Sermon: Brokenness and Hope

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Brunswick Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia on the 8/4/18. Audio can be found here:
https://brunswick.unitingchurch.org.au/brokenness-hope/

Reading:
John 20.19-31

 Caravaggio,  The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

God, help me to witness to the resurrection, and empower those that listen to voice their doubts. Amen.

Last week we commemorated Holy Week: the central festival in the Christian calendar. Leading up to this time many within the church - here and around the world - prepare themselves during the period of Lent. The time of lent, when many people give up something important to them, recalls the time of preparation that Jesus underwent before his public ministry. It is a time when many recall the seriousness of the suffering of Christ to come.

After Lent we retell the story of the end of Christ’s ministry. From the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday, to the dark depths of Good Friday, and the glorious resurrection of Easter Sunday. During Easter we retell the story of Jesus the Messiah, who, as one of the earliest summaries puts it: “humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.” We re-tell that “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” We confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Amen!

This is the central story of Christianity itself. And so it is important that we keep retelling it.

And yet, the task we have before us today - a week after Holy Week - is perhaps more difficult. More than simply re-telling the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, today we must begin to unpack the implications of this strange story. We must move from discussions about what happened, and start to ask: what happens next? We must try to make sense of it all.

John's Gospel, as we are told in today's reading, itself has in mind an answer to our question of what might happen next. In the aftermath of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the writer of John’s Gospel would have us believe, and in believing have life.

As we read John's Gospel we might bear this in mind: the author was themself trying to make sense of the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not unlike us today.

Let us begin by turning our attention to our reading from John 20. 

The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, inside a locked room, he greets the disciples with peace, and presents his wounded body. This is difficult to understand.

Setting aside for the moment the strange account of the resurrected Jesus passing through a locked door, I want to begin by looking at another odd happening in the first appearance of the resurrected Jesus in our reading today. Jesus breathes on the disciples.

So, I tend not to just breathe on my friends as a sign of affection … Especially when, as far as they’re concerned, I’m either a corpse or a ghost. And yet this is what Jesus does. In breathing on his disciples we are told Jesus imparts to them the Holy Spirit.

At this point we might recall the creation narrative in Genesis 2, where God breathes the Spirit of life into humanity. The parallels between Jesus and the creation accounts of the Hebrew Bible run deep in John's Gospel.


John's famous prologue - “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” - frames the entire Gospel in reference to the foundations of creation. Local scholar, Rev. Dr. Sally Douglas has drawn attention to a key source for this prologue in the Jewish tradition that associates woman wisdom with God’s act of creation. That is, a tradition within Jewish thought that places someone else alongside God in the act of creating. From the very beginning John is suggesting that Jesus needs to be understood alongside the Creator God.

And so when the first witness to the resurrected Jesus, Mary Magdalene, mistakes Jesus for a Gardener we might imagine that she is not mistaken at all. But rather, she properly identifies Jesus as the Gardener, from the Garden: the Garden of Eden. John’s Gospel seems to suggest that Jesus is God the Gardener who walks among the plants, and animals, and who breathes life into humanity.

The language of “new creation” tries to capture this way of thinking about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has inaugurated a new creation! And so everything, everything must be re-evaluated in the light of who Jesus is. In placing Jesus alongside the Creator God John’s Gospel is suggesting that the way of God has now become the way of Jesus the Messiah.

We are invited to follow the way of God, by now following the way of Jesus. As the Father has sent Jesus, in this way we are sent. As Jesus forgave sin, in this way we are to forgive sin.

The question is not how we can demonstrate that Jesus is the all-powerful and Holy God descended into the human realm. The first appearance of Jesus to his disciples re-emphasises the point that Jesus’ identity is bound up with a re-evaluation of the world, and the Creator God who stands above it. The question now is how our assumptions about the world are reimagined in the light of Jesus the Messiah. And how our assumptions about God are reimagined in this same light.

We might now say that Jesus is not like God: God is like Jesus.

For this reason Christians have said that there is a new creation, built upon Jesus the Messiah, and we can begin again.

The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, inside a locked room, he greets the disciples with peace, and presents his wounded body. This is difficult to understand.

And yet Thomas confesses, “My Lord and my God!”

In preparing this sermon I thought I had a fairly solid grasp on the story of “doubting Thomas.” The disciple who did not believe upon hearing of the resurrection, instead demanding proof. Having demanded this proof, Jesus suddenly appears presenting his scarred body as if to rebuff Thomas’ doubt.

But Jesus does not “suddenly” appear. Jesus appears, but a week later. This gave me pause:

Perhaps I had Thomas all wrong. Indeed, his fault is doubting the resurrection until he saw it himself. As if the other disciples did not themselves come to belief only after Jesus’ first appearance.

I’m working on an alternative interpretation. Thomas, for all his doubt, seems to be aware that resurrection does not mean erasing the past. New creation does not throw out the old creation. Thomas does not say, “I will believe when I see Jesus present himself, alive and well, healed of the injuries that led to his death.”

This is an important corrective for those of us keen for simple and quick solutions. Jesus does not offer us that.

Jesus offers us a scarred and broken body. But one that still has life.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection interrupts the normal order of things. The normal assumptions we make about how the world works. The normal assumptions we make about how locked doors work. Importantly, the way of Jesus interrupts how we gather together. Jesus proclaims a new vision of life and community that critiques the old. A vision we see expressed in our other reading today from Acts 4: where the followers of Jesus share what they have in love for each other, meeting the needs of everyone.

And so as we continue to unpack the implications of the one who overcame death, we remember that he yet bears the scars of crucifixion. The one who inaugurates a new order of things, yet calls us to this new way here and now.


Perhaps, then, we can do nothing but retell this same story in a different way.

When Jesus died he gave up his Spirit. There are some in the Christian tradition that have understood the Spirit as precisely the bond of love between God and Jesus. As Jesus died, giving up his Spirit and breathing his last, he opens the bond of love between God and himself, and makes possible our inclusion in this Holy Love. Jesus stands with our humanity even to his own death. Here Jesus begins a new creation.

As we celebrate the resurrection we celebrate that this love between God and Jesus can overcome anything: even death on a cross. The love between God and Jesus overcomes all boundaries between God and the Godforsaken, between God and the Godless. And in breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples Jesus breathes upon them this same divine love. Jesus brings them into the new creation. A new creation built on love.

And so for us too: nothing can separate us from the love of God. The love of God that brings scarred and broken bodies into our communities, and calls us to welcome the broken with love and hope.

The resurrection does not easily erase the scars. It brings the scarred and broken bodies we bear into an irrevocable community of love. It calls us to hope. To be new creations. Challenging ways of gathering that are not shaped by love.

The unfolding of the Gospel, the ongoing life of the scarred and broken body, shapes our community. It leads us to forever greet each other with peace, and in ever new ways to embody love. Our reading today, and John’s Gospel itself, close with the sense that this is an inexhaustible task. The ongoing work of resurrection cannot be completely recorded or captured. It is the eternal life of love that we are called to now.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah! This is Good News. Amen.

--

Blessing and Sending Out

May the Lord feed you with wisdom, and breathe upon you truth
May you experience God’s unspeakable love
Christ lifts the burden off of you.

Go in peace,
Welcome others into hope
Love and serve the Lord,
In the name of Christ.
Amen.