- Zachary Helton
"I Believe..." by Zachary Helton
In the evening of the day of the resurrection, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, the savior showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As my Father sent me, so I’m sending you.” After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. […]” It happened that one of the Twelve, Thomas—nicknamed Didymus, or “The Twin”—was absent when Jesus came. The other disciples kept telling him, “We’ve seen Jesus!” Thomas’ answer was, “I’ll never believe it without putting my finger in the nail marks and my hand into the spear wound.” A week later, the disciples were once more in the room, and this time Thomas was with them. Despite the locked doors, Jesus came and stood before them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Then, to Thomas, Jesus said, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Don’t persist in your unbelief, but believe!” Thomas said in response, “My Savior and my God!” Jesus then said, “You’ve become a believer because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 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.
Belief is a tricky thing, especially for some of us recovering fundamentalists. To “believe in” something conjures up images of intellectually choosing some version of reality to hold onto and then closing our eyes, tight, to anything else. When I was in seminary, I remember a woman telling a class about how she had recently “evangelized” to a Chinese student on her college campus. She said he was doubtful about the historicity of things like Noah’s Ark or the parting of the Red Sea (go figure), but she was firm. “I know it’s weird and hard to believe,” she preached, “but you have to! That’s part of what it means to be a Christian, you just have to believe this!” In the world of religion, the word belief is a minefield. It was no less a minefield in the early days of Christianity. News of the resurrection is spreading across the city, across the nation, and some “believe” and others don’t. Belief is, after all, the goal of the whole thing, as the last line of our reading clearly says: “these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah.” But when it says that, I have to wonder, is it really talking about believing some kind of historical event, like believing George Washington was the first president of the United States? Is it talking about believing in some unlikely thing with little to no evidence, like believing in Santa Claus? Is it really talking about the kind of eyes-closed, white knuckled belief many of us have been sold? When the gospels say that, do they really mean us to believe that a literal man rose from the literal grave two thousand years ago? Maybe. But I’ve grown to suspect not. That kind of belief has always rung hollow for me, always produced more the fruits of arrogant certainty than openhearted kindness. No, in reality, I suspect there is far more to “believing in the resurrection” than all that. In reality, “believing in the resurrection” of Jesus is a bit trickier than we might think. If you had asked me several years ago what I believed when I said “I believe in the resurrection,” I might’ve said something like, “I believe Jesus was dead and then God conquered death and restored him to life.” But the problem is, when you start to actually read these resurrection stories… that’s not really what happens at all. The first scene in today’s reading includes the disciples sitting around in an upper room, the doors locked because they’re scared to death the same fate might befall for them that befell Jesus, and suddenly, in the midst of the group, there is Jesus, saying “Shalom!” like it was no big deal. Jesus didn’t do that before. Sure, he might’ve spoken peace into the face of fear, but the story hasn’t said anything about Jesus knowing how to apparate. He doesn’t just waltz through locked doors. And yet, he keeps doing things like this in these stories: He appears and disappears with ease over great distances. He floats in the air. People who knew him for years will look into his face and not recognize him, they’ll mistake him for a gardener or traveler on the road. I thought he’d be alive, scarred up a little, maybe, but more or less the same as he was before… like Lazarus… but something about this post-resurrection Jesus is different than he was. It’s not so much like death has been defeated so much as it’s been… worked with in a new way, incorporated somehow. Jesus hasn’t simply been raised from the dead, resuscitated and restored, but changed in the same way a seed changes when you bury it in the ground for a few days. What springs up is not the seed, washed off and restored, but something previously unimaginable and indescribable. Frankly, we don’t know what Jesus is after the resurrection. The only thing we know for sure is what he’s not, and that is dead. The tomb is empty and he is alive, but in what way he’s alive… whether he’s alive as a Spirit, or alive in his body of followers, or a new thing that defies category… even the stories can’t seem to give us a clear answer. When we can see that complication in the story… things get trickier for us. What exactly happened? Resurrection seems to mean something different than we expected, something better, and so when we talk about “believing in the resurrection…” we have to ask again, what exactly are we believing in? There are plenty who would be ready to stand in that gap, offering us simple and ready-made answers to that question free from any doubt. We’ve met these people, we know them. I’ve learned to be deeply suspicious of such people. But as our story illustrates, we can only ever really start answering this question, can only know what it is to “believe in the resurrection” when we experience it for ourselves. After Jesus shows up to the disciples in such a baffling way and then just disapparates again, they realize Thomas wasn’t there. He missed it. So they find him and start to explain, as best they know how, what happened. They experienced something so powerful that it led them to believe in something new and they want Thomas to believe also! But words are a poor substitute for reality. You can imagine Thomas listening with furrowed eyebrows: “You’re saying he came back to life? You’re saying he came back to life… and can walk through walls now?” This makes no sense to him, and rightly so. Secondhand belief based on words alone is flimsy and cheap, so Thomas says he won’t believe anything like that unless he can touch it himself. “Let me touch his nail-scarred hands and see the wound in his side,” he said. “Then, we’ll talk.” You know, Thomas gets a bad rap for his doubt, but can you imagine the alternative? What if he’d said, “Oh yeah, okay. I’ll believe Jesus is alive again…”? What does that kind of “belief” do to a person? What kind of fruit does it bear? Many Christians are far too easily satisfied with secondhand belief and charged rhetoric. It produces the toxic certainty shared by fundamentalists, certainty that they must defend with tooth and nail because, at the end of the day, it’s horribly fragile and embarrassingly inconsequential. After all, you’re just taking someone’s word for it, and what effect does it really have beyond a sense of tribal identity? Belief is only worth anything, only solid and un-fragile, when it is born from our own experience, when we’ve touched the resurrected Christ for ourselves. We can really only believe in resurrection when we experience it for ourselves. So, this, of course, leads to the question: How are we, right now, supposed to touch the resurrected Christ? How are we to come into this sort of experience-based belief? This is where things get tricky, and rightly so, because as we’ve learned, words and secondhand experiences are cheap, so anything I say now runs the risk of flattening the experience into just more words, just another “belief” copied from a book of platitudes. I cannot give you any one size fits all answer to this question because it’s so subjective, but… as broadly and generally as I can, let me say this: We touch resurrection for ourselves when, in a flash of insight, we come into awareness of the Life that is bigger than death. The disciples touched resurrection when, sitting in a haze of fear, they suddenly realized that the Ground of Being was bigger than their fear, when they discovered a peace beyond understanding. I imagine they continued to touch resurrection when, even years after their leader was executed, his Spirit somehow continued to live on in them, using their hands in works of lovingkindness and their eyes to see the Kingdom. They touched resurrection when they realized that God, The Kingdom, Christ, the Spirit, it was all so much bigger than any ignorance, pain, and persecution. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen teacher, writes about resurrection like this: If life is one side of a coin and death is the other, then Eternal Life is the whole coin, flipping over and over, on and on. When we can see the whole coin, the pattern of life and death and new life, then we touch resurrection. When we look outside to see the greens of summer fade into the browns of fall and gray of winter, and then watch as all that death nourishes a burst of new, colorful life… then we touch resurrection. Whenever we see that Life is bigger than ourselves, bigger than life or death… whenever we are caught up in that capital-L Life and our small, false self dies… whenever we find ourselves One with the immortal Ground of Being… that is resurrection, and that is worth believing in. To experience the resurrection means to touch for ourselves the kind of Life that is bigger than death. So, you see, when we ask what it means to “believe in the resurrection,” the answer may be trickier than we think, but tricky does not mean it isn’t crucial that we figure it out. Tricky doesn’t mean we don’t still work and practice to touch the resurrection for ourselves, to touch the Life that is bigger than death, to, like Thomas, be dissatisfied with any words or secondhand belief. I want to close with the words of a New Orleans preacher named Johnny Youngblood, who once said, “Every time I see someone going back to school, there’s a resurrection going on. Every time one person blesses another, every time I see a couple renew their marriage vows and start out on a fresh path of love, Every time someone forgives another person and is liberated from the past, there is a resurrection going on. Every time a person practices compassion towards the lost and the lonely, every time I see an alcoholic put down the bottle, every time I see a woman leave a husband who beats her, there’s a resurrection going on. Every time a feral kitten is rescued from the streets of a city and given a loving home [I’m looking at you, Susan], there is a resurrection going on. Every time I see a person freed from a self-centered life to one in service of others, every time a person chooses love over fear, there’s a resurrection going on.” So, Northminster, in this Easter season when we tell the story of this mysterious thing that is so much bigger than death… whatever we may believe or not-believe with our heads… may we be a people who touch resurrection. May we be a people who believe in the resurrection. Amen.
Invitation to Respond
Spend the next few moments reflecting on these questions:
· Do you “believe in resurrection?” How does that show up in your life?
· What would a community look like that truly “believed in resurrection?”
· Where have you seen resurrection? What prevents you from practicing “touching resurrection” each day?