Disgust: a Malleable Moral Emotion

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter C, April 28, 2013, on Acts 11:1-18 & John 13:31-35

First, the readings:

Acts 11:1-18

Domenico Fetti
Domenico Fetti

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Disgust: a Malleable Moral Emotion

After we had recently arrived in Croatia I had the opportunity to visit many congregations, the vast majority of which were in small farming villages.  Often after the service I was invited to lunch in someone’s home.  I’ve eaten some of the best, most delicious, freshest, food in the world there.

One Sunday, the whole congregation gathered together for a common meal prepared by the church people.  Part of being a new person in a foreign place is that you never know if your instincts will serve you or not.  You go to lunch, and you don’t know what will happen.  How many courses will be served?  It the soup the whole meal, or only a starter?  Will there be dessert? What is it, exactly, that we are eating?

What’s for Lunch?

So, we sat down to lunch, and after the soup they put a plate on the table in front of each of us, with what looked like a layered cube on it.  I could tell it was not hot, but cold.  What was

church lunch in Croaita
church lunch in Croatia

it?  It looked like a layer cake with white frosting in between other layers. The top was a deep amber color, like glazed sugar.  Cake immediately after soup, I wondered?  Seemed strange, but you never know.

It was harder than cake to cut – but that didn’t tell me what it was.  I  cut a piece to eat, making sure to include some from all the layers.  In my mouth it went.  Suddenly I knew:  this was pork.  It had been boiled, probably the day before, then refrigerated.  The meat was quite tasty.  The white layers were fat;  to me, it was like eating pure lard.

At times like that, the one facial expression that you must not make is the one that you automatically do make: it’s the “disgust” face.  We Americans – most of us – are rather disgusted by the idea of eating a mouthful of soft fat.  We have heard, over and over, about the dangers of fat in our diets – the calories, the cholesterol – we know that this is the stuff that will make us sick and could kill.  So, we are disgusted by the thought of a mouthful of it.

Actually this is a learned-disgust.  The fat, after all, is where the flavor of the meat is.  Without the health indoctrination, I’m sure we would all love it.  Lots of things we find disgusting are learned reactions.

Disgusting Evolution

Scientists tell us that disgust is given to us as by our evolutionary history, as a way of avoiding things that could harm us.  The smell of rotting vegetation or rancid meat is disgusting to us – which probably saves our lives.  Think of the kind of milk you might have swallowed if you didn’t have a disgust reaction to its smell when it is old.

But disgust can also be taught and learned.  One day, when Ben was little, we were in a store.  At the check-out, the clerk was delighted that a little American could speak Croatian.  She said to him, “You don’t like those nasty Serbs, do you?”

Once we got outside, he asked me what a Serb was, and why they were nasty.  He had not been taught, in our home, to find them disgusting.

Kosher and Disgust

When we are taught that certain things are “bad” we can form feelings of disgust about, even if they are harmless. Some Jewish people who keep Kosher find the idea of eating bacon

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disgusting.

That was exactly Peter’s reaction when, in his vision, the sheet-type-thing came down from heaven with all the animals on it.  We read that the sheet contained not just clean quadrupeds, but “all kinds of four-footed creatures” which would include pigs  (Acts 10:12).

Worse, it included other kinds of forbidden animals, like reptiles, beasts of prey – including birds of prey, like vultures that feed on dead animals – disgusting and totally unclean, according to Torah.

The Word of the Lord through Moses

Let’s take a minute to remind ourselves about where this concept comes from.  Listen to these verses from the Old Testament:

The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them:  Speak to the people of Israel, saying:…. 13  These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey….” (Lev. 11:1-2, 13)

“You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.”   (Lev. 20:25)

Abomination” is a strong word!  Making such distinctions between clean and unclean was fundamental to the Old Testament perspective.  And it went beyond food.  The necessity of making a distinction included people too:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—…the Canaanites,… [and a laundry list of other peoples]—  2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.  3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons”  (Deut. 7)

These were not just suggestions, these were commands; and, according to the story, they came from God.  Of course they came through Moses, but he got them, as it says, when the Lord spoke to him and told him what to say.

Peter’s Spiritual Openness

So it is not just remarkable, it is in fact astounding that the good Jewish man, Peter, has that vision in which he is told  to make no distinctions.  He actually refuses twice.  He says,

“I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

It takes a third time to convince him.

Disgusting Gentiles Arrive

Even more remarkably, the next thing that happens in the story is that the Gentile men sent by Cornelius appeared, and Peter immediately got the point that he should welcome them.  The voice in the vision told him not to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals; and he got the point that this whole classification system had expired, and he was also not to make a distinction between people either.

The basis for drawing this conclusion was the reason given by the voice for ending the animal distinction.

“the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter was raised going to the Synagogue on the Sabbath hearing the reading of scripture.  He knew perfectly well the Genesis creation story.  What had God made unclean?  Nothing!

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Everything God made God pronounced “good.”  And when he had made it all, including humans, God pronounced it all “very good.”  God did not make anything unclean  (that concept had to wait for Moses to come along).   Now, the “clean and unclean” distinction is past it’s due date; it’s expired.

Peter should not have needed the sheet-vision to know this.  Did not Jesus himself say

“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  (Matt 15:11)

Yes, but disgust is hard to unlearn.  Especially disgust that has been reinforced by social consensus and by religious warrant.  The Old Testament called unclean animals an “abomination” to God, and the centuries of Kosher custom reinforced that feeling at every meal.

And yet the remarkable thing is, Peter was open to un-learning his disgust reaction, as he opened his heart to the Spirit of God in prayer on that rooftop.

Back to the story: Peter then describes how he had witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house.  The Spirit thereby confirmed that this new perspective on people was from God himself.  And Peter sums up the conclusion saying:

“If then God gave [Gentiles] the same gift [of the Holy Spirit] that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Hearing this, the other Jewish apostles and Jewish believers, who evidently were questioning Peter about this were convinced.  It says:

“When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Repentance that leads to life” is exactly the way to say it.  Why?  Because, when Jesus came, what was his foundational message?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

That’s what he said at the beginning of his ministry.  How did he sum up his teaching just before his crucifixion in that upper room when he was giving his disciples his final words?

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Ah, this is exactly why the good news of the Kingdom must come with repentance (a change of heart and mind).    We are not naturally very good at loving.  We have all kinds of people that we find disgusting, and we feel justified in excluding them from the circle of love.

We do OK with people like ourselves – our race, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation, our religion, our political party, but we have had a bad track-record  when it comes to loving people who are different.

Hope for Change: the Spirit

Thankfully, there is hope for change.  Just like Peter, we too can be people who are open to the Spirit.  The Spirit, the active, powerful presence of God is at work in us.  The Spirit, like a

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prayer position: catacombs

steady rain, softens the soil of our hearts to allow new growth.  The Spirit, like a cool April breeze, blows into the dank, closed off, musty places in our hearts with freshness, full of new possibilities.

Can the church – that is, people like us – learn to see past our culture’s insistence that we find people who are different disgusting?  Can we learn to love Muslims, gay people, even people from the notoriously wrong political party?  Even people covered in tattoos? Yes of course; the flame of Spirit is present like a candle to bring light into places in us that had been dark.

This openness to others, this refusal to maintain the clean-unclean distinction is exactly what we are called to be and to do.  We are called to love; full stop.  Without conditions, and without limitations.

Disgust and Prayer

But we cannot just switch off the disgust-face; it’s automatic.  It has been reinforced for years.  This is why, like Peter on the roof, we are people of prayer and meditation.  We are people who regularly discipline our lives to be open to the Spirit of God.  We are people who daily invite the Spirit to change us.

We are people who know that God’s work in us is not over until we draw our last breath and go home to meet the Lord.   Old habits die hard, but the Spirit is more powerful.  We expect God to change us.  We can have our eyes opened by the Spirit in new ways to seeing the things we need to repent of, now that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come.”

We can, and by God’s grace, we will be people who love. And the world will sit up and notice.  I believe we will see the day when the reputation we in the church have will be again, “see how they love…”.

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Spiritual Rehab, post Faith-fail

Sermon for Easter 3 C, April 14, 2013 on Lectionary text John 21:1-19

The Text:  John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

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Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Spiritual Rehab, post Faith-fail

This is an extremely difficult text – but also an extremely powerful one.  On the surface it seems like a dreamy little wonder-story with great moments of emotional human drama.  But since it doesn’t start with the standard “Once upon a time…” fairy tale introduction, we have to decide how to read it – and that’s just the start of the difficulty.

What is this story?  It’s complicated. It starts as a resurrection-appearance story; then it’s a fishing miracle story, then a reconciliation, or perhaps a rehabilitation story, and finally a short prophecy.  Each of these parts, when you look at them closely, is quite strange.

Confession

Before we get into it, I have a bit of a confession to make.  For some people faith is very easy and comes naturally.  I bet you probably think I’m one of them.  But I’m not.  Faith is difficult for me.  Doubt lurks around the bend, quite a bit.  I wish it were not so, but it is.  The truth is that I have to work hard, practicing spiritual disciplines on a daily basis to hang-in there.

Why is it hard for me and others (you, perhaps)?  There are several things that make it hard, like the evil in the world, of course.  But another one of them is the nature of the bible itself, of which this text is a perfect example.   The more you look into it, the stranger it gets.

Problems in the Text

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The text we just read from John has all kinds of difficult issues in it.  Without any explanation of how or when, the disciples who had just been in a locked room, one foot-race away from the tomb in Jerusalem,  are suddenly up in Galilee, out in the open, fishing.  It’s where they started.  So is this symbolically “full circle”, or what?  Not all of the eleven are there: only seven of them.  Is that number symbolic? Otherwise, why enumerate?

They fish all night without success – is the darkness of night and the lack of effectiveness symbolic?  After all, Jesus, who came to be “the light of the world” and to be “the vine” that produces fruitfulness, for those who “remain in him,” (Jn. 15)  is absent.

Then, at daybreak (is that symbolic?) Jesus shows up, but they do not recognize him (also symbolic?).  He tells them to fish on the other side of the boat – instructions which make no literal sense – but they heed his instructions, and catch a miraculously huge number of fish.

The quantity of abundant fish cannot help but make every good Jewish person remember the river, teeming with fish, that the prophet Ezekiel had used to picture the new age, when God would intervene on behalf of his people, producing abundance – rivers in the desert – full of life.  Is that how we are supposed to read this?

There aren’t just a lot of fish, there are exactly 153.  I cannot even begin to go into all the symbolic possibilities of that number, but the fact that it is an exact number certainly makes it feel symbolic.

Issues with Jesus

That  disciple whom Jesus loved” – which most people take to be John – “the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper” was the first to recognize Jesus – Why? because his eyesight was better? or because, symbolically, he had loved him most unreservedly?  So, Peter – as naked as Adam on the day of Creation – somehow abruptly clothes himself and dives in, to reach the shore before John – just has Peter had outrun him to the tomb back in Jerusalem on Easter morning.  The primacy of Peter is getting predictable.

Back on shore, Jesus has a fire going and is cooking fish.  We never actually hear if he himself eats any, but in any case, he cooks.  So what are we supposed to make of his body?  He has suddenly appeared in locked rooms, like a ghost, but had  crucifixion scars on his flesh.  He can build a fire and cook fish – but can he eat it?

Jesus is the host here, providing food, just like Messiah who will host the great banquet in the new age.  Is that what this is about?

Jesus also, it says, “took the bread and gave it to them” – like he did when he fed the multitudes, and which sounds like eucharist language; is this another Lord’s Supper after the Last Supper in the upper room?

Multiple Readings Offered

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Each of these issues could be explored, but a huge take-away lesson from all of this is that you could read it all in more than one way, and you would have solid reasons for doing so.

And this is exactly what the life of faith is like.  Do we get to see Jesus? No, not physically.  Is he present or not?  Is he able to produce abundant fruitfulness from our lives, to feed us in faith-sustaining ways that give us hope?

I love that line:

 “none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.”

It sounds like they “knew it” like you “know” someone is bluffing in a card game.  You just know it – more or less certainly (except that certainty is the opposite of “more or less”).  It’s like the man who needed Jesus to come heal his little boy who said “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

How do we become conscious of the presence of the risen Christ among us?   It’s not cut-and-dried.  Very few of us (certainly not me) has had the kind of self-authenticating, incontrovertible religious experience that allows no alternative explanation.

But yet, somehow, we do experience his presence, often in odd ways, and in unusual glimpses, only partly recognizable, like a man on the beach, seen from a boat offshore.  And yes, we do meet him in the breaking of the bread, at the sacramental table where he is host, and we are fed.

The Past is Present

Which brings us to a second problem: once we become aware of his presence, what do we do about ourselves?  We come with our history; with our past.rooster

“I deny the resurrection.” 

That’s a quote from a young British theologian and author, Peter Rollins.  He goes on to say that whenever he sees hungry people and doesn’t care, he is denying the resurrection.  Whenever he sees victims of abuse or discrimination and does nothing, it’s a denial of the resurrection.

By that same measure, I’m afraid that I’d have to say that I’ve denied the resurrection plenty of times myself.  I guess you could say that every failure to live as Jesus taught us is a functional denial.  When I fail to forgive someone who wronged me, when I put my needs first, when I seek happiness in external conditions, are these not denials of the resurrection?

This is were this text becomes most powerful.  Peter himself, who famously denied  Jesus three times, now comes to him, as Jesus has called him to do, past included.

Jesus’ Objective

What is the goal here?  What does Jesus want from this exchange?  Does he shame Peter?  No.  Does he make him grovel and beg for mercy? No.  Does he extract a promise to “do better next time”?  Not at all.

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But neither does he simply pass over Peter’s recent denials as if they did not matter.  As many times has Peter denied him, Jesus asks him for one thing only: a statement of love.

“Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus’ Reason for Doubt

Does he?  Should Jesus believe him?  Hasn’t Peter’s recent past given Jesus reason for doubt?  And this is the amazing place we have come to: that both parties on the beach, sitting at the fire, must choose either to trust the other or not, not on the basis of solid proof, but on the basis upon which every love relationship is founded: trust.

The gospel of John started with this nearly impossible notion that the the Word that was the source of all Creation became flesh.  Well, here is that Word, at the end of the story, not just in the form of breakfast-fixing human flesh, but in the position that all humans find themselves in, having to trust a person with  only their word to go on.

And this is exactly what John is telling us that God does with us.  In spite of all of our denials, all of our past failures, he is willing to renew the relationship he offers to us, on no more solid grounds than our feeble words of commitment.  No shame, no groveling, no promises of improvement required.  Just a “yes” to the question, “Do you love me?”

“Proof”

So what does Jesus want now, from newly rehabilitated Peter?   Not proof of love by self-inflicted suffering – no horse-hair shirt to put on, and no desert cave to live in.  Neither does he want Peter to build a cathedral nor a monument, not even a pilgrimage site-marker.

Three times Peter is told to do the work of a good shepherd, and feed his sheep.  Take your eyes off of yourself, stop letting the past define you.  Do what is in your power to do, in the real world, for real people.  This is what it means when Jesus says,

“Follow me.” 

Just as Jesus had said when it all started, back in Chapter one, at the same seaside in Galilee, he extends the call again:

“Follow me.”

So this is our calling.  Not to be certain, but to be faithful.  Not to a life of perfection without failures of faith, but a life of purpose, lived not for ourselves, but for others.

We have been called to go all-in, like every couple on their wedding day, at the moment of saying “I do” – not because they know how it will all turn out, not because they are certain, but because they have heard “I love you” and have chosen to believe it, and have said “I love you” and meant it to the best of their ability.  And they go all in – because there is no such thing as more-or-less married.  So we go all in, extending the Good Shepherd’s mission of mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing, tending his lambs.

Fellow deniers; fellow doubters, let us all hear the call:  Jesus is saying to us simply and only this:  “Follow me.”  That much, is certain.

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Must We Excuse the Violent Bible?

John  M. Buchanan’s editorial in the April 17, 2013 issue of Christian Century was born of his reflections on the bible’s depiction of God’s violence after watching the History Channel’s “The Bible”.  If you are not familiar with him, Dr. Buchanan is pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago and editor and publisher of The Christian Century.

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The Christian Century magazine is the go-to magazine for “mainline Protestants” e.g. Presbyterians (PCUSA), Lutherans (ELCA), Episcopalians, United Methodists, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist – and so on (sorry if I left your denomination out).  Typically these churches have a wide spectrum of theological and social views, including a large number of people would likely self-identify as “progressive” or “liberal.”  So, I would have expected a lot of head-nodding approval of the main thesis of his editorial: that an over-literal reading of the bible which takes all the violent acts attributed to God as historical description – as opposed to metaphor – misses the point.  Here is the central paragraph:

The problem with The Bible and most media representations of the biblical story is that they are so literal. In the effort to get the details of the story right, the storyteller misses the point. Over the years, most of us come to an accommodation with biblical texts that stretch the imagination—particularly those texts that portray God as vengeful, angry and murderous. We parse the Red Sea story as a myth, a story that reveals an important truth about God and human beings. Maybe the Red Sea was a swamp; maybe the pursuing Egyptian chariots became mired in the mud; maybe the people of God told the story of their ancestors’ unlikely escape from Egypt and added details with each retelling. But for most of us the point is not the story; the point is the gracious providence of God, which operates in history as hope and justice and love. (emphasis mine) Continue reading “Must We Excuse the Violent Bible?”

Bringing Peace, Breathing Spirit

Sermon for 2nd Easter, Year C, on John 20:19-31

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

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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.

Bringing Peace, Breathing Spirit

Ever since I was quite young I have had a job.  When I was in middle school I had a friend whose father, Mr. Burke, owned rental property on Dayton’s west side – the poor side of town.  Mr. Burke employed his son and me to cut grass, paint walls, remove overgrown shrubs, and haul loads of trash to the dump.

One day, trying to cut some branches off a fallen tree I got hurt.  I was holding the branch I was cutting too close to the tree-saw blade – it was just a hand-saw, but as I pushed and pulled it back and forth, trying unsuccessfully to hold it still, the saw jumped out of the groove and onto my hand.  It bled like crazy before we could get it stopped. I still have the scars.

I owe a huge debt to Mr. Burke.  He worked us hard, and taught us how to work.  I learned some skills like painting and laying tile, and the importance of being careful with a saw.  And I also learned deeper things: what it means to work an eight-hour day in the hot summer sun, that it’s okay to get your hands dirty, that you have to keep going until you finish the job, and how to wait until the end of the pay period for the reward.  Those were crucial lessons.

Sometimes when I look at my hand and see those scars I remember those days and I’m thankful for how they helped form me as a person.  Those scars are part of who I am.

Scars of Identity

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Scars become the focus of the text we read from John’s gospel.  When Jesus want’s to assure Thomas, he offers his scars; exactly what Thomas said he needed to see.

“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.

Somehow, instinctively perhaps, Thomas knew that the way you tell who a person is, is by their scars.

And we all have them.  Some we can see, others are invisible.  Some have healed so well that we rarely notice them; others are still sources of pain, and they show up all the time: in our memories, our precautions, and our personal treatment strategies.

Show Me Yours

I think it would have been fair for Jesus to have said to Thomas, “Now, you show me yours.”  Turnabout is fair play, as they say, right?  But he didn’t need to.  It was obvious.  Thomas was, like all the rest, behind shut, locked doors.  Their jailer was fear, and they were all immobilized by him.  The scars were in plain sight.

At least some of them were.  Maybe others weren’t.  They had reasons to be in fear of the Romans, who had crucified their leader, so hiding behind locked doors was a strategy that seemed, for the moment, to be working.  But Thomas shows us another fear-scar – one still causing pain.  The fear of being hurt again.  The fear of trusting again, and being left alone.

You see, Thomas, and others of the group, had expected that Jesus was going to be  the successful Messiah to liberate the people from, as they believed, their worst problem: Roman occupation.  It was all looking good, until around the time Lazarus got sick and died.  By then the heat was on, and Jesus had made enough people angry that he was a marked man.

When Jesus announced his plan to go to where Lazarus was dying, Thomas knew that Bethany was literally a stone’s throw from Jerusalem – the heart of Jesus’ fiercest opposition.  It was Thomas who said to the other disciples, (I imagine in frustrated bitterness):

Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  (John 11:16)

Love’s Labors Lost

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In his mind, he got absolutely nothing he had hoped for, by following Jesus.  He felt betrayed.  Love’s labors lost.  Why go there again?  Why stick your neck out a second time, trusting one who had let you down?

For many of us, like Thomas, the very fact of getting scarred the first time makes it harder to trust in the God who let us down, and let it happen.  The name Thomas means “twin.”  Who was his twin?  Maybe we are.   Maybe we are identical to him in this respect.  “Once bitten, twice shy.”

The scars that we carry around, on our bodies and in our memories, make us cautious.  We develop defense strategies to avoid repeating the pain that we went though.  We try to treat the pain that continues – and we are often quite unwise about our self-treatment schemes.  What once caused pain, forever after, causes fear and doubt.  We can sympathize with those immobilized disciples in that locked up room, doing nobody any good.

Lock Fail

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Hear the good news: Jesus will not be locked out, even by our worst fears, even by our most painful memories, even by immobilizing doubt.  In fact it is exactly at the moment of the pain that he shows up.  Past the defenses, in spite of the strategies, Jesus shows up to be with us, inside our locked down hiding places.

When Jesus shows up, what does he say?  Three times in this short text, he says “peace.”  It’s not just “hello,” but “peace,” or “shalom,” that is, wholeness, wellness, in other words, healing.

Resurrection did not remove Jesus’ scars.  Jesus’ presence doesn’t remove the disciple’s scars.  But but his presence there, with us, brings peace, shalom, healing of the pain.

For Absent Readers

John writes this story for us with deep sensitivity to his readers.  Writing probably sixty years after that first Easter day, John is well aware of the fact that his readers, in his generation and ours, will not have the benefit of seeing Jesus and his scars.  How will Jesus be present to us?

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Though the details of time and place are quite different from the way the story of the Holy Spirit’s arrival is told in the book of Acts, the answer is the same: Jesus continues to be present to his followers by his Spirit.  John cannot resist including the Spirit right here, right now, in this moment of pain and fear.  So, instead of waiting until Pentecost, he has Jesus breath out his Spirit on the disciples, right here on this page of the story.

“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.”

Just as God’s Spirit was present with Jesus when he was being scarred by those nails and the spear on Good Friday, yes, even as he was crying out “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  so, God is present with us, by his Spirit, bringing God’s peace, God’s shalom, God’s healing.  All he asks is that we simply trust him to be there.

Invitation: Go All In

Where are your scars?  Where is it still hurting?  God is inviting us to trust that he is there for us, because he is present with us, by his Spirit, even in the pain.  We are invited to believe that he will bring his shalom-giving Spirit to every painful wound, and that though they mark us for life, the scars themselves will become part of who we are, and will be redeemed for good.

We will look back and be able to say, those scars made me who I am today.  God was with me then, is with me now, and will be with me at every moment, by his present Spirit.

And so the locks can come off the doors.  The fear-jailor can have a vacation.  The followers of Jesus – that’s us – are sent out to go to the world with a purpose.

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Then Go All Out

We all have a purpose.  We were not put on earth to hide in fear and to live in  perpetual pain.  We are here to receive the Spirit, and then to go out as Spirit-people, “wounded healers” (as Henri Nouwen said).  We are people who go around, not wagging the finger of shame at other people behaving badly “retaining their sins,” but rather, as people who bring the healing, peaceful, forgiving presence of God with us.

We are sent out with our scars, allowing them to be invitations to others that say: “Hey, look at me: I’m scarred like you.  But it doesn’t hurt so much now, because I know God is with me, and with you.  The Spirit is here.”

What are your scars?  Have you gone though a divorce?  An addiction?  Have you been a victim of abuse?  Have you had doubts?  Depression?  Despair?  Do you  have the scars to prove it?  They are there to be a bridge to other people going through the very same things.   They are there to give you empathy because we, who know what pain feels like, are exactly the ones to reach out to others in pain.

Did Thomas ever actually touch Jesus’ scars?  I don’t know.  Did Jesus touch his?  I think so.  Because Thomas was willing to go, “full-in” and cast himself utterly on the scarred one before him.

“Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

And here is where we enter the story:

“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.”

Believe that God is present by the Spirit now, and trust that healing will come, peace will come, all will be well.  And then go help someone else who is hurting.

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