"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Here on Earth, A Footprint of the Christian Life

Easter 7, Year B

          This past Thursday was Ascension Day. In the Book of Acts, we see Jesus mounting up to heaven, leaving his astounded disciples behind in order to return to the Father. The Ascension is often portrayed awkwardly in paintings, where artists show Jesus rising up head first into the clouds. This week, though, I saw an Ascension photo on Facebook that has stuck with me … And not in a good way. Someone had made a huge inflatable Jesus torso, with a big fluffy balloon cloud at his waist. Holding a bunch of balloons, and fired from below like a hot air balloon, this giant Jesus was indeed floating up into the sky. The worst part, for me, was that he had a goofy smile on his cartoon-like face and a dopey look in his heavy-lidded eyes. I was not amused.
          Children, you know that I usually like a good joke—and that's what this balloon Jesus might have been. But this cartoon figure reminded me of the "cartoon Christianity" that we sometimes carve out of today's lessons from John and I John. "Eternal life" becomes a heavenly prize that we win by following the rules here on earth. The "truth" belongs to Christians alone. "Believing" becomes proclaiming a bunch of statements about Jesus and the bible. When the cartoon Jesus and the cartoon Christianity fill the airwaves in such a way that everyone thinks that is what all Christians think, I want to take a stick to those claims, poking holes in the plastic and letting out all of the hot air!
          For today, then, instead of standing on the ground and watching Jesus zoom up to heaven in some silly way, let's take a different look at Jesus' Ascension.
          I think that Jesus must have been plagued with longing as he was pulled away from the earth. A few years ago I was flying back home after visiting two of my adult children in New York City where they were grad students. As the plane took off, and I watched the gray tangle of buildings grow smaller, my heart started to ache. I thought about my "babies" moving around in that labyrinth below, now mere invisible specks of fragile humanity, lost in a vast and complex city. How strange it was to feel the distance narrowing my ability to guide and protect them. There is something about being pulled away from a beloved place by powerful jet engines that has always tugged at my heart. Something about breaking through the gravity of attachment to the dear people who remain in that place always sets me to longing. I wonder: Perhaps those feelings of forced separation and loss, of worry and loss of ability to walk alongside us, might have tugged at Jesus' heart, too, as he returned to his Father at the Ascension.
          This is certainly an image that fits with today’s Gospel lesson, which takes place at the Last Supper. Before he leaves his disciples to face death and the Cross, Jesus is praying for them, and then for us, "those who will believe … through [the disciples.]" Just as I prayed for my children as they wandered the dangerous streets of New York, Jesus asks God to protect his friends on earth and to knit them together into one body. Like any worried parent, he wishes his beloved friends both joy and wisdom. He knows that we, his followers, are remaining behind in a dangerous world, a world where temptation and suffering lurk around every corner. As he is pulled away, he asks God to keep us safely in relationship with him.
 [Right now, I invite the children to think about the friends that they have made this past school year, for the classrooms and teachers that they will soon leave behind for the summer. Some of you may be changing schools in the fall, or even moving up into middle or high school. In your head, or on the paper in your worship bag, pray for your friends this morning, like Jesus prays for us. You can draw a picture of each of your friends, and as you draw, thank God for their friendship and ask Jesus to be with them this summer. Or write a prayer for them and for your favorite teachers. You can put your prayers in the offering plate later, if you'd like, and we will offer them up to God as we bring up the bread and wine and money at the Eucharist.][1]
I like the idea of Jesus praying for me always, holding onto me across the distance, blessing my daily comings and goings in this complex world. I like the idea of him praying constantly for the Church, too, for our communities and our unity with God and one another. Jesus' prayer for us is not just a comfort, however. It has transforming power. When my children went off to college, I gave each of them a framed family picture to take with them, hoping that they would look at it from time to time. I hoped that the picture would help them to remember who they are, where they come from, and most of all, that they will always be my beloved children, even as they began to make their own way in the world. In a similar way, in his prayer for us today, Jesus covers us lovingly with a cloak of identity. John writes in chapter 10 that Jesus is “the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world.” In our lesson, Jesus prays that we, whom he has sent into the world, may be sanctified, as he is. Jesus names us with the same names that God has given him: the names “sanctified” and “sent.”
To be "sanctified" is to be made holy. Cartoon Christianity makes holiness into a kind of phony piety. Instead, when Jesus says here that he's going to "make himself holy," he's actually talking about stepping forward into his death on the cross. Instead of his holiness setting him apart from us human beings, his holiness thrusts him down into the messiest part of being human—into a criminal's death.
For us to be holy like Jesus is holy, then, is no easy matter. It is a call for us to go where life is most difficult, where there is risk and messiness and pain.[2] We don't just set off alone into random danger, however. We go into the winding alleyways of life in Jesus' name. We are "sent" by Jesus who is our pattern and our strength. Jesus sends us into all of the places where he went: to people who are bound in darkness, to people who long for God and don't know it, to people who are oppressed, or ill, or full of evil. In these treacherous places, we shine the gift of God's light. Have you ever met someone who says or writes something that challenges you deep inside, that helps you to see yourself in a new way? Have you ever met someone whose life casts a new light on the world, so that you can't look at life in the same way again? That's what a truly holy person does, one whose very being testifies to the light and freedom that Jesus brings into the world.[3] In his prayer, Jesus shows us the path that we must take through the losses, perils, and pitfalls of the world. It is walking this path that brings "eternal life," a life lived in God and in God's love, a life of eternal depth and the joy of God's boundless presence.
If you go to the Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem, you will find there a faint indentation on the large, cracked stone at the center. Tour guides will tell you that this mark is supposed to be the right footprint of Jesus. Legend has it that the mark was emblazoned on the stone by whatever divine energy propelled Jesus up into heaven. I see this footprint as a counter to the cartoon Jesus and the cartoon Christianity. With Jesus’ prayer ringing in our ears, we can see this footprint as an invitation to place our feet there where Jesus once stood. Jesus’ print becomes the starting point on our mission to walk in his way, to be one with God in Christ Jesus, to put our communal feet courageously into the huge prints that Jesus’ feet have made in the world. We have a choice: we can stand on the sidelines and stare slack-jawed into the clouds, searching for the cartoon Jesus. Or we can take the risk of living the life that Jesus prays so longingly for us to have, and we can put our footprint on the stone, in his.

[2] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 2016), 50.

[3]Ibid., 53.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Importance of Touching God

Easter 2B

John 20:19-31

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Why can’t we touch God?” a preschooler asked me once in chapel. Children always ask out loud the hard questions that lurk in our grown-up minds.  In chapel, I must have muttered something about God being too marvelous and mysterious to touch except in our hearts.  After all, John reassures us in today's Gospel that believing without seeing or touching is true faith indeed. If touching isn't important, though, why then does Jesus return with a real body—and a wounded body at that? Today, I side with the children: Jesus says to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side." Why, then, can't we touch God?

          [I'd like to try an experiment. I'd like any of you young children with us today to draw a picture of you touching God. What I'm betting is that you will draw a better picture with your crayons than I'm going to draw for us older folks with my words. Show me after church, and we'll see.]
          If we're going to be honest, we adults and teens have trouble with the whole concept of resurrection. We have trouble believing it; we have trouble conceptualizing it; we have trouble describing it. You might think that our struggle with the resurrection is just a modern reaction, born of our advanced scientific worldview. But look at the disciples: everyone from Mary Magdalene and the women at the tomb, to Thomas in today's lesson: they are all afraid and confused when confronted with their risen Lord.
The ink that has been spilled and the theological arguments that have been fought over explaining the resurrection fill whole libraries, and still we doubt and scratch our heads. A ghost--we could deal with that. A spiritual, disembodied feeling in our hearts--we know about those. A resuscitated body, even that—we have the medical equipment and know-how to produce that these days. But a new kind of body—a body that can walk through walls, yet still eat fish, a new body with old nail marks and spear gouges—come on, you’ve got to be kidding me! This Lent in chapel, once again one of our children put words to the problem for us: "Was Jesus a zombie, then?" he puzzled.
The body problem--It’s not just about Jesus, either, you know. We say in the Creed each week that we believe in the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We are saying that we believe that our bodies will at some point rise again, that we too will join Jesus in this new kind of embodied life after death. (And no, we will not be zombies, either!) When I talk with Episcopalians about life after death, I hear about souls floating away to join with God in a kind of spiritual unity. I don't hear about bodies at all. But these responses don't represent the Christian doctrine that we officially ascribe to.
"Look," some might argue, "doesn't God have a problem with our bodies, anyway?" Doesn't the bible say that the lures of the flesh cause us to sin? Our ancient church Fathers and Mothers used to punish their bodies harshly by denying themselves sleep, food, and all pleasure. They believed that only denying the body would sufficiently strengthen their souls for heaven. Doesn’t God love our spirits best? Why not be done with bodies as soon as possible?
I wonder, though. Is it God who has little use for our frail bodies, or is it us? I remember that I didn’t have much use for my often sickly, always uncoordinated body, when I was younger. My arms were the puny ones that always collapsed in Red Rover; my feet were what tripped me up in dance class; and my lungs were what kept me home with asthma when I wanted to be out having fun. It was my mind that was my friend. It allowed me to escape my unreliable body in books and in the world of imagination. It was what brought me attention and approval at school. If I had to pick something to keep for eternity, it would be my disembodied mind or my loving soul. My body I could do without.
It wasn’t until I had children, I think, that I gained any appreciation at all for my body. The miracle of pregnancy and birth created in me a respect for what the body could do, for the way in which we are all so carefully and wondrously made. Indeed, when I think about Incarnation, about God “taking on flesh,” I think first of the baby Jesus. His silky smooth baby skin; his perfect little fingers and toes; his sweet baby smile …. If God is going to take up residence in some kind of body, the fresh, new, adorable body of a baby just might suffice.
God entering the world, loving the world, through the miracle of birth at Christmas—I have no problem with that kind of Incarnation. But our Christian faith does not just stop with Christmas. Like our bodies, the body of the sweet little baby Jesus must ache and bleed, must suffer and die, if he is to be truly human. It's important, then, that Jesus return to his disciples with his body, with the same frail, wounded body that had hung on the Cross. With a body that is hungry for some supper. With a wounded body that they are invited to see and to touch. This new, post-suffering, post-death body is also part of Incarnation.
It's important to notice that the triumphant God did not shed flesh as soon as possible. The triumphant Easter God did not come out of the tomb as a golden beam of light or a soft and loving breeze. The risen Christ came to the disciples, presenting them with his beaten-up body to touch, rather than filling their minds with some kind of spiritual enlightenment. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Touching the truth with our minds alone is not enough. We are made to touch it with our bodies. I think this is why Christian tradition clings to the reality of resurrection, even when no one can explain it to anyone else’s satisfaction … The resurrection of the dead is the radical insistence that matter matters to God," she says.[1]
Matter matters to God. This is the lesson that we are to draw from the stories about bodily resurrection. To our doubts about the loveliness of our bodies, to our doubts about God’s commitment to our world, to our doubts about the strength and durability of Incarnation, to our doubts about the truth of Resurrection, Jesus says, “touch me and see.”
So taste God in the crisp wafer and in the wine that burns as it runs down your throat. Touch God in the warm hand squeezing yours as you pray together. See God's pain in the dark, broken corners of life. Hear God in the laughter that rings out from your family table. Smell God in the holy odor of candle wax. Feel God's scars as you carefully rub your finger across your own. Matter matters to God. All that pertains to bodies, matters to God. The resurrection of the body tells us that our salvation, our healing, our eternal life, is to be found there. Life is not just for the soul and faith is not just for the mind. Touch and see—and like Thomas, you too will have the strength to believe.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 62.