Sacramental Coffee

Week of Sunday April 11 - Easter 2
Gospel: John 20:19-31

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." 24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." 26 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

Louis A Ruprecht says

Make no mistake about the implications [of Mark’s crucifixion story]: a Roman soldier presiding over this ghastly execution was converted to the correct view about Jesus by observing the way he died, not by seeing him raised from death. There was something about the death of Jesus that was unique, and even revelatory, according to Mark.

Of course the main question is, Why? Mark's Jesus expires with that question on his lips. Why would Mark tell the story this way? Who is he trying to convince? And how could he think this brutal story would be convincing to anyone?

I’d not realized the significance of this Roman soldier, yet Ruprecht’s answer to his own question has been my own answer, for a long time.

Mark thinks this way of telling Jesus's story, the Good Friday version, will be convincing to Romans. The centurion who witnessed Jesus's death did not need to see his rising to be convinced. Jesus' death convinced him. The Roman audience Mark had in mind was schooled on Greek tragedy, and was very familiar with the idea that certain kinds of outrageous suffering can actually be redeeming. Salvation, in these people’s view, was through suffering, not from it....

In my times of no faith, when God was simply an historical word with no reality, and there was no God, this dying in Mark still spoke to me. Even if there were no God, the good of Jesus was worth doing for its own sake. To suffer for this Good redeemed life from mere accidental existence. It rescued the world from nihilism, anomie, and absolute pointlessness.

This still holds for me, sometimes. I’ve also made the wonderful discovery that in going back to Galilee, as Mark puts it, there is an amazing sacramental mystery to be found in compassion and service, which is truly worthy of being called resurrection. But when it all fails, seeking the Good of Jesus against the darkness; even only the memory of it, when I am too crushed to do anything, rescues me from a complete fading of the light.

So Mark ends with inspiration. It holds a challenge, which I too often meet like the disciples, and the women at the tomb; I flee. But it is a world I understand.

This week, instead of going back with Mark to Galilee, back to Peter’s mother in law, or the young girl who has died, and the beginning of resurrection, the lectionary plunges into the world of The Gospel of John.

This is a world I associate with naiveté, wish fulfillment, and fairy stories. It is not that I don't see some of his message, but the ‘mystical’ feel of his gospel is off-putting.  I would never tell the story this way. Wherever I have met church that sounds like John, they’ve been selling a religion that is over-hyped, and which has never delivered what it promised.

There is a high soaring glory in John, which I can begin to appreciate if I immerse myself in it. If I let my mind settle into the theatre of a cathedral in another world and time, and step out of the crackling heat of a stubble paddock, and the smell of hot bitumen where the wheat semi’s are pulling onto the main road, then John works—after a fashion, sometimes. The problem is that even if I become immersed in his story, I have to come out into the bright heat of the theatre car-park, and all its acres of barren bitumen. Then John’s story fades away far more quickly than does the imagery of most movies, as I re-enter the real world.

Back at harvest with my cousins, or riding alone on a long road, John is a world and a language that is alien. His imagery has no traction in my memory. I have to learn him as doctrine which I inevitably forget by the time I come back to him. Mark remains fresh; my world.

Perhaps John can question me.

I wrote, as I began this piece, “Why not just say 'on Sunday when they met for worship, they had an experience of Jesus present with them?'” Sunday worship is what “on the first day of the week,” (20:19)  and “eight days later,” (20:26) refer to. It’s not just some strange way of counting days, but alludes to the eighth day of the week, that very early Sunday morning time when the Christians slaves could meet for worship before they began getting breakfast for the master and his household.

Yes, I’d write that differently. But do I have enough commitment to my God and my people to meet at 3.00 and 4.00am? Do we share enough honesty and love for each other that we meet the resurrected Jesus in that meeting? John is suggesting that Thomas missed the resurrection experience because he was not at worship. That’s a challenge!

Many clergy, including me, often spend their Sundays off not going to church. What kind of power, that comes through the locked doors of fear and darkness—they were meeting at night, remember—are we missing so that not going to church is life giving?!

I like Thomas. He is grounded enough to call bullshit on his friends’ tall stories. And yet when he came to worship, he experienced overwhelming evidence of resurrection. He did not need to touch the wounds! Seeing—experiencing that worship—was enough.

(John’s resurrection appearances are in stark contrast to Mark.  But note that John is careful to get too close to physical bodily resurrection. No one touches him; they see. This body comes through walls and locked doors. We are way beyond the territory of crude physical resuscitation.)

Easter service was good on Sunday. But afterward, I went into the city to meet a Turkish journalist who wanted to interview me about same sex marriage! After we finally found a coffee shop which was open; only Adelaide would have shopping on Easter Sunday, but leave the coffee shops shut, she began her questions. It was a strange meeting of minds, seeking to communicate Christian theology with someone who had grown up in a secular state with a strong Muslim influence, and who was delighted—and astonished, that this Christian knew Marx and Habermas! (A bit.)

At one point, we explored the notion of a sacrament; how something can become revealing of the Divine. In our meeting, I said, something was being transcended. As we were seeking to understand each other, and to communicate ideas, and find what is justice for our situation, there was a kind of joy in our meeting; a joy that I think is a glimpse of the Divine. Marriage can do this; it is sacramental. If we say it is not wrong to be gay or lesbian, how can we then deny them this sacrament? Despite our differing opinions of the reality of “Divine,” I think we both agreed on the joy; it was real.

I reflected on the way home, that most of the joy of the last week, had been outside of church. Joy was not absent from church, but the highpoints of the week were working with a refugee, and talking with a journalist. I don’t think I’m alone in this experience, and it is perhaps why I need John’s gospel to be needling me, and unsettling me.

For John presents a vision where the eighth day of the week is the highlight! The reason we over sell the language of John, and so often do church with hollow phrases and silly claims that do a Dawkins’ head in, is that we are seeking the experience of John. We are longing for resurrection. What are not doing in church, when so often, resurrection is being found outside, instead of in the place which John tells us is its home?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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