31 March 2013

Beyond Belief

John 1: 1-18 & John 20: 1-24

Resurrection of the Lord/ 31st March 2013

In John’s Gospel: seeing is believing.  It’s there at the beginning, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, …full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  And did you notice all the references to seeing in his resurrection account?  The drama oscillates from clear vision to obscured vision to no vision at all. Mary Magdalene arrived in the dark, before light, and “saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (20:1).  But she didn’t see what she expected to see. She told the disciples, “I can’t find him.”  Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb.  The other disciple outran Peter, he “bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there” (20:5).  Peter went in, “He saw the linen wrappings lying there,…” (20:6). Then the other one went into the tomb, “and he saw and believed” (20:8).  Mary was left there alone, weeping, still searching.  “She bent over to look into the tomb,” John tells us, and then “she saw two angels in white” (20:11-12).  She explained why she’s weeping.   Then, as she spoke “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there” (20:14), but didn’t recognize him. He said her name and she began to see. When she heard her name she began to see (20:15-16).  She received a vision and returned to the disciples with something to say – something the other two might have seen had they bothered to stay on the scene long enough, instead of running off and leaving her in a cemetery! – so she returned and exclaimed, “I have seen the Lord!” (20:18).

            The sightings continued into the evening.  Jesus walked through walls, behind doors locked in fear, and stood among them and said, “‘Peace be with you.’  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (20:19b-20).  Poor old Thomas showed up a little late for the party.  The “other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord’” (20:25).  And then we have the famous words from Thomas, Patron Saint of Doubters, “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” (20:25).  A week later Jesus returns – that must have been a very long week for Thomas.  Word got back to Jesus about what Thomas said.  And then we have Jesus’ famous lines, “Do not doubt, but believe. …Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29).

            Seeing.  Not-seeing.  Believing.  Doubting.  The narrative is full of tension.  Of course there’s a little of Thomas in all of us, full of doubt in a skeptical, cynical age. We’re always looking for proof, for evidence.  People of faith sometimes use Jesus’ words to Thomas as an easy way out.  We’re told that we’re blessed if we have not seen.  Just believe. That is, we who are very late to the party, we don’t have to worry about seeing, we don’t need evidence, we don’t need to put our hands in his side, we’re just expected to believe.  We’ve come to assume that belief is what matters.  The Church invites us to believe.  Just believe.  Believe these things about Jesus and then one becomes a Christian:     
             Son of God.  Check. 
            Fully God, fully human.  Check. 
            Healer, miracle worker.  Check. 
            Preacher, prophet, teacher.  Check
            Died on the cross because of human sin.  Check. 
            Raised three days later.  Check.
            Ascended to heaven, coming again.  Check. 
            I’m a Christian.  I believe.

            But do you know what?  
            Belief didn’t roll that stone away. 
            Belief didn’t crack open the tomb. 
            Belief didn’t send Mary running to find the others. 
            Belief didn’t confront Peter and the nameless disciple. 
            It wasn’t belief that called Mary by name. 
            It wasn’t belief she heard calling her name. 
            It wasn’t belief that stood within their walls of fear.
            And it wasn’t belief that breathed on them and said, “Peace with you.” 

            Not belief.  Experience.  Not ideas and theories and proof.  An experience of the Holy, an experience that overwhelmed them and grabbed them, which startled and amazed them, which shattered all of their assumptions about reality, and changed their lives.[1] That’s an encounter that shakes our foundations, changes the course of our lives, that leaves us never the same again, that grants us a new future, a new horizon, and then calls us, moves us, sends us toward that horizon, that new day, out of the old and into a new world as different people.  That’s what resurrection looks like, feels like.

            Experience is what counts.  Without it all we have are empty, hollow, lifeless ideas and doctrines and pious platitudes and a church with a faith that has nothing to say worth listening to, that has nothing to offer, that’s dead, dull, and boring.  People have grown tired of belief, defending belief, arguing over belief; sometimes even killing people because of differing beliefs.  It’s no wonder that Christianity is in decline in the United States – we’ve reduced it to an idea or an ethic.  It’s no wonder that Protestants are no longer the major Christian faith in the country.  Protestants and Catholics are in decline, both liberal churches and conservative churches. The results of a major survey of religion in America have shown that for the first time in our nation’s history the largest category of religious affiliation in the U.S. is now known as “nones,” as in “none of the above.”  In the 1950s, nones made up about 2 percent of the population.  In the 1970s, it was about 7 percent.  Today, that number is close to 20 percent. Within that 20 percent, only 30 percent are atheists or agnostics.  Sixty-four percent of the nones say they believe in God or a “universal spirit,” but they don’t live out this faith in a community, a church, or an institutional setting.[2]

            I guess it’s nice to know they believe in something, someone.  But somehow, someway the church needs to get the message across that what we proclaim and witness to is beyond belief.  Not in the sense that it didn’t occur, but something other than belief, not only belief.  I’m not saying that ideas and doctrine and creeds are unimportant.  They are. We will affirm the Apostles’ Creed this morning.  But what really matters is what’s behind or underneath the creed – an experience. We have been entrusted with something more than beliefs about God. We have something more to offer the world beyond belief.   Why does this matter? Because in a world where people are dying and suffering, lost and confused, broken and weighed down by grief and sorrow, belief is not enough.

            Contemporary theologian Wendy Farley reminds us, “When we conceive of Christianity as beliefs, love fades into the background….”[3] Exactly!

            For it’s Love that raises the dead and cracks open our tombs. 
            It’s Love that reunites after death has done its worst.  
            It’s Love we recognize when Love calls our name. 
            It’s Love that stands within the walls of our fear. 
            And it’s Love that breathes into us new life and says,
                        “Peace” – not strife, not anxiety, not worry, not fear –
                        “Peace be with you.” 

It’s the experience of Holy Love that encounters us and shakes us and raises us and holds us and claims us and calls us and sends us.  Not once, but again and again. For Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8).  That’s what resurrection looks like, that’s what resurrection feels like.   It’s the experience of Love that changes us and changes the people we meet.

            The poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wisely advised:  “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” What if this was our prayer, our posture in the world?  “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”  Souls that are open, ready to welcome an experience of resurrection, an encounter with the Holy that overwhelms us with love and overcomes us with joy, that changes us and transforms us and thus transforms the world.  Can you imagine what a different world this would be?  Can you imagine with me a church that anticipates this, expects this to happen?

            This is what we offer to the world:  the possibility of an experience. Love embodied.  It’s what we offer the world.  Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).  And then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  Before Jesus’ death he said to his disciples, you’ve seen the difference I have made in your lives, and you will do even greater works than these (John 13: 12).  You see, even here, we’re not asked to believe in something that took place a long time ago.  Something is happening now.  We’ve all been breathed on. Love is breathing through us.  Love is living through us. Love is trying to love through us.  You and I, according to Jesus, have been given this Love, this breath, this power.  And it’s ours to use. 

            Throughout the season of Lent many of us have been reading Sara Miles’ provocative and zany book, Jesus Freak:  Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. Raised without faith, years ago Miles stumbled into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, was invited to share in Communion.  She took a bite out of the loaf of bread and her life never was the same again.  She didn’t intellectually wrestle her way into belief; she experienced the healing grace in the sacrament.  Now in her life and her ministry, as a layperson, she knows that Jesus is alive and at work in the world.  At St. Gregory’s, whenever they send someone out into the world or launch someone on a new chapter of his or her life, they practice one of the oldest forms of blessing. Miles says, “We put our wrists on the person’s temples, so we could feel the blood beating in both bodies, and then we’d breathe, blowing lightly over the bent head, incarnating, once again, the breath of the Spirit.”[4]  Miles believes – she knows – that Jesus is still breathing through us.  And she knows, and I know she’s right, that there’s more power available to us than we are willing to imagine, there’s more Love at work in all of us than we suspect.  We are capable of so much more than we think.  If we’re honest, this probably frightens us, which is natural. But it’s true.  Love is breathing through us.  It’s Love that launches us out into the world.

            Jesus is still breathing in us and through us, calling you and me to life.  Can you sense it? Feel it?  Yes?  No?  Maybe?  Just a little?  It doesn’t matter – let us open our souls, ready to welcome that ecstatic experience.  Try to sense what’s behind the creed when we off the Apostles’ Creed in a few moments. Then, with open souls let us share in the Lord’s Supper and receive the real presence of the Lord at his Table.  The Risen Lord who invites us to come.  Believe, yes, but more than believe, taste and really see that God is good!

[1] Here I’m indebted to the thought of C. G. Jung (1875-1961), “The seat of faith, however, is not consciousness but spontaneous religious experience, which brings the individual’s faith into immediate relation with God. Here we must ask: Have I any religious experience and immediate relation to God, and hence that certainty which will keep me, as an individual, from dissolving in the crowd?”  Jung said, “I am not…addressing myself to the happy possessors of faith, but to those many people for whom the light has gone out, the mystery has faded, and God is dead.”  Collected Works 11,148. See also James Hollis, Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life (Inner City Books, 1995).
[2] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx.  See also Michael Gerson’s piece in the Washington Post,  “An America That Is Losing Faith With Religion.” http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-03-25/opinions/38008236_1_nones-protestants-agnostics
[3] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away:  A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 216. Emphasis mine.
[4] Sara Miles, Jesus Freak:  Feeing, Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2010). 114.

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