Sunday, May 1, 2011

Easter Two, Holy Humor Sunday
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…

In the book I’m reading, “The Land of Painted Caves,” from the Earth’s Children series by Jean Auel, a very unusual group decided to travel to see some of the sacred painted caves that are cared for by their people. Ayla, the main character, was taking an important journey as she trained to be the spiritual leader of her cave. The journey was long and took them far from home. Though the people they visited had the same ancestral background, they had little contact. Some travelers like traders and storytellers did visit and take stories from other places, but those stories were often considered little more than myth or legend.

The setting of the book is ancient Europe, and the people were Cro-Magnon, and long before modern understanding of faith and religion. The caves were believed to be sites where the Great Earth Mother was accessible, close to earth and her children. The caves have a special quality, long understood by the people as being sacred, and they painted pictures of animals and symbols on the walls in recognition of the earth mother’s presence and the life she gives.

The group was unique because Ayla and he rmate were able to tame several wild animals, including horses and a wolf. They also created some amazing inventions that made travel easier and faster. They had developed excellent hunting and gathering techniques, and were able to share their gifts with the others. Among the travelers was a woman who was the most important spiritual leader of the people, honored by all, even though she lived too far from many caves to have a direct impact on their lives.

As the unusual group arrived at a new camp with these important and legendary leaders, most of the people were in shock and awe. The stories surrounding these men and women were so extraordinary that most thought it was exaggerated myth. To see it with their own eyes was frightening and impressive. The most common response was “We heard about you, but couldn’t believe that the stories were true. We thought they were stories created by storytellers. Now that we see it with our own eyes, we are even more amazed.”

Those who met the group along the journey would often then go back to their own caves and tell of their experiences. The hearers might believe the stories, but more likely they doubted the reality. Despite the eyewitness testimonies, they were certain that the stories must be exaggerated. It is impossible for humans to control horses and wolves, for a woman to kill a flying bird with a stone, for fire to be created by striking two rocks together. Even the existence of the spiritual leader was little more than a legend. It was hard to believe that any of it was real.

We live a long way from the resurrection, not only in distance but in time. The eyewitnesses are long gone, only their stories remain. It is easy for us to assume that there is exaggeration in the records, that it couldn’t possibly be real. It is easier to doubt than it is to believe. So, is it any wonder that Thomas was uncertain? I don’t think Thomas’s doubt suggests a lack of trust or love for his fellow disciples, but the story they told is incredible. Jesus came, walked through a locked door, and stood among them. Thomas was not among the disciples at that first meeting according to John. Where was he? Did he even hear that Jesus had been raised?

Has anyone ever told you a story that made you say, “Wow, I wish I had been there”? You don’t just want to hear about it; you want to experience it, too. I’m sure Thomas felt the same way. He might have felt bad that he wasn’t with the disciples on that first night. He abandoned them, and thus abandoned Jesus. In those days following the crucifixion, I’m sure that the disciples questioned everything Jesus said and did during His ministry, trying to figure out what it meant. They were probably recalling those statements about suffering and rebuilding. They may have been in denial about His death. They knew about the ones Jesus raised, but could they have ever imagined He could raise Himself? Based on their experience, the resurrection was not something they could expect.

We always read this story about Thomas on the Sunday after Easter, but the story begins on that first Easter day. The first time Jesus appeared before them, the disciples were surely sad, grieving, confused, doubtful and afraid. After Jesus appeared, their attitude must have changed. Their tears turned to laughter. But can you imagine walking into a room full of laughing disciples when all you can think of is your dead Master? Thomas must have thought they were crazy. “How can you be laughing at a time like this?” They were laughing because they were in on the joke. Jesus beat the devil.

The Greeks saw the humor of the resurrection—that Jesus played a practical joke on the devil. The devil thought he won, but Christ rose from the dead. The week following Easter were called the “days of joy and laughter.” They held parties and played practical jokes on one another. The joyous week culminated in “Holy Humor Sunday” the second Sunday of Easter. Some churches have recently taken up the practice again, using humorous liturgies and throwing parties to celebrate the joy of the resurrection.

We pick on Thomas, but can we really blame him? After all, we would probably have felt the same way if we had been out of the loop. We would have had difficulty believing the testimonies of those who were those first witnesses. Instead of recalling the sadness and of the disciples after Good Friday, which Thomas was still feeling on that first Sunday, we are invited to join in the joy of the week after Jesus’ first appearance to His disciples.

Besides the joy of knowing Jesus was alive, the disciples were given an incredible gift: peace and forgiveness. Real peace is not the absence of conflict but an unassailable trust in God. The world outside our door is not conducive to that feeling of peace that we long for today. As a matter of fact, we face grief, fear and doubt every day. But Christ comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” He is saying, “Trust in me and trust in my Father. His promises are true and He is faithful. Whatever you face, do so with faith, knowing that everything is already finished. Live in the forgiveness I have obtained for you and take it out the door into the world for others.”

In the passage from Acts, Peter is giving a sermon in response to the unbelievable encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Some in the crowd thought that the disciples were drunk despite the early hour. Peter stood before them to tell them what has truly happened, and that all was as God intended. Though Jesus was crucified at the hands of human beings, it was as God had planned. Jesus went to the cross by God’s hand so that His plan for salvation could be completed. In this speech, Peter lays the responsibility on both the Jews (those inside the Law) and the Romans (those outside the Law), but ultimately the responsibility belongs to God. All that they did, they did because God planned it to be done. It is no wonder the early theologians saw this as a great joke on the devil and death. It is foolishness! But it is a joyful joke for those of us who receive the promise by faith.

In his letter, Peter once again talks about joy. We rejoice even in our trials because by faith we know that God done what He has promised and that we have been reborn into a new life that is eternal. And now we live in hope, not for something that cannot be, but something that is assured. We are certain, not because we have experienced it for ourselves, but because God is faithful.

Peter states emphatically that they were witnesses to these things and we believe based on their witness. Though we cannot experience the flesh of Jesus as they did, though we can’t see Him or touch Him or hear Him as they did, we can believe based on their testimony. To reduce the Resurrection of Jesus to something purely spiritual diminishes the witness of Peter and the others. It also diminishes Jesus to less than was promised by God through His prophets. It may seem ridiculous to our modern human sensibilities and we may try to find alternate explanations or accept that the stories might not be absolutely true. But the story of Jesus’ ministry, Good Friday, Easter, and Eternity is as God intended. Jesus lived, died and rose again by God’s hand and for God’s plan so that we will live in joy forever.

The devil didn’t see the joke coming. It was outrageous and preposterous. It was unexpected. Celebrating Holy Humor Sunday might just be a way to laugh at ourselves, as perhaps Peter and Thomas and all the disciples must have laughed after they realized what had really happened. Holy Humor Sunday might just give us the opportunity to look at this beloved story in a new way, with new eyes, without taking ourselves so seriously. We’ve heard it all before, but can we still hear it with fresh ears? Can we tell jokes about ourselves, about our fear and our doubts and laugh in the joy of God’s forgiveness, trusting in His mercy and sharing His grace through laughter and merriment? We can be glad and rejoice because what God has done is really a great joke that has brought salvation to the world.

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