WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, April 14, we hear another version of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers.  Jesus has to work hard to convince them that he is a flesh and blood savior and not a ghost.  So what does it mean for us to have a good news story, not a ghost story?  Join us in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary for worship:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGSQRmojaFM

John 20:19-31

April 16, 2023

I got a text from a friend this weekend who is attending the big annual conference of educational researchers.  I used to have to go every year, and now many of my graduate school comrades attend in their roles as professors.  It ranks as one of the most stressful experiences of my professional life.  My friend’s message said this: “I am at that point [in the conference] where my bones hurt and not even caffeine will counter the exhaustion.”

You know that feeling, I suspect – when you’re so exhausted that your bones hurt.

Another friend, who lives in Washington State, shared this week that her young son Jack had spent spring break down in California with his grandparents.  His little sister was so glad to see him when Jack and Mom picked her up from preschool that she held Jack’s hand on the entire walk home. 

You know that feeling too – when you have missed someone you love, and you’re so happy to see them again that you just want to hold on tight and never let go.

Yesterday I attended an ordination service for my friend and new colleague Psomi.  There’s a part during the service where all the pastors are invited to come up and lay their hands on the newly ordained person in a sign of blessing and solidarity.  I remember that moment from my own ordination ten years ago – the weight of all those hands, the support that they represented, the body of Christ all around me in all of those bodies.

Sometimes you need to know that you are not alone, even if you’re not yet even sure what there is to be anxious about.

One of the things that we will encounter throughout the fifty days of Easter is that scripture is not interested in resurrection only as an abstraction.  It’s not merely a supernatural phenomenon.  Resurrection in scripture is embodied.  We hear about the ways various followers of Jesus encounter his risen body, and we hear about how they are then prepared to go out into the world as witnesses of what they have seen and heard and touched and felt and tasted.  This is about resurrection in the flesh.

Let me pause and clarify a little bit of chronology.  Our gospel today is from John.  Of the four gospels that tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, John was the last one to be written down – somewhere between the years 90 and 100.  What we read today happens in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection.  The book of Acts, from which our first readings in this Easter season will come, is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke.  Acts shows us the early days of the church, how a ragtag group of followers built on what Jesus had shown them and taught them to build a movement that we are a part of today as we gather this morning to worship.  So the events we will read in Acts take place not just after the resurrection, but also after Jesus has ascended to heaven.

The particular part of Acts that we hear this morning is a continuation of the story we read on Pentecost Sunday, when the disciples are somehow able to communicate in ways that all of the crowds of people can hear in their native languages.  That’s an embodied experience right there, isn’t it?  To hear a powerful message in the language of your birth – it’s like being wrapped in a lullaby.

Today’s text from Acts is part of a long sermon that Peter delivers to the crowd, and in it he quotes from Psalm 16, which we read together a moment ago.  Peter understands Psalm 16 to be speaking about Jesus.  The psalmist describes what it means to see the Lord: “My heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.”  I love how this describes an embodied response – not just gladness and joy and hope in the abstract, but a glad heart, a rejoicing tongue, a hopeful flesh.  We feel the most powerful responses in our flesh and blood and bones – our hearts racing, our hands shaking so much that we need to hold on to someone else’s steadier hands, our breathing faster.  Sometimes faith feels exactly like that.  That combination of fear and great joy that we reflected on last Sunday.

We find the disciples gripped by more fear than joy in that locked room.  They have no way of knowing what the political and religious leaders are conspiring to do now, and it would be logical to assume that the disciples are the next on the hit list.  I imagine their fear is palpable.  Some of them are shaking.  They are finding it hard to look at each other.  Hearts racing. 

Then Jesus shows up right there in the room.  And there it is.  Their fear turns to joy.

Jesus is not there as a ghost.  He’s there in a body – a body, as we learn, that still bears the wounds of crucifixion.

Jesus is also there to get them ready for what comes next, to begin preparing them for the world we will read about in the book of Acts – a world in which, no matter how afraid they are, they will need to step up and tell the story and do the leading and the healing and the caring for those who are outcasts and all the things he’s taught them how to do.

Jesus gives them peace – and even then it is more than words.  It is embodied.  He breathes on them as he calms them: “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He breathes on them as he blesses and empowers them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”

We know, of course, that Thomas misses this first appearance of Jesus.  For all we know, Thomas is the only one who doesn’t seem terrified.  He’s somewhere out there in the world while the rest of them are huddled in this room.  Here’s my annual plea not to dismiss Thomas as a doubter.  Thomas wants his own experience of the risen Jesus.  He doesn’t want the second-hand accounts from his friends.  He wants the actual encounter for himself.  That’s in keeping with the Gospel of John’s understanding that faith is about being in relationship with Jesus, not just agreeing to something intellectually.  This gospel is filled with stories of Jesus meeting people where they are and providing what they need – conversation, connection, community.  He did it with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, with the man born blind, with the woman caught in adultery, and with countless others who needed that relationship to know that they were loved and honored and forgiven.

It can feel harder to experience the risen Jesus all these centuries later.  We, like Thomas, would prefer to have things be direct and clear.  Certainly the natural world in this season shows us signs of new life.  There are still the big surprises – the healing that shocks even the doctors, the new relationship that we didn’t expect, the relationship from years ago that reappears.

Those big moments are exciting.  But the risen Jesus is also present in many daily and weekly ordinary moments.  He’s there in the ways we love each other and feed each other and care for each other, support and forgive each other, walk with and welcome each other.  He’s there in each heartbeat, each hug, each hand we hold.

There are plenty of reasons to be afraid.  There are plenty of questions to ask.  And that’s OK.

When you feel a bit shaky, take a deep breath.  I encourage you to take one now.

And hear the words of Jesus for us too:

Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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April 24, 2022

It happens every year like clockwork.  In the time around Easter, Christian leaders and theologians start asking whether it matters if Jesus actually came back from the dead in his physical body.  Was it a bodily resurrection or some kind of spiritual or supernatural experience?  I mostly find these debates tiresome and grumpily think to myself that these people must have far more time and far fewer e-mails to answer than I do.

To be fair, it’s a debate that’s been going on for centuries.  The Apostles’ Creed even gets in on the action.  That creed came together in its earliest form in the year 340 but kept being reshaped until somewhere around the year 700.  But you’ll notice that we say at the end of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  Resurrection of the body, as if our Christian ancestors wanted to be clear that both the body of Jesus and our own bodies would find new life as bodies, not just as ethereal spirits.

Even the poets weigh in.  John Updike was a churchgoer who spent several of his churchgoing years in a Lutheran church.  Updike wrote a poem called “Seven Stanzas at Easter” that begins with the lines “Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body.” [i]  The poem goes on to say:

…it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Updike uses visceral, bodily language to assert his belief that Jesus came back in a body.  Hinged thumbs and toes…valved heart…flesh.  Updike very clearly comes down in the camp of bodily resurrection.

The author of the Gospel of John would agree.  You heard all the bodily details in today’s gospel, didn’t you?  We find the disciples’ bodies huddled together in fear behind locked doors.  And then Jesus is right there with them, wishing them peace and showing him his hands and his feet.  The writer knows we get what that’s about.  Jesus is showing them his wounds – the places where his hands and feet have been pierced by the nails.  And then Jesus breathes on his disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit.  He calms their terror with his breath.

When Thomas misses out on that first visit from Jesus, he understandably wants to experience it for himself – to see Jesus, to touch those wounds.  That doesn’t make him a doubter.  That makes him a faithful witness. 

It’s no surprise that Thomas and the others long to encounter the risen Jesus themselves.  Hearing about an amazing thing from other people is never as satisfying as experiencing it yourself.  And Jesus had taught them about treating bodies with reverence.  The last time they were in this room together, they had shared a meal together.  I imagine them laughing together, slapping each other on the shoulders, talking with their mouths full.  And of course Jesus had washed their feet, caring for what might have been the most repulsive part of their bodies at the end of a long day of walking the dirty streets.

Bodies matter to Jesus.  And the body of Jesus, crucified and risen, matters to Thomas.  It matters to us.

You may notice that the word “believe” shows up a lot in today’s gospel.  Who will believe and under what conditions?  We think of believing as something that we do with our minds, but that’s not primarily what John’s gospel understands belief to be.  The verb “believe” – pisteuō in the Greek – appears 99 times in the Gospel of John.  By contrast, that word shows up no more than ten times in each of the other three gospels.  The Greek verb and its noun form usually get translated into English as the words “believe” and “faith.”

One scholar, Jouette Bassler, notes that neither “belief” nor “faith” conveys the nuances of the Greek words.[ii]  The primary nuance of the Greek, she says, is “trust or confidence.”  It means firmly relying on someone.  It’s about trusting in, not believing that.

That’s an important distinction in John’s Gospel, which shows us again and again that belief is not primarily a cognitive activity.  Instead belief is about a relationship with Jesus – a trust in Jesus, who longs for us to experience a life of community and love and hope.  As the gospel says: 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.”  Jesus wants belief – trust in who he is and what he embodies – to lead the way to life.  Abundant life.

It is, of course, a wonderful thing to bring our minds to our faith.  Jesus is all about welcoming people’s questions and wonderings.  But faith is not about signing off on a list of doctrines.  It’s not about agreeing to a set of intellectual propositions.  Faith is about trust.  It’s about relationship.  It’s about love.  And it’s about how we live out that trust and love in community.

Remember that in John’s gospel Jesus has a long conversation with a woman at the well, both of them, we imagine, sweating in the mid-day sun.  The woman trusts Jesus with her story – all of it – even the unflattering, scandalous parts – and then she goes and tells her neighbors about Jesus. That one-on-one conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, speaking and listening to each other, leads her to new kinds of relationships in her community.

Following Jesus, may we keep talking to each other and learning from each other.

In John’s gospel a man born blind is healed by Jesus, who touches his eyes.  But that’s not where the story ends.  Jesus makes sure the man is reconnected to the community that for too long had tried to blame the man for his own disability.  The physical healing leads to a restoration of relationships.

Following Jesus, may we keep seeing each other fully and working toward inclusion for all people.

Each of the disciples whose feet he washed, though confused about what Jesus was doing, could sense that he was forming them into a new kind of community.  Those relationships – with him and with each other – would carry them through the chaotic, uncertain days of the early church.

Following Jesus, may we embody a sacrificial love as we serve and as we lead.

Today in our Prayers of the People, we will pray for several members of our community who have died in recent weeks while experiencing homelessness.  Kevin, Jonathan, “K,” and Bruce all had their challenges in this life.  But they also had people who loved them – a community of friends on the streets and those who helped them in all kinds of ways.  And they had a resilience far greater than most of us.  Let’s think of them as we collect clothing and socks and underwear throughout the month of May.  Because one of the first things that people need is dignity – to have their bodies warm and clothed. 

Following Jesus, may we care for the bodies that are too easily judged or rejected.

By trusting in Jesus, crucified and risen, we learn how to trust each other.  We practice how to care for one another.  We look and we listen, we breathe in and breathe out, we laugh, we cry.  We offer our strength when we have it and receive help when we struggle.

We believe, and we have life in his name.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://inallthings.org/seven-stanzas-at-easter/

[ii] https://www.spiritualityofconflict.com/readings/364/second-sunday-of-easter

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