April 12, 2015
1 John 1:1-2:2
Grow up! You’re on your own now! Stand on your own two feet!
How many times have things like that been said to you? Or you have said things like that to others?
We live in a culture that values autonomy, a culture that obsesses with independence, choice, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and all that. We don’t really believe, deep down, that the words of the Acts of the Apostles applies to us:
… no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
We Americans would find that kind of behavior socialist (!); we are much more obsessed with individual autonomy. Some believe the developmental goal of adolescence and young adulthood is to separate the young person from his or her family. It is the time to strike out on one’s own, achieve self-realization and self-actualization and self! Self! Self!
That’s not the way it is in every culture. In some cultures, interdependence is valued more highly that independence. The family unit is more important that the desires of the individual. Immigrants from cultures with tightly knit families move to this country and come smack up against a culture that says, “Be all YOU can be.” Fulfill your fantasies and desires. Be the Army of one. Do what you want to do. The goal of your life is self-actualization.
It’s startling to us self-realizers to imagine that there would be another way of living where I am not at the center of my universe but only one piece in a larger web of relationships and responsibilities, and whose fortune depends on how I contribute to that greater good. Such a way of living would require of us a complete re-orientation of who we think we are, and how we make decisions, and how we act, and what we believe. We would have to admit that there is something bigger than ME out there. We would have to humble ourselves and be forced to admit that God, and maybe other people, know more about what we should do than we do.
Think of Thomas as Mr. Self-Actualization, as the guy who can take care of himself, who makes decisions based on fact and not rumor, who is his own man. If Jesus has come back from the dead, the he has to see it to believe it – or it must not exist. As the center of his own universe, even God has to prove Godself.
One of the things this gospel story is saying, though, that maybe that is not the best way to be. Maybe God is showing us that life is about something other than what we think we can prove and control.
It’s a hard lesson to learn. After all, we’ve been on our own for a very long time. Western culture dates our sense of autonomy to the Fall – to when God threw Adam and Eve out of the garden for acting a little too autonomously. Self-actualize and out you go, God said. The gates of paradise are now closed. You are on your own now.
Today’s gospel alludes to that first creation when describing how the resurrected Jesus first appeared to his disciples: “He breathed on them,” bestowing the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins. This is what Genesis says: “then the Lord God formed the human creature from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the creature became a living being.” What the gospel says is that Jesus is bringing about a creation as powerful and new as that first creation, and that whatever went wrong between then and now, well, take a deep breath. You’ve got a second chance, a new spirit, a resurrected life.
What would it mean to believe this story of this new creation, this second chance, this breath-filled spirit? I think it means giving up some of our autonomy. It means realizing that there is more to realize than the SELF. It means regaining a trust in dependency, in inter-dependency. It means leaving behind our self-reliance and risking surprise and loss of control.
We can’t see what Thomas and those disciples saw, those holes and nail marks. We did not go with the women to find the empty tomb. Jesus won’t walk through any more walls to shake our hands. But we can still feel that breath. We can still set sail on that spirit. We can still the newness of this new creation and breathe in the new and renewed reality of God.