Faith: No matter who you are, you are welcome here
I still remember going to the Phoenix Art Museum with my sister one hot day in August several years ago. Most of the art was modern or graphic art, something that neither of us are terribly fond of. We’d gone because the Cowboy art exhibit was supposedly free with admission, but it turned out there was an additional charge, and neither of us had the money to spare that day. So we spent the day wandering around exhibits, hoping for something to inspire.
There was one installation piece on the first floor that we both found irresistibly attractive. It was about 8 feet square by 8 feet tall. You could walk all around it and it was visible from the open level above it. It consisted of a large number of pieces of charred wood hung at various distances from an empty center point.
The description fails to do it justice. It was breathtaking in its simplicity and the way it drew you in. The story of those burnt and broken shards of wood became even more fascinating to me as I read the history. It told of a white clapboard Texas church that had been destroyed by a lightning strike that had practically exploded the building.
The artist had entitled the piece “Resurrection.”
The disciples probably felt rather like those remnants on that first Easter evening. They were huddled together in fear, waiting for the knock on the door with soldiers come to arrest them as well.
They’d heard the impossible story from Mary and the other women. Grief and confusion chased each other around in their minds. They’d invested so much of their time and energy in Jesus, and it seemed to all be crashing down around their ears. Their lives, their dreams, their hopes and perhaps even their faith lay in tattered, shattered fragments at their feet.
Into that chaotic room, suddenly Jesus appears. No door opened. Both the outer door and the door to the room were bolted with solid beams that would have made a lot of racket if someone had opened them. Their conversations and their thoughts scattered in that moment. A silence fell, and hearts froze or raced.
Jesus’s next words were a greeting that was still standard in that part of the world: “Peace be with you.” Shalom, salaam.
In that stunned silence they must have seemed ironic. They had no peace, rather their lives were in pieces. They couldn’t believe their eyes. So Jesus showed them his hands and side. He proved that he was indeed a living breathing human being in that moment. Even more, he was the same one that they saw crucified. Luke tells us that he took a piece of fish and ate it as even more proof that he was really alive. Then he repeated his message: Peace be with you.
Thomas ccouldn’t believe it until he saw it a week later. Then he cried out: “My Lord and my God.”
Many Christians have spent years meditating on those scarred hands. These hands can neither close nor open fully. The point is vividly made here in this text. It is only in seeing the hands of Jesus that confusion, doubt, grief, and fear are transmuted into joy. Those scars are vivid proof of Jesus’ Resurrected presence, but they are something more.
Many Christians confuse theology and ideology. There is a kind of Christianity that makes faith into a check sheet of beliefs and opinions that you must hold. Do you believe this fact or that theory? If you do, you are either a true Christian or not Christian at all, depending on exactly what is being discussed and your particular viewpoint. This is ideology, not theology. It has inscribed particular ideas over and above the very human seeking after God that is at the heart of all true theology.
Theology is always a relational science. It has to do with how we relate to God and to each other. Even the most acidic of the ancient writers knew this. Augustine is often remembered for his vitriolic attack on adherents of his former religion, but if you actually read the text, you hear the voice of a grief-stricken man who knows all too well the futility of a life lived by those rules.
In another place he codifies how a monastic community is to live in pretty harsh terms, but again a closer reading will show that he is responding to a community in chaos where bonds of love and familiarity are about to be snapped because of their lack of discipline. He does not want it to happen and will take whatever means are necessary to stop it.
Ideology keeps people out; it divides the world into “us” and “them.” Theology brings people in; it wraps them tight in the love of God and each other. To remember this perhaps we need to remember those hands half curled in agony, trying desperately to close against the pain, or open and release it.
If as Paul says we are crucified with Christ, then our hands and our hearts, our minds, and perhaps even our bodies, must bear that same mark. We must be willing to acknowledge our own pains and confusions. We must lay bare the shattered dreams and uncertainties that shape us.
Like the resurrected Christ, we remain scarred. The wounds never fully heal, and hands that were once strong with certainty now close more reluctantly into fists of anger or rigidity. The scars we bear force the hand and the heart open. Open to God and to those gathered near and to the stranger from afar.
It is only then that we can receive the peace that Christ offers. It is only then that our hearts become quiet enough to hear his voice speaking in the voice of the other. It is only then that strength is reborn in us to know ourselves fully. We remain vulnerable but now able to bear that vulnerability. We receive the Spirit of God in that moment.
Like that installation named after the Easter event, the Resurrection of Jesus is meant to draw us in and give us a peace that never ends. Like Thomas, our doubts are always part of the journey. The doubts of others remain part of their journey too. The doubts we have are part of what make us human and what make us beautiful to God and to each other.
Our job is not to kill our doubts or the doubts of others, but rather to embrace them. Our job is simply to proclaim: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.”
Rev. Deana Armstrong is the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, Craig Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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