I’m not sure we’re ready for this, but here goes.
What if I told you a story
about the time I saw my Great Aunt Elma,
five months deceased,
standing on the dresser in my bedroom
wearing a 1940’s mink fur tippet
with those poor little mink heads still on it?
Would you believe she was there
or would you listen politely
and assume my grievous imagination
had projected itself into the darkness?
Or this, what would you think
if I told you about an All Saints’ Day visitation
from a long dead childhood surrogate mother?
This was back in Columbus, Ohio
and one of the primary nurturers in my youngest years
was the centerpiece of the sermon I was preaching that day.
On my way into the church that morning,
very early when no one else was around,
I was greeted near the door by someone
I had never seen before.
All these years later, honestly,
I do no remember whether it was a man or a woman.
In those days, in that parish,
and with four very young children,
I got to church about 7 am on top of very little sleep.
Anyway, the person handed me “The Watchtower,”
the propaganda magazine of The Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After juggling my stuff and awkwardly unlocking
a series of doors, including my office,
I threw the magazine on my desk.
I never gave it another thought
until I stopped, dumbfounded,
in the middle of the sermon.
Suddenly I remembered that the woman
I was speaking about,
had been a Jehovah’s Witness.
What do you think?
Serendipity, coincidence, strange visitation, epiphany?
Just so you know, the first story is completely made up –
no Aunt Elma on my dresser.
The second story is the absolute truth,
with details as factual as I remember them.
But, being me,
I have never actually answered that question myself:
serendipity or epiphany?
John’s Gospel drives me crazy.
Katy can tell you how grumpy I get
when I have to preach his stories
more than once in a while.
Unfortunately, around Holy Week and Easter
it is John, John, John.
First of all, John doesn’t just tell a story
the way Mark does, he declares it
and then rubs it in your face.
It is the Gospel written
furthest in time from when Jesus lived,
and written by someone who never met Jesus.
And yet, John’s Gospel has the most and the longest speeches
delivered by Jesus as if verbatim,
with details and theological pronouncements
that did not even exist when Jesus was alive.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,
no one comes to the Father, except through me…” – only in John.
“I am the light of the world…” – only in John.
Foot washing – only in John.
Raising Lazarus from the dead – only in John.
“The Jews,” as a categorical condemnation – almost entirely in John. (Matthew, Mark, and Luke specifically name the Pharisees and temple clergy as Jesus’ primary opposition, while John castigates to “the Jews” sixty-seven times).
And the difference between John’s resurrection stories
and those of the other three Gospels,
are like the difference
between my Aunt Elma and All Saints’ Day stories.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke,
like my All Saints’ story,
invite the reader’s own conclusion
about how and why the tomb is empty.
like my Aunt Elma story,
tells us what happened so graphically,
and with specific conclusions about what it means,
that we are left saying “yes” or “no.”
And John even tells us,
more than once,
that he is telling us these stories
as “proof” of his other proclamations.
He essentially says to us,
Jesus is God in the way that I tell you he is God,
and here is my proof.”
So, you see, John leaves an accident
on the floor of the living room
with all kinds of company in the house,
and then I am supposed to preach about it.
That is what makes me grumpy.
By the way, nobody else
has this story about eating fish with Jesus
on the shore of lake Tiberius either.
So, I am not going to dignify John’s story
by going into its weeds
and deciphering what it all means.
Suffice it to say that John wants us to believe
that Jesus’ resurrection was physiological
and not a ghost story.
Ghosts don’t eat fish.
And John also wants to verify that Peter was forgiven
for denying Jesus three times
on the night Jesus was arrested.
I suspect that by the time the Jesus movement
had wiggled its way across sixty or seventy years
and hundreds if not thousands of miles
to where John entered it,
those were some issues that got argued about.
So two thousand years later
we get stuck with the echo of those arguments
when we should be focused on our own.
I guess we are also kind of stuck
where we were last week, with the Thomas story.
By which I mean, it is kind of like teaching school these days
and knowing that different people
have different learning styles,
and that one is not better than another,
but that general education
has traditionally focused its pedagogy
toward one learning style.
The Church, likewise,
has pretty much been focused on proclamation –
“here is the truth, believe it.”
That works for some people
but it sure does not work for me, and
I am supposed to be one of the proclaimers!
So let’s get down and dirty with the resurrection.
In spite of what John writes, is not a yes or no story.
Clearly, by reading all four Gospels,
we see that some people had a post-crucifixion experience
that shocked and amazed them,
while others stood in disbelief
and still others must have been agnostic.
It has been the assumption
of Christian scholars, historians, and theologians alike,
that Christianity traveled up the Mediterranean
and proliferated across the world like a virus
because of the resurrection.
It is often said that “something powerful”
must have happened
to propel a small, new strain of Judaism
into a great new world religion.
But that something powerful
may not have been the resurrection stories –
or not only the resurrection stories.
There is another theory at work these days,
that suggests another reason
that Christianity went from approximately
forty small communities in the year 100 –
about the time John was writing –
to a million or so followers by the year 325
when Emperor Constantine forever changed things
by dragging it into the mainstream of history.
Early Christian communities were focused
on bringing about the Kingdom of God
“on earth as it is in heaven.”
They saw themselves as a parallel kingdom
within the Roman empire.
They did some interesting things that,
whether intentional or not, made them proliferate.
Instead of focusing on converting men,
which many of the religions did,
Christians focused on recruiting women and slaves.
They also became primarily an urban movement,
and that movement placed a passionate emphasis
on healing and bread.
In our parlance, they created a rudimentary social safety net.
Well, urbanization took off across the empire,
and of course, there were many more poor people than rich.
Likewise, women didn’t go to war and get killed.
For those reasons and more, the little Kingdom of God
grew like a mustard seed in the weeds.
But to be perfectly honest,
we have very little good historical data
on Christianity from the time of Jesus
through the first two hundred years.
It is a black hole with some echoes emanating out of it.
All we have is local lore,
the proclamations of geographically located people
whose voices got heard over everyone else’s.
A big church would have been fifty or sixty,
and a bishop would have been someone
who could claim the loyalty of a network
of a half dozen or more small congregations.
There were often violent disagreements
between groups of Christians, even
within the same town or city.
Athanasius, for example, had thugs
who cudgeled the opposition.
What constituted a church was more like a house-church,
with somewhere like Trinity Place
being a big, established one.
There were arguments about the resurrection.
Had Jesus been saved by God,
brought back to life in a statement of victory over death?
Or did Jesus do it on his own power?
Was Jesus raised from the dead
or did he rise from the dead?
Both sides called themselves orthodox,
and the many versions of this argument
were hotly contested.
Meanwhile, all of them had some version
of the Kingdom of God
they were trying to create on earth
as it is in heaven.
They did stuff that included healing and bread.
During the same time period, in the Roman empire,
at least twenty-six different people
and fought civil wars or battles of usurpation.
As the little kingdom within the empire grew
the grand empire around them became weaker.
Serendipity or an act of God?
I would not hazard a guess,
but I do believe that what propelled a small movement
gathered around a sagely holy man and prophet,
was what he taught
and the wisdom of his followers
to keep teaching and practicing it:
healing and bread,
imploring the kingdom of God
to come on earth
as it is in heaven.
I do believe that just like us,
all these years later in Trinity Place,
some were motivated by stories of resurrection
and promises of life after death;
while others were motivated by sublime wisdom
and insights that proved transformative;
while still others sought healing, some sought bread,
and while some served bread, others offered healing.
Honestly, I am able to still marvel
over that All Saints’ Day experience,
and laugh at how thick-headed I can be –
taking so long to recognize the serendipity
or epiphany, whichever it was.
That is not the only mystery and strangeness
I have been subjected to over the years,
but none of them proves anything to me.
I take that back,
they confirm for me the need for humility
But John’s stories and my own
do not prove anything about Jesus to me.
If I needed any confirmation about the wisdom of Jesus
it is what I have witnessed in the community of faith
that engages in the practices of healing and bread.
But please do not hear my cantankerous relationship
with the Gospel of John
as calling your baby ugly.
Rather, it is simply feeling backed into the corner
by a part of our religious tradition
that insists that I take John’s words as proof of his claims,
instead of being able to witness
the presence of God in our midst,
where I do,
and how I do.
We have a diversity of lenses
and we need to recognize the glory
of all those visions we behold.