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Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The following sermon was preached by Raymond Pickett, Visiting Professor of New Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, April 20, 2009.


John 20:19-31

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! But how do we know? I am not asking you what you know. I know that we know what we know, or so we think. I am inviting you ponder with me in this second week of the great fifty days of Easter how we know that Christ is alive and present, or better, how we go about knowing what we know. I am assuming that none of us here has had the benefit of a personal audience with the risen Jesus. Only a select few can claim that privilege. The rest of us have come to trust in the reality of the risen Christ, in part anyhow, because the first witnesses of the resurrection told others who told yet others, and so bearing witness to the risen Christ has borne much fruit over the centuries.

Listening to the witness of others is one way we know what we know. Benefiting from the experiences and insights of others is how we know many things. But some times we need to find things out for ourselves. That seems to be the case with the enigmatic Thomas.  He has heard the report of the other disciples who have "seen the Lord", but he is skeptical. Not only does Thomas want to see Jesus for himself, he won't settle for anything less than touching the nail prints on his hands and sticking his hand in the wound in his side. Over the years Thomas has been maligned for his disbelief, thus the disparaging tag "doubting Thomas". But some times a person needs to discover for him or herself what is real and true!

Is your trust in the reality of the risen Jesus predicated on the testimony in Scripture of those who claimed to have seen him, or like Thomas do you yearn to have that trust authenticated by something more palpable? I hope for all our sake that you answer that question with a resounding YES! All too often we are seduced by these artificial dualisms or false dichotomies: belief/unbelief, "doubting Thomas vs. the Thomas who acclaims "My Lord and my God". Is not the Thomas who has misgivings the same Thomas who confesses? And do not we who gather around Word and Sacrament convinced that the risen Christ is present in our midst also have our questions, uncertainties, even fears? Do we not have a hankering for a more tangible and sensory encounter with the risen Christ?

I myself doubt that Thomas had difficulty believing that Jesus was alive. But what difference would a "phantom Jesus", a disembodied spirit, make in his life, or indeed in our own lives? For Thomas it is essential that the Jesus whom God raised from the dead is the same Jesus who asked for a cup of water from the Samaritan woman, who provided bread for the hungry, who wept when Lazarus died. More than that, for Thomas the credibility of this Messiah must be authenticated by the wounds of his suffering for and with those who would follow his lead.

For Thomas there can be no spirit without matter, no pnuema that is not embodied. But the problem is that we have no real way of truly grasping what Thomas and the other disciples saw, namely what Paul calls a spiritual body. The resurrection of Jesus shatters what we thought we knew and beckons us to experience reality anew with all our senses. The resurrection of Christ invites us into a new way of knowing and being.

But we hesitate because we cling to what we think we know. We balk at new ways of being and living because we are a lot like the disciples who dwell behind closed doors for fear - fear of the unknown. While I was traveling during Holy Week I was listening to an interview about Abraham Heschel that included excerpts of Heschel himself speaking: "we stay inside a cage and live on a dainty diet because we are apprehensive about what is waiting for us outside." The resurrection of Jesus confronts our unduly narrow view of what is real, the "cages" or mental prisons we inhabit as well as how we live our lives. The physicist David Bohm said, "thought creates the world and then says, 'I didn't do it'." The risen Jesus stands in our midst summoning us to step outside our cages to see and to love the cosmos God sees and loves the cosmos!

Thomas has been maligned as an icon of doubt and unbelief because he wants to feel the risen Christ with his hands, but perhaps he has something to teach us about the materiality of the resurrection that is consistent with the worldview emerging from quantum physics. Against the weight of two millennia of dualisms that posit a lower material and mundane realm that is inferior to the realm of spirit, Einstein discovered that all matter is energy. In other words, what we perceive and experience as solid matter is in reality mostly "empty space" made to feel solid by ethereal fields of force having no material reality at all. Those chairs holding you up, rock solid as they seem, are nothing more than energy that has been temporarily frozen in a particular form.

From beginning to end the Gospel of John is about life: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" - not just life, but "eternal life" (zwh_n ai0w&nion). The idea here is not that eternity is something that happens after this life, but rather life is itself eternal. As the Orthodox would say, we live inside of God's eternity. It is imprinted all over creation. Einstein posited that there are at least 7 or 8 dimensions of reality, and many physicists imagine even more. However many dimensions there are, the working model for what physicists take for granted as the real world says that particles/waves from another dimension are presenting themselves to us in our 3-dimensional universe.

So the risen Jesus stands in our midst inviting us into God's time, into the eternal drama of creation and redemption. Perhaps with Thomas we should begin by apprehending and embracing the Divine energy that brought Jesus back from the dead, and indeed animates the whole creation, through our God given senses of sight and touch, by listening to and even smelling the eternal life that permeates the cosmos. Thomas has a lot in common with quantum physicists who know that in this world reality is rooted in the material, that it flows from the bottom up. The spiritual must first enter the physical before life can flourish!

We have paid a high price for our failure to recognize and honor the manifold ways life eternal reveals itself and speaks to us moment by moment. Tomorrow is Earth Day, and in the light of a Gospel that affirms God's love and care for the whole cosmos we are mindful of the wounds of creation and of our own complicity in the earth's suffering. Until we rediscover our senses as gateways to the living earth that is our habitat, we will never resolve the environmental crisis. People fill the void left by the loss of sense with consumption. 

Tomorrow is also a day of remembrance for the martyrs and survivors of the Shoah. As followers of Jesus we cannot recall the profound suffering of the Holocaust without also acknowledging how the New Testament, and especially this beloved Gospel of John, has been used to fuel anti-Semitism. And that is to say nothing of the deep scars each of us bear silently through life. If it were not for the Eternal One who is always ever bringing life out death and creating the world anew, all this pain and anguish would be enough to paralyze us. But the risen Christ stands in our midst and says to us: "Shalom, as the Eternal One, the Source of all Life, has sent me, so I send you". But we are not sent into this wounded world alone.

I want to invite you to close your eyes for a moment. Take a deep breath or two and feel the breath in your viscera. Now I want you to imagine risen Jesus standing in the midst of his disciples, and we are standing there with them. See the risen Jesus as you imagine him in your mind's eye. If, like Thomas, you need to touch the nail print in his hands and the hole in his side go ahead. Perhaps you will let the Risen One touch reach deep inside of you to touch your wounds. See Him touching the Earth.  Now, see and feel Him breath on you, on us because we are now bound together in Him: "receive the Holy Spirit" - the very breath of life present at creation. Shalom! Go forth in the name of the Risen Christ to see, touch, hear, smell, taste - to mend the world!

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