Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd April 15, 2018
Last week we listened to the Easter story of gracious power teaching us how to be open-handed. Today, another Easter story teaches us to be open-minded.
We begin with another sighting of Jesus. He materializes before the disciples’ very eyes, as if God beamed him down through a Star Trek transporter. The disciples are convinced that they are seeing a ghost and they are terrified. In order to ease their fear, Jesus’ first words to them are, “Peace be with you.” He insists that they look at his pierced hands and feet and touch him. He asks for something to eat and he swallows a piece of fish. He then asks them to open their minds to a new understanding of scripture and to God’s call for their new ministry. He promised them that they would soon receive power from God to tell others the good news of God’s forgiveness.
What are we to make of this story? It emphasizes that the resurrected Christ was more than just a spirit. The body mattered. But it wasn’t a normal body. He was able to suddenly appear and disappear, to walk through walls and locked doors. Our ancient, Christian tradition emphasizes the bodily resurrection of Jesus—not just his spirit, but it also recognizes the strangeness of a body that could be transported across place and time, eventually ascending to God. Each of us probably has a different interpretation of what this means and this scripture passage asks us to open our minds to new ways of understanding. It is, ultimately, a holy mystery, unable to be explained scientifically.
Regardless of how we might understand this appearance of Jesus, there are some important implications of this story. The first is that the body does matter. As Earl explained in his presentation at the Buddhist-Christian Lenten Dialogue, our Judaeo-Christian tradition has always held the body and the spirit together. What we do to our body affects our spirit and vice versa. Over the centuries, some branches of Christianity have tried to deprive the body of its needs and desires in order to strengthen the spirit, but this has led to a dangerous separation of spiritual from the material. Even our own United Church polity originally played into this division, where the elders dealt with spiritual matters and the stewards dealt with the worldly, physical realm. Only members could vote on spiritual matters, but every congregant could vote on financial and property matters. Eventually, most United Church congregations did away with this separation of spiritual from physical, now recognizing the spiritual importance of every area of the church’s ministry. What we do with our money is very much a spiritual matter.
The second implication is that we are called to open our minds to the impossible—to bodily resurrections, to cowering disciples becoming confident preachers, to you and me finding the power of the resurrected Christ to do what the world believes is impossible.
Lois Wilson, one of the first married women to be ordained in the United Church and the first female moderator, recently spoke to a class of ministry students, challenging them to proclaim the good news of Christ’s salvation bravely in a world that has become addicted to bad news. She explained that the root of resurrection means to stand up and the root of salvation means wide, spacious, liberated and free.
As Christians, we are to stand up and proclaim new life in Christ that sets all of us free from that which binds. There is a power in resurrected life that can break the chains of addiction to substances, to money, to adrenalin, to self-doubt. Most of us are bound in some way to things that diminish life. Through the resurrected Christ there is both the power and the possibility of breaking those chains that drag us down. The first step in being set free is to open our minds and believe that it is possible.
The mind is a powerful beast. First impressions are difficult to shake and close our minds to the potential of others—even to our own potential. You may remember Susan Boyle, the Scottish woman who caught Britain by storm in 2009 with her incredible voice in Britain’s Got Talent contest. She did not look the part, by any means. She even had the audacity to be a bit saucy when she first came on stage. The audience responded with catcalls. As one of the judges later said, “Everyone was laughing at her. Everyone was against her.” And then, she sang the first phrase and the audience was stunned. It was not just her voice that stunned them. It was the realization that they had all been laughing in the face of someone who turned their cynicism upside down. As one of the judges said, “This was the biggest wakeup call ever.” I watched the youtube again last week. It is a powerful antidote to the judgements we make about people, simply based on first impressions.
The risen Christ calls us to open our minds to untapped potential, to the beautiful seed of possibility that lies within every single one of us, regardless of our failings, of our popularity, of our appearances, of our experiences. Susan Boyle talked about being bullied because she is on the autism spectrum. Even after she was famous, making millions in recordings, she said that a group of teens recently shouted insults to her as she walked past and threw things at the bus on which she was riding.
We fear those who are different from us and when we look at them, we can only see the differences. I remember when I first began to meet with guests at the Oak Table Community Ministry, I was afraid. I didn’t know how to relate to people who were homeless, many with mental illnesses, many with addictions. I asked God to give me the courage to sit down and talk with them, and when I did, I saw some pretty tender hearts underneath the brash exterior. I saw compassion and selfless giving to others who were even more in need. There were some that didn’t trust me and I had to accept this as well. There were some tense incidents. But when the risen Christ helps us open our minds, that so quickly become closed in judgement, we see an entirely different world.
The same thing happens when we look in the mirror. What do we see? Perhaps someone defeated, ugly, angry, powerless. But can we look beyond our own judgements of ourselves to see the beautiful person that we actually are, deep inside? Can we open our minds to our own potential that God has planted within each one of us? Can we believe that, with the power of the resurrected Christ, we can say no to addictions, to self-degradation, to anything that diminishes ourselves?
We can address these same questions to the world. We become accustomed to privilege, to disparity, to violence, to poverty, to unhealthy patterns of relating to one another. Sometimes it takes a wake up call for us to realize that things don’t have to be this way. As a resurrected, Easter people, God is calling us to pay attention to the in-breaking of resurrected life that is all around us and say “No more,” to that which denies life.
We will find these seeds of new life sprouting up in the most unlikely of places. Youth are beginning to rise up and teach us adults that a new world is possible. I have been so inspired by the youth in the United States who are rallying and speaking out against gun violence. And they are the ones who are finally making a difference. Boycotts against companies that sell military-grade weapons to civilians are having an impact.
Even when we are overwhelmed with loss or hopelessness, God can help us see those new buds of promise that are about to burst forth with new hope. They are in a youth’s resolve and powerful speech; they are in the birth of a child on the eve of a grandfather’s death; they are in an older woman’s courage to call an estranged sibling, they are in a man’s bravery to attend his first AA meeting. The greening power of God is all around us, if we are able to let go of the judgements that bind and open our minds to a resurrected life of promise and possibility.