16 June 2013 - "Justification...ON A SPACESHIP! or St. Paul Comes to Call" (Ordinary Time 4, Galatians 2.15-3.1)
2 June 2013 - "Story, Gospel, Art, Mission: Introducing St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians" (Ordinary Time 2, Galatians 1.1-24)
28 April 2013 - "The End of the Binge, or, Jesus is My Time-Lord and Savior" (Easter 5, Revelation 21.1-6)
21 April 2013 - "Under the Sigil of House Jesus, or, Beyond Throne Games" (Easter 4, Revelation 7.9-17)
14 April 2013 - "(NOT AN) Accidental Christian" (Easter 3, Acts 9.1-20, John 21.1-19)
3 March 2013 - "The Isaiah Sutra, or, Jesus' Dharma of Delight" (Lent 3, Isaiah 55.1-9)
24 February 2013 - "Shut Up and Listen: A Sermon for Frederick Douglass Sunday" (Lent 2/FD, Luke 13.31-35)
17 February 2013 - "The Spring Revolution: A Manifesto, or, How the Grinch Stole Lent" (Lent 1, Luke 4.1-13)
10 February 2013 - "The Normal is Narnia" (Transfiguration, Luke 9.28-43)
3 February 2013 - "Unconditioning Cliffside Romance, or, Two Kinds of Love" (Epiphany 4, Luke 4.14-30)
20 January 2013 - "We're Not Jesus (When the Wine Runs Out 2.0)" (Epiphany 2/MLK, John 2.1-11)
20 January 2013 - "Midnight in Montgomery, or, When the Wine Runs Out" (Epiphany 2/MLK, John 2.1-11)
6 January 2013 - "Wonder-Numb, or, Herod is NOT King" (Epiphany, Matthew 2.1-12)
11 November 2012 - "The Widow's Might, or, When Mission Means Nothing" (Pentecost 24, Mark 12.38-44)
5 August 2012 - "EAT MOR JEEZUS" (Pentecost 10, Ephesians 4.1-16)
29 July 2012 - "Mordors in Zion, or, 'A Man After God's Own Heart" (Pentecost 9, 2 Samuel 11.1-15, John 6.1-21)
8 July 2012 - "Home is Where the Heart(break) Is" (Pentecost 6, Mark 6.1-13)
1 July 2012 - "Midrash: The (Com)Passion of the Daughter of God" (Pentecost 5, Mark 5.21-43)
20 May 2012 - "A Letter to My Son" (Easter 7, Acts 1.15-26, John 17.6-19)
15 April 2012 - "Hurting Thomas" (Easter 2, John 20.19-31)
25 March 2012 - "Never Alone, or, Jesus Happens to Death" (Lent 5, John 12.20-33)
11 March 2012 - "Only the Jealous God" (Lent 3, John 2.13-22)
22 February 2012 - "Walking Dead...and Dirty" (Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51.1-17)
13 February 2012 - "Running to Stand Still, or, 20 McNuggets at 30 is NOT a Good Idea" (Epiphany 6, 1 Cor. 9.24-27)
22 January 2012 - "Jesus Christ: Dumpster Diver, or, The Kingdom of Heaven is Fish Guts" (Epiphany 3, Mark 1.14-20)
1 January 2012 -"Holy Crap, or, How the Glory Finds Us"(Christmas 2, Luke 2.22-40)
11 December 2011 - "Tebow Time, or, On Giving the World the Finger" (Advent 3, John 1.8-9. 19-28)
28 Novemeber 2011 - "Happy New Church Year, We're All Dead" (Advent 1, Mark 13.24-37)
14 November 2011 - "Against Stewardship Sunday, or, On Not E-trading the Gospel" (Pentecost 22, Matthew 25.14-30)
16 October 2011 - "The Other 100%, or, Render Unto God that which is God's" (Pentecost 18, Matthew 22.15-22)
18 September 2011 - "Follow God's Folly, or, Jilted Jonah and the Unfairness of Grace" - (Pentecost 14, Jonah 3-4, Matthew 20.1-16)
29 August 2011 - "Stick it to Satan Sunday" - (Pentecost 11, Matthew 16.21-28)
15 August 2011 - "Let's Get Scandalous, or, Take Up Your Cardboard Sign and Follow Me" (Pentecost 9, Matthew 15.20-28)
2 August 2011 - "The Family's the Feast, the Church's the Miracle" (Pentecost 7, Matthew 14.13-21)
18 July 2011 - "Attack of the Heavenly Hillbillies, or, How Led Zepplin Got it Wrong" (Pentecost 5, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43)
26 June 2011 - "Jeremiah: On Being an MC of the Cross" (Pentecost 3, Jeremiah 28.1-17, Matthew 12.40-42)
19 June 2011 - "On Joining the Troupe of Triune Troubadours" (Pentecost 1, Matthew 28.16-20)
28 March 2011 - "An Awkward Intimacy" (Lent 3, John 4.1-42)
14 November 2010 - "Made to Last" (Luke 21.5-19)
O Blessed Doubt
Duke Divinity School
20 September 2007
Text: John 20:24-29
Strange, how grace works to carry us in its currents to where we need to go, even when we do our best to swim back upstream. For the past three weeks I have been struggling to write this sermon. Ideas have not been lacking, as evidenced by countless pages of notes and scribbles strewn about my kitchen table. What has been in short supply is clarity, and a clear direction towards which to drive. What, I ask myself is the point of this sermon?
The point came yesterday, a punctuation mark in the shape of a bullet hole.
The waters of grace washed me up on the shore by the body of a friend and former student of mine. Dead. Crucified by a gun.
His name is A--. You’ve seen him in every TV sitcom you’ve ever watched. He is the nerdy kid with the coke bottle glasses who is always falling obsessively in love with the most attractive girl on campus, who always shuns him and doesn’t realize that she is missing out on one of the most thoughtful, caring, and deeply hurting people she has ever known.
The same A--- who took his life yesterday is the one who helped gave life to my study of today’s text.
Throughout college, I struggled very deeply with the noonday demon known as depression. Only later would it be spiritualized into a “dark night of the soul;” then, it just felt like my brain was an iron band that had been wrapped around my heart, suffocating it and squeezing every last bit of light and hope out of it into the black hole that was once my soul. It is not something I was aware of consciously choosing, or ever intentionally desiring. It’s kind of like being a heroin addict: you know its killing you, but you keep on sticking it in yourself because it gives you something to look forward to. And doubt is the needle that keeps you alive so the pain doesn’t kill you. And so life went on.
And somehow, by the grace of God, I wound up a campus minister. I would meet kids like Austin, who wanted so badly to know that they “believed in God,” who wrestled with weighty issues as I had, who desired a deep intimacy with the Lord, and yet, seemed hopelessly held in the grip of depression and doubt. Unable to let go of nagging issues, we passionate zombies never quite fit into the world of the living, where people raised their hands in praise and sang songs and prayed emotional prayers and spoke in tongues.
No one wakes up in the morning and says, “today I want to doubt. I hope people know me as a doubter.” No one in their right minds. But many in that campus evangelical culture did seem to come to fellowship meetings saying, “I don’t want to be exposed to doubters today.” Isolated from the others, seen as “not real Christians,” or, at the very least, “not particularly good Christians,” I felt a call to be down with the doubters, if only because I was the only one who could sit and listen to them talk for an hour straight in an endlessly circular and seemingly disjointed fashion and actually understand what they meant. Depression gives you the special power to understand without logic.
I did my best to be present to and advocate for A-- and all the vast army of the benighted. At the end of my ministry year, I gave an overly lengthy talk on the reality of depression in the midst of the Body of Christ, and called on the community to respond by listening to and embracing the experiences of those who suffered from mental illness. I only touched on Thomas then. But it was through my relationships with them that I began thinking about and praying with the story of Doubting Thomas, and wondering what he might have to say to us.
I was composing my sermon on Doubting Thomas for this class when I heard the news of A--’s death, almost three years after I gave that talk.
Strange how grace works to bring us back to where we need to be. To show us which struggles are insignificant, and which ones are insurmountable. In light of this, many ideas I had have found their way into the trash can of unimportance. In light of this, I wondered, what could I say? I had failed – I couldn’t help A--. I stopped calling him years ago. How could I begin to preach a sermon about Thomas?
And the demon reared its head…
But here we are, still sitting in the presence of Thomas through this story in the Gospel of John. Perhaps it is God’s grace that I have been sitting here all along; I do not think I could be preaching without the story made possible by Thomas’ doubt. As I wrestle with newly reawakened doubts, I’d like to continue the dialogue he and I have begun.
You know how the story goes. While all the rest of the Apostles are hiding together, Jesus appears to them and breathes into them the Holy Spirit. But Thomas is absent. When they come running in the door to tell him what they have seen, Thomas insists that unless he gets to touch the actual wounds of Jesus, something no one else has yet been allowed to do, he will not believe. A week later, he gathers with the disciples, Jesus appears and tells a disbelieving Thomas to no longer doubt but to believe, reminding us all that “happy are they who have not seen and yet believe.”
I wonder: if Thomas had known how much bad press he would get as “Doubting Thomas,” if he would have just lied and said, “ok, I believe you.” It probably wouldn’t have changed how he felt inside. But it would have saved him a lot of trouble.
But Thomas is authentic in his doubt, and honest about where he is at. And if you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense why Thomas would doubt just for the sake of doubting. This is the same man who, in John 11, insists that the Apostles follow Jesus to mourn Lazarus, though it will mean going to their deaths! This is the same guy who, hungry for the meaning of Jesus’ words, calls him out for being unclear at the Last Supper, yearning for a deeper understanding of his Master’s plans. And while the other Apostles are all together the night they see Jesus, John tells us that they gathered behind locked doors because they were afraid! But the same Thomas who was not afraid to follow Jesus to his death in Jerusalem is not hiding in fear with the others.
Which begs the question: where the heck was Thomas that night?
Rabbi Sager often encourages us to grab the lapels of the Biblical text and shake it until it answers our questions. Why wasn’t Thomas with the others? What was he doing? In Judaism, there is a tradition called Midrash, meaning “interpretation,” which in essence sees the gaping holes in Scriptural narratives as clues for the imagination to follow in order to explore further into a story. In asking tough questions and imaging possible answers, they believed that the struggle would lead them to a deeper intimacy with the God speaking in between the lines of the story. Scripture is full of such holes that God has left in order that we might wrestle with him, and involve ourselves in His story.
There are, of course, many different ways to do midrash on any given story. Here’s my particular take.
I wonder if there is something that the Jews reading this particular story would have noticed that I do not notice. Something we can’t know because unlike John and Peter and Thomas and Jesus, we are not Jews.
Perhaps you have heard of the Jewish practice of sitting shiva as part of the mourning process? On the day after the deceased is buried, the immediate family (ie. his parents, spouse, siblings and children) take on the status of “avelim,” mourners, and gather together at their house. There they sit as low to the ground as they can, sometimes on stools, but very often, on the ground itself, in order to represent how low they have been brought down by the disorientation and the shock of their loss. While they are sitting shiva, the family members abstain from bathing and eating, unless food is brought to them, and also from social gatherings. The word “shiva” means “seven” in Hebrew, and they family will sit for seven days before moving on to the next stage of grief. We see evidence of such a practice in the story of Job, in which he sits on his dung heap and is visited by his friends.
Our story tells us that Thomas did not gather with the other disciples until eight days had passed. This includes the remainder of that same day that he expressed his doubt, and so would have been exactly one week later, on the following Sunday. I do not think that Thomas was just sitting around for a week doubting his Jewish head off. No, I think it is very likely that one possible reason for Thomas’ absence was that he was sitting shiva.
Jesus was buried on a Friday because, as you will recall, the feast of Passover was just beginning. According to Jewish custom, one cannot start sitting shiva until the end of a great festival. That means Thomas would have just been starting his shiva period that very first Easter Sunday!
As I mentioned before, it was usually only customary for the immediate relatives of the deceased to sit shiva. For (if?)Thomas to have undertaken to sit shiva in honor of Jesus shows not only the intense pain and grief he must have been feeling over the loss, but also demonstrates the intimacy he felt with Jesus, a love so strong that he is undertaking a practice only done by a brother, a son, or a father.
Imagine what must have been going through Thomas’ head as he sat there while the other apostles gathered. The dust from the ground rises gently in the twilight, irritating his already teary eyes. Reviewing in his head over and over again: what could I have done to save Him? Could I have done anything? Did I follow Him rightly? I put all my faith in Him, and now He is dead. How will I ever believe in anything again? How CAN I ever believe in anything again? It’s over. It’s done. He said He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Now I cannot care about any of these things. And where are the others? Why are they not grieving? Why are they all gathered together when Shiva forbids it? Don’t they care about Jesus at all?
What kinds of things do you think when you are regretting, longing, mourning? What “should haves, if onlys, what ifs, and could haves” run rampant through your brain? What does silence feel like to you? Like a mystery? Like pain? Like nothingness.
And in the midst of this intense pain, tearing through these heavy thoughts, ripping apart the curtain of grief, come the Apostles. One final aspect of Shiva that I have not yet shared is that while it is considered a great kindness to visit a mourner, you are not permitted to speak to him until he speaks to you first. Yet here they come, with no regard for his expression of loss or the mystery of his grief. Here they come to tell him something incredibly absurd.
If someone came to me right now and told me that A-- was alive, if someone came to you after your father’s funeral and told you they had just seen your dad walking around, would you believe them? I would be mad as hell. I would not have been as civil as Thomas was to them.
Those Disciples had good news to share. Very good news! Probably the best news anyone had ever heard. But as enthusiastic as they were, as filled with the Spirit and as well-intentioned as they were, I wonder: how could they have expected Thomas to hear it in the state he was in? They were not speaking to him where he was at. How could anybody be expected to believe if they were in Thomas’ place?
Nobody doubts in a vacuum. The reason I speculate about shiva at all is to try to understand just a little bit more the context of Thomas’ doubt. In this light, I do not see Thomas as defiant and sly. As someone who has sat shiva for many long sleepless nights, who sat Shiva with A-- in that coffee shop week after week, as someone who has mourned the loss of a picture of God that is full of hope and comfort and with that a sense of security and meaning, I see him as someone who, like A--, like you, and like me, is undergoing intense spiritual and emotional pain. He is mourning, grieving, dying. Perhaps we should not call him Doubting Thomas, but Hurting Thomas. Mourning Thomas.
Grief is an unspeakable mystery. An absence. A disappearance. Soundless. Sucking in all words of light, adding them to the darkness of the shadow.
Facing friends who have not only ignored the sacredness of the death of their master, but have also barged into his space uninvited with their new-fangled born-again charismatic words of certainty (we have seen THE LORD), Thomas feels the final nail driven into his soul. Perhaps that is why he fixates on the wounds of Christ when he says, “unless I can touch the wounds on his hand and place my hand inside his side, I WILL NOT BELIEVE.”
These are perhaps the most profound words of protest against the void I have ever encountered. I hear Thomas proclaiming, “you come to me with words about a ghost, a risen Savior, a God making peace signs and blowing wind on you? I am hurting. I doubt your conception of God. I need a God who hurts. Who bleeds. Who is real. Who is human. Show me the God who on the cross proclaimed that he had been forsaken by His Father. Show me the God who was wounded. I need that God. Without Him, there is nothing worth believing.”
Show me the holes. Thomas, too, seeks a midrash, seeks the holes in the story. He wants to wrestle, wants to touch God, demands a blessing of Him; He wants intimacy, and not something fake.
This is not an “unless” with an option attached. This is, “unless I pass this next Church History exam, I WILL NOT graduate. Unless something in this marriage changes, its over. Unless people start paying attention in church, I am out of here.” It is an ultimatum, painfully and brutally clear.
When I worked at the St. Francis Center, a day shelter for the homeless in Denver, I saw this prayer lived out time and time again. I saw men who lost a wife, lost a job, lost control, and have been sitting Shiva ever since. Almost all of them struggle with mental illness far worse than anything I have ever known. Most of them spend all day wallowing in their guilt, mourning their losses, hurting, dying. Most of them get several opportunities a year to move into housing, or to get off the streets. Very few will take the chance. Like Thomas, they put all their money on the dice once, and it failed them. Why bother being let down again? But what they are really saying is this: “you are offering me a house? Will you be my community there? Will you be my friend? Will you make sure I am not alone? If not, then I WONT BELIEVE.” Even when they get housing, they remain without a real home. What they want and need is someone who will enter the struggle with them, who has been there before. Thomas wants the same thing here.
There is no response to Thomas recorded in the text. Just an echoing, eight-day silence. No one tries to convince him otherwise. The matter is settled.
What must be going through the disciples’minds? What did they talk about after they leave? “That idiot Thomas, why is he always going the extra mile?” “Thomas, if only he would just accept the truth and believe! It’s so simple! After all, I’ve been born again!” Or, as my newfound Southern friends might say, “that Thomas, BLESS HIS HEART, sure needs a lot of prayer right now.” “He shouldn’t need to have proof! He has OUR TESTIMONY. He should be able to believe.”
But perhaps there were one or two apostles who remained with Thomas, who sat there with him, in the silence. On the dirty ground with him, risking discovery by the powers that be, chancing derision from the others, for the sake of accompanying Thomas on his journey of grief. Risking the pain they might themselves feel, the tears they might themselves cry, the doubts and questions they might have to ask themselves. Who did not say, “he SHOULD be better,” but said, “this is where he IS, let’s meet him there.” Who simply sat, and waited, and hurt, and prayed, and listened.
Perhaps it was simply their presence, their support, their “being with,” that gave Thomas the hope to come to dinner the next Sunday night, even in spite of his rage. Perhaps we are simply called, as disciples, to “be with,” and not just “preach to.”
How would you get Thomas back to that room again?
There he sits next Sunday, back with the apostles. They are singing and praying and laughing and rejoicing. He is moping, tired, weak, hungry. He hears their words and to him they are empty. He wants to be happy and to sing with them; he wants to be rejoined to his community, to have things be the old way. But he sits still, while life happens all around him.
And then, beyond belief, beyond doubt, beyond hope. Thomas cannot believe it. Jesus appears. He walks right through the locked door and the solid walls and all of the questions and the tears and the pain and the rest of it and stands before them, and looking Thomas right in the eye, he offers the most beautiful of all words, “peace be with you.”
Thomas’ heart stops. Peace. Could there really be peace after all this? Is it real? Is it really you my love? Dare I believe?
But before he can start to sink down into the depths again, Jesus walks towards him. Thomas can hear the sound his feet make on the floor, the way the boards creek under his weight. He can see the softness in the smile and the faint outlines left by the thorns that once pierced his forehead.
And then, without ever having said a word, Jesus reads his heart, and speaks to it. He says the words we all know, but Thomas hears in them, “My beloved child, put your finger here. Reach out your hand. Touch me. Be inside me. Know me. I am really here. I really suffered for you. I really understand. I doubted too. I hurt too. I died too.” Thomas reaches out, and places his hand inside of Jesus. He feels a lover’s love, a burning desire, an intense shame...why had I not believed all along…how could I have…is it really Him…I am inside of Him…
And just as Jesus told the blind man to “be opened,” so to Thomas he says, “be not faithless, but believe.” Some have seen it as a rebuke. But I am sure no one needed to rebuke Thomas. Combined with that lover’s ecstasy was an intense shame. Thomas knows he has been human, all too human. But Jesus’ words “believe” are words not of rebuke alone, but of healing, words that restore wholeness, that say, “be free of the emptiness and the doubt and the abyss. Be free of grief. Be full of grace and faith. Remember by words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.””
Jesus Christ does not first criticize or lecture Thomas. He reaches out to him, meets him where he is at. To the wounded, he appears wounded. To the broken, he appears broken. He reaches out to Thomas not because of what he has done, not to prove Thomas wrong, but in spite of his inability to believe in Jesus, Jesus believes in Thomas so much that he accommodates himself to him. Not because Thomas is deserving. But because Thomas is mourning, and those who mourn are blessed.
And then Thomas speaks words never spoken before by any man in the history of humankind. He recognizes before him His Wounded King. He realizes that Jesus reigns in Heaven as well as on earth, and that He is more than just a man. He sees something he can believe in, because it is something that has believed in him, that has loved him first, that has gone through what he has gone through; he sees a Lord who reigns over the universe, who sits at the right hand of the Father not in perfect majesty, but as a lamb who was slain. He sees that God has holes in his hands; that God hurts too.
And so he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
“Oh blessed doubt of Thomas,” proclaimed St. Gregory of Nyssa, “for by his doubt we have gained more for our faith than the faith of all the other apostles combined.”
Only a God who has undergone what we have undergone, who has compassion on us, who seeks us out simply because we are lost and in need, only this God is worth serving. Only this God could be the true God. Only a God of Love, only a God of grace, only the God revealed in the person and the brokenness of the Wounded King Jesus Christ, is worthy of power, honor, riches and glory.
But Jesus does not love only the apostles. He reminds them all, “you have seen me, and look how hard it is for you all to believe. There are many who have not seen, who yet believe.” Healings are always accompanied by a sending. Jesus reminds them, and us, that there are many more out there who are in need, who have a great hope that someone else will walk with them, and be with them, and show them the God of the Universe. He sends them forth. But with a reminder of their own struggle, to keep them humble, to keep them compassionate. The story is just beginning.
This is all well and good, the most beautiful story, the most happy of endings. In the epilogue of the gospel, we see Thomas with the others, fishing, laughing, playing, and again encountering the Lord. The Apostles are whole again; the community has been reconciled and reformed. Thomas would later go on to become a missionary first to Persia, and then kept going further, all the way to India, the furthest traveling of any of the Apostles, into the same land to which, many centuries later, another famous doubter by the name of Agnes would come to heal the broken, and would find herself named Mother Teresa. The father of doubters would go on to be the father of faith to many.
But this story is punctuated, as I said at the beginning, by another gaping hole, another wound, another midrash. I wrestle still with the fact that Austin didn’t make it. Many. Do. Not. Make. It. Many still sit shiva to this day, whether it be on the side of the highway asking for money, or locked in a prison for a lifetime, or enslaved in prostitution, or gripped in a deadly struggle with the demons of doubt, despair, depression, destitution and death. Even in the Church, and especially in the Church, there are people mourning, grieving, hurting, struggling, often afraid to speak, but more often, simply ignored. Are they potential Thomas’? Or potential A--s?
Every time I hear that gunshot in my head, I hear, “Either ours is a God of grace, or I WILL NOT BELIEVE.” I wonder: if I had sat Shiva with A-- longer, just been present to him, called him, heard him, more over the last few years, would he be leading a mission to India? I cannot know. To say that things “shouldn’t be this way” feels like a cop-out. I should not be surprised that there is evil in the world, and that it sometimes claims a small but costly victory. That is a hole in this story that I dare not imagine or try to explain. It is far too great a mystery, and answers with far too deep a silence.
As I sit shiva myself, I wonder: was I ever called to keep him alive? Was it a responsibility given to me? I don’t think so. I was just called to sit, and listen, and to hurt, and be a presence, to be the presence of the Lord who hurts, and listens, and waits, and loves. I can hope that the same God who will appear to show his wounds is a God who will provide an answer to the question asked by that gun. There is an old hymn that says, “so weep not for me my friend/when my time one earth doth end/for my soul belongs to Him/who can raise the dead again.”
I can no longer sit with A--. But I can sit shiva for A--, and wait patiently for the Lord who also sits shiva alongside me. And then I can go out again, and see who is sitting shiva in our midst, and with him, sit in shiva, and wait, and hurt, and listen, and pray. I cannot understand. I cannot fix. But I can hope. I think it just starts by being with. He is, after all, God with us. There is no other God worth believing in. There is no other God worth hoping in. No other God worth seeing.
Hope, Ye Who Enter Here
On the occasion of Holy Saturday
1 Peter 3:17-22, 4:6
(Written for a preaching class, Duke Divinity School, Fall 2007)
Holy Saturday. Today our Savior enjoys His final rest, slumbering in the arms of Sister Death, His work on earth complete. As once in birth He slept in the warmth of Mother Mary’s womb, the King of the Universe now lies serenely in the bosom of Mother Earth. For six days of Holy Week, He has labored and fought His way to a new creation on the cross; on this the seventh day, the Sabbath day, our Lord and our God once again rests.
We, too, rest on this most Holy of Sabbaths. For forty days, we have undertaken our Lenten journeys, enduring what seem like endless days of wrestling, repentance, reflection, and renunciation. For many of us, Holy Week is the busiest week of the Church year; as pastors, we have celebrated Jesus’ Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday; we have commemorated His final Passover meal on Maundy Thursday; we have endured our Lord’s betrayal, His sorrow, His suffering and His death on Good Friday. And somewhere in the midst of it all, we have hopefully managed to prepare for the Feast that is to come on Sunday, and perhaps eagerly await the Easter Vigil service this evening or tomorrow morning. We too are ready for a Sabbath rest.
Yet we are also eager, excited, expectant. We have picked out and purchased the crisp new suit we will wear come sunrise. Our parish altar guilds have been busy all day re-dressing the altar to greet the Bridegroom who comes with the dawn with flower arrangements and banners, while the musicians are fine-tuning their trumpet calls and organ blasts. The men of the congregation have been stoking the fires in the church basement, grilling bacon and flipping pancakes for this year’s traditional Easter brunch. Our children are at home, dyeing and hiding eggs around the yard, while our wives or husbands are making a last minute shopping trip to stock up the fridge for the company who will be coming in droves. And if we are honest with ourselves, some of us, perhaps, are still putting the finishing touches on tomorrow’s message, hoping to hook a few of those C&E Christians who will come because even they know that something special is happening.
The day that the Orthodox traditions have called “the Great Sabbath,” for so many of us, is hardly a Sabbath at all. Very few of us manage to stop and catch our breaths. Like a seminarian at exam time, we have hardly finished the last sentences of one great book before we are already moving on to the next assignment, the next paper, the next test, barely pausing to reflect on what has just passed through our The gore and the grisliness of the cross have long faded from memory, and we are fatigued from fasting. We are ready to proclaim “hallelujah” once again.
We are so eager for resurrection to come that perhaps we forget that, on that first Holy Saturday, for those first followers of Jesus, there was no hallelujah in sight. Less than 24 hours ago, His family, followers, friends and foes witnessed the one they hoped and feared cry out, “my God my God why have you forsaken me?” They turned away as he screamed and breathed his last. They watched as Joseph and Nicodemus carefully laid the body that once gave so much life in the embrace of death; they wept as Pilate’s soliders punctuated the final chapter of the story with a great stone. They trudged back to their lodgings in a fog of disbelief in a city made strange by the shock and trauma of the loss of one they had once called “the Son of God.” The last words of their Lord and their hope haunted their hearts as they tried to fall asleep that night: “it is finished.”
St. John wrote that “unless a seed falleth and die, it abideth not.” A Lutheran hymn we used to sing growing up captures the mood: “In the grave they laid him, love by hatred slain, thinking that he would never wake again./ Laid in the earth, like grain that sleeps unseen.” The Hope of many buried in a hole in the ground.
Yet as this hole holds the Meaning of Life, holes in stories often contain holy mysteries if we are willing to dig a little in them. I am once again intrigued by the hole left in the Biblical accounts; like Mary Magdalene, I am eager to return to this gaping vacuum in the text. The silence of the tomb, like the Scripture’s pregnant silence of the events between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, invites us to come, to listen, to see, to imagine.
It is Saturday morning. The sky sags above like the colorless face of an aging woman, streaked with the colors of the makeup running in her tears. Jerusalem is filled with Jewish pilgrims from all over the world who have come to celebrate the Passover. As a dim light creeps over the distant mountain crags, the exhausted followers of Jesus gather at a local synagogue to perform their Sabbath prayers. They know that they are safe for now; they may have killed the Lord, but surely, no one would dare violate the sanctity of the Sabbath.
They are aware that their faith prohibits them from grieving, from mourning, even from thinking of mourning on this most holy of days. Even if they cannot obey this commandment inwardly, the redness around their tired eyes reveals that they could not weep if they tried. Their tear ducts, like their hearts have run dry.
Matthew stares blankly at the floor. The words of the Torah being read ring hollow and empty. As he rolls his prayer tassels in his hands absentmindedly, his thoughts turn back to his previous life as a successful tax collector, a sinner, a reject. Back then, he thinks, the words were hollow too. I knew facts and figures, I knew arguments and amounts, I knew dollars and I knew doubts. He made them alive, and he made me alive. He made the whole gang believe a little bit bigger; He believed in us. He’s gone – who will believe in us now? Is there hope for sinners like me? Should I go back to the pencil pushers? Was it all just a return that never paid off? Will the words become silent again?
Peter toys with his tassels too. The promises of Passover seem dim and distant. A few nights ago they were alight with fire, quenched only by the waters and the cool hands that washed his bare feet in a basin with a towel. Now they are empty and hollow. The Zealot sits next to him, the revolution wrung out of him, and the sons of Zebedee, the Sons of Thunder, rumble only with the sounds of a rain of tears held inside. Touching his tassels, he shudders to remember how, last night as he walked home, he came upon Judas’ body, swinging from a tree. He had stopped and stared for awhile, and then, inexplicable even to himself, he took the body down. While the others buried Jesus, he wrapped his friend in linens and buried him in the field he had purchased with his blood money – Peter had found the deed in his pocket. They deserved to bury Jesus, he thought. But I am no better than Judas. I denied him three times. The one I called God. Now he is gone. And I shall never be able to tell him how sorry I am. The tassel in his hand is an empty prayer, and Peter wonders if that noose should not have been reserved for him. I am no rock; am I simply Simon once again?
Mary, His Mother, sits across the aisle from the men, unaware of the stares and murmurs whispered all around her. She does not care that she is the mother of the convicted rebel. She does not care that she is the subject of gossip. She does not care that people talk. She fondles the tassels of her son’s prayer shawl, remembering when she wove it for him as a boy of twelve at his dedication in the temple. She remembers losing Him then, the panic with which she searched this very city for her precious child, forgetting how He was more cared for then she could imagine. She remembers the smiles, the embraces she received every day before school, the meals she cooked for Him, the kisses she welcomed. She remembers the angel’s words, “and a sword shall pierce your heart as well.” The child she once carried in her womb has a different mother now, carried in the loins of the earth, gone as suddenly as he had come. Something in her knows that God is in control – her son had told her it would be all right. But why, she wonders, does grief remain in spite of even the most beautiful words of God?
Across town, Pontius Pilate sits by his bedroom window, taking a drag from his morning cigarette. He notes coldly the peal of thunder trembling over the rooftops. His wife has not spoken to him since he condemned the man she had begged him to spare, and he spent last night on the couch. He touches the fringes of his purple robe, and feels the silkiness of its smooth, expensive veneer. His hand wanders to his face, and recoils in surprise at finding it wrinkled. He turns to the mirror and sees the sunkenness of his eyes, and a hint of gray creeping across his forehead. Such sad eyes, he thinks. They look like Jesus’ eyes. He remembers how he had given in, not to mercy or to justice, but to the rantings of the wild mob. He, Pilate, paragon of Roman authority and man of principle, had been swayed by the howling of peasants to commit injustice. I care not for the man. He is dead. But he took my ideals, my dignity, and my honor with him. Returning to the window, he looks across the city to the hill, and the silhouette of the cross, now empty and still. The first drops of rain whisper a question in his ear. What is truth, he wonders. What is truth?
Mary Magdalene huddles in the corner of the brothel. In past years, the festival time was the most profitable. She is not with the others; she is no Jew, and does not need their prayers. She hears the sounds of lonely men and empty women making a hollow attempt at love, but she, more than anyone, knows and feels that love is dead and gone. This is what she had known before; she has returned to the familiar. She has not slept or eaten since Thursday. She ticks away the anxious hours, until the Sabbath will be over, not because she cares anymore for such things, but because she needs the help of her friends to go and care for the body of her beloved, alone in the tomb. She still hasn’t come up with all the money for all of the spices necessary to preserve his body. Maybe she should have listened to Judas. Maybe she should have saved that money for a better time. She feels the tassel of a robe brush her face as an unsatisfied customer storms out of the bedroom. For a moment, she considers her old ways as a possibility…a few hours and I could give him the finest burial of all time, greater even than Caesar’s…Where will the money come from?
Disillusioned followers. Unfaithful friends. Mothers who bury their children. Unjust enemies. Unsatisfied lovers. They, like any of us who has untimely lost someone, know that death brings with it not only grief, but also a certain anxiety. Guilt, loss, separation, hopelessness, despair; these are the demons that haunt the hell through which the bereaved must walk. For many back then, the Sabbath of Holy Saturday was one of sorrow, sadness, stillness, silence, and solitude. It is a day alive with death. And like many left behind by death, Matthew, Mary, Peter, Pilate and Magdalene felt afraid, alone, abandoned.
Yet perhaps no one was more abandoned on Holy Saturday then Jesus Himself. The hardest journey was reserved for the only one who could possibly have undertaken it. For it is on this day that the Church in every generation has affirmed, with the words of the Apostle’s Creed, that “He descended into Hell.”
The writer of Hebrews testifies that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Just as we, in death, do not completely die, but live on in spirit, so does tradition and Scripture affirm that Jesus Himself did not simply die, but also entered into Sheol, into Hell, the place of the dead. Unlike us who stop running at the end of the race, Jesus did not simply rest on the cross. The path from Friday to Sunday ran through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
And therein lies perhaps the most dreadful and yet most holy of mysteries: Christ, the Light of the World, entered into a place of utter darkness. The Blazing Sun of Righteousness went down into the realm of scathing fire. The most holy and perfect man who ever lived took on our humanity to such an extent that he entered the deepest and most despairing place in existence, and remained there for an entire day. The Lord of Life, prisoner of the Realm of Death.
I have noticed that most churches have changed the pertinent line of the Creed to “he descended to the dead.” Talking about Hell has never been an easy or a very popular topic. Unless we are using the old fire and brimstone routine to scare salvation into some wayward sinners, we generally do not like to think of a place of eternal torment and hopelessness, let alone talk about it with our modern, liberal congregations. Nor do we feel entirely comfortable with or able to reconcile the idea that a God of Love would effectively condone and preside over the eternal torture of people He Himself created and knit together in their mother’s wombs. CS Lewis himself wrote, “there is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture, and especially of our Lord’s own words.”
Many of us feel the same way. If we had it our way, everyone regardless of what they had done in life would be given a second chance at heaven. None of us wants to see anyone, not even our worst enemies, endure the kind of torments dreamed up both in the Bible and by the theologians and the poets. And yet, the hard truth is that we cannot with integrity read the Scriptures nor affirm their authority without accepting that, no matter how we choose to imagine it, Hell is an inescapable reality; for some, tragically so. Hell represents for us the state in which souls are eternally separated from God, and, at the very least, and perhaps, at the utmost worst, experience the unbearable pain of that separation for the rest of time.
And yet, into the darkest, most desolate and abandoned place we can imagine, yet even here Christ Jesus travels during his sojourn in the flesh. Into the place of man’s self-condemnation, into the place of utmost separation, down into the furthest depths of damnation, destruction, despair and death beyond death, Christ dares to leave His footprints in the molten sands. That which he did not undergo, he could not redeem. Even in Hell, Hades, and Gehenna, Jesus walks.
St. Peter, who knew well the hell of self-condemnation, testifies to Jesus’ infernal itinerary in his first letter. He shares with us that after his death, Jesus braved even Hell to make “a proclamation to those spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.” He goes on to further clarify that “this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” For the Jews, Sheol was a place where the souls of the dead awaited the final judgment day; those who were great sinners waited in unbearable agony, while the great patriarchs and prophets rested “in the Bosom of Abraham.” The early Christians would have understood that Jesus descended in order to share the Gospel with all those people who had not lived to hear it personally from His lips.
Like many of us pastors on Holy Saturday, Jesus was a very active man.
Here, once again, the text is incredibly silent on a most important and mysterious point. Once again, I ask the Spirit’s guidance upon my imagination as we walk with the Savior into the realms below.
I imagine Jesus walking through the gates of Hell. As He passes through, He looks up and notices black words etched in yet blacker stone: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. Unimpressed, and with a furrowed brow, He continues onward. The expanse before him is bathed in a pale green light. Shadowy people walk about as if lost, gazing around with panicked, exhausted eyes. A sob grips him, and a wince, as he hears a voice cry out from somewhere beyond the light in the shadows. His heart is rent with a paroxysm of pity. My lost sheep, He thinks. I am coming.
He walks along the river called Styx until He comes upon a hill. On that hill were seated Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Samuel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel; Rahab, Rebekah and Ruth; John the Baptist, Jonah, and Jeremiah; and with them, all the hosts of Israel’s past. And while their brows are beaded with the sweat of agony, their eyes are nevertheless closed, their heads bowed, their lips moving silently in prayer. Ah, yes, thinks Jesus. It is the Sabbath. Even here, without the sun, my people know to quit their agony and their grief and, in spite of hopelessness, remember and keep holy the Seventh Day.
Jesus kneels down besides them and prays. When the time comes when on earth the Torah would be read, he stands up and greets them with a joyful blessing, “grace and peace be unto you all.” The shades are taken aback, and look at one another, puzzled. Who is this one who speaks as if He had authority, they wonder. But He continues, reciting from memory the same verses with which He began His ministry in the world above: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Their eyes glow, for the first time in many many years, with Hope, as He smiles knowingly and says, “today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Release to the captives. Let the oppressed go free!”
Several hours later, the souls of Israel are assembled at Hell’s gates, prepared to march under the banner of the Lamb. As they are preparing to depart, Jesus sees a figure, crouched by the side of the river. “My brothers and sisters, hold for one more moment,” he says, and makes his way over to sit beside the soul sitting there holding his knees to his chest.
“Hello Judas,” he speaks, softly, yet full of longing and joy. “Oh, I wondered when you would show up,” comes the tart reply. Judas does not turn his head, but continues to stare coldly into the darkness beyond the river. “It is good to see you again, my friend,” tries Jesus again, placing his hand on Judas’ shoulder. “Yeah, well the only good you can do would be to get lost. Haven’t you tormented me enough already?” answers Judas. “Judas, my son, we are leaving now. I know you heard me speaking earlier. You are welcome to come with us; I desire so badly for you to come with us. Please, turn, and come.” Judas stares ahead; he recalls the texture of the cold silver coins he held in his hands, and the warmth of Jesus cheek as he kissed him in the garden. He remembers the final, sweet release of the rope closing about his neck; his heart recoils at the agony he is trying so hard to hide; he will not show weakness now. He steels himself, and keeps his silence.
Jesus sighs, and for a moment, a tear trembles on the corner of his eye. But he lets out a deep breath, and rises. “You know where to find us, Judas, when you are ready.” He turns, and walks towards the great army of saints. As they march forth from the gates, Jesus looks back over his shoulder at the gates of Hell; the first two words of the ominous greeting have been crossed out. He nods in approval at his divine defacement, and leads Israel forth on her new Exodus under the new banner: “HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.”
I do not know how Judas’ story ends. For it is not my story to tell, nor my ending to know. But I can hope. And I dearly hope that at some point, if not that day, then a little while later, when he had finished grieving, that he rose from that river side, turned, and accepted the invitation given to him.
I can hope for those in Hell. And I can hope in the midst of Hell. In descending into the abyss on that first Holy Saturday, I know that Jesus felt the same way that CS Lewis did about Hell, and that He had the power and the authority to do something about it. The text tells us that Jesus “preached” to those in Hell; Jesus writes a blank check in the amount of the Gospel and offers it to all captives who long for freedom.
But just as on earth, in Hell, the Gospel is preached. It is an invitation, and this means that it must be accepted. For those not persuaded by the love that moves the maker of the universe to enter into the very depths of the most damnable place in existence, I am not sure there is any other invitation they ever would accept.
But the Good News of Holy Saturday is that the invitation is finally universally extended. The Gospel is preached, even in and especially to the very darkest places of creation. Before even the miracle of the Resurrection, Christ reaches out to those who are closest to annihilation. The fires of hell are put a matchstick compared with the burning passion of our God-in-Love, who desires that everyone know how much they are loved and desired. The power of St. Paul’s words to the Romans rings out: “for while we were yet helpless, yet at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…in this God demonstrates His love for us.”
On Holy Saturday, we are equally exhausted and excited. We are worn out by what is past, and driven on by what is to come. And this is indeed a good thing! Yet Jesus asks us to take the time for our Sabbath rest on this most Holy of Sabbaths, to stop and to remember those whose grief cannot be consoled, those whose pain is profound, those whose isolation and separation and self-condemnation we ourselves would rather pass over during this Passover season. In the grief of the living, as well as in the torment of the dead, we see a world still aching, still longing, still burning, without hope and without direction under Hell’s banner, ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. Hell’s Banner proclaims itself from Pilate’s palace, from Judas’ tree, from Peter’s pity, from Magdalene’s house of ill repute. Hell cries out, “Arbeit macht frei” in the signs of Auschwitz, Hell rears its head in the proclamation “Whites only” in the places of segregation and prejudice, Hell shouts with fury in the gunshots that claim lives by the shooter’s own hand, Hell leaps with ecstasy in the back alleys of Durham and Denver and Damascus and Delhi where the homeless are left to rot, ignored, abandoned, alone, condemned. Hell whispers its seductive lullaby to death row inmates, to AIDS patients, to burned out businessmen and exhausted stay-at-home housewives and suburban burnouts, to disillusioned pastors in stagnant congregations and to child soldiers in Sudan and grown up soldiers in Iraq. Hell writes with broad strokes across the creation and below: Abandon all hope. Be condemned.
Yet Christ takes on even our own self-condemnation. Christ is sovereign even over Hell, over Death and the grave. “He descended into Hell” is not an empty phrase in a rote creedal statement. It is the essence of the Gospel. To all who struggle under oppression from the Hell of corrupt governments, he proclaims, “Hope.” To all who labor under unfulfilling jobs, who toil under self-hatred, who reject grace again and again and choose routs of self-destruction and self-indulgence, he proclaims, “Hope.” To prostitutes, to drug dealers, to gangsters, to CEOs and professional athletes and rap artists and country singers and to generals, junkies, professors and pastors, he proclaims this Gospel, “Hope.” And even to those in the darkest depths of Hell, who have condemned themselves by their choices in life and their refusal in death, to those who linger in darkness, in desolation and in despair, to them, even in spite of their sin, Jesus walks with them, he bids them, “HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.” Hope, because even here, I am with you, and will not forsake you.
“He descended into Hell” is nothing less than the proclamation that even in the very fires of Hell, the Gospel is proclaimed and the invitation extended. Hell is no longer the last stop, the final destination, the last word – but merely a stop on Christ’s journey of redemption, for all those who long for freedom, who will turn, and accept the Gospel of the invitation of Grace. It is Holy Saturday that enables us to truly say: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
On this Holy Saturday, on this the Great Sabbath, let us take a moment to remember all those who mourn and are not yet comforted. Let us remember those who are abandoned, condemned, separated, tormented. Let us remember those from whom hope has been taken, in whom faith has failed, from whom love has been withheld. And let us remember that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a God who does not abandon anyone to the fires of Hell, but enters into them Himself, for their sakes and for ours. Not only for the so-called elect. But for all. Jesus Christ is Lord, not only over Heaven, but over Death and Hades as well. Only in this knowledge can we on this day transform our anxious despair into a hopeful expectation. Only under this lordship is Good Friday truly Good, and Easter Sunday truly great. Only because of Holy Saturday are we ready to truthfully exclaim “Hallelujah” when our Sabbath rest has ended.
In the words of the old hymn: “now the green blade rises from the buried grain/wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain/laid in the earth that with the dead has been/love is come again like wheat arising green.”