April 16 | Impossible Power

Impossible Power
Texts: John 20:19-31
Speaker: Jeremy Garber

“I don’t usually believe in things like this, but…” I was a twenty-something young adult with a theatre major and no direction in life. I’d moved to Minneapolis to find acting work, but found that the hustle and unreliability of theatre life wasn’t a good fit for me. In the meantime, I ended up working for minimum wage in a chain bookstore – and returning to church for the first time in a decade. I grew up in a Mennonite household where it didn’t even occur to me that people didn’t go to church every Sunday. But the lure of college hedonism and the late nights of theatre rehearsals took me away from church. It took a life crisis to bring me back.

I grew increasingly frustrated with barely eking out a living in retail, even though I loved books and I loved my coworkers. On Christmas Eve of 1999, I submitted my rejection letter and swore I would never work in retail again. I applied for a temp agency to cover my bills, but I didn’t own a car, and Minneapolis’ public transit system was unreliable in the suburbs (the only place I could afford to live). On the first day of my new job assignment, I missed my bus connection and traveled all the way to the end of the line, late for work. I collapsed to my knees, sobbing in the middle of a snowy field, overwhelmed and desperate. I felt like there was nowhere else to go.

When I got back to my apartment, I called my mom and said I wanted to come home to figure things out. She suggested I call my pastor instead to see if he could help me stay in Minnesota and succeed. When I called him, he paused for a moment and then said, “Jeremy, I don’t usually believe in things like this, but I hear God clearly telling me that you should move back home.” And so I did, not quite believing that God speaks in this way to people in this age, but trusting anyway.

Fast forward two years. I’m newly married, have a steady job at the Goshen College library, and am an active participant at Assembly Mennonite Church. I know that I want to go to grad school, and I’m trying to decide between library school and seminary. We’re playing mah jongg with one of Assembly’s pastors and her husband, and I’m chatting about my future possibilities. When I mentioned seminary, she paused for a moment and then said, “Jeremy, I don’t usually believe in things like this, but I hear God clearly telling me that you should go to seminary.” And so I did, following my love of the church through Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a PhD in theology from Iliff School of Theology, and a career in theological education that led me to MTSO and to Columbus Mennonite Church.

I don’t usually believe in things like this, but. How many of us in our modern, rationalistic world have stopped at “I don’t believe in things like this?” Think of atheists who scorn faith as a childish belief in an imaginary friend. Think of the Christians who fight back that it all makes logical sense. In the face of climate disaster, rumors of war, and political polarization, it seems like God is far away – or has disappeared altogether. Like the disciples huddled in fear after their teacher was brutally murdered, we lock our physical and mental doors against the possibility of anything outside of our experience. I don’t usually believe in things like this, but. That’s when Jesus shows up.

Our passage from the final chapters of John comes just after Mary Magdalene has encountered the risen Christ. But the disciples don’t know that yet. They’re in their room with the doors locked, terrified that the same authorities who sentenced Jesus to death because of his proclamations of peace will come and get them as well. But then the impossible thing happens. Jesus appears to them. Their teacher, their friend, last seen limp and tortured and bruised, sealed away in a dark cave – he’s there, calmly giving them peace. And lest they think they’re hallucinating (they don’t usually believe in things like this), he shows them the signs that it’s really him. Evidence of a different kind, the puncture wounds of nails and spear, the marks that Jesus had indeed been through the trials of death and come out on the other side. It is the proclamation of the impossible power of peace over the shallow and “realistic” power of death. It is this kind of evidence that causes the disciples to rejoice.

The important thing, though, the message of the gospel, is that Jesus doesn’t just show us the seemingly impossible and then vanish. Jesus’ impossible power of peace sends the disciples off to do some impossibly powerful things of their own (as we’ll see in the coming weeks of Easter to Pentecost). Just as Jesus was sent to heal and include and rejoice and cast out the demons of violence and power, the disciples receive peace as they receive the power to do the same. He literally gives them the Breath of God – ruach, pneuma, the same word used for God’s breathing the life into the first human that we say portrayed in our scripture drama a few weeks ago. This is the second creation – the triumph of impossible creative nonviolence over the Machiavellian realism of “the way things are.” Behold, God makes all things new.

And then we get to Thomas. Thomas is a realist. He’s part of the community because he wants to get things done. He’s a practical kind of guy that needs rational evidence, not silly theories or emotional encounters. He’s the kind of community member that needs an second helping of impossible power – and Jesus gives it to him. For the third time Jesus shows up, shows himself to the disciples in his resurrected still wounded but triumphant body, and gives them the gift of peace. And he also gives Thomas the gift of evidence.

We should stop here to note that Doubting Thomas gets a bad rap. I have heard lots of people say that they identify with Thomas, that they would doubt all this ridiculous stuff too. Thomas is the perfect modern man, not accepting other people’s stories or trusting mere feelings, but insisting on concrete sensory replicable evidence. But the real point of this story is that Jesus comes to the disciples where they are. He appears privately and intimately to Mary in the garden. He appears to the fearful disciples through locked doors to show his impossible power of peace. And he shows Thomas concrete proof, not because that’s the best or only kind of proof, but because it’s the proof Thomas needs. The Greek verse 27 actually says “Do not be unbelieving but believing” – not an active doubt but a recognition of Jesus’ Godhood. Jesus is already there – it just takes Thomas looking for him to believe him and call him God.

One of my favorite verses in the Gospels is John 20: 30. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” I suspect that each of these signs were tailored to the person who was looking for Jesus. For those who feel in their heart, an experience of the heart strangely warmed (as my Methodist friends say). For those like Thomas Aquinas who think like a philosopher, a series of calculated proofs to reason our way to God. For those who need other people, a new community of equality and justice and trust and love. And for all of us, God behind it all. Impossible power, impossibly tailored to each of us.

Like those early disciples huddled in the tomb, we are afraid of persecution – or ridicule by the scientific scoffers of our day. But Jesus is already showing us signs of God’s presence, every day, everywhere around us. Jesus comes to us and reassures us. When we see Jesus, we rejoice. After our rejoicing, we are sent to do God’s mission. Some of us (in the modern world) need physical evidence. When we feel this way, Jesus will return to us and give us peace. But we have to be ready for the signs, to move past our fear and our skepticism, to look for God in the ways that we can see. There is evidence for Jesus if we are willing to look. If we see it, we know Jesus is God. We will be blessed. There is so much more evidence about Jesus that we don’t know. But looking for the signs of Jesus will give us life.

The healing hole in the ozone layer. People standing up and speaking out against the disappearance of democracy. Drag queens reading books to little kids in defiance of lines of hatred. All these little signs are Jesus speaking in particular languages. I invite you to look for what God’s impossible power is doing in the language that you can recognize. And then we, like the disciples, are invited to speak up on behalf of the Gospel. We can speak to the skeptics of our day.

I don’t usually believe in things like this, but. I have seen and I believe. Like the comforting voices of friends, like the movements of democracy, like the fight of freedom for women and people of color and our sacred queer brothers and sisters, there is touchable evidence of Jesus in the world. Like the jealous leaders of entrenched conservative religion and the oppressive powers of Empire, the powers of this world will fight their hardest to try to deny this evidence. But the glorious news of Easter is that God’s impossible resurrection power breaks through – and seeing God’s resurrection power, like David, will cause us to break out in speech and song and dance – and maybe even do some impossible power miracles.