Can it be True that Perfection is the Child of Mistakes?

A Reflection on

John 20:19-31

The Gospel for  April 12, 2015

The Second Sunday of Easter

by David Somerville

Early twentieth century president of Union Theological seminary in New York, Henry Sloane Coffin, once observed that “The indisputable Easter fact is that…Jesus was … more potent in Jerusalem… after His death on Calvary than when He rode into the city amid the crowds .…

I don’t believe any Christian worth the salt of baptism could disagree with Coffin’s remark.  But what is a little weird for me about Jesus after Calvary, or even before it during Holy Week, is how the Redeemer’s work  depends so much on the mistakes people made, and, as if that were not strange enough, so many of the mistakes seem to have been unanticipated  (though not all of them).  But of course, I could be quite wrong.  I often am. I make mistakes  Although I don’t like making them, they are a large source of what I have learned about life, and the One who is the source of its abundance.

Easter to me is the climax of the life of God  in “humanity-hood”, a world of mistakes.   It was thought by Jesus’s followers as he approached the city gates that his entry was a sign of an impending triumph. But what sort of triumph were they imagining?  The street thinking on Palm Sunday was mistaken, and yet somehow, because it was mistaken, the greater truth,  namely that Jesus is truly the son of God and king of kings was revealed. I cannot imagine a more effective way to learn the truth of this article of faith than to have it come to us through the mistakes of the momentous seven days in Jerusalem.

Jesus rode into the city, as we well know, on a donkey. How could one borne on the back of such a modest burden-bearer be perceived as a conqueror? Don’t conquerors ride on garlanded war horses?  The incongruity seemed obvious, and yet the palm wavers, cried “hosannah!”  They believed that this donkey ride into Jerusalem was the moment in their history they had been waiting for! They believed that Jesus would somehow overthrow the tyranny of Rome!

The band of Galileans who both followed and led Jesus through the city entrance gates were in denial that any ordinary insurrection against Rome was a pathetic impossibility.  But clearly that was the subject of their dream! Could it be then that these people, thinking magically like children,  crying “hosanna” were in some form of denial – like the addict who says to himself, “I have been the victim of all the follies and failures that have made my life worthless. But none of it was my responsibility. It was all the fault of my parents, my neighborhood, my schooling, and prejudice against my ethnic identity, and/or my sexual orientation.

“But tomorrow will be different,” the addict continues.  “Just you wait! I am going to change things. I will make a  better tomorrow happen! But, of course, there is all that necessary preparatory work that must be done first — my drinking, my gambling, and the other things I just have to do to forget all my troubles!

“Oh dear… Well right now, on second thought, is not a good time — too many troubles just now, too much going on.

“But just you wait! I’ll hit my problems head-on in the next couple/few days!

I have talked like that.  And when I have,  I was using a defense mechanism.  It is a form of denial, an opiate-like thing to ease the pains of fear and despair over the possibility that some of the mistakes I made are my responsibility to both take ownership of,  and to seek help with.  But does that masking of reality’s pain do any good? No. What will truly raise people from the death of self-hatred, is not to drug oneself with denial, but to confront the experience of helplessness. The only way to finally renounce the fortresses of self-delusion, built upon the clouds of fantasy, is to experience their collapse first hand.  When that happens to any of us, living with the predicament of being human, whether that be a first century disciple from Galilee or a twenty-first century anti-hero, the mechanisms of denial  are still the same. They enslave us to the delusions of flawed imposed by forces other than God.

Our bad habits and the mistakes we make, however,  can serve a better purpose by doing something other than denying that we have them.  Instead, a supportive community can familiarize the troubled soul with how the impotence of delusional fantasies are so effective at keeping him or her trapped. Being familiarized with the uselessness of such fantasies, the soul is made ready for openness for the real change God truly intends toward the divine plan of perfection.  When that change has taken place, the disciple is ready to lay down the palm branch and let them become what they inevitably will be anyway — the ashes of renounced vanity. To use the language of personal experience, I am challenged to make the first step in movement toward the better direction of repentance. It is analogous to turning around,  to go back toward citizenship in our true home, what Jesuit paleontologist and geologist,  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called our Omega Point destiny. To use another Gospel image, our salvation in the risen Christ is signified by the moment when Jesus passes through the locked doors of their safe house.  That reminds me of the private place of our broken selves where our shame and the secrets about the mistakes we have made are kept.  That is the part of us that betrayed Jesus, who, because he was crucified, or in the other words of the Fourth Gospel, “lifted up”,  continues to lead us in  the spiritual exodus that will indeed have the last laugh over all tyrannies— not just Rome.  Was this kind of imagination conceivable in the minds of those, who the week before waved their palms and cried “Hosannah?” I hardly think so, and yet were it not for such mistaken, delusional thinking, could such a revelation about the Man from Nazareth ever been made?  I don’t have the imagination to come up with a proposal of how he could have done it any other way.

On several occasions the disciples, and people like Mary Magdalene,  were not able to recognize Jesus with their carnal eyes — even though they were confronted with palpable evidence that their once-crucified Lord was indeed in their presence. They were still making mistakes.

Jesus breathed his spiritual vision and the authority to make decisions that move beyond mistakesinto the fellowship behind the locked doors for their strengthening. Jesus began the process that caused the surviving but still incompetent group, to evolve into the Church.  The group’s destiny was to become the sacrament of God’ presence in the human categories of time and space. They were evolving into something that may still seem to some of us to be too radical to be true: a community animated by the Word through whom all things were made in the past.

The fellowship of original disciples continued to evolve.  It is now, in a Marian sort of way,  the mother of creation’s hope.

The gospel lesson for the eighth of the fifty days affirms that Easter is not merely a day, but a continuing life for us who would become the Church,  the only body that would dare to undertake such a mothering role. It is understandable that the  resurrection epiphany for the first witnesses was not one great moment when full power and maturity happily came to the group in completion, but a day with as much confusion in it as there was joy. This means that mistakes were still being made.  This is not a bad thing, but God’s way of engaging the sinners he was redeeming.    This, I believe accounts for their disoriented blindness — like Magdalene’s eyes. clouded by the tears of hopeless grief, and Thomas, whose spiritual blindness caused him to be absent  (without leave, perhaps) for a week. The embryonic group that would become the Church were like the very junior apprentices of their master who was challenged to lead them to cope with a new way of living in a creation that would in the common era depend on them to actualize its potential to be the new home of abundant life.

We the living church, the spiritual posterity of the first witnesses have received the canonical record of the resurrection with all its enigmatic inconsistencies and ambiguities. The record was remembered by the first apostles in in their diverse places, and then recorded by their scribes. The record was then handed down to us in time as a the reminder that we too, like the first witnesses, are a long way from certified completion or graduation from our life of apprenticeship. That realization about ourselves gives us assurance as a church that our imperfection and mistake-making is not cause for discouragement but a reminder to be patient with both ourselves and our neighbors.  God is not finished with us yet! We are called, then, to go forward and continue to live abundantly, both doing and being the Good News of God who still is in Christ through us, reconciling the world to the divine perfection that is not ours to be sure, but toward which we are being led.

That Henry Sloane Coffin’s observation that Jesus was more effective after Calvary is self-evidently true today.  But it is the adult child of  what really on the first Palm Sunday appeared to be childishly magical thinking,  the kind of thinking common sense would have called a big mistake:  “Hosannah! We’re gonna overthrow Rome! But that which the sophisticates of Western civilization would have called foolish indeed has evolved into our rejection of tyranny in all its forms, to say nothing of the other articles that are  the content of our baptismal vows.

Are mistakes still being made?  Of course! God finds them useful.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching

2  Oxford Biblical Studies

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