A NEW VISION
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
May 5. 2019
Texts: Genesis 3:10-13; John 20:19-31
A New Yorker cartoon I once saw portrayed a man leaving a church and saying to the pastor, “You mean I can't believe it unless I see it?” That was, of course, Thomas' dilemma. He hadn't been with the other disciples that Easter night and had missed seeing the risen Lord. So, naturally, he wanted to see what the others had seen. None of that secon-hand stuff for him. He wanted proof with his own eyes. Then he would be sure. He would be certain.
As any good defense lawyer can tell you, while eye-witness testimony in court is usually accepted as the most reliable, it is often the least reliable. That's because our memory plays tricks on us. We see something, or we think we see something, and the memory of what we think we see becomes engraved on our minds. The most common evi-dence of this problem is the spate of sexual assault or even murder convictions overturned based on incompatible DNA evidence.
In one case, the woman who had been assaulted was absolutely convinced that the man she had accused had indeed committed the crime. As she said at trial, “I'll never forget his face, his smile, his voice.” Well, the DNA evidence proved her memory totally incorrect. Even when presented with the incontrovertible fact of the evidence, she was still convinced that he had done it. The prosecutor continued to oppose the convicted man's release because, after all, how could she be so wrong?
The truth is, of course, that we have preconceptions as to what we are supposed to see – or believe. Just as the woman who was absolutely convinced that the man she fin-gered as her attacker was the one, we read Scripture with preconceptions of what the answers are supposed to be. We read this morning's story from John in a framework. First, we have heard the Thomas story most of our lives, but, just as Jacob and Esau had to actually see each other in a new light in order to be reconciled with each other, so we must read this and the other post-resurrection appearance stories in a new light. The writer of this story was simply trying to explain the reality of the living Christ in his first-century way.
The writer of this story took the questions faced by the first century church and addressed them from his view-point. One of the first questions concerned appearances. Did anyone actually see the risen Christ? Logical question, when you think about it. This gospel was probably written between 90 and 120 CE, meaning that just about anyone who had ever seen Jesus alive before his crucifixion or through a post-resurrection appearance had already died. Most scholars agree that the disciple called John, the beloved disciple, was not the author of this book, but in the manner of the ancient world, this Gospel was ascribed to him. It is far too gnostic in its presentation and theology to have been written by a fish-erman from Galilee.
A major question that perplexed the early Christians of the late first century and early second century was the nature of the man Jesus and the post-Easter risen Christ. The docetist heresy, which stated that the earthly Jesus had no real body but was a spirit only, already had a foothold in the early church. Strange as it may seem, Mark was the gospel that the docetists used to push their theology; that's because Jesus just appears out of nowhere in Mark's gospel. The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke and the non-canonical in-fancy gospels were ways that the early Christian community answered docetism. This morning's reading from John addresses the question by showing that the risen Christ as having the marks of his crucifixion.
Another question of the early community and one which is still relevant today is the connection between the historical Jesus, the man who lived and taught and died, and the post-Easter Jesus, the risen Christ experienced by the early church and whom we call Lord. This probably is the most critical question. The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience. Included in Christian trad-ition is the canonical Jesus, the Jesus we read about in the books of the New Testament.
Because there was so much dissension as to who this Jesus was as presented in those books – his nature, divinity, relationship to God – the church of the third and fourth cent-uries developed creeds to set boundaries to the permissible beliefs about the Jesus of the Gospels. The post-Easter Jesus of experience is the Jesus who was experienced by his dis-ciples as the risen Christ; this is the Christ we experience through meditation, prayer, worship, and our daily life. This is different than Jesus as a historical figure; this Jesus is not limited by time and space and death; he is somehow fused into our experience of God.
Easter is not just a day, nor is it merely a liturgical season. Instead, I would posit, Easter is a continuing exper-ience; it is the experience that defines and shapes who we are as individuals and as a community. In my study at home, there is a poster with a statement made by Monseñor Romero made the week before he was assassinated: “If they kill me, I will rise through the Salvadoran people.” In the same way, Jesus, as he faced the probability of death when he came to Jerusalem, said that he would be killed for the Gospel he preached and that death would not be his end.
It takes a deep faith in the ultimate triumph of truth to face your own death, especially when there might be a way to avoid it. Jesus presented us with a new vision of God – as the One who stands with the poor and marginalized, who liberates us from the limits we impose on ourselves, and as unconditional love. For that he was killed by those who want to impose their understanding of ultimate power against the poor, against freedom, and against the unconditional love we are offered.
The story in Genesis tells us that Jacob and Esau needed to actually see each other in order to reconcile and
to build new relationships because the old ones had been broken. However, Matthew's Gospel tells us that we do not actually need to see a Risen Christ with our eyes to know the presence of that Christi n our lives and to be healed from our brokenness in our relationship with God.
It is probably safe to assume that by the time John’s Gospel was written and circulating those who had actually been with the historical Jesus and who had been the ones to actually experience the Risen Christ had been long gone. So the Gospel tries to serve as an assurance that our experience of God through the Risen Christ doesn't need to be a visual one in the standard sense of the word. Just as we experience God through faithful living, we experience the Risen Christ in the same way.
Our testimony to the truth of the Easter moment, the post-Easter Jesus, the Risen Christ, is not limited by scriptural narratives written by people based on traditions handed down to them. Our testimony to this truth is through our living the message through the radical vision of God given to us by Jesus. It is the radical vision that enabled Christians to hide Jews from the Nazis, knowing that if they were caught, they and their entire families, including their children, would be executed. It is the radical vision that enabled Dorothy Day and Jane Addams to work with the poor in New York and Chicago. It is the radical vision that enables Helen Prejean to be with convicted criminals facing execution in our prisons.
Now, to be honest, none, none of us – not you, certainly not me – are like Dorothy Day or Helen Prejean. We may admire them but we really do not want to make the sacrifices they have made in their lives. We cannot even begin to imagine ourselves being in the kind of situations either they or others like them are.
But there are situations which we experience here in New Jersey, in Middletown, that do call for a new vision, a radical vision of who and what we can be as individuals and as a community. There are so many challenges facing us as Christians here in this community: homelessness, discrim-ination, racism, fear of the other.
Each of us can individually take small steps towards realizing the new vision of the Risen Christ in our midst. We can each speak out against the hyperbole of hate we often hear. And we can do so in a manner that softens the impact of hateful words and language. I know it is difficult for me to heed the words in Proverbs that a gentle answer turns away wrath, but it is true. Responding gently to such language can work.
As a community, we can also have a new vision of the possible, a radical vision of who and what we can be. In re-sponse to Hurricane Sandy, our vision enabled us as a com-munity of faith to open our doors to the kids from the Occupy Sandy project even as we struggled to literally keep a roof over our heads.
It is the radical vision that enables us to bear witness to the truth of God in our lives through our outreach to the community beyond our doors. We know in spite of the touted low unemployment rate that many are really working for a pittance and are having a tough time making it.
Easter wasn't a one-time thing that happened a long time ago. Easter continues in our hearts today. Offered a new vision of God, Easter allows us to take all of our past, the good and the bad, and to be reconciled in the deepest sense of the word, with each other and with God, and to be a people who live open to all the possibilities that life has to offer.
Let us pray: You, O God, who opens us to a new vision of your endless possibilities, embrace us as we embrace you, enabling us to live Easter every day. Amen.