"Unless I Touch the Wound " by Peter Bankson
April 19, 2009, the Second Sunday of Easter
In the Gospel lesson for this week, Thomas couldn’t believe that Jesus had returned until he touched his wounded body. The other disciples told him: "We have seen the Lord!" But he replied, "I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side." We’re a lot like Thomas. Or at least a lot of the time I’m a lot like Thomas. I want to see "it" for myself before I’m ready to believe. What does that say about me? Can I believe what I can’t touch? Can I trust what I can’t see?
Thomas wanted to know the truth with his own body. Our bodies are such an important part of our incarnational faith. But they’re not the only part.
As I worked with our readings for this week I found three lessons about our faith journey that I want to share with you:
- Bodies are essential, but not enough.
- The Spirit is willing, even when the flesh is weak.
- Hope is raised up when the Spirit brings bodies together.
Bodies are essential, but not enough
Barbara Brown Taylor has a wonderful chapter in her recent book "An Altar in the World." In Chapter 3, "The Practice of Wearing Skin," she looks at how important our bodies are to our understanding of the Christian faith:
In Christian teaching, followers of Jesus are called to honor the bodies of our neighbors as we honor our own. In his expanded teaching by example, this includes leper bodies, possessed bodies, widow and orphan bodies, as well as foreign bodies and hostile bodies – none of which he shied away from. Read from the perspective of the body, his ministry was about encountering those whose flesh was discounted by the world in which they lived.
What many of us miss, in our physical dis-ease, is that our bodies are God’s best way of getting to us.
"An Altar in the World," Barbara Brown Taylor, pg 42.
We learn so much from what we feel, what we see, what we hear. From this perspective it looks like Thomas had taken to heart a basic lesson of his teacher. It’s really tough to trust what we can’t see or touch. Our bodies are God’s way of getting to us.
That’s one of the reasons InterPlay has become so important to so many people in this community. Thanks to Sue, Billy, Kate and others, lots of people are learning new ways to listen through their bodies as God "gets to them."
I went to college to be trained as an engineer. One of the basic lessons I learned 50 years ago was to test things out before you gave them to others. It wasn’t right to give folks a car or a computer program that couldn’t do what it was designed to do. That kind of "user testing" works with equipment or software, but life is more complicated than a car or an automated budget development tool.
This seems like some kind of a modern version of the "Thomas Effect." A commitment to make sure I’ve touched it, and operated it, and pushed it to its limits before I use it for real, or put it in the hands of someone who may be trusting me to do what I’ve said.
When we’re dealing with something brand new, there are always things we don’t expect, can’t forecast. And even in the face of the unexpected, life goes on. But there are so many things I can’t touch. So I’m there with Thomas when he has trouble believing what the other disciples are saying.
The Gospel is pretty straightforward until verse 29. That’s where Jesus tells Thomas, "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me." How can we believe even when we can’t see? Somehow things feel more real if they’re, well, REAL. Seeing is believing, right?
I learned that early: Seeing is believing. I might have known better, since I was born with eyes that couldn’t focus more than about a foot in front of my nose. But even then, as myopic as I was, I came to know that if I could touch it, it was real. I couldn’t see a softball thrown by the pitcher toward me standing in the batter’s box until it was already over the plate. But when I heard it hit the catcher’s mitt I knew it was there, even though I couldn’t see it.
We see war and disease, and know that they are real. But there are some amazing things happening in our time, things that might lead to real, deep-seated changes in our world. Can we believe in them … even before they appear? Is it real only if I can touch it? Or, is ONE WAY I can know its real is to touch it … but there are other ways of knowing.
According to our formative story, God came among us in a body and lived in his skin for 33 years. That experience of incarnation changed the followers who knew him in the flesh in ways that continue to change us to this day. We may not always be able to touch the marks of the nails, but He walks with us and talks with us along life’s narrow way. If we want to keep hope alive in this life, we need to trust some things we can’t see or touch. Bodies are essential, but not enough.
My next lesson is that the Spirit is willing, even when the flesh is weak
Sometimes, when I can’t see very well, or when I doubt, it helps to have someone with me, maybe someone who is more familiar than I am with the path we’re following. At times like that we need a friend.
Spiritual companionship offers us an interesting model for this kind of support. For the past 30 years I’ve had companions like this. Its been different individuals over the years, but each of them has been with me in an encouraging, comforting relationship. Some of them knew a lot about the work I was doing – others didn’t. For example, when I was doing international strategic analysis in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon, Sonya was my spiritual director. She didn’t profess to know a lot of detail about US – Soviet relations, but she did know a lot about responding to God’s call. She knew the spiritual path well enough to hold up my commitments and ask those caring questions that helped me find the next step when I felt stuck. Just about the hardest lesson – at least for a guy – is to ask for help. For most of my life I’ve felt really rotten whenever I had to admit that I didn’t understand. That loathing has kept me off the path to learning more times than I can remember. Having a companion who can help me discern what I need to learn is an act of faith in itself and a wonderful gift. That kind of caring presence helps a willing Spirit find the strength to learn.
Some companions serve by walking with us. From the regular spiritual reports I receive I know that there are many of us who are walking with others, and many others who are walking with us, through new and challenging terrain. In the class we’re looking at how we might be more faithful in staying present, and how we might be more supportive as those we are accompanying move through times of doubt, uncertainty and challenge.
Other companions may not walk with us for a long time, but serve by welcoming us to a threshold that may seem strange to us but is familiar territory to them, a place where they know the path we’re just beginning to follow. Having someone to walk with is so very important, especially where the environment seems threatening.
I long for the day when this kind of spiritual companionship is easily available to everyone who is part of this family of faith. And we’re moving in that direction. For the past month I’ve been working with a dozen of us in the spiritual companionship class. We’ve been looking at what it means to have a companion like this on our spiritual journey., and the Stewards are engaging the question as well. If you feel a hunger for this kind of companionship, please speak with Kate, or Brenda, or one of the other Stewards. We’re looking at ways we can be more accountable as a community for providing this kind of companionship to all Seekers who are ready for it.
"I don’t understand." Is still a stretch for me more often than I like, but I’m trying to learn to be a beginner again. When I finally let someone else help me find my way I feel a lot like Thomas there in the Upper Room. It took direct experience to help him believe. Jesus let him satisfy his body’s need for convincing evidence. "[H]e said … "Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!" Thomas exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!"
Then Jesus told him, "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me." That’s the second lesson for me this week: Blessed are those who trust the presence of the Spirit, who believe without seeing Jesus in the moment. The Spirit is willing, even when the flesh is weak
Hope is raised up when the Spirit brings bodies together
Each week this season we’ll be reminded that, "Wherever hope is resisting the lure of cynicism or despair, there the process of resurrection is being turned into a reality."
How do we resist that lure of cynicism and despair? Can we believe that Christ is with s, here, in this city, in the midst of the mess we’re in, even when we can’t see that presence?
I found my third lesson for this week in our reading from Acts:
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. (Acts 4:32-35)
Hope is raised up when the Spirit brings bodies together.
I’ve had trouble with this passage for as long as I can remember, thinking it was an admonition that I must get rid of everything. I haven’t done that yet. As a family of faith we’re not there, either. But this week I’ve seen this lesson from a different perspective, one that raises up the needs of others rather than putting down what I’ve been able to accomplish,. With the gifts God gives me and the help of others.
Here in Seekers Church we do have a culture of generosity. This morning I looked at the bulletin board near the kitchen door and was reminded of many of the places where we share what God has given us with those who are helping resist the lure of cynicism or despair.
There are many, many places where we come together to share God’s gifts of time, experience, talent and material resources with others.
- Many of us have added God’s gifts to us to Sandra’s full-time commitment to help the families who have come to SSIHC (Silver Spring Interfaith Housing Coalition) for help.
- Others are supporting Aeren in her work at Community Coalition for the Homeless at Friendship Place.
- Our support for Bokanoso is deep and wide. Roy will be bringing us a sermon soon with news from his latest visit to Winterveldt.
- Steve and Carmen recently returned from a working week with the Saint Bernard Project, helping rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Many of us contributed to their mission and were with them in spirit.
- Richard and Kevin and Glen (have I left anyone out?) will be leaving soon for another work party in Pearlington Mississippi, where, for the past several years they have been working on another effort to help rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
- Six of us will be going to Guatemala again in July to help build a school in a small village in the highlands, a village that recently incorporated separately so they could have a school of their own, so ALL their children (including the young women) will be able to prepare for the future.
- Pat and Trish have offered their home as a living place to others as a part of their generosity.
Some other places where the Spirit has brought our bodies together involve our own efforts to touch the wounds. We’ve been building relationships with the Covenant Christian Community Church create healing conversations on race and diversity. A purist might not count that as "selling what we have," but I see it as another important step on the journey to helping many of us resist the lure of cynicism or despair.
Beyond these collective efforts, many of us are working to help others as healers and advocates and counselors in ways we hear about in sermons and coffee hour and mission group meetings.
And then there are those surprise encounters with the Spirit. Every week we pray to God to:
Give us strength and discipline
to nurture our relationship with You;
to care for every part of Your Creation;
to foster justice and be in solidarity with those in need;
to work to end all war, and violence, and discord;
and to respond joyfully when you call,
freely giving our selves as you have shown the way.
Sometimes this prayer is answered in small, but interesting ways. On Friday Marjory and I delivered three huge paintings to the staff at CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence). Two of them are 4′ by 4′, and the third is 4×6 feet. The paintings came from Mark Loeffler. He asked us to take them in when the Drifting Nomad down the street was threatening to discard them. Mark wanted them to go to a place where folks could enjoy them. I agreed to bring them here and see what we could do. They were too big – too heavy to hang anywhere in our space.
I looked around for a suitable home for them at a place like Shepherd’s Table, but I was running out of steam working by myself. Then I asked Jean Adams if she’d see what she could do. Jean teaches art at Christ House and thought the paintings might go well in some other shelter. I gave her some pictures of the art so she could show them to prospective places. After about a month of looking Jean reported that the staff at CCNV was excited about having the paintings.
Thursday night the folks in Time & Space Mission Group helped me get them out of the basement and load them onto the roof rack on my car. When Marjory and I arrived at the loading dock behind CCNV, the staff was clearly delighted to have this colorful addition to their space. As we left they were excitedly talking about where each painting would be hung.
This may seem way short of believing in the resurrection or resisting the lure of cynicism and despair. But it felt like a little example of the point our Gospel lesson holds up for me: Unless I’m willing to believe in what I have not seen, or tested for myself, the road ahead is often blocked. When I’m ready to believe, then I can work with others to help make something happen.
I trusted Mark when he gave us the paintings, I trusted God that there was a place for them to live even when I couldn’t find it. And I trusted Jean’s report that CCNV was ready to receive Mark’s gift. In the end, something good happened. Mark’s paintings are brightening the lives of folks who don’t have a lot.
For me, the blessing of those paintings hanging in a center that provides food and shelter to our neighbors who are in great need is a small example of the Good News in our Acts lesson for this week: "The believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. "
The disciples companioned Thomas, helped him keep hope alive, and when he had felt the wound he could join them in that ministry.
What’s the lesson here? What does this act of sharing tell us about how we might be called to resist cynicism and despair? Hope is raised up when the Spirit brings bodies together.
Enough! Thinking about this week’s lessons and our worship theme for Easter, I offer these three lessons:
- Bodies are essential, but not enough.
- The Spirit is willing, even when the flesh is weak.
- Hope is raised up when the Spirit brings bodies together.
As we gather around this table of forgiveness and community, let us trust the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, even if we haven’t felt the wound … yet. And let’s keep praying.