As the years roll by, I am increasingly aware of the ways the way polite, refined churches like ours are always trying to do the impossible. We have taken what is essentially an irrational, extravagant, sometimes terrifying experience and attempted to make it precise, predictable, and rational. Think about our three biggest holidays. At Christmas we tell the story about how the Creator of the Universe got born in a stable in an out-of-the way backwater of the Roman Empire. At Easter we proclaim that the one previously born in the barn was now resurrected after having been executed by that same empire. Fifty days later, at Pentecost, we celebrate the settling of that one’s wild, unpredictable spirit on those of us who follow him—an event compared in the Book of Acts to a massive, uncontrollable windstorm and flames of fire. Do we observe these holidays with week-long rave parties, mosh pits, and wild dancing? Episcopalians? No way! We walk demurely into stately buildings (like this one) in an organized and dignified manner, we read these bizarre and powerful stories aloud but very calmly, and then a person like me gets up in a pulpit like this and says something nice and soothing and maybe interesting about them. We say some prayers, we distribute tiny, symmetrical wafers that we claim to be real bread, and we sing songs that while certainly beautiful are not in danger of increasing our heart rates—unless, of course, it’s a C3 Sunday. Then just as calmly and discreetly as we entered, we leave.
And so we’ve survived another encounter with the divine. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Over the years, people like me have done our best to keep the holy at bay, held safely as far away from people like you as we can. But domesticating the holy is an impossible task. No matter how much people like me try their best to insulate you from it, the divine keeps breaking through. It’s no accident that backwoods Appalachian Christians call themselves “snake-handlers”. If you keep messing around with God and Jesus, you’re bound to get bit.
The writer I know who best explains this phenomenon is Annie Dillard. This is what she said in her short, sharp, powerful book, Holy the Firm:
The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom. [Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, “Day Three”]
For Annie Dillard, sitting in a church is not like sitting in a concert hall. It’s like going to a circus where high-wire acrobats are doing something they used to describe as “death-defying”. You and I go to church as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But as I read the Easter stories we’ve been given this year, it’s clear that churchgoing isn’t natural at all. It’s risky business. It celebrates something powerful, irrational and weird. Most times it should be surprising. Sometimes it can be downright scary.
Today—a Healing Service on the Third Sunday of Easter--is one of those scary days. We’re dealing, this morning, with two terrifying realities. We’re dealing with resurrection. We’re dealing with healing. What we call God’s power—in Greek, dynamis, the root word of our dynamite—is at work. God’s power is not like our power. It does not use force to compel people. It is not interested in coercion or control. God’s power is like dynamite: it comes at us out of nowhere, scoops us up, and takes us places we thought we’d never go. That power is at work in resurrection. It is at work in healing.
First, because we’re in Easter season, there is resurrection. Consider again the Gospel for today:
Jesus himself stood among [the disciples] and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." [Luke 24: 36b-40]
The important part of this gospel passage is Luke’s information that the disciples “were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Imagine how you would feel if you saw someone whom you both loved and knew to be dead actually walking around alive. Eventually, you’d be happy, no doubt. But before you’d be happy you’d probably be scared. And this isn’t just anybody. It’s Jesus, and even without the being dead part, when God shows up in the Bible, the first response is almost always abject terror. In our polite attempt to make God manageable, we’ve turned relationship with God into a walk on the beach. But the disciples didn’t get a walk on the beach. They got a resurrected dead man. I’m sure there was nothing beautiful or sentimental about the resurrected Jesus. He had, after all, been brutally executed. He appeared among them with wounds in his hands and feet and sides. He did not, in all probability, look like the placid, happy shepherd we see in stained glass windows. He probably looked like a crime victim or a homeless person.
Now my point here is neither to disturb nor upset you. My point is to say that Easter, and the power of new life unleashed at Easter, can be terrifying. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has done something both wonderful and unthinkable. God has totally overturned hateful human systems in favor of divine compassionate love. You and I, who live with, in, by, and sometimes for human systems might find that action a bit unsettling. As much as Jesus’s disciples grieved the death of their leader, at least they knew he was dead. Finding him alive meant they could no longer count on the things they had come to take for granted, if only for three days. All bets were now off. The new life they were invited into might be glorious, but at the beginning it probably was totally destabilizing, too. It probably felt like handling snakes.
So resurrection was a new experience for Jesus’s companions. But if they’d been paying attention they might not have been all that surprised. Think about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee. As we read mostly from Mark’s Gospel this year, we hear again and again how Jesus started out primarily as a healer. We polite Christians, who value education, tend to think of Jesus as a teacher. We want to think of Jesus more as a college professor than an itinerant faith healer. True, Jesus was a teacher. But he was a healer first. The crowds follow him around Galilee less to hear his words of wisdom than to experience the power—the dynamis—of his healing touch. Jesus casts out demons. He cures lepers. He restores sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf. And more than that, in healing people he reconnects them to the human community. In Jewish law, the sick were considered unclean and so were shunned. Jesus not only restores people to health. More to the point, he restores people to community and to life.
We polite Christians have tended to downplay the healing ministry of Jesus. We’ve done that partly as a result of the rise of science and the advent of rationalistic ways of reading the Bible. We’ve done that partly because we fear the consequences of opening ourselves up to the dynamic power of what God might do to us. Healing involves change. And you know how much we all love change. Sometimes it’s less frightening to stick with what we know (even illness) than to venture into uncharted territory (even health). To open yourself up to healing means acknowledging that there’s some part of you that needs to be healed, and that means being open to change.
Today we take two steps toward engaging God in all of the unpredictable, wild freedom and love that we see and know in Jesus. We’re celebrating resurrection (as we do each Sunday) by gathering, with Jesus, at his table. Jesus’s table is a resurrection table. It’s a meal at which we take on the abundance and compassion and forgiveness and freedom that Easter, even its terrifying aspects, announces. Death could stop neither God nor Jesus. It cannot stop us, either. We gather at Jesus’s table to share the bread and wine of forgiveness and freedom with each other, to nourish ourselves for living new risen life on God’s terms. This may look like a decorous sacramental rite. But it’s really a dangerous resurrection feast. When you come to this table, you will be changed. You will leave the experience a new person—one who has been embraced by God completely for who you are, as you are.
We take the other step toward engaging God when we come forward for healing. In laying hands on those who came to him, Jesus showed that God wants all human beings to experience life in the fullness of its abundance and grace. In laying hands on those who came to him, Jesus declared that our brokenness does not need to define us. Our brokenness is our ticket of entry to that table where all who sit around it with Jesus know themselves to be broken too. At Easter, our brokenness ceases to be a badge of defeat. It’s now a sign of our oneness with God and each other in Jesus.
Today is the Third Sunday of Easter. Today is our Healing Service. God’s word of yes, of life, of hope, of abundance, of joy is spoken to you that you may hear and respond. At my core, I’m a polite Episcopalian, and to be truthful, talking about life and power and change and brokenness and healing sometimes scares me, too. Healing is risky. Change is hard. Handling snakes is dangerous. It’s all a high wire act. But we will survive this high wire act, this dynamite, and be blessed by it. We can be healed because Jesus is our healer. We can be risen because Jesus was risen first. Come forward in hope, come forward in faith, come forward even in fear. Let God do in and through you the surprising work you can’t even imagine as you contemplate it. It may be a bit scary, but it’s also life-giving. And that new, healed, risen life is what even our polite form of Christian faith is finally all about. Amen.