April 8, 2018 Easter 2,
Karen J. Bowles
One of the traditions that grew up in the church around 1500 was a service called in the latin “Risus Paschalis or God’s Joke or the Easter laugh Sunday. It was usually held the Sunday following Easter – on this Sunday – and was a time for turning the established order on it’s head. Jokes were told, pranks were played. The roots of this service were in the supreme joke God played on Satan by raising Jesus from the dead. The practice was outlawed by the church in the 17th century. Perhaps the joking got out of hand or perhaps it was considered unseemly to laugh in church. It has been resurrected recently and so I thought it good for our collectively souls to celebrate the release and relief of laughter in the sermon today.
And so a joke to begin: A parishioner handed the preacher a note at the beginning of the service. The minister dutifully read it out to the assembled congregation. “There will be no BS today. Will resume tomorrow.” With a wry smile he noted – I hope that means Bible study has been rescheduled.’
There will be no BS today.
When I first began to preach I rarely mentioned Jesus. This is because my journey to ministry began with several experiences of the presence of the one we call God, of the unity of all things. I have spoken of some of those experiences here and some of you have shared yours with me. I did not begin my journey of spiritual awakening with Jesus or doctrine or theology. It was experience that brought me here. And I think part of the reason for rarely preaching Jesus was the insistence I perceived in the doctrines of the church that to be Christian one must believe that Jesus was the only son of God, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, that only through belief in this exclusive Jesus was your soul saved and did you have any hope of getting to heaven. If you did not believe, you were going the other way. These preconditions, these requirements to being wholeheartedly Christian blinded me to the Jesus hidden under thousands of years of pronouncements about the content of faith insisted upon by those in power in the hierarchy of the church. Influenced by the knowledge I had acquired over years of studying of the history of ancient cultures and of the repetition in those cultures of mythical stories found in the their writings and their parallels in the Bible – particularly the Hebrew testament – the story of Gilgamesh comes to mind – the story of the Flood and the story of Jonah and the Whale – I looked from what I thought was a reasonable enlightened height – down on those who swallowed such tales – and so preferred to spend my time on the divine presence on the universal experience of the one we call God.
Perhaps too I was rejecting the fragmentation of Christianity as it has come to be in our time. And although we can trace the reasons over the centuries of the reasons for these schisms I can’t help but be put off by the pettiness of such power struggles over the body of this one man who died speaking truth to power. A couple of weeks ago Scott and I were on holiday in Bermuda – an island in the Atlantic Ocean only 22 miles long with a population of only 65,000 souls. And on that island there are 120 churches all claiming to speak for God – more churches per capita than anywhere else in the world. And driving such fragmentation is the need to be right – to get faith right – to dispel uncertainly and lessen fear among us who know we will die.
Another joke: An art teacher gave the class paper to draw a picture. He asked one young girl what she was drawing – she said she was making a drawing of God. The art teacher pointed out – “No one knows what God looks like.” And she looked up and said: “They will in a minute.” We all want to know, to be certain, to get the drawing right.
And then in a conversation with a member of this church, I heard the words “I wish people knew Jesus the way I know Jesus.” This was said with such love and joy in the present tense that I began to search for the way this person knew Jesus. It opened a chink in my academic armour hardened through years of persistent belief that I had it all figured out – that my hermeneutic of suspicion had denied me digging deeper into this Jesus, into the words of the gospels seeking to break them out of the layers shellacked on them and allowing them to speak for themselves.
And so let’s dig into the gospel – the good news – of the readings for this morning. In the passage from John read by Sheelagh this morning – we hear of Jesus appearing following his death to the disciples shut behind closed doors fearful for their lives – and we hear of one Thomas who history has come to call doubting Thomas – demanding evidence of the risen Jesus – and getting it. In modern day parlance – you can imagine one of the 12 declaring to Thomas – ‘He is risen’ and Thomas responding with “Sounds like fake news!” Thomas is insisting on faith through information, through evidence, not faith based on spiritual formation. It is the line that follows the reading that speaks of the latter: 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 way we understand and interpret words and stories matters. They can be agents of change or of stagnation they can be freeing or restricting, they can cause joy or dread and they can, when taken in isolation, be misunderstood. A rabbi and a minister were on a road holding up a sign that said “The end is near!” A car drove by, the driver ignoring the sign and making a rather rude gesture as he did. It accelerated around the bend – there was the sound of squealing tires and a big splash. The minister turned to the rabbi and said “Do you think we should have changed the sign to read “The bridge up ahead is out?”
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And these words echo over the centuries and have been used to insist that in order to call yourself a Christian, in order to be ‘saved,’ you must take as undisputed fact the physical appearing of Jesus following his death to his disciples. But is that what Jesus is saying here? Is that what the trajectory of his story asks us to believe? Is that thrust of his message, the culmination of his teachings? Whether or not you doubt the resurrection or believe it wholeheartedly does not matter one iota if you do not walk the walk Jesus taught. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, let the oppressed go free. Love one another – be in awe of God. These were the persistent and insistent teachings of this Jesus. Christianity is not a club. It is a heart stance that once taken requires living into and out of, no matter the century or the denomination.
The second reading for today is short and to the point as much as any parable of Jesus: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.’ And what is the treasure hidden in the field? Is it a pot of gold or a pearl of great price as it says in the next verse? Is it that self serving? Is it the new growth of spring on the front of your bulletin? Is it that earthy? Is it belief in Jesus as the only way to God? Is it that narrow? What is it? I believe it is this simple – the treasure hidden in the field is the recognition, the remembering that you are made in the image and the likeness of God. And not just you. Jesus went another step – he insisted that all others were included in this statement. You cannot come to believe if you do not hold this truth to be evident for all beings. And so the woman at the well was made in the image of God, the Roman centurion, the Samaritan and the one he helped on the road, the leper and the tax collector. And being simple it can be very hard to accept. God knows the human race has made and continues to make decisions collectively and individually every day that deny this – denying this reality to others because of skin colour or race or love choice or class. And we make these decisions out of fear – fear of being wrong, fear of sharing the treasure in the field and that fear speaks out of a shallow place – a narrow place – a very lonely place – a denial of both your humanity and your divinity – and a denial of both the humanity and the divinity of this Jesus.
Do you remember the children’s book The Little Engine that Could and the Little train heads puffing up the mountain bringing the load of toys to the girls and boys repeating “I think I can. I think I can?” Doubting Thomas as the engine is saying ‘I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can.’ And then when he sees Jesus his cry is ‘My lord and saviour.’ If on the flat of the track we believe we are made in the image of God, if on the trajectory of our lives we take this teaching Jesus had no doubt about, to heart and mind, then our journey up the mountain as we travel through life will lead us into the likeness of God – not all at once and not every day – and we will begin to know this Jesus in the present tense just as MLK did in his pronouncement – I have been to the mountaintop!
All beings are made in the image of God. When you can say that with love and joy then you have found the treasure hidden in plain sight. And then you begin to live out of that belief, toward that likeness and it will change everything about how you move and live in the world and even how you view the Resurrection of Jesus.
First Reading 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 religious authorities, 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 God 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.” 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 God ” 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.”
Second Reading Matthew 13:44
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”