Photo by Sarah Crossan from Resurrecting Jesus
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 19, 2020
“Go to Hell”
John 20: 19-31 – Common English Bible
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus,[a] one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Happy Easter! Today is Easter day for Eastern Orthodox Christians. So, we say “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!”
And then ask, why. Why are our Easters on different days – although, to add a twist, on rare occasions, sometimes they are on the same day – like in 2017 and again in 2034. For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no set date for Easter. Churches could celebrate the resurrection any day they wanted. In 325, the Council of Nicaea sought to bring some uniformity and decided that:
Easter is on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, but also, always, and only, after Passover. Did you follow that? To avoid any confusion, the vernal equinox was set as March 21. This system would guarantee that all churches would forever celebrate Easter together on the same day.
Except that in the year 1054, an event called “The Great Schism” split Christianity into eastern and western churches – Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. That’s a whole other story. And the reason for the great schism is different depending on who is telling that story. Suffice it to say, in the 1500s, the Western Church started following the Gregorian calendar while the East stayed on the Julian calendar. Plus, the Western church decided that Easter didn’t have to follow Passover. And forevermore, except occasionally! we don’t celebrate Easter together on the same day. Got it?
But, no matter how we got here, the point is, last Sunday we proclaimed “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!” And today, Eastern Orthodox Christians are proclaiming “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!” Except that in some Orthodox Christian communities they add a third phrase. “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! I can see him in your face.” Interesting.
Interesting, but more importantly, what it means that Christ is risen is fundamentally different. Like, totally different. I had never really paid attention to that “detail” until last year when Terri and I and Kat Gaskins attended a lecture series by John Dominic Crossan at the annual meeting of the UCC Rocky Mountain Conference.
He noted the big distinction: Western churches depict the resurrection as something that happened to Jesus as an individual. Eastern churches depict a universal resurrection of Jesus, an act that involves all of humanity, all the way back to Adam and Eve.
We might think of western Christians as more of a “me and Jesus” kind of thing. Or, more to the point, “Jesus saved me. To hell with the rest of you.” Maybe that’s a little extreme – hyperbole – but it points to a big difference. Broadly speaking, in the west, faith is more often about the individual. In the east, demonstrated in part by the difference in beliefs about resurrection, faith is about the community.
The gospels tell lots of stories about the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus; they describe every little detail about the crucifixion itself and then the women walking with their spices to the tomb, all their encounters with angels, or was it the gardener? Different names, different details… oh well, but, at least, they still are details. Indeed, stories like Jesus inviting Thomas to touch the nail holes in his hands and walking with two disciples to Emmaus are filled with detail and carefully explained. But the gospel writers provide absolutely no description of what happened in the resurrection. Obviously, no one saw it happen. So, that leaves us to imagine. And to rely upon artists.
The difference in meaning I described is most obvious when you see it depicted artistically. That’s the intent of a book that Crossan wrote filled with his wife Sarah’s beautiful photographs of icons in churches across the Byzantine Empire and beyond – from Turkey and Greece and Russia and Egypt. Icons that depict the resurrection as Jesus grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, often with prophets on either side, standing with his foot on top of Hades, who is the keeper of the dead. (Now, Hades is not to be confused with a Satan figure. Hades and hell are not the same thing. Hades is simply the keeper of the dwelling place of the dead, not a destination for bad people.)
The whole point is: by Jesus grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, these Orthodox icons portray the act of resurrection as Jesus rising up from the dead and taking all of humanity with him.
In contrast, Crossan notes, for Western Christians, nobody else rises in, by, or with Christ. Western artists often portray the resurrected Christ as a figure glowing in light, hovering slightly above, arms spread, as a lone individual. The personification of individualism, just how Americans like it. We saw this dramatically on display this week.
Right wing America has decided they have had enough of this public health crisis and have begun mass protests to assert their right to individual liberty. “Jesus saved me. To hell with the rest of you.” Wealthy patrons like Betsy DeVos have funded the organizations that sponsored a “spontaneous” Tea Party-inspired, Operation Gridlock demonstration in Michigan, replicated around the country, including later today here in Denver.
On Wednesday in Michigan, one woman brought her children to show them how to “fight for our freedoms.” The woman obviously didn’t realize she is simply a chess piece in a game played by the Betsy Devos crowd. Most demonstrators stayed in their cars, but others crowded around each other as they shouted – some in masks, some not. And handed out candy with bare hands. Those cars did indeed create a gridlock that resulted in an ambulance trapped in the middle, delaying their ability to get to the hospital by 10 minutes.
Dozens of people carried their assault rifles with them. Some protestors in MAGA hats carried flags emblazoned with “Don’t Tread on Me.” Some carried confederate flags too. What do confederate flags have to do with individual freedom? The majority of Covid 19 victims in Michigan are African American. It certainly seems like this all-white protest crowd is fine with more dead people of color as long as white people have the freedom to do whatever they want. To hell with everyone else.
As much as the blatant racism infuriates me, to see people putting their own lives at risk to “protest” because rich people want their money to grow again is the height of who is deplorable. Although, trumping everything else is this weak and desperate president flailing to deflect blame. So, his dutiful sycophants rush to defend him. Like Dr. Oz telling Sean Hannity that having children return to school was an “appetizing opportunity.” “Opening school may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of mortality,” and spoke of it in order to get America’s “mojo back.” So, if I get this right, this week we can spare a few thousand children. A few weeks ago, remember, it was senior citizens. The Lt. Governor of Texas and some Faux News hosts thought that surely the elderly would be willing to die to save their grandchildren’s economic future. You know, to hell with them.
One Michigan organizer said that “quarantine is when you restrict the movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people.” But, as Joel Matthis asks, “What if the free movement of healthy people creates more sick people?” He raised the philosophical question: “What do we owe each other?” Apparently, he answered, “not much.” The freedom of the individual in America is so elevated and so hard wired, it doesn’t know what to do with our responsibility to each other. Or if there even is such a thing. Matthis concedes that not all the “restrictions being imposed are always smart or effective. But you can’t enjoy your liberty if you’re dead.”
The president wants a Covid Civil War. With his tweets about the second amendment, the president is inciting armed conflict. Given his utter incompetence and failure, his corruption and graft, this is the only path he sees to re-election. These demonstrations give him the rallies he needs as badly as oxygen and fried chicken. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, however, is much smarter. She declined to give the demonstrators too much attention, downplaying their size, and instead gave credit to the millions of people in Michigan staying at home. And across the country.
And that’s the true story. At the end of the day, ignore the temper tantrums of white men in their silly MAGA hats playing toy soldier. Forget them and give credit to all the brave Americans staying at home and those braver still who make sure we can stay at home – delivery people, trash collectors, power plant workers, cops and firefighters and their support staffs, telephone crews, TV station personnel, online tech people, the post office, the food supply chain, and on and on and on. My sister Mona shared a meme with me this week that said, “I never considered how many people I depend on to isolate myself.”
So maybe this health crisis is disproving my point about how Americans elevate individual liberty over the public good. The vast majority are choosing the good – willing to pay the price for it. Plus, I certainly can’t prove that cultures influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy are any less selfish.
But if, on this Easter Sunday, we consider a theological response to the pandemic, perhaps the idea of a universal resurrection is helpful. The visual of Jesus, surrounded by the prophets, grasping the hands of Adam and Eve to represent liberation for all of humanity from the power of death. God told Jesus to go to hell – And he did. To get everyone out.
The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis (anna-stay-sis). Anastasis literally means “up/rising.” The Operation Gridlock folks might like to think of their activity as an uprising against government tyranny. They make me so angry I want to tell them to go… somewhere really hot, like Florida.
But the universal action of Christ we celebrate today is a rising up with all humanity. Rising up by all humanity. Rising up for all humanity. That means, for his followers – western or eastern – no one, no one, is left behind. And means we cannot leave anyone behind if we want to be Christians known for their love.
And as I said before, staying home is a holy task of love. A sacred calling. Real bravery. That others might live. Therefore, “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! Indeed, I can see him in your face.”
 Wes Granberg-Michaelson, https://sojo.net/articles/i-can-see-him-your-face
If you enjoy these sermons, please support the work of Park Hill Congregational UCC
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world