2 Easter: The Terrifying Trauma of an Encounter with God

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Das_Bild_der_Höchsten_Seele_als_Lichtpunkt_TRThe measure of how much we have domesticated
Jesus, the gospels, and everything
associated with this Christian spirituality of ours,
is the fact we can read that story
about Thomas every year –
or the one from last week on Easter –
with a straight face
and without the shock
of having just seen a ghost.

I mean, come on!
Crank up that poem
and gin up those synapsis
and juice the bloodstream.

“Let in the wind,
let in the rain,
let in the moors tonight…

let in the fear,
let in the pain,
let in the trees that toss and groan,
let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
that beats upon my door,
let in the ice, let in the snow,
the banshee howling on the moor…

Let in the fire,
let in the power,
let in the invading might.

Let in the wound,
let in the pain,
let in your child tonight.”
From “Northumbrain Sequence IV” by Kathleen Raine

That story about Thomas
ought to set our hair on fire,
which is what I said last week about Easter.
If we had the slightest inclination
to believe that Thomas stuck his fingers
in the crusty,
pus-lined holes
of Jesus’ mangled torso,
we wouldn’t be sitting here
politely listening to the mad preacher
carrying on.
We’d freak out
and run for dear life,
or in some other way
lose control of ourselves.

And so we have a problem,
one that involves managing the distance
between what we say we believe
and what we actually believe –
which is also revealed by how we act.

But let me back up a little
and come around to this thing
from another angle with less decibels.

To me, the best Easter story is from the Gospel of Mark.

Here is how Mark’s Gospel,
the first of the four to be completed and circulated, ends. Mark writes:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

They were freaked out.
They ran away.
They were seized with terror and amazement –
“seized,” it says!
Seized means captured or arrested by,
involuntarily grabbed and taken over.
They ran away and said nothing to anyone.

Now I can get behind a story like that!
“Let in the fire,
let in the power,
let in the invading might.

Let in the wound,
let in the pain,
let in your child tonight.”

But John, Matthew, and Luke
couldn’t leave well-enough alone,
and added stories that could not possibly
be told with enough emotional and psychological trauma
to make them credible.

Imagination is the better guide
when we come to an experience like this one.
In Mark they freaked out,
ran away,
and didn’t tell anyone

What John is doing with the Thomas story
is lecturing us.

He is wagging his finger
looking down his nose,
one eyebrow raised,
and warning those of us in future generations
to believe his story
or face disapproval from Jesus.

Personally, I want the shock and awe:
“…let in the fear,
let in the pain,
let in the trees that toss and groan,
let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
that beats upon my door,
let in the ice, let in the snow,
the banshee howling on the moor…”

But that’s just me.
You might prefer Matthew 25,
that famous ending in which Jesus meets his pals
back in Galilee, and basically
gives marching orders for what becomes the Church.
Matthew ends like this:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Like John, Matthew’s Jesus ends with a lecture
that codifies some later Church doctrine.

Maybe you would prefer Luke though,
which has a gentle departure for Jesus
after a couple of nifty resurrection appearances.

Luke ends with this:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

That’s a nice image,
easily painted and placed in stained glass
like a mosquito in amber,
and not requiring too much terror or fright.

But me, I prefer the terror
of women running from the tomb
and telling no one

Remember, we get to pick and choose
because four Gospels
have four different stories.
We can even make up our own ending if we want;
and honestly,
each of us has to decide how this story ends.

In 2017
very few people
are going to take John’s word literally
and believe it actually happened
exactly the way he said it did –
with him writing his story
nearly eighty years after the event.
So every one of us sitting here –
if we are going to be honest about it,
and listen to the shouting match
between Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John,
each one insisting we take their word for it –
we have to make up our own mind
about what did or did not happen
two thousand years ago
to evoke an outrageous story like the resurrection
and then carry it forward two millennia.

In 2017,
you and I do not get to say what we think
based upon gospel writers two thousand years ago.
That is not how our world works any more.
We are required to say what we think
based upon our experience
and any other evidence we can bring to the table.
The 2000-year old testimony of anonymous writers
doesn’t cut it any more.

Sure, it is a piece of the whole
but in The Episcopal Church,
the bible is only one piece of the whole.
To the biblical witness
we also must also bring the witness
of tradition,
and experience.

The tradition proclaims resurrection
in a variety of ways and meanings,
and our reason and experience
must shape our own thinking and believing about it.

So in 2017
we cannot be lazy
and we cannot be ignorant
and we cannot defer to the experts
if we are going to have a vigorous faith
that survives the onslaught of secularism.

And that is really the story of Thomas,
even though the author of John’s Gospel
wants us to be chastened by it instead.

Thomas was absolutely correct
and fully justified
not to believe a word of the other disciples’ nonsense
until he could see it himself,
and touch it himself,
and feel it,
smell it,
and know it himself.
John puts the words of a lecture
on the lips of Jesus,
but he was wrong to say,
“Blessed are those
who have not seen and yet believe.”

In fact,
faith is rooted in our experiences
not in our creedal beliefs and doctrinal formulas.

The most enduring word for “faith” in the Bible
emerges from the Hebrew text
and is the word, Niph’al.
It translates as, hold God
or “to hold onto God.”

Faith in this biblical sense
implies a highly personal relationship –
not a doctrinal idea.
Faith is experiential.
It is the act of encountering God
and holding onto that encounter.

It need not be mind-blowing
like Thomas sticking his finger in flesh,
or the two Marys running in terror
from the empty tomb.

It may be a butterfly kiss from God
that lands so softly upon the soul
or mind or cheek,
that we are simply reminded about awe
in the face of Creation.

But whatever the experience,
big or small,
subtle or profound,
supernatural or utterly ordinary,
faith is experiential,
and when we have those rare moments
of encounter with holiness,
we need to hold onto them for dear life.
The shutters of reason and rationality
do not open easily
or often,
and when they do,
we need to savor
and hold
the moment.

So the punch line today is
that we should be like Thomas,
and expect to experience the presence of God
in one way or another,
and not be dictated to
or repressed by
the limits of doctrinal and creedal definitions.

Sure, that is a terrifying amount of responsibility
but that is where faith resides:
in our fingertips,
and our dreams,
and our hearts,
and pooled in the memories and imagination
and sensors of our mind.

“Let in the wind,
let in the rain,
let in the moors tonight…

let in the fear,
let in the pain,
let in the trees that toss and groan,
let in the north tonight.

Hold onto God.