Worship | Keeping CMC Safe Sunday | April 24

The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

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Sacred Work

Scripture: John 20:19-29

(Sermon by Mark Rupp)

Last Sunday while I was worship leading, I mentioned that Easter is not just a day, but a season.  It is a season on the liturgical calendar that extends through Pentecost and invites us to ask the “so what?” questions about the resurrection that we celebrate on Easter day. 

So what?  These questions about what Easter–what the resurrection–means for us today are questions that we ask all year long.  In fact, if you’ve ever done the math about how Lent is supposed to represent the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, you may have noticed that on the calendar, Lent lasts longer than 40 days.  This is because Sundays don’t count toward those 40 days of repentance and contemplating our mortality.  Every Sunday is meant to be a kind of “mini-Easter” celebration. 

I’ll let you decide what that might mean for any Lenten fasting you do…

We ask these “so what” questions of Easter and mini-Easters all year as we continue to both celebrate and ponder what the resurrection means for us, yet especially in these days and weeks immediately after the big day of celebration, we ponder them afresh alongside the stories of the disciples and others in the first century Biblical narratives who were trying to make sense of everything that had happened.  Encounters with the risen Christ in locked rooms, on seaside, or along the road show us how those early disciples grappled with the questions of the resurrection. 

And in many ways, how we order our life together as a congregation reveals how we continue to grapple with those same questions.  If Christ is risen indeed, how then shall we also live?  If love conquers even death, how are we being called to love one another? 

I raise these questions and make these connections because–as has already been mentioned– today is our annual worship service where we focus on our Keeping CMC Safe policy.  My hope is that we can see this policy and the work that it helps us to do together in community as one way that we answer these questions, one way that the good news of what God is doing is channeled through us into the very real world in which we live and move and breathe and relate with one another. 

In past years we have had different kinds of speakers come share with us on this Sunday.  Some of them have been mental health professionals.  Some of them experts in child abuse prevention.  All of them have helped us see the importance of this work in many different ways.  I come before you this morning not with lots of statistics or explanations of trauma theory or anecdotes about child psychology.  Those are great ways of understanding the importance of this work, but those are not my specialties. 

Instead, my hope is to explore how we think about our policy and the work of abuse prevention from a theological lens. How does the way we think and speak about God inform the way we think and speak about this important topic?  There are lots of different ways to approach this topic from a theological lens, but as I sat with our lectionary passage from John’s gospel this week I saw three themes that connect with our abuse prevention work. 

The first theme I saw in this text is one that can be easy to overlook because it may seem to many like it is too obvious to be meaningful.  But for others, it is something that has a huge impact on their experience within religious communities.  This first theme is simply that the body matters.  Whether this is a “duh…” statement to you or it is THE statement you long to hear, what we see in this story is that the resurrected body of Jesus includes real flesh and real breath. In Luke’s modified version of this story, while the disciples are all wondering over Jesus showing up in their midst, he even asks them for something to eat.  I imagine three days would leave anyone’s stomach pretty empty.

We are not simply spiritual creatures trapped inside cages of flesh, but just like Jesus our full humanity and divinity is experienced in and through these bodies.  And just like Jesus, the good news of resurrection is not about waiting to die so that our spirits can be whisked away; the good news must be good news for all of who we are: our wounds, our intimate connections with one another, our empty stomachs, and all the other ways we experience the world through our bodies. 

Now this might seem like a “duh…” theological statement until you consider the implications of living with a theology that denies the goodness and redemption of the body.  And the reality is that in many different ways, the Church has propagated just that kind of theology with all kinds of real, physical suffering either ignored or outright caused in service of the idea of some greater, spiritual good. 

Jesus turns up behind those locked doors and shows the disciples his hands and his side to prove who he is, showing that his body is an integral part of his personhood.  But, as theologian Debie Thomas points out, “Jesus’s wounded body reminds [us] that some hurts are for keeps.  Some markers of pain, loss, trauma, and horror leave traces that no amount of piety will take away.”

So when we as a community take measures to ensure that we are creating spaces that prevent abuses of any kind, we are doing a good and holy work to promote justice for bodies of all ages.  We are recognizing that abuse leaves lasting damage on both spirit and body, and that preventing such abuse requires us to tend to the ways we relate in this community both at an inner level and an outer one.

The second theme I see emerging in this text is related to the first but goes deeper in a slightly different direction.  Not only does the body matter, but the body of the resurrected Jesus that shows up in that locked room bearing those scars reveals to us that the power of God is most fully expressed through shared vulnerability.  There are plenty of passages in scripture that paint a picture of an all-powerful deity ruling with strength and might, but if we accept that Jesus is the fullest revelation of who God is, we need to wrestle with what it means to worship a God that can be wounded. 

Not only does Jesus show up and invite his friends to see and touch and help nourish his physical body, he shows up in a resurrected body that still carries the scars of crucifixion. What are we to make of the fact that the risen Christ, the one who is both fully human and fully divine continues to bear the marks of Good Friday?  The victory we find at Easter is not about erasing the pain of Good Friday by sloughing off the flesh as inconsequential or less important than spirit.  Rather the victory of Easter is about the transformation of that suffering.  It is about honoring the reality of that pain while insisting that it does not get the final word. 

Once again, Debie Thomas puts it this way: “Maybe Christianity’s best appeal is in its willingness to embrace real bodies, real scars, real pain. After all, it is with our bodies that we experience deep trauma, deep anger, deep terror, and deep joy. It’s my chest that hurts when I mourn. It’s my face that burns when I’m angry. It’s my whole body that warms with pleasure when I’m happy. In his resurrection, Jesus honored the body.  He honored the bruised, broken, wounded, and disabled body. He honored the real-life bodies in which we live.”

He honored those bodies by becoming one of them, by sharing in their vulnerability and showing the power that can come through solidarity.

Jesus came to upset our notions of power by embodying what it means to express strength not through violence or coercion but through building these kinds of communities of shared vulnerability, through movements of people standing in solidarity with one another.  In his teachings and his life as he wandered around the country, Jesus placed children in the center, helped the poor, ate with those deemed sinners, and spoke good news to the oppressed.  These were not just nice little acts of charity but ways of showing that the good news must be good news for these vulnerable populations if it is going to be good news at all. 

Not only are the vulnerable worthy of our protection and care because it is the right thing to do but also because they reveal God to us in and through their very being. 

A lot of our work with abuse prevention and Keeping CMC Safe is centered around protecting children because they are one of the most vulnerable populations in any congregation.  Yet as we create the kinds of communities where children are safe to learn and grow, we also create the kinds of communities where children can teach and help all of us grow in the knowledge of a God who becomes vulnerable and invites us to become like children in order to inherit the kin-dom. 

When we build these kinds of communities that honor and protect the most vulnerable, we follow in Jesus’ footsteps by upsetting traditional notions of power and placing our faith in the kind of power that can only be found through a commitment to solidarity with all. 

The third theme I saw connecting with our work of Keeping CMC Safe finally gets around to the man of the hour in this particular passage of scripture: Thomas, or as many might know him “Doubting Thomas.”  Over the years, I have noticed a trend toward reclaiming Thomas and recognizing that in some ways doubt is necessary for true faith to exist. One of the things I think our congregation does especially well is creating brave spaces where people can express their questions and doubts about faith while still feeling a strong sense of community.  Perhaps Thomas is a patron saint for many of you out there wrestling with your own doubts.  I, too, find affinity with Thomas for these reasons. 

Yet I read one biblical commentator this week who stirred up this image of Thomas as the unfairly treated one and helped me think about our work to keep our community safe.  Nancy Claire Pittman wrote, “In rejecting the disciples’ good news about what they have seen, [Thomas] rebuffs the very friends with whom he has shared life for so long…[L]ove and trust within the faithful community are the significant expression of the work of Christ in their midst.  Yet Thomas’s words, especially in the Greek, carry a powerful sting; ‘there’s no way I will believe unless I see it for myself’ is the original force…Their eyes and their fingers are not enough for him; he must see and touch for himself. Thus the community that Jesus has tried so hard to build throughout the Gospel is threatened from the beginning by Thomas’s skepticism.”

We often think of Thomas and his doubts as functioning only on an individual level, yet we see that his refusal to accept the testimony of his closest friends and community have a detrimental effect on the life of that community.  When Jesus first showed up, the disciples were behind a locked door, huddled and fearful, yet he spoke peace into their midst twice and breathed his Spirit over them.  They were overjoyed and probably couldn’t wait to tell Thomas and anyone else who wasn’t there. 

But Thomas’ refusal to share in their joy seems to deflate them.

The text tells us that a week later the disciples are still in that same house with the door shut.  This is perhaps extrapolating a bit, but I imagine the fact that they are still there behind closed doors, cloistering themselves within that closed community means that the joy they initially experienced has once again succumbed to fear.  It is a full week after Jesus appeared to them, and they have remained stagnant, not seeming to have done anything with this good news. 

Thankfully, Jesus does show up again, this time while Thomas is there.  For all his posturing about needing to stick his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and side, the text doesn’t say he actually takes Jesus up on that invitation.  It just jumps straight ahead to Thomas exclaiming “My Lord and my God!”  Thomas wanted proof in the same way that we all probably want proof.  And in some ways he got it.  But what he really got was an encounter, a moment of relationship and presence. 

I’ve struggled with how to sum up this third theme I see connecting with our Keeping CMC Safe work, but I want to summarize it like this: doubt can strengthen without destroying communion.  There is a place for doubt, and it is natural to seek proof and want answers to hard questions.  Without doubt there could be no faith.  Yet I think this text calls us to find a way to express doubt within the divine experience of beloved community without disrupting that community.  I say that I struggled to sum this up because this feels like such a delicate balancing act.  We should welcome doubt and questions–our own as well as those of others–while always remembering that sustaining the relationships we have as a community in ways that honor ourselves and one another is what is most important. 

John’s gospel builds its momentum around the idea of signs and wonders that Jesus does to help people believe, yet it builds to this climax with Thomas as a way of reminding readers that “blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.”  We don’t always get the last second encounters with the risen Christ, at least not in the form we may insist we need them.  But what kind of encounters with the Divine could we open ourselves to if we allowed ourselves to believe in the testimony of those who have experienced their own good news?  Can we find a way to hold our questions and doubts alongside the witness and work of our community, or does our insistence on proof keep us locked in stagnation? 

There are no easy answers or simple maps for navigating the tensions of sustaining community.  Yet when I think about our work to Keep CMC Safe, my hope is that we all can see this work as good news, even if we have never experienced the kinds of abuse we are trying to protect against, even if we aren’t sure it is completely necessary.  Our goal every year is to have each person trained in this work of abuse prevention regardless of whether you plan to work with children because we see this not just as a procedural and administrative necessity but as an extension of our sacred work to build the Beloved Community. 

And so, my wish for us, is:

  • That we would always remember that the good news must be for all of who we are, body and spirit.
  • That we would have the courage to practice subversive forms of power that require us to work in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us.
  • That our doubts and questions would never keep us from cultivating the kind of Beloved Community that God desires for us.
  • And finally, my wish for us is that whenever we find ourselves locked in rooms marked by fear, anxiety, secrecy, or shame that Jesus would show up and breathe peace among us and through us.