Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Buoyancy of God

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 11, 2010

Year C: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29
(Revelation 1:4-8)
John 20:19-31

The Buoyancy of God

As I’ve gotten a little older more and more when I remember things about the past I question the reliability of my memory. Did that really happen the way I remember? Or sometimes I feel kind of removed from things that I know happened. In my memory it feels like I’m watching a movie or a TV show in which I’m one of the actors.

Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood come from the summer my family belonged to the Skyline Cabana Club. I think it was the summer of 1973 and I was about six years old. The Skyline Cabana Club was in Jersey City, just next to what is today Liberty State Park. Back then, however, the park was just a dream for what was mostly abandoned railyards.

Anyway, I don’t know how it would stack up against Noe Pond, but to us from the mean streets of Jersey City, the club was an amazing oasis. There were fields and playgrounds, restaurants, and lots of cabanas. As I remember them, the cabanas were too small to be anything other than large changing rooms. But the centerpiece of the Skyline Cabana Club was the pool.

It was the biggest, deepest pool I had ever seen. It was an in-ground and it had diving boards that seemed dangerously high to six year-old me. I had been in modest, above-ground backyard pools, but this pool was something very different and pretty scary. Reasonably cautious, I stayed in the shallow end and was definitely too afraid to even go near the diving boards.

I wish I could remember all the details. But at the pool one day I guess I must have been talking about my fear of the pool and the diving boards. Suddenly my aunt’s boyfriend (who was a lifeguard) scooped me up and carried me to the tallest of the three diving boards. I remember trying not to panic and not to cry in front of this guy who was in high school and who seemed so much older and so much bigger than I.

In my memory I can picture the scene. I can see him carrying me out onto the diving board, bouncing and jumping off. I remember opening my eyes for an instant and seeing the steps of the ladder racing by. And then we were in the water. And then I was on the surface, coughing, my little arms and legs wiggling, and my aunt’s boyfriend holding on to me and guiding me back to the pool’s edge.

I can’t claim to remember everything with complete accuracy but I know it was a dramatic experience. I wish I could tell you that it was a breakthrough experience for me – that I got out of the pool, ran up onto the diving board and jumped in again.

But, in fact, it took a long time before I gained confidence in the water. It took a long time before I was able trust that I would be OK in the water. It was a long time before I trusted in the buoyancy of the water.

This is how faith develops and grows. Faith is not perfected by a sudden and dramatic experience. And faith is not so much convincing ourselves that facts about God are true. Instead faith is much better understood simply as developing trust in God. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes, “Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being.

“Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God.” I really like that.

“Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God.” This is very difficult.

Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter the Church presents the story of an apostle who had some difficulties trusting in the buoyancy of God.

I like that each year the Church offers the story of Doubting Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter. I like it because it reflects a certain honesty and realism on the part of Christianity. We recognize the claim that we make – the claim that Christ is risen, that the Lord is risen indeed – is a claim that is not easy for us to accept or trust. Faith is trust and, let’s be honest, it’s not easy for most of us to trust.

The story of Doubting Thomas is wonderful, but it does create some problems. It’s found only in the Gospel of John - the last of the four gospels, written near the end of the First Century, a couple of generations after the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. This gospel was written for a community that was now faced with an excruciating choice.

Of course, there had been tensions all along between the Jewish religious authorities and Jesus and his first followers. We heard some of that tension in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles when Peter and the others were testifying before the council. But, for the most part, for the first few decades after Jesus’ earthly lifetime it had been possible for Jewish believers in Jesus to continue to worship in the synagogue. For those first few decades it was possible to both Jewish and Christian.

But by the end of the First Century both Judaism and Christianity were changing. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, believers in Jesus were increasingly claiming that he was divine, and meanwhile more and more non-Jews were discovering Jesus and seeing him not only as the Jewish messiah but the messiah for the whole world.

And so near the end of the First Century the Jewish followers of Jesus faced a choice: continue to follow Jesus and cut themselves off from Jewish life or reject Jesus and remain in the faith tradition of their ancestors.

You can imagine just how difficult that choice must have been.

I mention this little history lesson because for most of Christian history parts of the Gospel of John – and most especially the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus – have been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism.

And so each time we read these scriptures, each time we read that the disciples locked the doors of the house “for fear of the Jews” it is necessary to remind ourselves of the context in which this text was written. The Jesus movement began as a Jewish movement and the Gospel of John was written by Jews, to Jews and for Jews.

The disciples may have been afraid of the authorities, of the religious establishment, but since they were all Jews themselves, it would make no sense for them to be afraid of “the Jews.” And of course the later “Christian” idea that the Jewish people bear collective responsibility for the death of Jesus would have been incomprehensible to the author of the gospel and its first readers and hearers.
With that context in mind, what might the powerful story of Doubting Thomas powerful story might say to us here and now?

There’s always been a lot of speculation about why Thomas wasn’t with the other apostles when the Resurrected Christ first appeared. I’ve imagined Thomas out in the desert, venting his anger and disappointment by yelling into the sky at God. Recently I read something written by a seminary classmate who suggested a beautiful and intriguing idea: maybe Thomas wasn’t around because he was off tending to the burial of Judas.

In any event, like the first readers and hearers of the gospel and of course like us, Thomas was not present at the first resurrection appearance. Maybe like the first readers and hearers of the gospel and maybe like us, Thomas doubted the claims made by the other disciples. But then, Thomas, better late than never, rejoins the group and has his dramatic encounter with the Resurrected Christ.

The gospel quotes Jesus as saying to Thomas and, in effect, saying to us, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In effect Jesus says, blessed are those who trust in the buoyancy of God. Blessed are those who trust that in Christ we see what God is really like. Blessed are those who trust that for Christ death was not the end. Blessed are those who trust that since Christ is risen, then for us also death is not the end.

We often wonder why Thomas wasn’t around when the disciples first encountered the Resurrected Christ. But, I wonder what the rest of his life was like. There is an ancient tradition that Thomas brought the Good News all the way to India. Wherever he went he must have carried the powerful memory of his encounter with the Resurrected Christ.

But I wonder if as time passed he began to doubt again. I wonder if he didn’t start to doubt his own memory. I wonder if he didn’t look back on all that had happened and wonder if that had really happened the way he remembered. I wonder if he didn’t look back and it seemed like he was watching himself playing a part in a great drama.

Thomas had a powerful experience, but I bet that dramatic experience didn’t perfect his faith. I think it must have taken the rest of his life to build trust in the buoyancy of God. Like all of us, each day in the midst of the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of life, Thomas needed to pay attention and to be open to the power of God. Just like for all of us, it must have taken the rest of his life of seeing and sensing the power of God for Thomas to let go, to breathe, and to trust in the buoyancy of God.

At the 11:15 service we’re going to baptize a child, Katelyn Anne. The baptism may not seem as dramatic as encountering the Resurrected Christ in a locked room. It may not seem as dramatic, but it will be. In baptism God will make an unbreakable, indissoluble bond with Katelyn Anne. Yet Katelyn’s plunge into the water, this encounter with the Resurrected Christ, will of course not perfect her faith. No this baptism, this plunge into the water, this encounter with the Resurrected Christ, will be for her as it is for all Christians, the beginning of a lifetime of letting go, of breathing, and trusting in the buoyancy of God.