A giant of the faith died last week. Rachel Held Evans grew up in a conservative Southern Christian home as the daughter of a Bible College administrator. As Rachel became an adult, she had questions about faith, about God, and about who decided who was in and who was out when it came to following Jesus. And so this millennial—she was born in 1981—stayed in her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee to write about her quest to faithfully follow Jesus and push against the conventions of conservative Christianity that she had been taught as a girl. Her four books tackle how faith evolves, the problem of biblical literalism, her search for a more authentic faith, and her deep love of the Bible. She died last Saturday after an unexpected and short illness that placed her in a coma on Good Friday, and she leaves behind a husband and two very young children.
Ever since I was little I’ve had an image of heaven as a place where everything would be absolutely perfect. Some of this likely came from the old family Bible that I’d often pull off the bookshelf to look at. It had realistic painted images throughout, but I loved the ones from the Garden of Eden in the book Genesis. Eve’s portrait was enchanting, especially given her silky blonde hair and dreamy blue eyes. At some point in my elementary school years I learned that heaven would be perfect just like that garden, and so the illustrations in that old Bible merged with my images of heaven.
Going to church throughout my teen years expanded my understanding in odd ways. I remember hearing that each of us will be 33 in heaven since that is the presumed age of Jesus when he died. Not only would we be the supposed idealistic age, we’d also get perfect bodies. Wrinkles would miraculously be smoothed out, hair regrown—but only in the places we wanted it. We’d be our ideal weight in heaven, so it took a bit of the worry of eating that whole bag of Doritos now. Add to that a mansion for each of us spec’d out by God for all our desires. Heaven, in that way, started becoming more and more like the American Dream at best, and a bit like Stepford at worst.
The last few years I’ve been reconsidering those ideas of perfection in heaven with all the trappings of American consumerism. I’ve pondered the connection between how we life in this life and the connection it has to the next life. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness—both physically walking trails and also in the harrowing times of life—that have influenced what I believe to be true.
It’s the Second Sunday of Easter and our Gospel lesson is the same every single year: Doubting Thomas. For whatever reason on that very first Easter, Thomas had been out of the house when Jesus appeared. In that scene, notice that the assembled disciples don’t have any clue that it’s Jesus until he shows them his hands and his side. “Then,” John writes, “they rejoices when they saw the Lord.” Before getting the visual proof of his scars, his friends don’t recognize him. After, they recognize him.
When Thomas gets back from his walk or from picking up the take out or grabbing that bag of Doritos from the local Qwik-E-Mart, Jesus is gone. The others tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, but he thinks they’re pulling a fast one on him. “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands,” he says, and then going in for dramatic flair continues, “and unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his pierced side, I will not believe.” Besides the ick factor of Thomas physically touching the marks of the crucifixion, he needs the same thing at the others. They also had to see his hands and his side in order to recognize Jesus; they just didn’t verbalize that request.
You know the story, the next week eight days later, they’re all together again. Jesus appears once more. Thomas’s eyes become wide in astonishment. Jesus hols out his hands and lifts his shirt telling Thomas to reach out his own hand. Thomas immediately cries out, “My Lord and my God!” with no touching of scars necessary.
It took me a long time to see it, frankly, the thing about this story that began changing my understanding of the next life, but it’s right there front and center. I’m speaking of Jesus’ hands and his side. The places the nails held him on the cross and where a soldier thrust his spear after Jesus had taken his last breath. Do you see it yet yourself?
If Jesus carries his scars with him into the resurrected life of his kingdom, what makes us think we won’t still have ours?
That image of physical perfection in heaven that has been a mainstay in my thinking always did away with imperfect things like scars. That good-sized one on my right arm from an accident on my cousin’s farm would be gone. Or that small one on my chin when I fell as toddler onto a toy boat, erased. Never mind those emotional scars, the places where relationships had broken down and hurts had been endured and eventually forgiveness was found.
It seems the image of Jesus’ kingdom that I had conjured up in my head was not only a vision of perfectionism writ large, it also included a spiritual amnesia of some sort—a blacking out of the memories of those things that had once brought me pain.
I know I’m venturing out in deep theological waters on a Sunday where we’re still hungover from eating all those jelly beans. I could have just taken the easy route and patted us all on the back since unlike Thomas we didn’t need to see the physically risen and scarred Jesus in order to believe, so we are especially blessed by God.
And yet the real message of the resurrection lies in the power of love to overcome death. Of sustenance and strength found when we felt utterly alone in the wilderness. Of deep wounds both physically and spiritually finding healing. That to me is the key: Jesus’ resurrection does indeed bring healing and wholeness. Harrowing experiences in life shape and form us. Times that we’d never want to relive often bring us empathy for others. Jesus bears the marks of his crucifixion, and, as the Apostle Peter himself writes, “by his wounds we are healed.”
Our healing will take place as we enter into the resurrected life—we will not enter into Christ’s kingdom with things that have not been touched by his mercy and grace. But I still believe that at least some of those marks where we’ve been healed will be present in order to remind us always of the deep love God has shown to us. Those places which bears signs of deep resilience will become markers of God’s goodness.
Last week on Easter Day I preached about God mending us like my friend Laura mends worn socks and other clothing items often using bright thread. There’s a similar practice in Japan called Kintsugi which translated means “golden joinery.” The practice, often used on broken tea bowls, repairs pottery with lacquer which is then dusted with powdered gold. As one artist describes it, “Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact’s unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life.” These pottery bowls experience resurrection.
These days I’m less concerned about the perfect images I have of the next life that seem more influenced by a marketing guru trying to make me think heaven is nothing more than consumeristic bliss. Rather I’m seeing the importance of life in that kingdom both now and in the future as focused on relationships: our connections with God, one another, the created world and with ourselves. It’s not about perfection at all in the sense we often think of it as some ideal, but it’s about the wholeness and peace that we can find through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
What this story shows us vividly is that God’s love does not depend on us attaining some flawless state, but that God sees our broken bits and joins them back together making us more beautiful in the process. The risen Christ was known only because of his mended scars; he desires for us to find healing too.
As we baptize Nathan into this body of Christ, we are reminded of how important each of us is in the life of faith. In each of us is profound beauty and worth that is to be shared with the world. Let us live as people of the resurrection, as those who have truly experienced new life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Sometime over the winter, my favorite pair of jeans got a hole in them. Now this hole’s placement isn’t in a spot that I can just overlook, especially given my chosen profession. I’ve even given up wearing them around the house on my day off in case I forget that hole is there and venture out into public. So this great pair of Gap jeans has sat unworn on the top shelf of my closet for the past few months. I feel like I’m just prolonging the inevitable, letting them sit there until I get my Marie Kondo on and tidy up. I’ll then thank those jeans for the joy they’ve brought me over the years, and summarily toss them out.
In our reading from John on Maundy Thursday, we heard Jesus’ giving the disciples a new commandment—that they should love one another. He said to them: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
On a silent and holy night some 2000 years ago, an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds living in some fields who were keeping watch over their flocks. The angel proclaimed good news of great joy for all people by announcing the birth of a little one who would be found in a manger. Suddenly that angel was joined by a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
I’ve always been enamored with those incredible, fun-loving creatures who live in the Shire in JRR Tolkien’s books called hobbits. Now I’m not a diehard ask me any sort of trivia question follower; I just love their devotion and loyalty, their ability to enjoy life and those around them. You may not remember this, but when it’s a hobbit’s birthday, they give presents to their friends, family and neighbors who show up to their birthday celebrations rather than receiving gifts from them. Their focus on their birthday is to be grateful for those other people in their lives and not on what they can get in terms of cool presents.
We long to live in a world where consequences match the actions. We want the bad guy to get it in the end (or sooner, frankly). We see this often in movies and novels—when that character that’s been a pain finally gets his just deserts. So when bad things happen to good people, we get upset, claiming life isn’t fair and that God is either to blame or should do something to remedy the situation right now.
I absolutely loved the study of Iconography while in seminary. Religious iconography entails the images or symbols associated with a specific person or event in the biblical narrative found in paintings, stained glass, and the like. A person “reads” iconography by knowing the symbols or the stories being depicted. For example, the early church used the story of Jonah and the great fish as a precursor of Jesus’ resurrection since Jonah sat in the belly of that fish for three days—just like Jesus in the tomb. So on the sides of ancient coffins you’ll encounter depictions of a huge sea creature with two legs hanging out of its mouth. Those in the know would immediately think of the resurrection.
You and I are often defined as “consumers,” as those who consume. And, according to most measures both economic and otherwise, we’re darn good at it. We devour and use up and utilize and yes, we even squander, destroy and waste things and food and news and people.
Eternal One, far too often we are blinded in this world by the darkness rather than the light. We believe far too readily that things will always be the same, that they cannot be transformed. Let your light shine in us and through us, that we might reveal your glory to the world. Amen.