The Wounds

In the Gospel of John, Jesus shows the disciples the wounds in his hands and feet as evidence that it was, in fact, him.

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. John 20:20 NRSV

There are two problems here. 

One is that the resurrection of Jesus is clearly different from the resurrection the Pauline epistles seem to promise to believers. Where Paul’s tradition tells us that the believers will be resurrected in fully restored bodies, the Gospels leave us with the understanding that Jesus retained his wounds. One professor in my days of ministry training said that this meant Jesus would bear our wounds through eternity. Fine, but not a verse of Scripture to back that up.

Another difficulty is what I’ve been emphasizing all week with this series. The disciples had allegedly heard Jesus say all throughout his ministry that he would die and rise again, and yet when it happened they didn’t expect it and their doubts were difficult to overcome. In our times some see this as reassurance, meaning that since the disciples were skeptical, they can be trusted. 

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20:24-29 NRSV

Poor, maligned Thomas. He missed out on seeing Jesus and was adamant that they were mistaken. A week passed before Jesus reappeared, offering to let Thomas touch the wounds in his hands and side. Such a shame that this sort of evidence isn’t available to us all. The Jesus of the Gospels seems very keen on his immediate disciples believing, while the rest of us are left to depend on texts written much later by people who likely weren’t even there.

Bear in mind that the Gospels were written decades after the reported events. Even Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, was likely written in the 70s C.E, perhaps as much as 4 decades after the death of Jesus. These are not first-hand accounts and we don’t have the word of eyewitnesses. 

The Gospel of John would have us believe that it took a great deal of convincing to get the disciples to accept that Jesus was risen from the grave, while no such evidence has been available to humanity for nearly 2000 years.

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The Gardener

One year my Vacation Bible School teacher at the local Baptist Church stumbled over apparent divergences between the Gospel accounts. It was entirely unintentional on her part. An illustration of the resurrection story showed the women holding on to the feet of the resurrected Jesus, shortly after finding the tomb open and empty. My teacher complained that this was clearly incorrect, and she showed us a verse in John to prove it:

“Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” – John 20:17 KJV

That dear woman would have been right if the passage were truly as presented in the King James Version. That bit about not touching him actually meant ‘don’t hold on to me,’ the meaning of which is also debated among Bible students. In any case, it didn’t mean what she thought it did. Further, the illustration that upset her so was actually based on another passage of Scripture.

“And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.” – Matthew 28:9 KJV

so much for whatever theological case my VBS teacher thought she was making. What’s really illustrated here is first the difficulty of working from translations, and second the complexity of harmonizing inharmonious accounts of the resurrection. More to the point I’ve been trying to make this week, what we find in these diverging stories about the risen Jesus is not the result of bewilderment over actual events, but the well-considered and long-elaborated stories that were passed along orally in the decades after the founding of the first church in Jerusalem. What really seemed to have been happening was that people had visions/hallucinations of their recently executed friend, and passed these along as true.

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

John 20:14-17 NRSV

This is a story I’ve read countless times, and yet I still vaguely remember what went through my adolescent mind the first time I read it: “What if it really was the gardener?”

Over the years as a Christian I defended this passage by saying Mary was so grief-stricken, eyes swollen with tears, that she only saw a man standing nearby and didn’t realize it was Jesus until she heard his voice. That’s a good argument, except that Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus fits the pattern of disciples not recognizing Jesus right away. There is most definitely a tradition of doubt enshrined in the Gospel accounts, one that most Christians would likely prefer to ignore.

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Honorary Theists

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has decided to form a relationship again with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), since the latter now accepts gays both as scouts and as scout leaders. One policy of discrimination was dropped, and yet another remains in full force. In order to participate in the Boy Scouts, one must affirm belief in a god. Although the BSA is insistent that beyond this one point it is totally non-sectarian, the end result remains that atheists and agnostics are excluded…unless they lie. The UUA apparently wants its atheist and agnostic members to misrepresent themselves if they want to participate in the BSA.

In the FAQ point on this question, the UUA offers the following:

Q: The BSA asks its members to affirm a belief in God. However, Unitarian Universalists hold a variety of beliefs ranging from Christian theism to agnosticism and atheism. How can the UUA be in relationship with the Boy Scouts of America given this conflict?

A: One of the Seven Principles that Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We have many ways of naming what is sacred; some believe in a sacred force at work in the world and call it “Love Eternal,” “Deepest Mystery,” “Wondrous Creation,” or “Spirit of Life.” The UUA and Unitarian Universalist faith communities respect the individual’s journey to finding and understanding their own meaning and experience of the sacred, including beliefs and understandings about the existence of God, and do not seek to define it for them.

The BSA Declaration of Religious Principles states, “Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Its policy is that the home and the organization with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life.”

The UUA uses the language of ‘faith’ in the broadest possible terms, in ways that even I as an atheist generally have no objection (though of the language does make some atheists uneasy at times). In this context, it’s easy to imagine that atheist scouts and scout leaders from UUA congregations will simply be quiet about their particular outlook on life, and use the common language of Unitarian Universalism. In a sense, this isn’t all bad.

One of the weird ‘benefits’ to me as an atheist of attending a UU congregation is that I get the token respectability of being a church-goer. I have the option, among church-going acquaintances, of identifying as UU. When I attend church or seminary events in New York City, I can say I’m UU, and that really raises no flags (mind you, these aren’t evangelical circles I run in!). Among religious progressives, UUism is in a sense a ‘known element’ and not unusual.

Atheism, however, conjures images of assholes on Twitter who constantly demean and disparage theists, apparently seeking to alienate the maximum number of people possible. For many, the term ‘atheism’ brings to mind the ‘Four Horseman’ shouting down anyone who objects to their stark us-or-them worldview (Lawrence Krauss is no replacement for the irreplaceable Christopher Hitchens, by the way). ‘Atheist’ is what those people are who post YouTube videos in which they claim this or that Christian apologist is ‘destroyed.’.

UUism spares me those associations up front, so that when we eventually get around to the fact that I’m an atheist and a Humanist (and yes, sometimes I lead with these instead), people are better prepared for it. Is this a cheat? Maybe…but I don’t think so.

What I do think is a lie and a cheat is the UUA trying to make honorary theists of its atheist, agnostic and Humanist members and clergy, grandfathering us into an agreement with the BSA under a don’t-ask-don’t-tell arrangement that would never be considered acceptable for LGBTQ people or anyone else. I’m not ashamed of who I am, and I don’t want the church I’m associated with to be ashamed of me.

While I’m an organizer with Sunday Assembly NYC, and plan to do everything I can to get this group growing and strong in NYC, Brazil and elsewhere, I also acknowledge holding a deep fondness for what the UUA is and can be. I have a dream for a future in the ministry with this denomination, and I won’t let the negligence and shortsightedness of the national organization deter me.

h/t to Jonathan Tweet for the idea of ‘honorary theists.’ 

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The Run to the Tomb

Up until a few years ago, I would sometimes joke that I wouldn’t run unless something pretty terrible were chasing me. Then, in 2013, I realized I was overweight and that death was after me. Between diet and exercise, I dropped 30 pounds in three months. All it took was the right motivation.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. John 20:1-10 NRSV

In the Gospel of John, Peter and the Beloved Disciple are portrayed as having a reason to run. In their case they weren’t running away (as on the night Jesus was betrayed), but rather running toward something. Mary Magdalene (alone, without other women accompanying) had discovered the empty tomb and run back to tell the disciples. Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb, with the other disciple outpacing Peter (so much running in this version of the story!). When they got to the tomb, the other disciple stayed outside briefly while Peter went right in.

What’s interesting about this story is their lack of understanding. It indicates they didn’t believe the body was gone until they saw it for themselves, ‘as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ And so we return to the same question I’ve been mulling all week: How could the disciples not understand that Jesus would be raised from the dead, if he’d talked about it all along?

It seems to me that what we find in the Gospels are trace elements of what really happened. The disciples understood Jesus to be the Messiah, and when he died at the hands of the Romans (something that would most certainly NOT happen to the Messiah), they fell into escalation of commitment. This is when people, faced with the contradiction of deeply-held beliefs, double down in the face of evidence to the contrary and rationalize how it still makes sense.

Two examples of many in recent times are available to us. This is what happened to the Millerites in the United States, back in the 1800s. People quit jobs, sold property and put on white outfits to await Jesus on the hillsides in the United States on a certain date. When he didn’t materialize (literally), this occasion became known as ’The Great Disappointment.’ While many returned to their former beliefs or simply walked away, many others held fast to their conviction that Jesus was indeed coming soon. The bulk of this group became what we know today as the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

A second, much smaller event took place in the 1950s, also in the United States. A group of ‘Seekers’ believed that aliens were coming to get them on a certain date, at which point the rest of the world would be destroyed. Up to that date their group was non-proselytizing and very private. When the predicted salvation didn’t come to pass, the group intensified its devotion and decided it was time to start spreading the word.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple are said to have run to the tomb, not understanding the very thing Jesus had told them would happen. Even seeing the empty tomb they apparently didn’t make the connection. This, I think, is residue of events as they might have transpired. whether there was ever an empty tomb (body removed by someone) or not (body never buried as depicted or else remained in the tomb and the story grew regardless), after the death of Jesus the disciples were left struggling to make sense of Jesus’ apparent failure. They doubled down, reinterpreted events, had grief-stricken visions and ransacked the Scriptures for verses that out of context could support their new vision of what had happened.

They ran.

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