Afraid of What?

Posted: April 19, 2022 in Uncategorized

Afraid of What?

The story says it is the evening of the first day of the week, Sunday, and the doors of the room are closed. Locked. Anxious and fearful disciples are shut tightly inside. The suspicious world which in this case is the very people Jesus is challenging within his own religious faith are shut out with the door shut tightly against them. Then, all of a sudden, defying locked doors and locked hearts, a dead faith is re-created. A dead hope is born again. We are left with the question; what were they afraid of? Was it being caught by the religious authorities’ as dissidents, as rebels against the faith? As people of political threat? Or was it because they were afraid of being left without any faith, having chosen to walk the Jesus Way and now being faced with having to explain a faith they were still novices of.

Were they afraid of death as a life without certainty? Without their leader? Perhaps they are afraid of having to feel about like a blind man trying to find a certain faith that runs deeper than any doctrinal belief when they know deep down that such a faith is impossible to find. There is no room for doubt in this search otherwise it becomes pointless. Certainty says that if you can’t find it there is something wrong and someone must be getting it wrong. Doubt says that there must be another way of looking at this. It is less about being wrong and more about being unaware of other possibilities. Doubt says there is another truth here. Doubt says that we stand in the truth when we stand exposed to something else, open to what we cannot see coming, putting ourselves in question and making ready for something for which we cannot be ready. Sounds a bit like being afraid of life to me as life is like that. We never know what is around the corner, and we can never fully anticipate what it is that is coming. Ife is serendipitous, unexpected and ‘Almost”. It may not exist but it seems to insist. It is not yet but it surely will.

This week we continue to journey into the season of Easter. And all we have of what is called the ‘resurrection’, are the stories. There is no logical, scientific proof of a ‘bodily’ resurrection yet there is an insistence that it is embodied. There is no videotape of an empty tomb. No seismograph of an Easter earthquake. Just the stories. Faith or trust in the future is not to be an avoidance of reality, it is rather the response to it, engagement with it and a living of it that is required, the embodiment of it if you will. While Jesus’ death mattered to all those early storytellers, his life mattered more. So they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. Today’s biblical story from John, probably written towards the end of the 1st century, and certainly well after both Mark and Matthew, but maybe not Luke’s second book, Acts (the ‘date’ debate continues), presents us with a post-resurrection ‘appearance’ of Jesus.

And much of the interpretation around this story by John has been to do with a bloke called Thomas—sometimes called ‘doubting’ Thomas. Here John says Thomas does not understand. But in the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas is the hero, while the other disciples “play the role of buffoons” (Scott 2010:195).

This suggests that we might take a break here and put aside the idea that Thomas is the example of what a follower of Jesus should be like, and that doubt is an unhelpful response especially if it is about not believing and we might remember that there is no word meaning ‘doubt’ in the story. And that ‘doubt’ is not the opposite of ‘belief’ and we might also remember that the ‘doubt’ translation panders to a much later tradition.

Val Webb in her book, In Defence of Doubt, writes: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith or belief.  The opposite of ‘faith’ is to be without the experience of ‘faith’; the opposite of ‘belief’ is ‘unbelief’… Doubts appear in religion… where there is a difference between what we are told to believe-taught as ‘truth’-and what we experience or intuit.  Doubts occur when the belief system does not line up with our experience” (Webb 1995:4). Brandon Scott suggests also that; “John’s sense is more ‘Be not faithless, but faithful’” (Scott 2010:196). So instead of swallowing all the traditional stuff about Easter, we need to try and understand the mind of the storyteller, John, and why only he tells this story.

First, John claims, that our understanding and experience of God- has been forever changed, “by the sheer force of Jesus’ being” (Wink 1994. Look Smart web site). Second, the experience called ‘resurrection’ did not happen in the temple or church, but in the world, away from religious authorities. And we remember that it was resurrection of all not the individual. Third, our storyteller seems to be making it fairly clear that faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a so-called ‘personal miracle’ (Jenks FFF web site, 2007). And fourth, something happened to the disciples. “What mattered was that his life continued through them, and through them his mission was advanced.  The disciples extended the domination-free order of God that Jesus had inaugurated” (Wink 1994).

In support of these four suggestions is the important witness and work of the ‘Q’ Collection. The ‘Q’ Collection (from the German ‘Quelle’ meaning ‘source’) is a very early collection of ‘sayings’ of Jesus, used in common by Matthew and Luke. Spong has questioned the existence of Q as a separate collection but what is important is that the collection does have certain things said to be important about being a follower of Jesus. “…the focus of these sayings was not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny.  They were rather, engrossed with the social program that was called for by his teachings.  Again this brings in the collective resurrection, the systemic power and the power of empire-ism.

Thus their book or collection was not a gospel of the Christian kind, namely a narrative of the life of Jesus as the Christ.  Rather it was a gospel of Jesus’ sayings, a ‘sayings gospel’” (Mack 1993: 1). Or if you like: they lived with Jesus’ teachings ringing in their ears (Mack 1993:1) Then their ‘voice’ was lost.  This is crucial to grasp. That the focus of the Q sayings was not on Jesus as the Christ, but on his mission, his sayings, his doing. It was the church that made the mythical ‘Christ’, the second person of the Trinity, rather than Jesus’ teachings, and the message. This was largely an abandoning of the human Jesus. The gospel writers to a certain extent, but especially the early Church Councils, took the imperial garments of Caesar “and inadvertently, if not intentionally, slipped them over Jesus” (Galston 2012:14). So instead of a wandering peasant wisdom teacher who spoke street-language, what we have is the person and language of Caesar Augustus: Almighty Lord, Saviour of the World, Son of God, King. Christianity ended up with Jesus Caesar, and in need of a demotion!

Jesus’ death mattered to those early storytellers, that is true. But his life mattered more. So they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. “The resurrection is not a fact to be believed”, suggests Walter Wink, “but an experience to be shared… [It] is not a contract for a time-share apartment in heaven.  It is the spirit of Jesus present in people who continue his struggle against domination in all its forms, here, now, on this good earth” (Wink 1994).

John tells us a story of anxious and fearful disciples, shut tightly inside. The suspicious world is shut tightly outside. And we continue to wonder: Are Jesus’ followers afraid of death or terrified of life? We could argue that death is certain and thus without question or doubt whereas life is filled with ambiguity, serendipity and the unknowability. So, Whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus, that conclusion must offer a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.

Rex Hunt suggests something to ponder about this. He says that (a) The resurrection stories, begun with the story of when the stone is removed from the tomb, are not complete until they are echoed and re-echoed in the lives of everyday people, today (Nancarrow. P&F web site, 2007).

Living in community is about practicing; practicing belonging, hospitality, respect, humility, conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). Like truth living in community is not a state of being, it is a dynamic in which relatively stable structures are always de-stabilized by a series of shocks. Like truth, community is always becoming and it is becoming something that it will never achieve. Doubt maintains the dynamic and truth manages the transitions toward knowing more.

He also says (b) that the point of ‘wisdom’ is lifestyle, not veneration. Wisdom is a lifestyle consistent with a vision of the world, this world, as it could be in the present, rather than the future. “The trouble with resurrection”, writes Brandon Scott, “is that we have literalized it, narrowed and constricted it, turned it into a creedal belief and in the process have forfeited its great claim and hope” (Scott 2010:243).

Rex Hunt also suggests that the call for us is tocheck out things for ourselves. Make sure we interpret things correctly, and learn for ourselves. After all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes, we might ask ‘how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped?  Canadian David Galston’s comments are helpful here also. He says; “Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point will be to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity” (Galston 2012:53).

What does this credible, authentic Jesus Tradition look like? It looks like truthfulness in action. It is not about doctrine, creed and unassailable words. It is about Style, spirit and the implications of Jesus teaching. Truth is more about truthfulness than any fact, proposition and concreteness can attest to. Nietzsche said that truth is truth-telling, being true, being trustworthy and doing truth. We might say ‘walking the Jesus Way’ or following Jesus is about being aware of the destructive fiction that lurks in the name of truth. Nothing is certain thus the task of certainty is to hide the reality of what it means to be fully human. Truthfulness is the Jesus Way and it demands that we take life on its own terms in other words honour the wonderful rich and challenging mind, live the questions as though life depends on the next question and explore the adventure of humanity truthfully, accepting its limitations and its responsibilities and pushing the boundaries of its imagination, reveling in its lovemaking. Amen.

Notes:

Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover. (ed). The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

Galston, D. 2012. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press.

Mack, B. 1993. The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q and Christian Origins. New York: HarperCollins.

Scott, B. B. 2010. The Trouble with Resurrection. From Paul to the Fourth Gospel. Salem: Polebridge Perss.

Webb, V. 1995. In Defence of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

Caputo John D Truth Philosophy in Transit Penguin Books

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