Practicing Resurrection: Hearing the Unspoken No

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

In Jewish tradition, a rabbi is required to refuse the request for conversion three times before answering in the affirmative. Each time, the potential convert has to face rejection, doubt, introspection. Only through perseverance, it is thought, can one understand what it really means to be a Jew.

The structure of this pericope is rather genius. Gathered together–whether by swimming or by boat–a simple charcoal fire organizes the make-shift community. A familiar scene. Jesus producing a miracle and then demanding that all be fed. There is no absence. Nothing is bereft. Bread in abundance; fishy aplenty. All has been prepared by God. And like they have during the feeding of the 5,000 (reported by all the gospels) and the 4,000 (reported by Mark and Matthew, but not Luke and John), and the last supper (not reported by John), they gather again. The author of John notes that Jesus’ grab and gab is the third resurrection visit.

Reclining after the meal, Jesus turns to Simon Peter. Do you love me? he asks. No matter how many times I read it, Jesus’ voice will always be that of Tevya (preferably voiced by Topol) from Fiddler on the Roof; do you love me?  When Peter says yes, Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs.” No explanation. No qualifications. “Feed my lambs.” One can imagine Peter’s thoughts: What does it mean to feed? Who are lambs? How often am I to feed them? Before he can muster a question, Peter is faced with Jesus doubling down: “Do you love me?” Now I hear Golde from Fiddler: “Do I what!?” With the second question, one imagines what might be going on in Peter’s mind. Do I love you?  Of course. Of course I do, but why do you keep asking? Peter assents, and Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” Again, the questions: What does it mean to tend? So am I to only tend to the sheep and feed the lambs? Do the lambs not need tending and the sheep not need feeding? What’s going on here?

“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Each time. Each time Simon Peter is forbidden to forget the face of his father. Each time he is challenged to bring his whole self. Do you really understand what it means to love? Do you understand what it means to love God through Jesus Christ? Because this love is not just about you. It is about others. It is about the sheep and the lambs. It is about feeding and tending.  

Sometimes we have to hear the unspoken “no.” Sometimes we have to be asked the same question several times to assure others we really mean what we say. The movement of this passage is beautiful. They all know who Jesus is as they eat with him on the beach, but none of them dare ask. They don’t give voice to their questions. They shovel pieces of fish and bread into their mouths, looking awkwardly from face to face. Do we talk about the fact that we’re eating with a dead man? Or at least a man who was dead but now is not? And what does this mean for us? We can imagine that all of these issues are racing through their minds, but Jesus is not concerned about that. He wants to make sure that Peter (and here we could go into a whole discussion of apostolic succession and how this passage parallels Matthew 16:19, but let’s not and say that we didn’t) understands the depths and requirements of love. Like rabbis who will follow for centuries, he wants to make certain that those who wish to follow in the ways of the Jewish God fully understand what is required.

 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

I cut out that line about death. That is the author of John speaking to us, and with all due respect John gets it wrong. This is not about Jesus’ death. I mean, maybe it is but I think it is about so much more. This is about the requirements of love. Love does take us where we don’t wish to go. At least the love Jesus teaches us. But the promise is that we won’t be alone. God will be with us. And others whom God animates will be there, too.

We have to hear the “no.” The no to doing what is easy or comfortable. The no that comes with realizing that we most likely will not be the persons we hoped we would be, but if we follow God we will be the persons we are meant to be. We have to hear the “no” that God gives to shallow or empty love. We have to hear the “no” to certain questions that God simply will not answer, because God is more concerned with how we are loving. How do we practice this love, this resurrection?

Follow me.

Well, fiddlesticks. Yeah. I will. I’ll tend and feed and eat and love and follow and swim and take boats and be confused. Keep asking, though God. Because eventually I’ll hear the unspoken nos as a final “yes.”

Practicing Resurrection: Naked Night Fishing

Lunker 1997 by Peter Doig born 1959
Lunker 1997 Peter Doig born 1959 Presented by the artist and Charles Booth-Clibborn 1998 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P11550

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

 

This week has been dark for me. Painful. Disconcerting. Maddening. As each day passed, with its attenuating missed experiences, I sank further into a dirty nest of blankets and sweat. It is an odd thing, this illness. I have no broken bone or plummeting T-cell count to which I can point and say, “Here. This is why I can’t. This is why I simply can’t.” Even the experts who provide my care admit, at some point it just takes faith that we’ll figure out how to deal with the chemicals that course through my brain. It seems almost everyone has an opinion: eat this, don’t eat that; do this, don’t do that; have you tried yoga? How can I do yoga when I’m night fishing nude and nothing is biting?

It is perhaps my greatest fear: to be followed by people and for us to catch nothing. To be sitting in the boat, completely exposed, with people looking at me and shaking their heads in disappointment. That demon visited this week; he unpacked, got himself comfortable, and refused to leave my side. In the darkness, when I cast out my line, nothing worth keeping bit. Self-doubt, fear, feelings of insecurity, dread, and self-loathing were abundant; they leapt into the boat and flopped around, fighting for the same air as I. As they slapped against my naked flesh, my demon sat in the boat with me, pointing to each species and saying, “This? This is what you will use to feed the people? This is what you offer to others in service to your God? This isn’t palatable. No wonder the congregation is shrinking.”

Sarah Silverman has a comedy special titled Jesus is Magic. Sadly, this notion often passes for theology. Despairing? Give it to Jesus? Angry? Look to Jesus. But what we often forget is that there are times in our lives in which we will be nude, fishing in the dark and catching nothing. And that’s where I was, my boat becoming a rotating cast of people I feared I was disappointing or letting down. Family. Friends. Congregants. Each had a turn. Some stayed longer than others. Some came back for repeat visits. For me, depression is not lonely. It is filled with visitors. And it matters not that I am, in reality, surrounded by wonderful, amazing, supportive people who love me; in my head, they are just being fooled. I know the truth. In the darkness, I see who I really am.

At least that is the best way for me to describe it. Depression is not rational; it cares not for degrees or loving words from others. Depression eats happiness and sows seeds of self-hatred. It shuts everything else out and demands my full attention.

This morning I think I heard Jesus whisper “Child.” The boat seems less filled with menacing creatures, and I do believe that is sunlight rising behind Jesus’ form. And I tell you, I want to jump out of this boat like Forrest Gump greeting Lieutenant Dan. The Greek text describes Peter as girding up his loins with his clothing, and jumping into the water instead of waiting for the vessel to dock. I get that. It is a sense that the darkness might be abating.

There are times when we stay on the boat with all the fish Jesus has helped us to gather, and there are times that we jump into the water, determined to get to Jesus first, even if it only lasts for a few precious minutes. The thing is, I don’t think God judges us one way or the other, really. When I’m strong, when I’m doing well, when the meds are doing their work and I’m doing mine, I’m on that boat. I’m gathering the fish together and telling the others on the boat to take a break and go see Jesus. I got it covered. I’ll finish the haul. I’ll mend any nets needing tending. Go. Be with God. I’m good.

I hope to be back there soon. As I said, the sun is coming up and I’m about to jump into the water and start swimming. I look forward to being with God, and to the breakfast I will share with others. A few months ago, the Session of the church I serve agreed to allow  Communion each Sunday after the service during the season of Easter. I’m anticipating that it will be the most delicious, filling, and empowering meal I will have had in a long time. People will be there. Not visitors. Not demons.Not creatures demanding to be named and acknowledged. God’s children. Together. And we will be fed. And we will see Jesus. Some will have taken the boat. Some will have swam. But we will be there together.

Blurred Lines

Over the past ten years, I have built up a very nice Facebook community, made up mainly of people I know personally, but certainly populated with persons who have becomes friends through purely electronic communications.

And I’m walking away. At least for now. 

There is no secret that I have bipolar disorder. I am still relatively new with the diagnosis, and it has not been an easy ride. I’m certainly in the grips of it now. I have not left the house for four days. I have moved from the couch to the bed to the couch to the bed about 7 times. One friend stopped by and gave me a hug. That was about all I could take. Can take. Will take. I don’t often feel mentally ill, but I do this week. I joke but don’t joke that the demons have me right now. I joke because demon talk is crazy. I don’t joke because they are very real, very strong, and very insistent. 

I’m a fraud. I’m a weak, broken man who has somehow charmed people into believing that I am something special. In certain moments, I believe it myself, this idea of specialness. The demons are good at putting me in my place. I ache and hurt and feel like it would be best if I just disappeared. Kind words just remind me that there is a huge gap between how others see me and how I see myself. How can I possibly pretend to be a servant if I can’t hold myself together?

Don’t worry. This is not a suicide note.  This is Aaron being painfully honest. Because that’s kinda what I do. Jesus Christ saved my life, but my life is still filled with pain.

If nothing else, I am more determined than ever to be of service to other people. but I feel like I’ve blurred some lines. I thought of some people as friends and that has caused me some emotional turmoil.  

What hurts is that I actually do ministry work through Facebook. Important work, I think. But it is causing me some consternation because I find myself getting my feelings all tangled up in blue. I begin to question the good I’m actually doing with the good I think I’m doing. And, frankly, some people are just mean. It’s hard. I have a lot of messages in my inbox now asking me not to go from Facebook, but every one understands needing some space. 

This whole thing is an exercise in narcissism, in one regard. Look at me. I’m walking away from Facebook. Pay attention to me. In another regard it is a further destruction of self. It is a step toward figuring out who it is God wants me to be, and how I can be of service to others. I plan to keep the blog going, if for no other reason than it helps me organize my thoughts and contribute, in some small way, to reclaiming Christianitinty from the extremists. 

Thanks for reading. Thanks for your prayers. And I’ll see y’all in other contexts other than Facebook, most likely until after the election. And, possibly, with a new page.  

Thomas Doubting (A Sermon Blog)

doubting_thomas

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 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. (John 20:19-31)

Very few of us come to this narrative unencumbered. It is one of those cases in which the exegesis outstrips the text; poor Thomas has been given a moniker that never appears in the gospel itself: Doubting Thomas. Not Inquisitive Thomas. Not Curious Thomas. Not Thomas the Empiricist. Doubting Thomas. When it comes to doubt, we people of faith’s FB relationship status reads: It’s Complicated.

We really have three pericopes* here. The first runs from vv.19-23 and concerns the authority of the disciples. Filled with fear, they have locked themselves in a room and are attempting to hide from those Jews who see them as a threat to peace and order. We should be very careful not to privilege an antisemitic reading of this text; Jesus was Jewish, his disciples were Jewish, and we Christians declare him to be the Jewish Messiah. The Gospel of John is written relatively late–probably at the end of the first century, beginning of the second–and scholars believe that the fracturing of relationship between the Jewish Jesus followers and the followers of the Pharisees (who are the founders of rabbinical Judaism) was nearly completed. What we see in the Gospel of John is a sibling rivalry. Anywho, notice how Jesus greets everyone present with the phrase, “Peace be with you.” It appears three times in the lectionary selection; in the midst of uncertainty and fear, in the face of the unexpected, Jesus bids peace.

What is also important to note is that Jesus shows the wounds to the disciples; John does not report that they request this action, but Jesus offers it and we can assume that it plays a part in their believing their own eyes. The spiritual message here is clear: Jesus is giving them what they need in order to enter fully into faith. This is confirmed when Jesus bestows upon them the Holy Spirit, which comes with it authority to forgive sins. The language used here is very curious: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. It becomes almost hypnotic trying to puzzle out the nuances here. If we forgive the sins of any (person), they are forgiven them. Seems straightforward enough; if you retain the sins of any (person), they are retained. Who is retained? Or what? Do the sins remain with the person? Does the person remain with the one who has not forgiven the sin? Does the sin magically jump from the original offender to the one who will not forgive? I say this not facetiously, but in a true spirit of inquiry. It seems to me that the message is rather clear: forgiving sins is much easier and much more productive than not forgiving them. And, if you don’t forgive, are you committing a sin yourself?  

The next section, vv. 24-29, is perhaps one of the most famous from John’s gospel. While Thomas is listed as a disciple in the Synoptics, John gives him the largest speaking role he has in all the gospels. The narrator rightly points out that the name Thomas means Twin; in fact, there is a gospel that bears his name–The Sayings Gospel of Didymos Judas Thomas–or the Gospel of The Twin Judas the Twin. The Gospel of Thomas sets forth the idea that there are numerous twins of Jesus; in fact, salvation is a matter of encountering and entering an enlightened Wisdom, not unlike Buddhist Nirvana, that results in a radical transformation of the “self” and ultimately the world. Elaine Pagels has written a magnificent work, Beyond Belief, that explores the Gospel of Thomas community, and speculates that the Gospel of John’s depiction of Thomas is a coded attack on the Christology and soteriology of the community. I present a similar idea regarding the Gospel of Mark in my upcoming book, Mark as Manifesto. It is an exciting prospect to think that communities “spoke” to one another through their founding documents.

But what is presented in these verses is interesting. Notice that the disciples tell Thomas what they have witnessed. His reaction, of course, is to intimate that seeing is believing and that he has criteria which must be met. There is no report that the disciples castigate or shame him for what he needs. There is no sense from the narrative that what Thomas has done is wrong. But even if that were the case, shouldn’t we notice something? Shouldn’t we notice that Thomas is simply doing the same thing that the other disciples did? At this point, Mary Magdalene is the only person who has seen the resurrected Christ. She went and told the disciples. That should be enough for them. But, it is not. They are in a locked room, hiding away. Jesus makes his presence known in order to bolster their spirits, in order to provide them assurances so that they can enter into the world with faith and strength. Jesus wishes them peace and offers his wounds, the same thing he does for Thomas. Further, we are not told if the disciples put their fingers in Jesus’ wounds, nor is it reported whether Thomas does likewise, despite the propensity for artists over the years to depict it as occurring.

Jesus offers, and Thomas responds with the most powerful faith confession a Christian can utter: “My Lord and my God.” For John, more than any other gospel writer, the connection between Jesus and God is paramount. John depicts Jesus as the Logos, the apriori second person of the Trinity that becomes flesh for the salvation of humankind. It terms of hypostatic union, John is more interested in showing the divine nature of Christ. But Thomas’ utterance declares Jesus Lord, and also affirms that those who see the Son also see the Father (cf. John 5:19, 12:49). The passage is actually an affirmation of faith and of Jesus’ identity.

But then comes a problematic saying. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Literally thousands of pages have been written about this one line by minds sharper and more astute than my own. Yet, it seems likely to me that this passage is addressing a fundamental truth: faith requires that we believe in the testimony of others. There is an irony that this passage would not have been necessary if the male disciples had simply believed Mary (and that is the subject best left for another blog completely). Thomas may be the last one who gets the offer to put his fingers in the wounds of Christ (which, again, it does not seem that he does), but he is not the last one who will have questions. And, I think it is fair to say, he is not the last one whom God will send signs. True, I would be very skeptical if someone said to me, “Jesus appeared to me last night and allowed me to put my fingers in his wounds.” I would be skeptical for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I believe God would have been kind enough to allow Jesus to not hear those wounds once his ascended to heaven. But I certainly believe people who tell me that God has moved their hearts or through the process of discernment revealed things to them. I believe that because I think it has happened to me. I believe it has. I know it has? 

And there it is. The sticking point. This passage is about doubt as a healthy thing, I think. We should ask questions. Lots of questions. And we should establish for ourselves those details that are non-negotiable. We each of us have a burden of proof that must be met before we extend our trust and faith. That, I think, is how it should be. What God offers instead of exposed wounds, though, is a community of faith in which each of us can go along on our journey. Sometimes we’re locked in a room and need to be told that peace is with us; sometimes we’re out in the world spreading the gospel. But if we take anything away from today’s pericopes, let it be the notion that God will not leave us flapping in the wind. If we open our hearts, if we open our eyes, if we allow God to direct us, we will be given what we need.

Resurrection talk is tough. I’ve never really met a Christian who is neutral on issues of resurrection. Many of my fellow Progressive Christians want to do away with it, or at least talk about it as little as possible. A good number of Evangelical fundamentalists make it the alpha and omega of God’s actions in the life of Jesus Christ. I am somewhere in the middle. I’ve written about the resurrection in past blogs, and on my good days I do affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I still struggle, though. It is not a logical proposition, which is one of the reasons I affirm it. It is like a living koan for me, one that I keep trying to kill yet it comes back to life. Much like the Incarnation. How can God be flesh? How can the dead raise? How can I be when I was not and will not be again?

Resurrection matters, though. It matters as a concept and as a reality. Resurrection encompasses all the things we Christians hold dear: grace, love, justice, mercy, hope. community. Resurrection is the bold declaration that death is not the final word. Resurrection is the idea that God will give us what we need in order to move beyond our doubt, even if it takes seventy times seven attempts to get there. Amen.

*(Third pericope: The last two verses are fascinating, and many scholars believe that they are the original ending of the Gospel of John. Here is a solid discussion with a bunch of fellow bible nerds.)