginning, in one form or another, we have been telling and living stories about death. Read more

He is Risen, Indeed!

Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

These words will roll off the tongues of Easter worshippers this coming Sunday, proclaimed with a seemingly naive brazenness, given the world’s current state of affairs.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

The gathered Church will proclaim this as Truth as they point to flowered crosses and release butterflies into the springtime sky. But while it’s certainly joyous news that after the long gray of winter, bright sunshine and vibrant color will again have their season, the Easter proclamation is not meant to be a weather report. Rather, it is the radical declaration that God’s good future has erupted into our now: it is here, in the present, smack in the middle of history, in the midst of this world’s pain, standing among our broken dreams.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

But if the Resurrection is real and the tomb is empty, where is the Risen Christ? Would we know him if he was standing right in front of us?

Like the women at the tomb, I suspect that if we are going to find the risen Christ, we will first have to learn to name the signs of Resurrection in our midst and claim them as signs of hope. This will mean recognizing and abandoning our tendency to “look for the living among the dead.” We are as inclined as they were to misunderstand what Jesus foretold to his disciples: that he would be crucified, dead and buried, and then raised on the third day. Like those women and disciples at the tomb that first Easter, we know all the words Jesus said, and believe we have all manner of faith in God’s ultimate triumph over the forces of sin and death so clearly at work in this world. Yet we live and work and play as if that triumph is but an unrealized longing. We have become quite comfortable inhabiting a world where death is the norm, and we arrange our affairs and hedge our bets accordingly.

In his novel The Second Coming, Walker Percy writes:

Death in this century is not the death people die but the death
people live. Men love death because the real death is better than
the living death… Here are the names of death, which shall not
prevail over me because I know the names…

Death in the guise of God and America and the happy life of home and family and friends is not going to prevail over me…

Death in the guise of belief is not going to prevail over me, for believers now believe anything and everything and do not love the truth, are in fact in despair of the truth, and that is death.

Death in the guise of unbelief is not going to prevail over me, for unbelievers believe nothing, not because truth does not exist but because they have already chosen not to believe, and would not believe, cannot believe, even if the living truth stood before them, and that is death…

Death in the form of isms and asms shall not prevail over me, orgasm, enthusiasm, liberalism, conservatism, Communism, Buddhism, Americanism, for an -ism is only another way of despairing of the truth…

Death in none of its guises shall prevail over me because I know all the names of death.

The American dream, with its attendant security. Sex. Alcohol. Drugs. Wealth. Power. Notoriety. Do we know all the names of death in our world?

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Can we learn to recognize the places and things in and through which we seek life, that are in truth nothing more than pretty flowers ephemerally masking the stench of death?

The Easter proclamation stops us in our tracks and catches us as surprised and fearful as those women on the first Easter morning. While we are on our way to anoint death in a graveyard, life has broken into the world. As the men on the road to Emmaus would learn that same day, it takes a different kind of vision to see and know the risen Christ. It takes new eyes, rather than eyes trained to seek salvation in the living death.

The work of Easter, then, is this: To point to death and name it as death. Then, to find and point to evidence of resurrection in this world, and name it as life. And this is the thing: it might be where we least expect it. But it is there nonetheless, a sign of God’s good future here, in the present, smack in the middle of history, in the midst of this world’s pain, standing among our broken dreams:

It may be found on Tuesday evenings at Reality Ministries, where a community of belonging is created when youth and adults with and without developmental disabilities come together for food and prayer and play. It may be found amongst members of the Holy Friendship Collaborative as they walk alongside those bound in the chains of opioid addiction in Southern Appalachia. In Athens, Ohio, the folks of Good Works, Inc are “believing people back to life” through a ministry of hospitality that proves that the forces of life and love are stronger than the forces of death. There is evidence of resurrection at Central Women’s Prison in Raleigh, NC where a woman convicted of murder receives a weekly visit from a member of a group of laity who have come faithfully for over 20 years.

It is the Body of Christ claiming victory over the powers of sin, death, isolation, and despair. It is visible evidence of a community that defies the kingdoms of this world. It is hope and life revealed in the breaking of bread. It is what happens each and every time the Church gathers around the Eucharist table to share in Christ’s broken body and blood and we proclaim his death and resurrection until he comes in glory. It is the new life of Resurrection.

This Sunday, whether we gather in the majesty of a towering cathedral or in the humility of a few friends around a table, the great mystery and miracle of Easter abounds. As we receive the grace of Christ’s Table, may all of our eyes be opened to see evidence of God’s resurrection victory in the unlikely and ragtag communities in which we gather. When the proclamation rings out: Christ is Risen! May we look around with awe and respond with joy: He is risen indeed!