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Saturday, May 28, 2011

To An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Sometimes – not very often – we get it right on the first try. Thirty-five years ago I went shopping for a new guitar. I knew what model I wanted, but really fine instruments each have their own personality and sound. You can’t buy a great musical instrument from a catalog – you have to play it to find the one that’s just right. So, I went to a suburban Washington, D.C. music store, told them what I wanted, and the salesman brought three brand new guitars out of the storeroom. He opened up the first one, handed it to me, I tuned it, and began to play. That was the one, and I never played another. That’s never happened again – I looked for years until I found the 12 string guitar that spoke to me; my son Drew and I went to three different stores and he played a dozen guitars before we found The One; he played about four clarinets before The One emerged. Maybe you’ve had the same experience with cars, or with boats, with houses, with mattresses. Or churches. Or friends. Or mates. That’s why we date, after all – we try this person, and this person, and this person. And, if we’re really blessed, after a string of bad to middling to pretty good prospects, there’s this one guitar – house – church – lover – that, in the words of Saint Goldilocks of the Three Bears, is just right.

St. Paul had been wandering around the city of Athens while waiting for his assistants, Silas and Timothy, to arrive from Berea. There were religious shrines all around the city, Paul discovered, each with an altar dedicated to a different god. Athens was a kind of religious Burger King: you could have it your way. There was even a shrine in the city dedicated to whatever god had been left out, addressed, in Paul’s words, to an unknown god. After all, when the world ends and whatever god is God calls you on the carpet, wouldn’t it be a good thing to prove you had covered all the bases? Yahweh, Allah, Zoroaster, Baal, Vishnu, Zeus, Jupiter, Odin, Quetzalcoatl, or Frank Beamer – you want to have worshipped at all their shrines, just in case. Having an etcetera altar is a great idea for eternal fire insurance.

Athens wasn’t just full of altars – it was full of theologians and philosophers who loved to debate the nature of reality and the difference in philosophies and religions. They’re always looking for something new to argue about, so when this well-educated Jew shows up proclaiming a new wrinkle in Judaism – that in fact the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had come, that he had been executed but resurrected three days later, and that he was now the Lord and Savior of the Universe – it was like throwing fresh intellectual meat to starving lions. They bring Paul to the Areopagus for debate.

Areopagus literally means Aries rock. Aries – Mars to the Romans – was the god of war. It’s a rocky hill in Athens just below the Parthenon. But the Areopagus was also a judicial council which originally met on that hill but in Paul’s time probably met elsewhere. If you do a Bible tour of Greece you’ll be taken to this hill and told that’s where Paul debated the philosophers, but that’s probably not true. What is more true is that this scene mirrors the trial of the Greek philosopher Socrates five hundred years earlier, who was brought before the Areopagus and charged with failing to honor the gods of the city and introducing new gods. Do you begin to see the connection?

Paul begins the conversation by damning the Athenians with faint praise: I see that you are extremely religious: you have altars everywhere to every god – even to “an unknown god.” The philosophers probably slapped each other on their backs at this point – yes, we are very religious. Aren’t we wonderful?

Now, having cozied up to them, Paul slips in the knife: Well, I’m going to tell you know about the god you’ve left out – the unknown God. He is not worshipped with offerings at shrines. He made the whole universe, he made every person who has ever lived, and he designed the world and designed you with a hunger for him. Your own Greek philosophy and poetry admits that, and all your shrines reflect your search for him, as well as your lack of finding him. You’ve been looking and looking for The One. Well, I’m here to tell you who he is. The proof is that he sent his Son, by whose life and teachings and death the whole world is measured, and the proof is that he raised his Son from the dead.

When you find The One – the guitar or the house or the lover – it can be good news and it can be bad news. The good news is that you can settle down, throw all the energy you’ve spent searching into playing, living in, or loving The One you’ve found. A friend of mine who had loved a lot of women said, the night before his wedding, that marriage was such a relief knowing he never had to spend another moment wondering if he was ever going to love or to be loved. You don’t have to shop for another guitar or another house. That’s really good news.

Except for people who love shopping – for guitars or houses or love – more than they love that for which they shop. You can’t ever say yes – to a guitar or a house or a lover – without saying no to others. There’s something very attractive about never committing, never landing, never taking root, never settling down -- you never have to say no. But the flip side is that you can’t ever really say yes, either. There’s something profoundly immature about never committing oneself to something or someone important, like the eighty-five year old Hugh Hefner flitting from one pneumatic young woman to another. Not to decide, said the theologian Harvey Cox, is to decide.

The world was made, St. Paul says to the consternation of the philosophers, by a God who created a hunger in you for the truth and for God. Once, you did not know his name, and God cut you slack for your ignorance. Those times are over, Paul goes on to say: everything you need to know about God can be found in the crucified and resurrected carpenter from Nazareth (seems like I heard a sermon about this recently!). All your thinking, all your speculating, all your living are judged in reference to Jesus.

In an infamous press conference at the height of the Iraq War, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. The unknown God, Paul says, is now known, and you’re accountable.

You and I live in a very religious world, much like Athens. People like to shop their faith, so they won’t have to commit and risk being wrong. But ignorance, St. Paul tells us, is no longer an excuse. God has given the world everything it needs to know, in Jesus. The question no longer is what God is like or what God expects: God has handed us The One. The question, for you, and for me, and for the world, is what we’re going to do about it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Show Us the Father

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Those of us who have been left behind by yesterday’s predicted Judgment Day will probably be harassed by our unbelieving friends about the silliness of Christian belief. Yes, it is true, there are some manifestly silly Christians out there, but we need to remind our friends that 99.99% of Christians in the world did not believe in Harold Camping’s predictions, and most didn’t even know about them. It’s also important for us to understand, and to communicate with skeptics, that the Bible is not some esoteric code book intelligible only to either those few who can decrypt its mystical symbols and sayings, or to those quantum physicists able to perform the complex mathematical calculations hidden in its pages. What God wants the world to know is no great mystery: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God; love the Lord with all your heart and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. As for the end of the world, Jesus said of that day and hour no one knows, not even the Son – only the Father. If that’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is saying goodbye to the disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. He has just washed their feet at the Last Supper. Now he is giving them some last minute instructions – a kind of cram before the exam. The disciples are pretty upset about all this, and Jesus tries to assure them by telling them that where he’s headed, they’ll someday be as well. That has a double meaning – Jesus is talking about heaven, but he’s also talking about suffering.

Thomas, who I believe is the most honest disciple, asks Jesus where he’s going. Thomas has no clue what Jesus is talking about. He wants Jesus to give him instructions on how to go where Jesus is going: we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?

Jesus answers Thomas with a remarkable saying. He tells Thomas that he, Jesus, is the way. He is truth, and he is life. The Way was the earliest name for Christianity, in the Book of Acts. It’s a powerful image. a way is not a thing, a location, a possession. It implies action, movement, and process. The Way is consistent with so much of the Bible story: Abraham is called by God to a journey; Jacob meets God on the way to Haran and again on the way home; Jacob’s sons journey to Egypt, and Moses leads their descendants through the Wilderness back home; the Jews is led captive to Babylon and then come home again. The whole Bible is about traveling, about journey, about people on the Way.

Jesus is telling Thomas, and us, that he is the means by whom people come to God. When he says no one comes to the Father except by me, he means that because of his life and death and resurrection people have access to God, because Jesus has broken down the divisions between God and the world. Jesus has united humanity and divinity, life and death, sin and grace in his own body and life. In Jesus, God has shared our humanity, so that in Jesus, you and I can share God’s eternity.

That’s why the next thing Jesus says is something that for Jews and Muslims is blasphemy. Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, and they will be satisfied. And they will be satisfied? Do you think? Philip doesn’t want much – he just wants to see the face of the Almighty Creator of the Universe. Moses had asked the same thing in Exodus 33, and God, who has infinite compassion, explained to Moses that such a thing would be too much for any mortal human being. Moses might just as well have wanted to be the first man to land on the sun. So God told Moses to stand in a crevice in the rock, and God would hold his hand over Moses’ eyes until God had passed by and then Moses could catch a glimpse of God’s back – the only part of God Moses could see and not die from an overdose of glory. Actually, in the Hebrew, it’s a little lower than the back, but you get the point. Now Philip just wants to see the face of the Father.

If you need any proof of the amazing compassion and patience of Jesus, it’s right here. Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS would have delivered an almost lethal head slap at this point. Have I been with you all this time, Philip, Jesus replies, and you still don’t get it? Missing from the text here is probably Philip saying Get what? If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. The father and I are One. If you don’t believe that, look at what I do.

Jesus declares that he and God the Father are One. This is the heart and soul of Christianity. If you don’t get anything else, you need to get this. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Everything you and I need to know we can know by looking at Jesus. Not everything there is to know about God – but everything we need to know about God. Jesus is not about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether there are other universes, or when the end of the world will come. Everything we need to know about God can be found by looking at Jesus. What does God care about? What does God love? What does God hate? Does God have a sense of humor? Does God like children? Does God love sinners? Does God love the world so much that God would die for the world? Is there anything in the universe stronger than God’s love? Everything we need to know can be found in Jesus.

E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary in India in the early years of the 20th Century. He discovered, to his great dismay, that people in India had absolutely no interest in Christianity or in the church. They knew about Christianity and the church – they’d had a bellyful of it from the British for a hundred years, and they wanted nothing to do with it. But Stanley Jones discovered to his astonishment that when he talked about Jesus, people were absolutely fascinated, and wanted to know all about Jesus. So Stanley Jones stopped talking about religion and about church, and just told people about Jesus. And he brought thousands of Indian people to faith, not in the church or in Christianity, but in Jesus. He became great friends with Gandhi, who also really liked Jesus, but said he didn’t see many people who followed him.

Judi was a New York Jew who ran the local dinner theater on the Eastern Shore. Many members of Franktown Church were in her plays, and always shared, lovingly, their faith with her. She let people know she was perfectly fine being a non-practicing Jew, who, though “not religious, was very spiritual.”

Judi’s marriage and her business fell apart. To compound her distress, her mother developed terminal cancer and came to the Shore for her last days. When I learned that Judi’s mother was in the hospital, I went to pay a pastoral call. Judi met me outside her mother’s room and poured out the story of her dying Jewish mother. I asked her what I could do to help. “What can you do,” Judi replied? “Would you like me to pray with her?” Can you pray with her?” “Of course.” “Can you pray and not use the J word?” “Yes, I can pray and not use the J word.” So Judi took me by the hand into her mother’s room, leaned down and yelled in her ear, “Mamma, the rabbi’s come to see you.” So I leaned by her bed, introduced myself, and said, Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai EḼad - Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord is One. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Judi’s eyes get as big as saucers.

A few weeks later, after her mother’s death, and her funeral and burial in New York, I walked into choir practice on night and there was Judi, sitting very nervously on the front row of the choir. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she said, “but music is such an important part of my life, and I need the healing in my life that I have always found through music.” “Judi,” I said, “you’re welcome here in whatever way you find comfortable. Make yourself at home.” And over the following weeks and months, Judi became more comfortable, started joining in the prayers in worship, started receiving communion, and joined my Membership class – just to get some information, she insisted. And then one day, she came to me after church and said, “Let me see if I understand this. You believe that when you look at Jesus, that’s what God is like. And when you look at Jesus, that’s what people are supposed to be like, too. And what we’re supposed to do is ask Jesus to help us be like him. Right?” “That’s it, Judi,” I answered. She took a long breath, and then said, “I can do that.” And one Sunday a few weeks later I baptized Judi, and her daughter, and her two granddaughters – four Jewish women in one day. And this morning Judi is in her place as the Minister of Music at Franktown United Methodist Church. All because we didn’t try to convert her to Christianity or to the church, but because she understood that when she looked at Jesus, she looked at God, and at herself.

Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied. Don’t tell people about Harold Camping, or about Providence Church: tell them about Jesus.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Wounded God

Acts 8:26-40 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Have you ever found a character in a book, or in a movie, or on television – or perhaps a song – that was you? You knew exactly how that character felt, how she or he was thinking, had been through what that character was going through? I’m sure that many of the women of our congregation are upset today by the announcement that NBC has rejected Wonder Woman for their fall lineup – so many of you, I’m sure, identify with that character. I know my mother identified with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, only to be reinforced when my father told her he didn’t give a hoot and walked out the door. Some of our young women probably identify with Bella Swan of the Twilight series of books and movies, trying to make a choice between vampires on one hand and werewolves on the other. I don’t know who the models are for our boys – I suspect some athletes, which is a scary proposition. I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time the wonderful series of British naval chronicles starring the fictional sailor Horatio Hornblower, whose insecurities, impulsiveness, and strong sense of honor were characteristics with which I identified with as a teenager. I knew – and know­ – what it feels like to be a Hornblower, trying to decide where to sail the ship.
This morning’s lesson from Acts tells of an encounter between Philip – not the Apostle Philip but one of the seven deacons chosen in Acts 6 and known in the church as Philip the Evangelist or Philip the Deacon -- and an Ethiopian court official on the road south from Jerusalem. Philip is one amazing and overlooked disciple: he simply does what the Holy Spirit tells him to do; he can, in the words of Harry Potter (by the way, a good role model, boys), apparate – appear and disappear across time and space; and he has four daughters with the gift of prophecy.
The court official is a eunuch – neutered as a child, without his consent, to serve in the palace and not be a threat to commit adultery with any of the women of the court. He is on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship in the Temple, but, because he was a eunuch, he would have been banned from Temple worship because of Deuteronomy 23, and even his offering would have been rejected because of Leviticus 22:25. Because of something that happened to him in his childhood, completely against his will, the heart’s desire of this foreigner to worship God has been, like his body parts, cut off. It’s not enough that he has been mutilated, or that he can never have children, which in his time and in ours represents our future and our eternity – his faith, his worship, his love for God have been rejected and denied. Go home, he is told. We don’t want you. As for his faith – he can go to hell.
This happens in our own day. Not long ago one of our children, who had been overwhelmed with the power of having served her family and church members the blood of Christ as an acolyte, was devastated when a church member criticized the shoes she wore under her acolyte’s robe. Strangers come to worship and no one speaks to them, invites them to a Sunday School class or to coffee and doughnuts, or asks them their names. Neighbors, co-workers, and classmates hear us talk trash about other people, denigrate elected officials, make fun of brothers and sisters in church. People go missing that we’ve sat next to in the pew for years, and we never bother to hunt them down – that’s what we pay the preacher to do. We proclaim that Jesus is the most important thing in our lives, but never talk to anyone about why. You see, the Ethiopian eunuch wasn’t the last person turned away before he got into the Temple.
The eunuch is reading the suffering servant passage from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. In its original context, Isaiah was writing about the nation of Israel, which had grown up despised and rejected by the other nations. Israel, Isaiah said, in the fall of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon, had suffered for the sins of others, been wounded for the sins of others, and crushed. Despised . . . rejected . . . suffering . . . avoided by others . . . wounded . . . crushed. I know what this feels like, thinks the eunuch. He goes on to read, Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.[1] That’s the eunuch – castrated as a boy without any choice. He has no future, not even with God, because of who he is.
Philip, running along side the chariot – another of Philip’s remarkable abilities – hears the eunuch reading this passage out loud. Do you know what you’re reading about? he asks the eunuch. How can I, without a guide? the eunuch replies. Philip is invited into the chariot, where the eunuch asks whether Isaiah is writing about himself or about someone else. I know how this feels, the eunuch is saying. I’m despised, rejected, wounded, crushed, and I have no future. What does this passage mean? And Philip connects the story of the suffering servant, Israel, in Isaiah, with the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Just as God had used the despised and broken nation of Israel to demonstrate God’s power to forgive and heal and restore, now God had used the despised and executed Jesus to show the whole world that love is stronger than evil, and that now all people are included in God’s mercy and God’s family.
But what about a black castrated man whose attempts to worship God had been rejected at the Temple gates? Is there room for me at the cross, asks the eunuch? Look, there’s a pond: is there any reason why I can’t be baptized, right now? I don’t want to waste another minute outside the family of God. That’s the real test, isn’t it? You say I’m welcome – show me. As Eliza Doolittle sings to Freddy in My Fair Lady, cutting off his flowery love song, Sing me no song, read me no rhyme, don’t waste my time, show me. Please don’t implore, beg on the streets, don’t make a speech, show me. Philip and the eunuch jump out of the chariot, go down to the river to pray, and the eunuch is baptized and welcomed into the Christian family. So the first African transgendered disciple is born again. The Holy Spirit disappartes Philip, and the eunuch goes home, rejoicing, to found the Ethiopian Christian church, which continues to today.
This is powerful story. It is powerful, one, because of its inclusiveness. All the barriers to inclusion in God’s kingdom have fallen down at the foot of the cross. God has called allee, allee, in free, which is why Jesus said that one of the most damnable things you or I can ever do is be an obstacle to anyone’s path to salvation. It makes no difference what color or gender or preference people are, who they vote for, or God forbid, what they wear.
But it is powerful, second, because what brings the eunuch to salvation is the story of a God who is wounded and battered and broken. No matter who your hero or role model is, no matter your color or your sexual history or how much money you’ve got in the bank or whether you’ve been in jail or been king of the world, you know what it’s like to be wounded, beaten, rejected, despised, broken. That’s why the cross is so utterly compelling. Few people can identify with miracles or parables or a virgin birth, but everyone who has ever lived knows what it’s like to be hung up, cursed, and abandoned. And when you and I live not as people who have no worries, no cares, and who sail triumphantly through life, but show people the wounded God who loves through our hurts and pains and brokenness into theirs, those other people discover that the crucified God welcomes even them into the Temple.
We’re all Ethiopian eunuchs, you know. We’re all cut off, despised, and without a future. So, show people your wounds. And tell them about a wounded God, because that’s a role model they can follow.

[1] cf. Isaiah 53:7-8

Sunday, May 1, 2011

See My Hands

Easter 2A, 2011

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 Jews, 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 the Father 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 the Lord.” 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.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Poor St. Thomas. He gets such a bad rap in Christian history, I think completely undeserved. What nickname did he acquire? Doubting Thomas. Thomas would identify with the minister I know whose family still calls him Stinky from his childhood. Or my old Baltimore friend Bill Kilchenstein, whom everybody in the Boy Scout Troop called Ketchup stain.

It’s especially not fair given the other stories in the gospels about Thomas. In the 11th chapter of John, when there’s a plot to stone Jesus, Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Why not call him Gutsy Thomas? On the other hand, in chapter 14, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is leaving them to prepare a place for them, and they know where he’s going, Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” So, why not Clueless, or at least Bewildered Thomas? Instead, he gets stuck with Doubting Thomas.

It’s not fair for at least two reasons. Thomas wasn’t around when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples on Easter evening. When they told Thomas that they had seen the crucified and dead Jesus alive and well, Thomas didn’t believe them. Think about it: you’ve seen a man tortured to death and you’ve seen him buried. Two days later people say he’s not dead. Thomas doesn’t doubt – he’s perfectly sane and rational. People do not ordinarily come back to life after they’ve been killed. So, Thomas demands exactly the same proof that the other disciples say they’ve been given: in John 20:20, it says (Jesus) showed them his hands and his side. So, it seems to me that the correct inflection for the reading of John 20:25 is not 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. I think the better reading is 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. Thomas is simply asking for the same proof as Jesus has given everyone else. That’s not doubt – that’s consistency.

But the second reason why Thomas is mislabeled is because Thomas is simply being a good Jew, who refuses to separate a human life from a human body. We Western Christians have been so infected by Greek philosophy that it’s nearly impossible for us to recover the integrity of Jewish belief about humanity. Greeks separated human existence into at least three parts – a physical body, an intellectual mind, and a spiritual soul. The Gospel of John is written to people so influenced by that division of human life that they believed that anything physical – like the human body – was bad, and the goal of life was to free the soul from its physical prison so it could return to God, who was pure spirit. For these Gnostics – from the Greek word for knowledge – physicality and spirituality were not just incompatible, but opposed to each other. The idea that God could become flesh was utterly impossible, which is why the first chapter of John is written in very precise language to say that, no, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And that everything in the Creation, including all things physical, was created by God as a good thing, just as Genesis 1 had said. Jesus did not come to tell people to shuffle off their mortal coils and be more spiritual – he made wine for a wedding; he healed the sick; he raised the dead; he ate with sinners and enjoyed it so much he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. And the night before he died he gave his followers a meal to remember him by, with real bread and real wine.

So, Thomas doesn’t believe in ghosts. If all the disciples saw on Easter evening was a figment of their imaginations, then Jesus is dead and so is everything he told them. When I was studying theology in college and seminary, New Testament scholarship was still greatly influenced by a German scholar named Rudolph Bultmann, who said that much of the Bible is written using symbolic language. So, Bultmann said, Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead on Easter morning, but the disciples came to a whole new understanding of who Jesus was and what he was trying to tell them, a conversion so radical that it was as though Jesus had risen from the dead.

Well, Thomas is not a Bultmannian. For Thomas, as a good Jew, to be alive means to move and breathe and eat and laugh and cry. He agrees with something St. Paul would write later to the Corinthian Church: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (1 Cor. 15:17). There is no spiritual resurrection and no intellectual resurrection if there is no physical resurrection.

Lo and behold, a week later Jesus, in the language of the Cotton Patch Gospel, walks through, and I mean, through the door to be with the disciples, including Thomas. Instead of chiding Thomas for any doubt, Jesus confirms Thomas’ insistence on resurrection by inviting him to touch the wounds in his hands and in his side. Thomas cries out in response, My Lord and my God! So shouldn’t we call him Faithful Thomas?

This passage has at least three implications for our life together as Jesus’ disciples:

1. We cannot separate spirituality from physicality: God made all things and said they were good. So, to seek spiritual health is to seek physical and intellectual health. Hospitals were founded by churches. Colleges were founded by churches. Our denomination is mobilizing to provide help for the communities devastated by the tornadoes this week – not just to pray for people, but to feed them, shelter them, and rebuild their homes. There is no resurrection that is not physical. And this world and its water and soil and air are part of God’s good creation and any spirituality that does not love and care for what God loves and has made is a false spirituality.

2. There is no Christian spirituality that is not expressed physically: Baptism. Communion. Gathering. Touching. Feeding. Playing. Singing. Giving. This is why we cannot be faithful Christians by staying home – this is an utterly physical religion. Ask our shut-ins and hospitalized what it’s like to not be a physical part of the Body of Christ.

3. Christian faith does not believe that at death people’s souls separate from their bodies and fly up to heaven like Casper the Friendly Ghost. We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. There is no human existence in this life or in the next that is not embodied. In the resurrection, Jesus’ body is different from his body before, but he can be hugged, he bears the wounds of his suffering, and he eats and drinks with his disciples. There is no disembodied life in Jesus Christ, which is exactly what Thomas understands.

So, come to the Lord’s Table this morning, and enjoy it. Watch the great circle dance of Christ’s people as we come forward and circle back. Touch someone with love as you pass them in the pew. Hug someone before you leave. Laugh. Weep. Savor your meals. Smell the flowers, and feel the breeze. Sing loudly, and dance freely, because God has made all this for us, and Jesus is risen, in the body, from the dead.

And when you doubt in mind or soul, touch the wounded Body of Christ, and like Faithful Thomas, believe. My Lord, and my God!