Sunday, April 8, 2018

communion is the heart of creation: thoughts on st. john's gospel.

NOTE: From time to time during the liturgical season of Eastertide I will be sharing a thought or two about St. John's gospel. The more time I spend with it, the greater clarity it brings to my sense of call in my new incarnation. Funny, I thought I was done with ministry only to discover new possibilities in new/old ways. As I pray them through I have started to realize that they all arise from chapter one: St. John's prologue.

The story of so-called Doubting Thomas is always the gospel reading for the Sunday after Easter in the liturgical churches. Other Reformed congregations experiment with Bright or Holy Humor Sunday during which laughter becomes an integral part of the worship experience. Right out of the gate, let me note that I am not a big fan of the way Holy Humor Sunday tends to manifest itself in Protestant congregations. The Eastern Orthodox origins of this celebration teach that God played the biggest joke on the world by raising Jesus from the dead. So please don't get me wrong, I am totally down with this, and celebrate laughter and tenderness in worship. That is why the week following Easter was set aside for feasting, light and joy in the first place. Why not reclaim a whole week for fun and celebration following the Easter revelation rather than cram it into an hour on the lowest worship attendance Sunday of the year? I simply find that the anemic or cheesy humor that too often shows up in place of liturgy is wildly unsatisfying. In my experience, form has tended to triumph over content here, leaving weak jokes, modest gags, and weird decorations to shape the flow of worship. What I find myself wondering is: why bother?  

To complicate matters, my evolving theological understanding of Easter seeks to honor the divine mystery of Christ's resurrection, but increasingly in ways that reflect the quiet, intimate and profoundly little revelation of that day. St. John's gospel for Thomas Sunday notes that Jesus shows up on Easter inside the upper room - not in the Temple or market place - but among a small group of friends. He then breathes on them, invoking the gift of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully offers the peace that passes understanding (mystical wisdom) and asks his friends to spread God's radical grace in the world in a manner mirroring his own ministry.

Like many throughout the ages, Thomas misses the first mystical encounter, so he raises questions about what actually took place in the Upper Room. Faithfully the wounded healer returns a week later to share another inner blessing with his small circle of friends. He then invites Thomas to personally encounter the resurrection mystery by touching - experiencing and entering - his broken body. Jean Vanier writes: "It is moving to see how Jesus meets and accepts Thomas just as he is: Jesus accepts the challenge without complaint or criticism." Please note, however, that it is his wounds that Jesus asks Thomas to embrace. 

(Jesus) responds to Thomas' need and cry even if this need comes from a lack of trust. Moved to tears, Thomas places his had into the side of Jesus with love and respect and cries out: My Lord and my God... In these two apparitions (earlier to Magdalene outside the tomb) we are asked to contemplate the risen body of Jesus, a body that reveals the wounds inflicted upon him. A gaping hole remains in his side, big enough to fit a hand, a whole remains in his hands and feet big enough to fit a finger. These wounds are there for all ages and all time, to reveal the humble and forgiving love of Jesus who accepted to go to the enter end of love. The risen Jesus does not appear at the powerful one, but as the wounded and forgiving one. (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus,pp. 344-45)

The story of Thomas closes with an admonition: "(Thomas) believed because he has"seen." But blessed are those who have not seen and chosen to trust." (John 20) This is not a big, funny, or triumphant story. It is an invitation for us to touch the wounds of the world and discover Christ therein. The "empty" Cross of the Reformation - symbol of resurrection - too often rushes past the agony and suffering of the Crucifix. We ache to get through Good Friday. We yearn for a bright Easter. We long for the feast, not the fast. To which tradition says: spend some time with Thomas and his questions first. Forgiveness and faith will come but they are always mixed with tears and brokenness; this is the only way into enter the party. Anything less smacks of cheap grace. 

This is the wisdom - the logos - that kicks off St. John's prologue, too: "In the beginning, before all things were, the Logos (God's wisdom) was. The Logos was with God, present to God, turned toward God; and the Logos was God. In the beginning, the Wisdom was in communion with God." 

Later this week I will wrestle with this more fully, but for today let me note the following:

+ A deeper meaning of logos, which has been translated into English as the word, is more nuanced. "It is the vision or plan of God - the inspiration behind the spoken (and written) word. The "word" and the "thoughts" of God are the same. In fact, I would dare to call logos "wisdom." (Vanier, The Gospel of John, p. 1) The wisdom of creation creatively embraces life, death and resurrection: this is the order of the cosmos.

+ Our English text goes on to say that "the logos was with God." But Vanier insists that a more intimate and accurate translation would be "the Word was in communion - unity - with God." This is critical for it provides a lens through which to understand the point of our existence. "Goethe writes that in the beginning there was action. But in John's gospel it is said that "In the beginning, before all things were, there was unity and communion." In other words, unity precedes creation - and a quest for unity drives every expression of creation. (Vanier, ibid)

My calling - our purpose - the rhythm of the cosmos - is to live creatively and in communion with the agony of Good Friday, the mystery and emptiness of Holy Saturday, and the quiet presence of the resurrected but wounded Messiah on Easter. There is grief, gratitude and joy all together in such communion. The blessings are not sentimentalized nor are they a gory fetish. Easter is neither trivialized nor idealized. And for this complexity, I give thanks to God this day.


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