Alleluia! Christ is risen!
It is Easter, the season in the church’s year in which we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. This Easter season, I’m going to attempt two things you don’t get from me very often. First, I’m going to try to keep my sermons short – to make time for some words from somebody else. Because the conversations we’ve been having about discipleship, about how we as the people of St. Dunstan’s follow Jesus, are beginning to bear fruit. And starting today and over the next few weeks, some members of the congregation are going to speak about some of the core practices of faith that we are starting to identify, and how they experience or live out or struggle with those practices in their own lives.
The second thing I’m going to do is undertake a sermon series. As a preacher I usually take each week, each set of lessons, on its own terms. But I got inspired by the Confirmation class that’s been gathering this Lent, from all the Episcopal parishes in Madison. The class was structured around the Baptismal Covenant, the five promises that are part of our rite of holy baptism. And I got to thinking, You know, those vows really are great stuff to think and talk about. They’re a pithy and powerful map of the Christian life as our church understands it. And though we say them pretty often, when we have a baptism or renew our baptismal vows, we haven’t looked at them and unpacked them together. If you’d like to look at the Baptismal Covenant, these 5 questions, as we go along, you can open a little red prayer book to pages 304 and 305.
Today we’ll start with the first two. I plan to take the rest one by one, but next week we have a guest preacher and I didn’t want to saddle her with this project; and anyway these first two are related. They both have to do with belonging to a worshipping community, and the ways that blesses and challenges us. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? The apostles’ teaching and fellowship is… this. Gathering regularly to read and reflect on Scripture together, and to support, encourage, and care for one another. Sharing the Eucharist, the sacramental meal that Jesus gave us, and offering our joys and struggles to God in prayer. All of that is what church is and does, since the first Christian communities established by the apostles, the earliest church leaders. This baptismal vow simply asks us, Will you keep doing church?
Now, in the conversations we’ve been having, over the past year, about how church and faith intersect in people’s lives, one thing several people have said is, The church’s faith carried me when my faith was lost. When I was going through a dark or dry time and God felt far away. When I was too angry at God to pray. When I was brand-new to all this and didn’t know what I thought or believed, but knew something had drawn me here. The church’s faith carried me through until my own conversation with God began again.
When people come to me with questions about the Nicene Creed, the statement of the church’s historic faith that’s part of our Sunday worship, one thing I point out is that the Creed begins, “We believe.” This is something we believe all together, even when particular people have trouble with particular bits.
In today’s Gospel story, we can see Christian community operating in just this way. When the disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!”, he says, Okay, fine, how nice for you. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. All I know is, I haven’t seen him. As far as I know, he’s still dead, and everything I believed and hoped for is in the grave with him. I suspect Thomas felt pretty alone with his doubts, in the midst of a community of disciples that was on fire with hope and excitement about this miracle.
But … he doesn’t just bail out. The next time they gather, he’s there. “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” Even though he didn’t share their convictions, their sense that God was alive and active among them, he still cared enough about the people, the community, to show up. And the community cared enough about him, even in his grumpy skepticism, to invite and welcome and include him. Nobody said, “Don’t invite Thomas; didn’t you hear what he said about all of us seeing Jesus??” His church invited Thomas, and Thomas showed up. And because he showed up, because he put himself into that holy space, surrounded by people of God who loved him, God was able to show Godself to Thomas and restore his faith. Begin the conversation again.
I believe in church, friends. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am a much better Christian, that I am able to follow Jesus much more faithfully, because I belong to a Christian community that knows me and loves me and supports me and challenges me and reminds me what it’s all about. I am what I am, and I do what I do, because I believe that’s true for most of us. I believe in church. So when the baptismal covenant asks me, Will you keep doing church?, I’m able to say with a full heart, I will, with God’s help.
The second baptismal question asks us, Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? This is another way that belonging to a community of faith, and doing church with some regularity, can bless you: by helping you be honest and clear-sighted and strong enough to resist the habits and temptations in your life that limit your capacity to love God, neighbor, and self; and by reminding you who and whose you are. Who, and whose, you have chosen to be.
In reflecting on this theme of sin, repentance, and restoration, I want to turn to one element of today’s Gospel story: the fact that the risen Jesus is still wounded. Still has nail holes in his hands and feet. Still has the mark of a spear in his side. This is the resurrected Jesus, here among the disciples. He is alive in a new way – not a ghost but also no longer simply human in his physical being. He can enter locked rooms, for example. He looks both like and unlike himself, so that his friends don’t recognize him, then, suddenly, do.
The risen Jesus is alive in a new way. And presumably as part of raising him to new life, God could have tided up all those ugly, painful wounds. But God didn’t. The risen Jesus is still wounded. Broken. Imperfect. I have heard from folks who have suffered deeply that they find a lot of hope and comfort in that. That the risen Jesus, the Lord in whom we trust, has not forgotten what it was like to be beaten, kicked, spat upon. The risen Jesus has not transcended, but somehow integrated, the reality of pain.
A few weeks ago we spent an afternoon and evening here at St. Dunstan’s making crosses. Using all kinds of interesting and miscellaneous objects that many of you contributed. We followed a process laid out by Ellen Morris Prewitt, who developed cross-making as a kind of hands-on theological reflection. At one point in her book on the subject, she talks about what to do if, in the process of making or decorating your cross, you do something that you don’t like so much. Something that doesn’t look right. That makes the object in your hand different from the ideal, the goal, in your head.
She says, when that happens – and it will happen – resist the temptation to undo it. To take off the offending object. To backtrack, press Rewind. Prewitt says, instead, consider whatever it is that is bothering you, that doesn’t look or feel right, and strive to accept it for what it is, and add to it to get closer to where God wants you to be. Fix or resolve whatever is wrong by keeping going, instead of by backtracking.
She writes, “Once you adopt this attitude, you let go of undoing. Nothing on the cross gets taken apart and put together in a different way…. Always remember: God wants our attention, not our perfection. I try to keep this principal in mind in other parts of my life as well, because I hate doing something that I later regret. Whether it’s losing my temper, saying something ugly, or looking the other way when someone needs my help, I fall short more often than not. And no matter how much I want to undo my actions, I can’t. But I can add to them; I can fill out the picture and make it better.” She concludes, “God’s motto is, Don’t worry; everything can be salvaged.”
We are like those crosses, as Prewitt says. Our lives build up, piece by piece. And some of the pieces don’t sit quite right, don’t look good, don’t feel good. Some of the pieces mar the beauty of the whole. But we don’t take them off; we can’t. Our lives don’t have the option to Rewind or Undo. We just have to keep on living, keep on adding other pieces, that lend beauty and meaning and balance and integrity. We have to keep building the whole and not let the less-great pieces define us.
I think that’s the grace, the gift, of the image of the risen Christ, still wounded, spreading his pierced hands for Thomas to see, to touch: We are like those crosses, and so is Jesus. His resurrection doesn’t undo his death. It adds to the picture, instead of erasing everything that went before.
There’s so much to say about sin, forgiveness, struggle and redemption. But this year, that process of forming crosses, and letting the ugly parts and the failures be part of the work, that’s what’s in my mind and heart as I come to this question the church asks us: Will we persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you allow God to keep adding to the work of art that is your life, trusting that the not so great pieces can become part of something true, holy, and complete? Will we trust each other enough, within this community of faith, to show each other the pieces of our lives that we aren’t so proud of, and to help each other see the pattern, the shape, the beauty of each of our lives? That’s what I hear the Baptismal Covenant asking me, this year, and I am able to answer, I will, with God’s help.