Sermon – April 28, 2019 – Second Week in Eastertide
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 20:19-31
The other night, I met with a couple of friends and we were talking about the complexities, contradictions, and tensions of this faith we’ve committed our lives to. Like how, if way back in the fourth century Constantine had not brutally conquered his co-emperor Maxentius in a bloody civil war, if he had not adopted the symbols of Christ in doing so, I may not be a Christian today. Because before then, Christ followers were kept to the margins of society, a small sect that was hanging on but for the grace and very thin tolerance of the Roman Empire. A sect that was as likely as not to die out in a century or two.
Christianity spread across this world because powerful, militant leaders of huge empires adopted it, made it the official state religion, and used it to justify its violence. And let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Every major religion has established itself in some way through violence. Yes, even Buddhism.
How do I reconcile my own faith with Christianity’s vast history of violence? This faith founded on God coming into this earth as a flesh and blood person who chose sacrifice over conquering. This faith that calls me to love my neighbor, indeed to love my enemy.
What the heck does this have to do with our dear doubting Thomas? This gospel is often read as an illustration of Thomas’ lack of faith because he demanded to see Jesus, to feel his wounds, before he would believe that he had come back from the dead. Seeing was believing.
But I think the only mistake Thomas made was not being in the right place at the right time. Here’s what we also heard in our gospel today, in addition to Thomas’ skepticism: “Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side. Then they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” The rest of the disciples got the same verification that Thomas wanted. They just didn’t have to ask for it. But even for them, seeing was believing.
And why wouldn’t it have been? Everything about Jesus’ ministry on earth was about seeing then believing. People saw him heal those who were unhealable, and they believed. People saw him calm the raging sea, and they believed. People saw him feed a crowd of 5,000 from five small barley loaves and two small fish, and they believed. And then his disciples saw him alive after dying, and they believed.
But but but, you might say, Jesus himself said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Let’s put this into context. Jesus has died and then come back in the flesh. And now his physical body is getting pretty close to leaving this world for good—this body that inspired belief so many times with so many visible acts, so many verifiable miracles.
What I think Jesus is actually getting at is, “will you still believe when I’m not here?”
Something else happens in this gospel today. “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” He’s a few weeks ahead of schedule according to our Church calendar, but here is the Pentecost, the sending of God’s Spirit into the world so that she may be with us even after Jesus is gone.
The Greek verb used here for breathed, emphysaō, is only used once in the New Testament. In the Septuagint, the original translation of the entire Christian canon into Greek, it appears in two other places: when God breathed life into dust and created Adam, and when God’s breath comes into the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel and brings them back to life.
The breath of God animates that which is lifeless, it puts flesh on bones, bringing vitality to cold and empty places.
Before Jesus leaves his flesh behind, before this realm will no longer hear his physical voice or see his physical form, he animates the disciples, sending his Spirit into them, into humanity, into us, so that we can be his body in the world. The Body of Christ.
Seeing is still believing. But instead of seeing Jesus himself, the world would see the Body he breathed God’s Spirit into.
Which brings us back to Constantine. Seeing was believing for him, too. Legend, if not history, has it that on the eve of the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he was told in a dream to put a Christian symbol on the shields of his soldiers before they fought. He did, and they defeated their enemy. Constantine won control of the entire Roman Empire, which stretched from England to Egypt. He saw what he thought was the Christian God’s power and decided to believe.
Over and over again, throughout our history, I think we humans have mistaken dominance for power. We think that the more land we have, the more resources we control, the more people we coerce into adopting our ways of being and believing somehow mean that God has bestowed divine favor on us.
How ironic. How ironic that we worship a savior who constantly tried to keep his glory quiet. How many times did he tell people to not say a word about his miracles? How many times did he preach loving one’s enemies, forgiving those who have wronged us? Seventy times seven?
How ironic that we worship a savior who did not rise up in violence against the Empire that oppressed him and his people but instead sacrificed himself, saying “Forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing”? How ironic that we worship a savior whose love is so irrepressible that not even death could destroy it.
If seeing is believing, the resurrection is the only proof we need that love trumps dominance, that love trumps violence every single time.
If seeing is believing, what do people see in each of us who profess to follow Christ?
I have a confession: I have been obsessed with Beyoncé’s new movie Homecoming this week. It’s a recording of her epic concert at the Coachella festival last year and a documentary about how the show came into being. It was enormous. 200 performers—dancers, marching band, baton twirlers, and all the people behind the scenes: choreographers, costume designers, and countless others.
Beyoncé was the first black woman ever to headline Coachella, and she wanted the show to be a love letter to black culture, through the lens of historically black colleges. Every person on stage is black.
And here’s what’s so moving about it. The show is definitely highly choreographed and stylized, but this is what Beyoncé tells every single performer: I want you to do you. Whatever the move, whatever the step, whatever the note: bring all of who you are to it. Yes, we’re all moving in synch, but I need you to bring your unique joy to it.
Oh, and they do. Even as they move as a unit, each person has their own smile, their own sweet little take on a step. They each shine in their own way, and so the whole group shines.
When I saw it, the love they have for their culture, their joy about who they are and what they believe, washed over me. I felt it, and it stirred something in me. It was powerful. I felt it, and I wanted more of it. I wanted to be part of it.
To me, that’s the Body of Christ. The Spirit animating each of us, calling us to our own unique joy, our own unique gifts, for a shared purpose, a shared vision, a shared belief: which is love. God’s love. When that love is shining through us—that’s power—and it’s irrepressible. People can’t help but gravitate towards it.
Because seeing is believing.