Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Smoking Gun

John 20:19-31
19When 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.”20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So 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.” 26A 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.”27Then 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.”28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.31But 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.

I will never forget the first time I saw it. It was January 2004 and I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to see something I had always heard about. It towers over the beautiful and picturesque city of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. If you happen to arrive there first thing in the morning with the mist still clinging to the mountain, you just might think you were seeing an Easter apparition of your own.

Rio's famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, standing tall, arms outstretched on Corcovado Mountain, is 98 feet high, and weighs 1145 tons. The distance between Christ's fingertips is 91 feet and is the largest statue of Jesus in the world. It is a monument that commands attention and it is not much wonder that millions of people a year travel to see it. This Jesus is an impressive sight, and I was finally standing at its massive pedestal, looking up.

With arms stretched wide, the massive-robed body appears to descend from the sky revealing a square face that resembles a devout, untroubled, if slightly demented looking, Antonio Banderas.

I began my last semester of seminary in the beautiful country of Brazil for my mandatory transcultural experience. I had already visited a lot of different countries and cultures, but had yet been to South America.

When our tour bus finally arrived at the top of the mountain and we could take in the majestic figure up close and personal, many faces in our group were appropriately reverent with awe. Only one member of our party was not impressed. One of the more conservative seminary students in our tour group took one look at the statue and saw the trouble at once. "No nail holes," he said. Jesus' outstretched arms were uncut. No nails had pierced him. No thorns had scratched his brow. The face was serene and glorious and devoid of suffering, without a doubt.

"It ain't my Jesus," said the student. "My Jesus was crucified."

One of the things you notice when you try to wade through the strange resurrection stories in Matthew, Luke and John is that the Jesus who is portrayed as risen is really different. All of these stories go to great pains to say that it was not a ghost the disciples saw but the body of their old friend and crucified Messiah.

Problem is: there are huge inconsistencies in the stories. The various descriptions of the Jesus whom people meet after the resurrection just don't jive. It really isn’t the same old Jesus, the stories all say, but a Jesus who seems to transcend bodily limitations even while he seems to have a body. So, he drifts through walls, appears and disappears, is sometimes unrecognizable, and sometimes eerily familiar. He invites those he knew to touch him but also says that he is beyond such things. He chews and eats fish and apparently enjoys a beachfront barbecue. The point that Matthew, Luke and John wants us to get; is that Jesus definitely died, but he's still got a body, still is a body. Easter was the visitation not of the ghost of Jesus past but the living presence of a man everyone knew. Nevertheless, there was something different about him, something that defied explanation. The people who experienced Jesus alive again had no frames of reference, no categories of language with which to describe or explain what was happening to them.

Seeing ghosts these days is not an abnormal occurrence. A few years ago I read an account of former president George W. Bush’s supernatural sightings. He was awakened one night by George Washington's ghost roaming around in the White House. Bush drew the courage to approach him and asked, 'George, what is the best thing I could do to help the country?' 'Set an honest and honorable example, just as I did,' advised Washington. Unbelievably the very next night, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson moved through the darkened halls as well. 'Tom, what is the best thing I could do to help the country?' Bush asked. 'Cut taxes and reduce the size of government,' advised Tom. Bush didn't sleep well the next night when he saw another figure moving in the shadows. It was Abraham Lincoln's ghost. 'Abe, what is the best thing I could do to help the country?' George W. asked. Lincoln replied, 'Go to the theater.'  

Now, I usually don’t make presidential jokes. The fact is I just couldn’t think of anyone else in politics these days to joke about. Well, back to our story. These people, both women and men, who experienced Jesus alive again, had no frame of reference, no categories of language with which to describe or explain what they were seeing. All they knew for sure was that one standing before them was the same crucified Jesus. And I believe that is the whole point of the story about poor Thomas. The text is surprisingly complex and almost brutal. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe," says Thomas. And just why was Thomas so hesitant to believe what others had already witnessed? Why did he need proof?

Twelve days after graduating from high school I enlisted in the Air Force as a Russian translator. My first assignment after language school was West Berlin, Germany. I arrived in 1983, six years before the Berlin wall came down. My job was intercepting and translating Soviet aircraft communications—a crypto-linguistic spy. To those of us on the front lines of the intelligence war, the idea of East and West Berlin reintegrating as one city was a dream, as well as for many Berliners.

But in order for this to happen, we all knew that Communism had to fall. The idea of that happening seemed more impossible than bulldozing the concrete wall that separated the city of Berlin. I left Berlin in 1986, just a few years before it did happen, and no one expected it to happen so soon—not the armed forces, not the German government or its citizens, and least of all me.  But on November 9, 1989 the first section of the wall was removed—and with it the political barriers that had separated the German people for almost 40 years. Everyone agreed that we wouldn’t see an end to these division in our lifetime. Why did we doubt that we would see the unification of Germany within a generation? Many of us couldn’t believe it, because that would mean peace would have to win over partition. And peace just didn’t seem imaginable at that time and place.

In our text, Jesus appears to the disciples with that same promise. "Peace" he greets them, indicating that he is glad to see them. But with Thomas he is less than genial. The literal Greek translation of the words is not as soft as most versions imply. It is rough. "Take your finger, here are my hands; take your fist, jam it in my side. Don't be faithless, but be faithful!" What Thomas could not imagine was that the one who had endured so much could come back bearing the marks of his suffering; testifying to the power of resurrection over death. Thomas saw for himself the nail holes, a spear hole, bruises, scratches and dried blood. Jesus was not a pretty sight. He was a resurrected sight. The resurrected Jesus was evidence of what God is always willing to do; bring hope back into the places of our lives that feel like death. The point of the Thomas story is not, it seems to me, the necessity of believing without seeing, but the necessity of accepting the fact that God will make Godself known to us; as God really is. Not a God that is above all of our suffering, but a God who bears the marks of our suffering. We often want a Jesus without scars. We want to worship an unruffled Christ, a majestic, serene-looking Jesus who is somehow beyond it all. We want to picture Jesus as a winner, able to conquer every adversity, on top of the world, looking down on us. So we smooth over the cuts and bruises, making Jesus look, . . ., well, like a statue. We want all our experiences of worship to be "hours of power". We want to hear "success" stories in church, about people who "made it" as a result of their faith, not about people who got crucified because of it.

And that’s why the story of Doubting Thomas is real and transforming for me. When Jesus came back the first time after his death, Thomas wasn't there. All the other disciples had a physical experience of Jesus' resurrection. And when they all gathered to talk about it and express their joy at the evidence of Jesus overcoming death, Thomas couldn't believe it. He demanded proof. He needed a smoking gun…just like the disciples had been given. And when Jesus came back again, he said to Thomas. “Touch my wounds. Put your fingers in my hands and feel where the nails were hammered into me—and where the sword was pierced into my side.  Touch the wounds that were given to me because I was rejected. Feel the hole in my side that injustice, and bigotry, and hatred and prejudice and homophobia put there. And know that I came back…for you.” Jesus came back for Thomas. He came back to give Thomas the proof that he needed to believe—the smoking gun.

That same Jesus comes back for you too; every time you have doubts that God cares. In every moment you feel abandoned, worthless, criticized for who you are, when you’ve been a victim of abuse, neglect or wronged in deed. In every situation where your hopes and dreams are taken from you, whenever you are separated from your identity as one of God’s special creations; Jesus will come back for you. Sometimes He comes to us in the warm stone of a majestic statue or in the cold concrete of a broken down wall. 

So don’t be afraid or anxious about the future. Be encouraged that your influence and good works and legacy will live on. That’s the smoking gun. That’s the proof of your resurrection. That’s the good news. Thanks be to God!

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