"Jesus thown everything off balance."
As some of you will recognize, those are the words of the Misfit, the murderous creation of the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor. At the end of her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," O'Connor has the Misfit explain why he does what he does, and as is often the case in O'Connor's fiction, it centers around Christian practice and belief. The Misfit says, "If [Jesus] did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can."
In other words, the Misfit recognizes that the Resurrection represents the crucial problem of human life - either it's true or it isn't, and your belief about it will change everything.
Only for most of us, it hasn't. In two primary ways of being Christian in America, we find Resurrection - that unsettling and hard to believe thing - decentered. While you will find the Resurrection in some evangelical songs ("Because He Lives," et. al.), the crux of evangelical belief is the Cross: Jesus died for my sins.
And while you will find some progressive pastors and theologians arguing that the Resurrection represents God's ultimate "no" to all the forces of darkness - violence, imperial power, death - progressive day-to-day belief and practice is often centered on the life of Jesus. Since Jesus taught, healed, and fed, that is what we should be doing.
So what do we do with the Resurrection?
The lectionary Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter is that section of John we have come to identify with the character we usually call Doubting Thomas. We've been awfully hard on him over the years, which I think is unfortunate because it allows us to look down on him, to distance ourselves from his situation, to think of ourselves as somehow different or even better than he is, which we most certainly are not.
The Gospel of John encourages us to see Thomas as a figure in contrast to the Beloved Disciple and Peter, who see and believe in the Risen Christ on much less evidence than Thomas is initially offered. But it also offers Thomas as the character who makes the climactic confession of faith in the gospel: "My Lord and My God!" - the highest Christological statement in any of the gospels, in fact, and John's clear bookend to the majestic Prologue: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
The tradition gives us two ways of looking at Thomas. Matthew Henry's 18th Century commentary summarizes one: that Thomas's lack of belief is "not only a sin, but a scandal," and that Thomas is a fool not to believe in the testimony of others. In opposition to this, we find the Classical interpretation of this episode made by Augustine and Aquinas: that seeing Jesus the man and yet believing him to be God, as Thomas confesses, is in itself, an act of tremendous faith. Augustine said of Thomas, "He saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched."
These diametrically-opposed interpretations leave us in the either/or realm of typical discourse: "Did he believe or didn't he?" But I want to step away from the question of whether Thomas was a faithless cad or a saint-in-training, and instead to read him as many biblical scholars suggest we should, as a symbolic and altogether typical human being. Like the Misfit, most of us are Thomases. It's so much easier not to really believe that Jesus is the risen lord, the Son of God. I like to imagine that there was a part of Thomas that thought, "No, it's easier if Jesus is dead. It's sad, sure. But if he's alive - if he really has come back to life - then that's going to change my life in ways I can't even begin to imagine."
But at this moment in the church calendar, we too are forced to wrestle with the Resurrection, and Thomas's story makes us ask the hard question: Do we really believe in the risen Christ?
And if we do - or don't - how does that change us?
Does it throw us off balance?
I know a little something about being off-balance. I grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christian home where God was assumed to be capable of intervening in reality whenever someone with sufficient faith asked Him to. Miracles abounded even now. After leaving the Church for decades, I returned to a faith that was skeptical of supernatural spirituality, a belief that found it hard to believe in miracles, and thus harder still to get my head around the Resurrection.
But a few summers ago, I was working as a hospital chaplain at Brackenridge, the regional trauma center near downtown Austin. Most victims of drowning, overdose, car wrecks, and other mishaps are taken to Brackenridge, and during my summer there, I walked alongside people and their families as they suffered great losses.
Hard as that was, I was able to identify with their suffering, for I have known suffering. I understood their requests for God's miraculous intervention, because I have made such requests. But I also know - or think I know - that the ultimate trend of all matter in this material universe is toward death and destruction, and I hoped to help people accept that.
One day on the critical care ward, a completely undignified shout went up from the hallway. I looked in that direction, expecting to see nurses and other hospital workers moving over to shush whoever was making the noise.
Except it was nurses and hospital workers who were shouting. They were clustered around a handsome young man of around twenty, shaking his hand, clinging to his neck, and Jolynne, the charge nurse, must have seen my look of confusion, because she said: "That's Perez, the famous Perez. He was in 606, in a coma." She indicated the intensive care room right across from us. "Thrown riding a bull. He was brain dead. We had a couple of ethics consults - most of us wanted to pull the plug." She sighed at the memory. "But the family asked us to give it three months."
"He was brain dead," she repeated. "We thought he'd never come out of it. But," she blinked, a tiny smile growing across her face, "he did."
Sandra, another nurse, bounced back from the hall and settled in at the nurses's station. "Perez is here," she told Jolynne, who nodded and smiled back. "He's walking and talking."
"Wow," I said. "He really beat the odds."
Sandra held up her finger to shush me. "There were no odds," she said, waving that finger at me. "He was brain dead, and nerve tissue don't grow back." She looked down the hall, where Perez was walking to the far nurses' station. "And now - he's all walky-talky."
This story about the Famous Perez is clearly a resurrection story, and although you and I know that this story is notable, that resurrection almost never takes place, nonetheless, here it is. Like Jesus on Easter morning - something happened. I can't explain it, my life is easier if I don't have to think about it, but in this story, God moved in some fashion to make things right, and things were never the same afterward.
Ultimately, I think that's where we should land in thinking about the Resurrection, on the notion that something happened that changed everything, including, I hope, us. Progressive Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan has been speaking in recent years about the notion of "operational belief," the idea that whether you believe the Bible stories (including the Resurrection) literally or figuratively, those beliefs ought to make a living difference in your life.
And former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written about the Resurrection that "What is vital to Christian discourse about the resurrection can be stated exclusively in terms of what happens to the minds and hearts of believers when proclamation is made that the victim of the crucifixion is the one through whom God continues to act and speak."
In other words, the resurrection story, however we understand it, whether or not we can explain it, should make a difference in our minds and hearts. It's supposed to; that's what resurrection does. Resurrection stands up against the tide of sin and death, it proclaims hope over despair, and it tells us that whatever happens to us, thanks be to God, the end of things is not really the end of things.
And that should change us.
The Greek word we translate as "belief" in the Thomas lesson suggests elements of trust, faith, and reliance, but it also suggests an act. It suggests throwing ourselves into what we believe. So whether we are literal or liberal readers of scripture, whether our Jesus is all walky-talky like Perez or is a beautiful story that helps explain the way the world has changed over the last 20 centuries, we are called to believe in it.
Really believe in it.
Let it throw us off balance.
Let it change us, as it has always changed people: change our personal faiths and practices, change our lives in community, change our values.
Christian tradition - probably apocryphal, but still, too good a story to throw away - tells us that Thomas, who did not want to believe, traveled to India, where he preached Jesus as the Son of God and was ultimately martyred for those beliefs.
What happened to change him?
And it has happened again, is happening now -
To us, if will let it.