Text: Acts 9:1-20 (the road to Damascus); John 20:19-31 (doubting Thomas)
On Monday afternoon while I was walking down Whyte Avenue, a message on a chalkboard outside of a pub caught my eye. It said, “Christ is risen . . . right up to our new rooftop patio!”
Hmmm. The phrase “Christ has risen” – so central the church for almost 2,000 years – now seems to be an occasion for humour more than an expression of faith in the path shown to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Then, after we had finished reflecting on the sign outside the pub, I entered a bookstore, where I bought the latest issue of Maclean’s magazine. As is often the case with news magazines near Easter, the cover story was about Christianity.
Titled “Did Jesus really exist?” the article answers this question with a clear “no.” Hmmm. Another sign, it would seem, of growing disengagement from the church and skepticism in its most central messages.
After a busy Holy Week and a joyous Easter Festival service last Sunday, I wondered what I should make of these two signs. What headway, I wonder, can we as a church make in proclaiming resurrection if there is a growing consensus that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth and if the central teachings of the church are now treated as a joke?
In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples of Jesus get confirmation of what Mary had told them on Easter morning — that Jesus is alive — when he suddenly appears to them in a locked room. But one of them, Thomas, is not there and he does not believe what Mary and the others tell him.
John then writes about one more appearance of Jesus a week later. This time, Thomas is present, and he finally believes when Jesus lets him touch his wounds. John then finishes his Gospel by writing, “Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of the disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the only begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.”
John has given us his proof of death and resurrection; and for centuries his words were enough for most church-goers. But today, many of us are like the writer of the cover story of last week’s Maclean’s magazine. We want more.
For me, faith in death and resurrection does not depend on the gospel accounts. The stories of Jesus provide us with a tradition that helps us to cope with life’s ups and downs. But while we treasure and use them, I don’t see them as essential in order for one to find new life in God.
There are four gospel narratives and their stories of Jesus’ resurrection don’t match. The earliest Gospel, Mark, written 40 years after the crucifixion, contains no physical appearances by Jesus. The latest one, John, written 70 years after the crucifixion, contains the story of an appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, which we heard last Sunday, and the passage we hear today of Jesus physically appearing to the disciples in a locked Upper Room on Easter Sunday and then again to all the disciples, including doubting Thomas, one week later.
Matthew and Luke include still other appearances. None of the four match, which is one reason that the author of the Maclean’s article suspects that there was no historical reality behind any of them.
Nevertheless, I have been captured by the path of death and resurrection. For me, it is a symbol of life’s journey and of hope for new life beyond death.
Paul sometimes writes about the death and resurrection of Christ as a symbol. In Galatians 2:20 Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Here Paul is using death and resurrection as a metaphor for the death of illusions and a joyous new life in the Spirit that is beyond ego.
This morning we heard the story of the encounter between Paul and the Risen Christ. In this passage from Acts, Paul, who was then called Saul, has a vision of Jesus. Unlike the story with Thomas, this is not a flesh and blood encounter.
In his own writings, Paul betrays little knowledge of the life of Jesus told in the gospels. Paul becomes a follower of Jesus based on his experience of hitting rock bottom on the road to Damascus, his painful repentance, and his joyous new life in God. Paul doesn’t need to know the details of the life and death of Jesus to experience the joy of the Risen Christ. In his past, he had been consumed by ambition and hatred. But Paul is now dead to that life and is free to rise into God’s eternity right here and now.
Death and resurrection are not only evident in the lives of people like Paul. This path can also help us understand human institutions
To illustrate, I now turn briefly to Europe and the refugee crisis that is challenging its identity. Over the last 25 years, U.S.-led wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. Most of these refugees are living in misery in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. But in the last two years, more than a million people from North Africa and Southwestern Asia have entered Europe, and many more would like to find safety there.
Europe — despite its vast wealth, its 700 million inhabitants, and its role in the disastrous wars that created the refugee crisis — is allowing thousands of refugees to suffer, starve, and die on its borders.
Many Europeans oppose allowing more refugees to enter. Above all, they fear more terrorist attacks as in Paris last November or in Brussels last month.
Unfortunately, I believe that hostility towards refugees makes the security situation worse. Imagine the impact on Muslim youth living in slums in Paris or Brussels when they see refugees suffering and dying on the fringes of Europe. Will this encourage such youth to integrate? Or will the fear and hatred of Europeans towards Muslim refugees breed similar feelings inside their hearts?
Europe has a choice. It can fan the flames of fear and hatred and close its hearts and borders to the human misery its wars have helped to create — and so increase the probability that more of its own citizens will take up arms against it from within — or it can open its doors to the millions of desperate people on its doorsteps.
If Europe were to embrace all the refugees who want to come in, it would be changed. It would become more diverse. It would die to some of its old ways of life. Perhaps it might even stop bombing Muslim-majority countries! In the process, it could become a continent that was concerned with the well-being of all human beings and not just of people lucky enough to be born there.
Racist politicians stand against the death of old ways. They are opposed to the end of white supremacy and of male dominance. They idolize the nation-states created in the 19th and 20th centuries. To the extent that they succeed in keeping our borders closed to refugees, we will continue to live with fear and hatred. In trying to avoid the painful death of the old, we will miss resurrection.
The other path is to let old certainties die and to say goodbye to national identities. In their place, something new would rise — a resurrected life beyond nationalism and closer to God’s Love.
These are challenging times. Many leaders react to the vast changes going on in the world by trying to prevent the painful death of old ways. In doing so, I think they breed more fear, hatred, and violence.
Instead of such leaders, I pray that others will appear who are like Jesus — people who will call us to die to the past and to let a new life of Love arise in our hearts, our homes, and our world.
At the communion table, we proclaim this gracious if painful path with the proclamation, “Christ Has Died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.”
For me, the truth of this statement and the joy it reveals have no necessary connection to the details of the various gospel narratives of Easter.
Even if John had never written about a doubting Thomas, the path of death and resurrection would remain. Even if we knew nothing about the life of Jesus, it would still be true that nation or individuals who try to preserve their lives will lose them. And it would still be true that those who are willing to accept God’s Grace to lose their lives for the sake of Love will enter a joyous new life within God’s eternity.
And for this Easter truth I say again, “Thanks be to God.”