No Doubt: It’s Quasimodo Sunday

I don’t know how true this is anymore, in our confusing Zoom/hybrid worship era, but traditionally, this Sunday is called Low Sunday. Common wisdom says that it refers to the low attendance in churches usual on this day, after the big celebration on Easter Sunday. I love the story, though, of how back in the days after he retired, the beloved previous pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran in Buffalo would come back to preach. His name was Ralph Loew (L-O-E-W). So, of course, this was Low Sunday. You can see how the confusion came about. But neither of these is the real story. 

“Low” probably refers to the Sunday following the “high” feast of Easter, and neither to the low attendance usual on this day nor to Ralph Loew. This day actually has quite a few names: Low Easterday, Close Sunday (because it’s the close of the Easter octave, in other words, the eighth day after Easter), and – my favorite – Quasimodo Sunday. You’re probably familiar with the character, Quasimodo, from the novel by Victor Hugo or the Disney movie. This day gets the name from the first words of the opening words of the service for this day from 1 Peter: “Quasi modo geniti infantes” (like newborn babies). Quasimodo got his name either because he was an infant when he was abandoned at Notre Dame Cathedral or it was the day he was found – or maybe both. In any event, on Quasimodo Sunday we are called to welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. How cool is it that we have a baptism today!

If this plethora of names for the day isn’t enough, there’s so much going on in the readings that I’ve found it hard to focus in on just one. I think they must reflect what it was like in the early days after the resurrection, when people were telling stories about what they had experienced or heard, and others were asking questions trying to make sense of it all. It had to be an exhilarating time, as they tried to figure out what this resurrection business would mean in their lives and how they would become a community centered around the risen Christ. 

In a very basic way, it’s the same for us today we take a full fifty days to celebrate Easter to soak up the stories from long ago to share our own experiences of resurrection life and to ask questions as we try to make sense of it all. Of course, we’ve had 2000-plus years of institutionalized religion, but I think most would agree that the church is undergoing major shifts in how we understand the church as community. So as we move further into the Easter season, we’ll see what we can glean from these texts that can be used be of use to us at this point in time. 

First of all, we can lighten up on Thomas instead of continuing to call him by the derogatory name of Doubting Thomas and using him as a cautionary tale against our own doubts. We really should make him the patron saint of our post-Christian era because, then as now, people were questioning the claims about who Jesus was, debating whether the resurrection was spiritual and metaphorical or physical and literal.

We’re finally learning that there’s nothing wrong with questioning matters of faith. Doubt isn’t wrong. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in the early 1900s, “doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Theologian Paul Tillich said perhaps more clearly, “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And best of all Frederick Buechner “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” 

So the better conclusion about Thomas is to remember that when he sees Jesus he believes wholeheartedly and as legend has it becomes the apostle to India. You might know that there’s a Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written within a few decades after Jesus’ death, but it’s not included in the final collection of books we call the New Testament. In her book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels argues that whoever wrote the Gospel of John clearly was familiar with this Gospel of Thomas – and thoroughly detested it. She says, “What you’re seeing when you read John and Thomas together is an intense, contentious … I guess you could call it a conversation, but really, it’s more like an argument between different groups of the followers of Jesus. What they’re arguing about is the question: Who is Jesus and what is the good news about him?”

So, because we know that the gospel of John is a gospel of symbols and metaphor, most of which can’t be traced back to the historical Jesus, we can understand John’s reasoning behind creating the Thomas story in order to remove doubts about the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, that doesn’t rob his message of its meaning. Jesus comes into the room on two separate occasions and says, “Peace be with you” and breathes on them. This is John’s Pentecost. It’s very different from the one in Acts that we’ll read on Pentecost, but the point is the same: receive the Holy Spirit; as God sent me so now I’m sending you.  

Through this gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus gave them peace. You might say that by breathing on them Jesus gave the disciples breathing space. By conferring peace upon them so that even though they were still frightened, and a way forward was still fraught with danger, they could feel the presence of Christ with them. This peace, available to us in times of crisis as well in times of calm, is the recognition that Christ is with us in all seasons of life and will provide a way to the future when we can see no way ahead. 

Just consider what we are doing when we share the peace of Christ with one another every Sunday. Granted, sharing the peace has gotten a little strange since the pandemic. Handshaking and hugging are out and we’ve had to adapt to virtual peace on Zoom. Many of us mourn this “touchless” ritual, but frankly there are a number of introverts who are just as happy to avoid the love fest. During this ‘fast’ from our usual practice it’s a good time to think about how the sharing of Christ’s peace can be comfortable, yet still meaning for all people. 

Because the sharing of Christ’s peace is not a token gesture. It is a potent recognition of God’s presence amid our pain, our doubts, our fallibilities, and our fears. It’s breathing space in a mystical experience as real as any that can be taken in by the limitations of our five senses. The risen Christ breathes in and on us, imparting new life and energy to face our own trials and challenges. The church will have new life to the extent that yet that we open ourselves to divine breath and then from our breathing space we offer grace and love to others. This peace, this breath is not only for us in times of doubt or fear. it’s what fuels our building of the beloved community allowing the walls that we and others erect around us all enabling us to see all of creation as one resting within the body of God.

But, oh, if only the world could see this unity. Then the fighting would stop in Ukraine and all sides would join in the rebuilding of their country. Community members and police forces across the United States would work together toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Republicans and Democrats would put highest priority on the well-being of all the people they represent. Every nation would put maximum effort into environmental care. 

If only I could see it all the time. I get an email every day with a thought and insight for my Enneagram type. The one I got yesterday said that I should cultivate a quiet mind and allow processing of feelings especially of frustration and resentment. I know that if I could always have a quiet mind and better process feelings, I’d be a better person. and thanks to things like my daily Enneagram thought I’m reminded of my area of growth. I try, as I am sure that you try in your ways too, to be better people and in our best moments we do see it so clearly. the line between you and me disappears; the lines between us and everyone else disappear; the lines between humans and other creatures and all of creation disappear. in our breathing space we know the peace of the risen Christ and we see Thomas – not doubting Thomas, but Thomas the Twin. Our twin reminds us that we have seen we have been breathed upon and given the Holy Spirit not just on Easter Sunday or on Pentecost Sunday but on Low Sunday and throughout the whole Easter season. we have fifty whole days to breathe in Easter air. 

And then Pentecost. It’s especially special this year because it’s Confirmation Day for four of our young people. Confirmation – also known as the Affirmation of Baptism – comes forty-three days after Quasimodo Sunday, the day we welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. And how wonderful it is to welcome Wesley and his family on his baptism day. There’s no doubt about that!

The glory of Easter continues for five more Sundays. Not that it ends then; it doesn’t. It will never stop as we look forward to the rushing wind and the fiery flames of Pentecost, as we continue to live into our understanding and our actions as a community centered around the risen and living Christ. 

Amen

Quasimodo outline” by 天曉得。 is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

John 20:19-31

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, the savior showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you.”

After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” It happened that one of the Twelve, Thomas—nicknamed Didymus, or “Twin”—was absent when Jesus came. The other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen Jesus!” Thomas’ answer was, “I’ll never believe it without putting my finger in the nail marks and my hand into the spear wound.”

On the eighth day, the disciples were once more in the room, and this time Thomas was with them. Despite the locked doors, Jesus came and stood before them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Then, to Thomas, Jesus said, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Don’t persist in your unbelief but believe!”

Thomas said in response, “My Savior and my God!”

Jesus then said, “You have become a believer because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of the disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.

Give (Passing the Peace) a Chance

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Today we have lighted the Advent candle that symbolizes peace. It’s a word we hear a lot of in this season and on into Christmas. Angels announce it. Hymns and carols sing of it. Christmas cards wish for it. But it’s a word that can be bandied about without really going into depth about just what it is we’re wishing for. 

This might seem strange, but one of the things I’m really looking forward to when we’re able to be together in person for worship again is the passing of the peace. I know, not everyone likes this part of the service. But at least you get to stand up and move around a little – kind of like the seventh inning stretch, although without singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. I admit, passing the peace can be problematic. On one hand, visitors in some churches are left standing awkwardly at their seats, watching as members go about greeting one another, seemingly oblivious to a stranger in their midst. On the other extreme are the churches where a visitor might feel startled, overwhelmed, and maybe even offended by a hug-fest, the onslaught of affection from people they don’t know. 

I’ve actually gotten into the practice of giving instructions before setting the congregation loose. If there are visitors, I definitely explain what’s about to happen. I remember some guests who thought it meant the service was over and proceeded to leave. I’ve learned that there are some people who love to hug and some who don’t. Some don’t like to be touched at all. So we have to find ways to accommodate both huggers and non-huggers, introverts and extroverts. 

Still, I think that in this these nine months of handwashing, disinfecting, and social distancing, many people are longing for the human connection of a handshake, hug, or fist bump. It seems like eons ago that we thought we could just change things up a little and share the peace with elbow bumps or Namaste bows. Sharing the peace on Zoom is a challenge that no one seems to have solved. All the ideas shared on social media are from March, when we were still meeting in person. So, we do our best, with chat room and visual peace signs, and verbal greetings, but it’s not the same. It’s just one of the losses we’ve suffered this year. At least it is for me. Others may not miss it at all.  

So why do we even do it? We know that sharing the peace began with Jesus himself. At the Last Supper, Jesus said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” And when Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, he greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” Later on, the apostle Paul began his letters to various churches with, “Grace to you, and peace.” It may be that in the early Church this was the way Christians greeted one another, kind of like their secret handshake.

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Strange as it may seem to us, especially outside of a few minutes in church – or a few seconds on Zoom – it’s very common for others. As-salamu alaykum (Arabic for Peace be upon you) is used by Muslims, but it’s also used by Arabic speakers of other religions, such as Arab and Indian Christians. These words are more than a Hi, how are you; they are  meant to convey a blessing to the one being greeted. 

shalom peace
decorative plate with the image of a dove carrying an olive branch and inscription peace in Hebrew and English

It’s the same thing with shalom in Hebrew. Most people know that shalom can be used say both hello and goodbye and that it means peace. But again this peace isn’t just a  hello or goodbye. And it’s not limited to the absence of war, or conflicts, or quarrels. The word is derived from a root that denotes harmony, wholeness, completeness. Throughout  Jewish literature shalom is connected to another word, shelemut, also defined as wholeness, but also as perfection. It’s not the same as the Greek word in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, “Be perfect as God is perfect,” but the idea is similar. How much better to hear Jesus’ desire for us as wholeness and completeness, as opposed to absolute moral perfection! Then there’s shalvah, also from the same root, meaning contentment, inner calm. So, when we say “Shalom,” we are offering a blessing, an expression of divine grace.

Along with this aspect of passing the peace is the desire for reconciliation. Again from the Sermon on the Mount: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that a fellow believer has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift.” 

The Didache, an early Christian writing encourages the community to “come together on the Lord’s day, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. Anyone who has a quarrel with his fellow should not gather with you until he has been reconciled, lest your sacrifice be profaned.” This confirms that what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount became a weekly occurrence in the early Christians’ practice of Holy Communion.

These writings don’t deny the fact that there are times we get into disagreements with others. They take seriously our need for guidance when it happens. So passing the peace takes on a deeper meaning when we do have a quarrel with another or others. Can we offer our hand in peace without the intention of really living into peace with one who has harmed you or who you have harmed?   

I thought about this, strangely enough, when I was binge-watching The Last Dance, the documentary about basketball legend Michael Jordan. One of the episodes went into the rivalry between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. 

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At the time of the 1991 playoffs, the Pistons (known in that era as “Bad Boys”) had scrapped their way to win the NBA championship twice. But that year they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Bulls, and they walked off the court without shaking hands with any of the Bulls players. 

Then I read this commentary on peace: “Post-game handshakes are a time-honored tradition. Little League baseball players, traveling soccer teams, and NCAA athletes never miss this ritual of sportsmanship. During the game they ‘fight, engage in ‘battle,’ ‘conquer,’ or suffer ‘defeat.’ But at the end of the day athletes are not at war. By a simple hand gesture, athletes declare that they are at peace.”

The documentary, as well as interviews since its release, make it abundantly clear that there is no peace between Jordan and some of the Piston players to this day. 

The commentary went on: “Communal practices like post-game handshakes are simple but profound in meaning and significance. They are actions that speak louder than words, actions that reinforce our values. Although we usually devote little thought to these actions, we are shocked when they are abandoned or perverted . . .”

It’s offering a blessing of Christ’s shalom in every circumstance. It’s offering a moment of reconciliation in the midst of a quarrel or conflict. It’s extending a hand (or elbow) in solidarity of the values we share as followers of Jesus. 

This is what we are about when we pass the peace, although it’s only been since the middle of the last century that we began to reclaim the practice. And I’m not sure we’ve done well at understanding or living into the fullness of what it means. And now that we can’t shake hands or even elbow bump, we have to try to find new ways to share this blessing.  An opportunity of this pandemic time is time to think about what we’re doing in the passing of the peace – both before (in person), now (online), and in the future (whatever that will be like). 

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I don’t have any better ideas of how to ritualize our online version. I actually like hearing everyone calling out “Peace!” It certainly feels like y’all mean it. I know I do. Perhaps all I’m suggesting is a brief pause before we do that, just to allow the blessing of the shalom that I’ve sent out to you to soak down into your soul. And allow a moment for me to do the same. So, when we’re typing in the chat room, or making the peace sign, or folded Namaste hands, or calling out “Peace,” we know that we are sending out a blessing to each and every one in our Zoom room for harmony, wholeness, completeness, contentment, inner calm, and divine grace. And I sure need all the harmony, wholeness, completeness, contentment, inner calm, and divine grace I can get. How about you? 

There are a whole lot of places in the world that are in need of peace. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been so caught up the past few years with news from this country that I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world. But, scanning the BBC, I saw that just in the last month, police used tear gas and water canon against pro-democracy protesters in Thailand. French police clashed with protesters in Paris. Thirty people were killed by Islamist militants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season finally ended, as the most active and the seventh costliest one on record. The Syrian civil War is in its 10th year, and the US has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. Oh, yes, plenty of need for peace. 

But as the Dalai Lama has said (and I am sure Jesus would agree), “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

So we’ll try it out today and see how it goes. We’ll take a brief pause before we share the peace today. In that pause, there is no need to think or figure out what to do with blessing that has come your way. Just allow it to wash over you like a gentle wave or a refreshing  breeze. Then, when you hear the chime, you can send the blessing back to me. And maybe later we can share some thoughts about the experience.

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.

peace

 

 Peace be with you in American Sign Language