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 20:31
Oh dear God, settle us into this time and place to be open to your spirit within and surrounding us so we may receive your word of good news. Calm our fears, confront our doubts and breath into us the confidence of the reality of the risen Christ for us. We pray in our savior’s name, Amen.
Candice Bergen was somewhat of a hero for me as I came to know her through the character and namesake of the show, Murphy Brown, which aired in the late ’80s through the 90’s. She was brave, creative, honest, self-aware and as People magazine describes, had a “tart tongue.” She was willing to speak the truth.
I’ll confess, I don’t know if I can separate my perception of the person of Candice Bergen from the fictional character, but the reviews and contents of her newest memoir lead me to think they have much in common.
A Fine Romance recounts Bergen’s life since her first husband’s death, a new romance and maturing years. It indicts our common culture’s presumption about Hollywood stars as Bergen shamelessly proclaims she is happy, she is in love, has no interest in cosmetic surgery. How could it be? Images of stars — or any cover model — are so photoshopped to perfection we can no longer see or accept human beauty as revealed naturally…and Candice Bergen was and still is beautiful in any measure.
On top of shamelessly living beyond the narrow conceptions of acceptability with wrinkles, she also claims to be thirty pounds overweight and happy. Imagine that, she is happy.
Common culture bombards us with so many images to persuade us that true happiness depends upon being thin and possessing a perfect complexion. Images can deceive us. It is a liberating reality to think of happiness amidst plumpness and wrinkles.
Remaining in the world of entertainment, recently the singer Pharrell Williams’ song Blurred Lines was determined by a jury to have been copied from the late Marvin Gaye’s 1970’s song Got to Give it Up, resulting in a multi-million dollar settlement. When we hear music, can we trust our ears, our perception of the rhythm, the way it moves us? Can we believe what we hear when someone claims originality? Or, should we be suspicious?
This week, news reports pounced on the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s investigation of Rolling Stone magazine. It revealed Rolling Stone failed to exercise even the most basic standards of integrity when reporting a searing article of the rape of a young woman, at a fraternity on the University of Virginia campus. Without fact-checking of the young woman’s story at any level, from reporter through editors, ignoring basic journalistic responsibilities, an article was published that was false and damaging.
The Columbia University report claims the reporter was caught up in her own preconceptions and failed to question and probe and verify, choosing instead to find an avenue to a sensational article that appealed to a market. The tragic consequences of this young woman’s false testimony may cloud suspicion around other victims of sexual assault, who are, and may continue to be suspected of fabricating events rather than receive care and respect. Deceiving readers of the truth compromises the integrity not only of Rolling Stone but allows doubt to fester when other tragic, but potentially true stories are reported.
I’ll not bother to continue to build this case of false realities we encounter through reminding you of corporate misdeeds, sports superstars’ doping or uncovering self-centered behavior of public servants.
We are well advised to carry a healthy sense of disbelief today of what we see, what hear and what we are told. Without this, we might form our perceptions of beauty around impossible illusions, trust in fabricated lies to accuse others of wrong, align our lives with unsound principles or become so jaded we ignore what is really real.
Skepticism and doubt have been valued through the ages.
Only the Gospel of John gives the disciple, Thomas, a voice to ask the questions we want to ask of Jesus at pivotal moments in Jesus’ journey to the cross and beyond. Thomas is called the twin, perhaps because he is our twin, representing the incredulous nonbeliever in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always want more proof.
During their final night together, before his impending death, Jesus attempts to calm the disciples by telling them they know where he is going and they too know the way, implying the way to God. Thomas is the one who blurts out “we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way” naming what so many of them must have thought. Thomas had staked his life on following this man and now was wondering if he will be left in the lurch, without a future and with an ill-found faith.
In the days following the crucifixion and resurrection, while the disciples were huddled in the upper room, locked away behind securely closed doors, Thomas had ventured out one day and missed Jesus’ appearance. Although the others came to believe through witness and testimony, Thomas just cannot wrap his mind around the new reality: Jesus was raised as Christ. Death and the tomb did not contain him.
Clearly stating what will appeal to Thomas’s reason; seeing wounds, touching nail imprints, and being in the presence of Jesus, then and only then, will he believe the resurrection and Jesus’ entire ministry is true.
This text appears traditionally on the second Sunday of Easter. After the lilies have faded and the chocolate bunnies are gone, when we slip back into the routine of life, and we too begin to dismiss the resurrection, if we ever did believe it, or we smooth it into reason with metaphors.
Author and poet, John Updike was raised Lutheran, evident in the deep mark of faith created in his imagination and beliefs. In an Easter poem, Updike seems to write, if you’re going to believe, then believe. Stop trying to soften the edges of Christian faith or make it more acceptable. To “modernize” the resurrection — by making it a metaphor or parable or the disciples’ dream or psychological experience — you lose something essential, not just of the story, but of the very promise of God to remake everything as real and tangible and alive as God made it in the first place.
Let me offer a few of the seven stanzas:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
Just as God came to earth in the man we know as Jesus to pursue a relationship with humankind on terms we could comprehend, to reveal a love so strong even death was not final; Jesus too came through locked doors and through the cloud of doubt to reach the skeptic, Thomas. When doubt crept in, Jesus came to Thomas; healing the wounds of a broken heart and demonstrating God’s reality of love for each person — body and soul — can and does exist amidst all the clutter of our world that seeks to deny or belittle it.
Theologian David Lose writes: “Jesus comes and takes Thomas’ (his) mocking words and turns them back on him, not to humiliate or scold him, but simply to confront him with the possibility that his reality was too small, his vision of what is possible too limited. And when Jesus calls him to faith, he’s actually inviting him to enter into a whole new world.”
Even though we may think it happened, the text does not tell us Thomas touched Jesus. The only thing we know from the writer is Thomas was overcome by a belief beyond what our senses can relate, and Thomas was the first to announce the connection between Jesus and God when he proclaims “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).
The reality of Christ comes to us beyond our senses of sight, smell, touch and even reason. Jesus’ reality was demonstrated by his love for the outsider and the sinner, a reality of abundant food and healing where a false sense of scarcity reigned, and a promise to never abandon us when we feel estranged. Jesus brought a new reality that the powers in control, were not in control: God would always have the final word. And God’s word is love.
Thursday marked two significant anniversaries. For those of you who attended Bill Evertsberg’s class on the sesquicentennial of the civil war, you know much of the end of the civil war with Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. On that day, the belief it was acceptable to keep humans in bondage through slavery was surrendered to the ideal all men are created equally. No longer would oppression based upon skin color or race be tolerated in these United States.
Yet, 150 years later, we still are challenged to live into that ideal, founded on the reality Christ brought to life, as we witnessed the killing of an unarmed African American. This time, not through testimony, but a video for us to watch, in horror, we saw a police officer shooting Walter Scott. We cannot escape the harsh, deadly reality, of continuing to tolerate racial prejudice that continues to live in our country.
Thursday also marked the death of Lutheran pastor, theologian and until the war, staunch pacifist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned by the Nazi régime for conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Reggie Williams, author of Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus wrote, “(o)n this date 70 years ago, in the morning, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his prison at the Flossenburg concentration camp, and hanged to death. As a brilliant, wealthy, Aryan man, he was killed by the forces that were attempting to construct a society specifically for him. But rather than be at home in what was billed as ‘the ideal community’ he suffered, like the outcasts, choosing to suffer the consequences for non-cooperation with evil.”
Bonhoeffer believed and worked to create the new reality made known through Christ’s resurrection and he died for not accepting the illusions created by those in control — even when he purportedly would have benefited. Bonhoeffer had the clarity of sight and the abiding trust in the gospel. Might we too be claimed by such a belief?
The disciple Thomas has endured through the ages as a doubter, standing in for each of us who question if the resurrection and Jesus’ ministry can be trusted.
But, Thomas became the role model for doubt to be healed by faith. He is the one who now challenges us to take our doubt, not in the gospel, but to question the certainty the world tries to feed us that the status quo is all we can expect.
We can take our doubt into the world and question the photoshopped images of culture and instead see with fresh eyes the beauty in others and ourselves.
We can take our doubt into the world and probe the stories of those who seek to convict others through lies.
We can take our doubt into the world and instead of feeling fear when we look in the face of a stranger, or seeing one who is to be subdued or avoided, we see God’s presence in another person.
Doubt will be the seed to unmask the façade in the world and find the true reality God created.
In this quiet place, we come to ask for healing, turning disbelief into belief and being claimed by God.
 Reggie Williams. Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus. (Baylor TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).