We laid Brian Brady to rest yesterday. It was beautiful and emotional and I can’t help but appreciate the parallel with today’s gospel. The disciples had just buried their friend Jesus. He was dead before his time. Their hope was dead. Grief is necessary and healthy but thank God the story doesn’t end there. And I believe it doesn’t end here for Brian either. We are in the season of resurrection where all death is temporary and we are being invited to step out of the boat onto stormy seas.
We are also mourning, yet again, deaths brought about by a man armed both with an assault weapon and with white supremacy. I had already planned to speak a bit today about the church’s history of antisemitism, and here we are living it. There is good news waiting at the end of this little history lesson, there always, always is good news and possibility and God’s reckless, mysterious love, but we need to name our sins before we can be redeemed from them.
Did you notice just now and a couple times during Holy Week when I read from the Gospel of John and changed the words “the Jews” to “the religious authority” or “the people”? I do that because of our history with this book. Let’s go back to around 90 Common Era. Jesus of Nazareth had died and been resurrected something like 60 years before, and John the Beloved Disciple, like the others, had gone out into the world and told his story if this impossible man. A group of Jews from one Synagogue heard him, took him in, and came to love Jesus as he did. They wrote down John’s memories and their experiences of the living God. They wrote their understanding of the events of Jesus’ life as they saw them, through their own experience of grief and persecution. This one small group of Jews wrote one of the most cosmically beautiful and painfully physical stories in the Bible—it’s glorious. The problem was, belief in Jesus as the messiah was a heretical belief in first century Judaism. Because of their heresy, it seems likely, this little community was kicked out of their synagogue. And so now they, too, are grieving. They’ve lost their community, their livelihoods and relationships, even the trust and vulnerability they shared with the larger community. They wrote out the good news of Jesus Christ but they also wrote out the bad news of their frustration and anger and suspicion.
This might have remained as a familial dispute—people from the same family who, at bottom, love each other deeply, no matter how upset they are with each others’ politics—but Christianity took off. Followers of Jesus cropped up all over the place and John’s words were spread around like, well, like viral tweets, really. People were hungry for good news and for this Jesus and so they got the good news wrapped up with words that became weapons.
The Gospel of John is not the only thing to blame for centuries of antisemitism, but it’s a big part of it. That the Jews here voluntarily take all the blame for the death of Jesus, that the Jews are presented as people to be feared, people who lie and cheat and manipulate to destroy a good man, even the subtle “for fear of the Jews” at the beginning of this passage is enough to open the door to much more dangerous ideology. I understand if you don’t read it this way, if you think people are being too sensitive, only we have 2000 years of Christians writing out their justifications for blaming, shunning, disenfranchising, and killing Jews. Jesus says in the gospel today “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” We have, accidentally or on purpose, retained the sins of a few as the sins of a whole people and allowed them to be ground underfoot for generations.
I’m telling you all this because it needs to be said out loud. Because people are still going into synagogues with guns. And because we can change it, because this is what the good news is about: healing wounds by naming our sins. Pastor Alex always says Resurrection happens to dead things. Let’s look at all the death around us and name our part in it, let’s stand like Ezekiel at the valley of dry bones so we can bear witness to their coming back to life! Transformation is what God’s about, what we’re about.
Now listen. The story of “doubting Thomas” might seem to be a strange place to find some sort of new life to connect to antisemitism—it always seems to be about the question of doubt and belief, about choosing to have faith though you have no proof. As usual, it’s about so much more than that.
Thomas isn’t there that first night when Jesus shows up in the locked room with the disciples. I imagine they’ve all told the story over and over all week from each of their different perspectives, parsing out what happened, falling over themselves in their delight that he’s back and Thomas thinks it’s just an elaborate and cruel joke. And then Jesus shows up again, this time it seems, just for Thomas. He gives him what he needs—proof—and also a reproof, “Do not doubt but believe” which of course we have used as a weapon ever since.
This is the strange good news I want to offer after yesterday’s shooting and Brian’s funeral and whatever other bad news you’re strugging with yourselves. It’s a single word: pistos. It’s an odd grammatical moment that we don’t translate well, surprise surprise. It means believe and Jesus says it twice in the sentence, pistos and apistos. “Do not be faithless but be faithful” or “Do not be unbelieving but believing”—do you see? It’s the same word pistos, believe. You’ll note, it’s not really about doubt. The Latin form of pistos is credo from which we get creed. You’ve heard me say this before, but it’s about giving your heart to something, not agreeing with a checklist of statements.
Anyway, another more literal definition of this word Jesus uses to Thomas is so fascinating. It’s used elsewhere in scripture and literally means “potable”, like, water that is drinkable. I did say this was a strange way to find good news, but hear me out. Jesus wasn’t talking about Thomas as a tall drink of water, but he is known for his subtlety and complexity: he chose this particular word with care. Do not be brakish water, Thomas. Do not be the lead-poisoned water of Flint or the cholera-infested water of Haiti. Thomas, be clear, cool, refreshing, living water. Be the award-winning municipal water in Cincinnati. Be the water that comes from mountain streams of melted snowfall. Do not poison the well, Thomas, clean it so all can drink. Or even, do not be trash, be treasure, like these beautiful mosaics on our sanctuary walls.
This word pistos brings something new into a history of antisemitism, a history of human self-interest, a history of creating messes and not cleaning them up because it’s not our problem. Do not condemn our Jewish siblings for things they didn’t do, do not ascribe guilt and filthiness and blame where there is none. Instead, believe in the image of God present in all people, let the clean water of clarity and knowledge and compassion wash away the sludge of racism. Be drinkable, my friends! May your soul find movement away from brackishness into potability! Can we get that on a tshirt?
See it’s about movement—God moving us from feeling rejected and dejected to being welcomed and welcoming. It’s less about the extremes and more about moving slowly from one end to the other. God is about movement, living water not stagnant. God is about shifting our perspectives and about going deeper into the love we already have for each other.
And it doesn’t have to happen suddenly—online there’s a lot of posts on social media about body positivity, which I think is so wonderful. Our bodies are God’s creations, so we should work towards positivity. Lately I’ve seen folks offer up their posts about body neutrality—that is, they don’t feel good enough to say positive things, but they can say, “my body got me to class today, that’s good,” or “I don’t hate my body today.” It’s a transition, a process. The spirit is moving here and new life is happening!
At Brian’s funeral this morning, Pastor Pat said, “We have a God who stands with us” and described God’s love for us as stubborn. This is the good news of this story about Thomas: Jesus shows up for Thomas, the one lost sheep out of a hundred, the one who can’t dare to hope that his friend has returned. We have a God who stands with us, a God who shows up for us in unlikely places, who gives us what we need, who loves us—all of us—with a stubborn love. A God who washes us clean in baptism and then continuously pours that cool, clear water over us, soaking us to the skin, washing away our old assumptions, our wounds, our violence.
I will leave you with the words at the very beginning of the Episcopal rite for the burial of the dead, much of which you’ll recognize from scripture:
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.