As a younger person I really enjoyed horror movies. My first memory of a horror movie goes back to my grade school years. I remember being home alone some weeknight while my parents were away at a choir rehearsal and discovering that “The Shining” was on television. Even edited down for time and content, that movie scared the bejeezes out of me – the scene with the little boy, Danny, riding his big wheel through the halls of the Overlook Hotel, and then turning that corner to find the ghosts of the two little girls who ask him to come play with them. Creepy!
Then junior high sleep overs, which required someone with a video game system (the Atari 2600, the Mattel Intellivision, the first-gen Nintendo game system were all acceptable), access to lots of Coke and pizza, and then a VHS rental of “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” or one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. We’d get buzzed on sugar and games and then terrify ourselves with imaginary violence.
A parody of the horror movie genre came out in 1996 called “Scream.” One of the elements of this movie that marked its self-consciousness was its awareness of the rules for horror. In the movie, Randy, a horror film buff, tells the other characters the rules that govern horror films,
You may not survive the movie if you have sex. You may not survive the movie if you drink or do drugs. You may not survive the movie if you say, “I’ll be right back,” “Hello?” or “Who’s there?”
I stopped enjoying horror movies when the horrors of daily living became too real. After a few years of working with kids who got hit for real, adults who beat each other for real; after traveling the world and seeing bombed out houses and shantytowns filled with real families crammed up against wealthy suburbanite neighborhoods; imaginary violence ceased to amuse me. The world was full of death, and horror movies no longer let me engage with my fear of death in a safe, controlled way. There were no rules in the real world to keep me safe.
The ancient mind, the minds of the disciples who sat huddled in the locked room, were filled with horror stories as well, both natural and supernatural. They had just endured the terror of watching their most beloved friend and teacher dragged away from them by a terroristic government that treated dissenters and revolutionaries like murderers and thieves. They’d seen their lord nailed to a beam and left to die, and the message had come through to them loud and clear, “stop what you are doing. Do not attempt to change the status quo. The penalty for disobedience is death.”
When Jesus did appear among the gathered disciples, trapped by their smothering fear, it was not clear what was happening. Was he a ghost? Had he returned to haunt them, to blame them for their failings?
Jesus asks, “why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” What a strange question! Who wouldn’t be frightened by the appearance of their dead teacher in the middle of a secured room? But Jesus doesn’t scold them for their fears or lecture them about the need for faith. As in the story of Thomas that we heard last Sunday, Jesus addresses fearful hearts and doubting souls by inviting people to touch him, to see that he is real. He asks for something to eat – breaking one of the rules of the ancient horror story, which said that ghosts were insubstantial, could not be touched, could not interact with the fleshy, physical things of our world, like food.
Too much of religion over the years has been focused on rules, which propose to keep us safe by putting the scary, painful, violent things of life away from us; by explaining away all the horrors of our daily experience with doubt-free definitions that let us get on with living. Even our understanding of this appearance of the risen Christ has been hedged in by rules for understanding it. He was not a ghost, he was alive. He was not immaterial, a spiritual reality – he was a physical, tangible person. Believe that it happened, just like that, and you will be saved!
But the point of the story is that it’s not comprehensible what has happened. We cannot understand how a person killed on a cross can come back from the dead as a living being. A ghost we could understand, a visit from the dead. A spirit, and angel, we could understand – perhaps we would not believe it, but we could understand the appearance of something so different from us, so alien to us, that it could move through locked doors.
That would even be comforting in some way. Then this Jesus, who all along was saying and doing things that seemed impossible to us – touching and healing and loving people that seem so foreign to us – would be revealed as something completely different from us. Some new life-form incapable of death. But we couldn’t be expected to follow in those kinds of footsteps. We couldn’t really participate in that kind of life.
Stephen Cooper, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, writes, “to insist on the reality of the resurrected body is to demand that we accept our present reality as the place where transformations of ultimate significance take place.” The living body of Jesus, the hungry body of Jesus, the still-bruised and pierced body of Jesus, is a reminder to us that God is ultimately concerned with what happens here and now, not just off in heaven someday. A spiritual body, one that had flown the coop of Jesus’ battered corpse, would have confirmed what the Romans hoped to accomplish with the cross, that this world is one bit of torture after another, and that the only escape we can expect comes after we die, in another world. Resistance is pointless.
But resistance is not pointless.
The epistle of 1 John reminds us that “we are God’s children now. What we will be has not yet been revealed.” We are God’s children now – meaning that God is concerned with what is happening to our lives, our bodies, our families, our church, our nation, our environment, our world now. We are not waiting to leave this life. We are fully planted in it. The salvation God assures us of in the resurrected, living body of Jesus echoes the confidence of the psalmist who cries out
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:13-14)
We will see signs of God’s liberating power at work in our lifetime, in our bodies. We live in a time when an African-American man with the name Barak Hussein Obama is president, and the small Midwestern state of Iowa has legalized gay marriage. New life shatters former expectations, here and now.
The point is that Jesus addresses our fears, does not dismiss them. The question we are left to ask ourselves is, what fearful room are we trapped in – as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination, as a country? Illness? Unemployment? Divorce? Behind those fears lie the fear of death – the death of a dream, or a relationship, or of a body. Jesus comes into our fear of death as the one who has already endured it – but not as a specter, not a ghost. The livi
ng Jesus is something new altogether. Something they had no word for – and neither do we. In fact, when we propose to know what the risen body actually was we reveal our ignorance. It had no historical corollary. It is the essence of a new thing.
Jesus addresses our fears, which are ultimately fears about death, not by taking them away – but by posing the question, “what would your life look like if death held no power over you?” What would your life look like, what would our life look like, if the fears we nurture and protect were brought out into the open and given no more shelter in our hearts? It would be a brand new thing, something you have never seen before. Jesus’ way of life, a life given totally for others contains the seed of a new life and a new way of living.
Notice that even Jesus does not address the mysteries of his resurrection, though we might assume the disciples were as confused and befuddled as we are. Jesus wants to teach, but not biology, physics – or even metaphysics. Jesus’ teaching recalls to the disciples’ minds the old, old story of God’s love from the time of Moses to the present day, whichever present day we are in. God’s action in Jesus’ death and rising is consistent with God’s action wherever death tries to hold sway over life, oppression over liberation, lack over plenty, estrangement over reconciliation. Jesus in his risen body shows those who know him something about God’s consistency – even in the middle of doing something new. The newness of God is old news. God’s predictable unpredictability.
God is always doing this. We don’t need to ask how we can be a part of it – God is using us even now! But we might ask, we might notice, we might wonder how those around us and outside of us see God at work in us. We might ask, we might wonder, we might notice how we see God present in those who surround us. We might become aware that God is standing, present, in our midst – looking for food (as always), asking to share a meal, sending us out with good news for people held captive by fear.