Acts 4:32-35; Ps 133; 1 John 1:1-2.2; JOHN 20: 19-31
Alleluia The Lord is risen The Lord is risen in truth. Alleluia. AMEN.
“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” However the Sunday after Easter is always given over not to the grace of people’s testimony to that resurrection, but to the perfectly human, “I don’t think so, show me.“ from Thomas. The other unexpected element of the liturgical week after Easter is the collect for Friday in Easter Week (BCP 224.) “Almighty Father, who gave your only Son to die for our sins and to rise for our justification: Give us grace so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”
We’ve had six weeks of considering our sins and wickedness and then the great joy and exaltation of Easter celebrations. We lead up to those with soberness, complex theological thought, narrative, story-telling, and then trumpets, bells, singing, light out of darkness, baptisms, favorite hymns, traditional foods, joy, and then exhaustion, a kind of theological hangover from the jumble of too muchness of liturgy, story, and emotions. We come through Easter with our best intention to hold onto it all and to feel the confidence and reality of Easter’s joy, but we note that there’s a good reason this Sunday is traditionally Low Sunday.
It’s not clear to me whether it’s Low Sunday because we’re simply weary after going to church Thursday, simple supper, Friday, Friday, Saturday—at length— the party, Sunday, Easter dinner, and left over Easter candy, or some other reason. Perhaps the juxtaposition of emotions, from celebration, innovation, awkwardness, sadness, guilt and shame, anxiousness, hope, wonder, joy, praise and glory simply wear us out, aside from the liturgical complexity of enacting them. Perhaps it’s holding on to supreme joy that is so hard. We come down from such highs and then what, where to land. The simplest solution is to stay in bed, sleep though the next occasion of gathering together as a community so that we don’t have to sustain Easter joy. We’re wary, I think, of that, because it’s the hardest, riskiest, most core part of our theology, belief, church life, foundation as Christians together. It’s comparatively easy to say “Alleluia Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed” surrounded by a church full of other people shouting that out, singing our favorite Easter hymns, and hearing trumpets. Like other morning-after reconsiderations, by the end of Easter week we’re ready to go back to our regular selves. We remind ourselves that we only go to church once a week usually, and we went extra last week, so it’s reasonable to skip today. (I commend each and all of you for being here this morning—regular attendance builds backbone, community, trust, and maybe even faith— absolutely the character that the pattern or discipline of intentional shaping supports.) More likely though, we avoid coming back for more church right after Easter, because we aren’t so sure, without hymns and trumpets, the crowds, and the choreographed celebration that we can understand or believe that Jesus, was a real human, died, was dead-dead for three days, and then rose, in any way we as contemporary rational 21st century people can believe, rose to being alive-alive, before he ascended into the safe distance of Heaven. Without all the pizzazz of Easter celebrations, in the bright light of regular living, it’s hard to look our fellow community members in the eye and say “Alleluia, in truth he is risen,” so people take a Sunday off, and don’t return until Christmas.
NPR picked yesterday to have a radio interview with Ross Douthat, a Times reporter, about his new book Bad Religion: How we became a Nation of Heretics. He cites three particular “heresies.” The Jesus of The Da Vinci Code traces a trajectory of work, sacrifice, and justice quite different from that of the Gospels. The prosperity gospel persuades that God wants us to be rich, and if we’re rich God is pleased with us. Third, he describes the “god within” heresy that says, “It’s less that God wants you to be rich and more than God wants you to be happy about yourself.” Douthat has some confidence that Christianity as an institution can and will survive and hopes and pledges to support responses that don’t come so quickly or easily. His “heresies” all familiar and attitudes we live in and with are all reasons that make the Sundays right after Easter particularly good ones for family brunch, spring cleaning, first weekend to go elsewhere, and to catch up on sleep—to skip church this morning. Doesn’t calling Thomas “Doubting” personify encompass much of this.
In her “Almost Daily Emo” from the Geranium Farm, Barbara Cawthorne Crafton wrote about “the gallant sacrificial courage of the eight members of the Titanic’s band commending them, in the face of their sure death, to have the power to decide who they will be when they do die, doing ’Exactly what they were doing then.’ For us, What would we do if we knew our own death was imminent? ‘It is a great blessing to be able to answer Exactly what I’m doing now.’ To help safeguard that blessing, I return to the Friday collect. “Give us grace so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth.” This collect was composed for the 1549 BCP, for the 2nd Communion on Easter Day, Tuesday in Easter Week, and the 2nd Sunday after Easter, and its use was revised in 1552 to Easter Tuesday, and again in 1660 to the Friday. The “Grant us to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness” alludes to the Jewish practice of removing all traces of leavened bread from the house at the time of Passover. The other clause, “that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth” was translated into Latin for the 1560 BCP, but both stay for the Friday of Easter Week.
Beyond these roots, let’s contemplate the collect’s image and meaning. Visualize yeast transforming inert flour into living, growing, expanding dough. Now transform that yeast into malice and think of what it can do both in the humanity of a person and a community, how virulent that malice can become, how expanding, destructive, and rottingly explosive it can become. Gossip, secrets, backstabbing, lies, innuendo, jealousy, greed, and more function as leaven of malice, and such malice has wreaked havoc in various communities, and throughout history in religious communities.
Easter fills us with the dramatic joy of group believing and accepting the wonders, joys, and excitement of the risen Lord. As soon as that religious high fades we’re apt to revert to fear and unbelief. It’s so big to accept Jesus as risen that after that excitement together we’re apt to fade into our old ways. We forget that Easter doesn’t wipe away our sinning, and we revert to our human ways. It’s just after the lofty heights of Easter-believing that we need to watch for our own nature to reassert itself as Easter reality, forgetting our Lent work “to acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Having been forgiven on such a large scale, we’re at immediate risk to fall return to our patterns of participating in the leaven of malice. It takes so little of it in a small community like ours, that it’s worth revisiting this wise collect. As the Jewish practice is to begin its new year at Rosh Hashanah and then about a week later consider, regret, put away, and forgive and be forgiven of sins, so this collect reminds us that we are at our most vulnerable as sinners in the bright light of being forgiven loved, free, and skeptical.
That’s the reason always to remind ourselves of cautious Thomas who wanted to just check for himself. In the excitement of being together, it’s easy to proclaim “Christ is risen in deed,” but when we’re on our own, we wonder whether it was excitement or truth that made us able to believe such an unlikely truth. We fall back into our human sinning pattern, and we wonder whether it all really happened, whether Jesus did rise, whether we experienced that belief because of the drama of the occasion, or the group’s excitement. The destructive leaven tears at us and we wonder whether we can believe in anything so large and statistically unlikely. We don’t come to faith as the only reasonable explanation for this set of events, but we do need to test and retest how we know what we know. Thomas gets to do just what we would want to do, had we the opportunity. He pokes, prods, and fingers Jesus’ wounds, and he talks to Jesus about that process. Jesus immediately fully satisfied Thomas, urging him to forgive others. That’s our life pattern: experience the joy of Jesus’ resurrection, come down from that high and be at risk again for malice, puzzle about the essence of Jesus’ resurrection, share Thomas’ witness trust it— and then breathe deeply accepting the great grace given us by the apostles’ testimony. Like both them and the Titanic musicians, we’re called to keep on keeping on for our whole lives on as we are, as we are called, knowing it to be enough: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 15 April 2012