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Monday, April 8, 2013

Paradigm Shift

Paradigm Shift
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The Second Sunday of Easter

Our Lectionary passages today offer a grab bag of images. We see from the Acts passage a courtroom drama like that of Law and Order – Peter and the Apostles versus Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Then there is the image of Jesus appearing suddenly amongst the frightened disciples and subsequently confronting Thomas. We see the exiled John of Patmos beginning his transcendent vision of the Coming of the Lamb by greeting the scattered believers in the name of the Alpha and Omega – an introduction that summons, at least in my mind, anxieties about the images and meanings of the book called Revelation.
            What a hodge-podge of imagery! In the weeks leading to Easter we had predictable narratives of Jesus’ ministry and words. We scratched our heads with the disciples as they tried to discern just what type of Messiah Jesus was; we waved branches at his Triumphal yet ill-fated Entry into Jerusalem; we cringed at his broken body hanging on the cross; we rejoiced when we heard the news yet again that Jesus had been raised from the tomb, no longer among the dead but dwelling with the living.
            Now, though, it seems that the whole of the Scriptures has been opened to us. Now the Gospel seems to find fertile soil in every book of Scripture – from joyous exaltations in the Psalms to the inspiring defense of the preaching of the Gospel before the powers and principalities of the world.
            The plan of the lectionary tells the same story as the gospel itself: after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ everything has changed, even our readings. I’d like to call that a “paradigm shift,” one that we live into each year and must meet with fresh understanding.
            The phrase “paradigm shift” comes to us from the world of science, specifically from the mind of physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn. He defines the term as a “change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within [a] ruling theory of science.”[1] A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. It is a shift in the worldview of the members of a specific scientific community that alters everything that comes after that shift. An example of this type of intellectual revolution would be the Copernican revolution when the idea that the earth was flat and the center of the universe was thoroughly debunked.
            These transitions are anything but comfortable. Even in the face of profoundly compelling evidence those who are entrenched in the former way of thinking can violently resist the truth. After all, Galileo died under suspicion of heresy, Jon Hus was burned at the stake, and Charles Darwin is often listed with Judas and Hitler in terms of global evil. Yet the truth, once understood by those who discover it, is compelling enough that they will endure careers and public lives of torment in the name of that which they know.
            It is this tension of transition that is at the heart of our passages today, and, I believe, at the heart of every believer in Jesus Christ. Paul testifies that he, even he, struggles with the life lived in the middle of his former ways and the ways of life he is called to embrace in Christ Jesus.[2] The very nature of the antagonism between the Pharisees and Jesus in the Gospels bears witness to the struggle for a new understanding of God and God’s Kingdom to be born. So profound is the new reality of God’s redemptive activity that Jesus likens it to being born again – everything old passes away and something entirely new comes to take its place.[3]
How strongly do we interpret “new” and “born again?” It seems that we are more inclined to build our understanding of God in Jesus Christ upon those things that we have known before, to integrate salvation into the categories of life that we are most familiar with. But doesn’t “all things” mean “ALL THINGS?”
When we find the disciples huddled together “for fear of the Jews” in their enclave they are defeated and lost. They were living under the assumption that Jesus was dead, their movement was defeated, and now they would surely die in shame. They had “left everything” to follow their master, a master now gone from them. It was no small thing that the Master was in absentia; in the ancient world, to be a disciple meant to physically follow a teacher around. Without the physical presence of Jesus to teach, preach, and heal, the disciples had no identity. They had no reason to be together, to break bread, to preach the Good News. Their understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission, limited as that understanding proved to be, led them to be lost and adrift – exiled from their synagogue for following an executed blasphemer, cut off from the families they had left behind, and certainly afraid for their lives at the hands of people like Saul.
When Jesus appears to the disciples, something profound happens. His post-resurrection body bore the evidence of his crucifixion, surely, yet we certainly cannot say that his resurrected form was entirely “human.” He passes through locked doors, can appear and disappear at will, and can “open” the minds of others to the meaning of the Scriptures. He was something new, something different. He had become something reborn; he is even called the “firstborn of the dead,” evidence that he has a new kind of life about which we can only speculate.
His appearances to the disciples, and eventually to Thomas, are important transitional encounters in the changing of the “old” into the “new.” He is the first Master to have defeated death so that he could continue to be with his disciples. He is the first one to straddle the chasm between the things that were and the things that are to be. He is, after all, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who stands at the beginning and at the end. He is the one who can help the disciples see that there is a new way of being a follower, a way that doesn’t require the presence of a Master.
The key for us is that Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to his disciples. So quickly we jump from the appearance of Jesus to his conversation with “doubting” Thomas that we forget this profound hinge of the narrative. It is in this brief two verses that sit in the middle of the passage that something new and profound happens. Jesus breathes on the disciples the Holy Spirit and commissions them to act in accordance with the Spirit’s work, that is, to forgive the sins of the world. It is this activity in concert with the leading of the Spirit that enables the disciples to still exist as disciples. It is in this pre-Pentecost endowment of the Spirit of God that we find the power of the Gospel message.
After the encounter with Thomas we read that John wraps up his profound Gospel, saying that these things were written that we may believe. Jesus has just announced that a paradigm shift has occurred: Thomas has seen the risen Master and has believed in him, but blessed are those who believe without seeing. The clear invitation to the reader is to believe even though we have never seen the risen Lord. What could make such a profound shift in the Master/Disciple relationship that John would conclude his gospel with such an invitation? Follow the thought – Jesus defeats death, appears to the disciples, breathes on them the Holy Spirit, pronounces blessings on anyone who believes without seeing. The only way we, the reader, could believe without seeing is by the leading of the Holy Spirit. The only way for us to claim Jesus as Master, as Lord, as God is if the Holy Spirit stirs within us, confirming the truth of Jesus’ identity.
But this is not the way we do things. We need evidence. We need proof. We, like Thomas, can’t help but ask for a sign that Jesus is who he says he is. I don’t care about how Thomas is treated by preachers around the world today; this lesson is about the Holy Spirit. The presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of believers is that motivating, convicting, leading force that enables our rebirth into the new humanity exemplified by Jesus. The resurrection testified that a new paradigm was in effect, that the old ways of thinking and working were passé, that God was doing something new, something beyond our tradition and even beyond our hopes.
Gone was the need for ritual sacrifice to please God. Gone was the need for a high priest to mediate the will of God to the people. Now everything was new; the world was beginning to be reborn through the coming of the Spirit.
But this paradigm shift, just like all the rest, brought discomfort. The disciples, emboldened by the Spirit, disregard the orders of their religious superiors and testify again and again about the new Life they have experienced in Jesus. They are not preaching a new way of being Jewish – they are not building upon prior knowledge or developing new interpretations of Torah. They are preaching that God has done something so new and different that it transcends everything that has come before, demanding a new worldview and new life.
The new life that was demonstrated to the disciples in the resurrected Jesus was a hint, a foretaste of what the renewed Creation would be like when God’s Kingdom is made fully real. It was that moment, that revelation that changed the disciples’ cowardice into courage. As soon as the Holy Spirit is breathed on the believers their behavior changes from hiding in a locked room to being willing to be punished for preaching in Jesus’ name.
It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that must be the deciding and motivating factor in our ministry and mission. Without the leading of that Spirit, this project we’re working on, this congregation we’re growing, this Waystation we’re establishing, all of it is merely academic. Only through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit can this or any other church actually lead transformative change in the embrace and forgiveness of the world.
It is that self-same Spirit that invigorates our lives and leads us to confess with boldness that something is different now. Something has changed about the world and we’re caught up in the middle of it. It is the Spirit that enables and leads us to pronounce that our lives are evidence of a paradigm shift in humanity. All evidence may speak to the contrary, that is, evidence based upon and supported by our traditions, our old expectations, our former way of thinking. But in this new creation, this “new” that has replaced the “old,” we ourselves must testify that nothing, not even death, is the same.
It is this Spirit that leads the apostles to testify to their own elders, their own leaders, their own people that nothing can ever be the same again. Against the objections and threats of their own communities, against the best advise of the lawyers and scribes, and against the pleas even of their own families, the believers can do nothing else. They have been caught up in the newness, the resurrected reality of Jesus promised humanity – they can’t help but testify to the new Birth.
I’m reminded in this Acts passage of another courtroom scene. When Martin Luther was called before the collected princes and religious leaders of his era in Germany, he, too, was threatened to stop teaching or else. Yet he, caught up in a vision of the New Birth and the life promised by Jesus in his resurrected form, uttered those powerful words that I hope one day I have the courage to say: “here I stand; I can do no other.” May our lives be so transformed by the reality of the new Birth in the Spirit that we ourselves cannot go back to the old ways, the “before” ways, the ways where death still wins the day. May we be so bold, so convinced, so changed. Here we are – we can do nothing else. Amen.


[2] Cf. Romans 7.
[3] Cf. John 3.