David A. Davis
April 3, 2016
In a bit of a post-Easter fog, one night this week I watched a few episodes of the latest season of “House of Cards.” In the very beginning of the series I remember the interesting technique when one of the shows characters would text and the text would show up there on the screen just like on the phone. Another unique part of the production comes when the main character played by Kevin Spacey turns to the camera and speaks to the viewer while none of the other characters in the scene are able to hear. It is a creative effect that draws the viewer in with that direct address. In theater they call it “breaking the fourth wall.” It’s an historic reference to a box theater with that last imaginary wall, the fourth wall, being between the actors and the audience. To break the wall is to cross the boundary between stage and audience. Apparently the term applies to video games as well as the characters on the screen offer direct address those doing the playing.
Michael Morgan, one of our morning liturgists, was in the Broadway musical production “Amazing Grace.” A whole bunch of Nassau folks had the chance to see Michael in the show. Some in a big church trip. Others on their own. There came a moment at the very end of the play where the fourth wall sort of comes tumbling down. It didn’t come in that same kind of actor addressing the audience technique I just described. No the distinction between audience and actor became blurred as everyone sang the hymn “Amazing Grace” together at the end. The tune of the hymn only shows up in subtle ways throughout the score. So when the tune plays at the end, everyone is ready. The cast is arrayed on stage as you would imagine for a Broadway show finale. Finally, the hymn comes and I guess there was an invitation from the stage but there didn’t need to be. Everybody was singing. It was as if the audience was on stage, like the actors were out in the seats. It wasn’t just a way to end the show. It was a way to carry that chilling historical narrative forward. As the horrific account of the slave trade and one man’s conversion and transformation is brought forward in a moment of hopefulness as a routine gaggle of theatergoers find themselves united in an affirmation of hopefulness and the divine promise for a better world, a better humanity, a better future. Lost, found, blind, see. It was now everybody’s part to play, to live.
A week later the disciples of Jesus were again in the house. The doors were shut and locked again. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came and stood among them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Jesus said to Thomas, “Give me your finger, give me your hand.” Thomas touched the scars on Jesus’ hands, the scar on his side. “My Lord and my God” is what Thomas said. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then the Risen Christ, with the echo from the Mount of Beatitudes, says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus wasn’t just saying that to Thomas.
Just in case you miss how Jesus breaks the fourth wall, the writer of John’s Gospel leaves no doubt of the intended audience of the Lord’s direct address. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John’s remarkable turn to the reader. So easy to miss, so easy to skip; just some narrator comment. But when it comes to the four Gospels, it is a unique literary boundary crossing. Often in my preaching, you will hear me say, “And Jesus turned and said to the disciples, and to the church, and to you and to me.” I said that just last Sunday in my Easter sermon. Here John does it all by himself. John’s direct address. John finishing that one last beatitude from Jesus. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, Jesus said… that through believing you may have life in his name, John concludes. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe for they shall have life in his name.
More than a literary device. It’s a promise. It’s a gospel promise. A gospel, resurrection promise to you. A blessing to you and to all who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Life in his name. John’s invitation to a routine gaggle of Easter people who find themselves drawn into his story, carrying the narrative forward in hope. Lost. Found. Blind. See. Everybody’s part to play, to live.
One of the phrases in the prayer at the Table, it goes like this, “Accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving as a living and holy offering of ourselves.” It is a liturgical turn to the hearer. A profound shift in the Reformed Tradition; not just his sacrifice, not Jesus being sacrificed again and again in communion, but our sacrifice. The giving of ourselves in praise. Here at the Table, of course. But even more with our lives, our life in his name. We proclaim the gospel story with the praise and adoration of our lives. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe for they shall have life in his name. The boundaries fall. The breaking of the theological fourth wall. Bearing the narrative of salvation history forward. A foretaste of God’s future. An affirmation of resurrection hope. His story is our story.
I had coffee with one of Nassau Church’s college students home for spring break. I always enjoy hearing stories of late-night conversations, classroom challenges, the things roommates argue about, how current events are thought about, how, when you are tossed in the deep water of the college environment, faith and theology and religion come up in the most unexpected ways as young people embrace that mosh pit of ideas. This post-Easter text for today about Jesus and Thomas easily sparks one of those late-night, ruminating, never-ending, no-right-answer conversations. One of those conversations about scripture and theology and faith and God and Jesus. It starts with a question from the skeptic with an attitude, who knows enough about the Bible to make everyone else stop and think. “So if God could raise Jesus from the dead, why didn’t God fix the scars?” If God raised Jesus from the dead, why would God not fully restore God’s Son. Why leave the marks?
It wasn’t because of Thomas and his insistence (unless I see the mark!). Jesus showed the marks to the disciples the first time. It’s not like it was necessary for proper identification, like some sort of CSI episode. Here in John, Mary knew it was Jesus right when she heard her name. Whatever on earth “resurrection of the body” means, when it comes to yearning for life forever in the kingdom of heaven, I for one would rather not be saddled with these same knees and this waistline. If God raised Jesus from the dead, God could have taken care of those marks. You born-and-raised Protestants out there all know how we were brought up to look down our noses at crucifixes. Jesus isn’t still on the cross. He has been raised. Christ is risen! So why the marks?
Those marks, those scars, tell of his suffering, his brokenness, his humanity. His hands, his feet, his side. Even the resurrection can’t cover up or remove the lasting signs of what the world did to him, of what happened to him, of all who abandoned him. His flesh bears the mark of human sin and of human suffering. His resurrection wasn’t a do-over. It wasn’t all an April Fool. Those scars, it’s God’s way of saying, “Don’t forget his humanity.” Or as Paul puts it in Philippians, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He forever bears the mark of our humanity.
The scars are there to help us remember his love when our lives on this side of his resurrection still include brokenness and suffering and death. The marks, they ought to inspire us to see his face in the faces of all who suffer around us. There before Thomas and the disciples, his body stands as a sign that there ought to be, there has to be, a more excellent way. The marks are there for all of us who are called to push the narrative forward in hope, working toward a world full of righteousness, justice, and peace. The marks, the scars, his hands, his feet, his side, they tell us that even the Risen Christ knows what it means to be us. His pain is our pain. His suffering is our suffering. His death is our death. Here at the table we proclaim his death, until he comes again. He forever bears the mark of our humanity. Yes, his story is our story. But our story is his story too.
“By your Spirit, O God, make us one with Christ that we may be one with all who share this feast, united in ministry in every place… As this bread is Christ’s body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”
Talk about breaking the fourth wall. When it comes to the Jesus of the gospel and faith and the kingdom and resurrection hope and our future in God and life in his name, that’s the fourth wall forever shattered.
You are the body of Christ in the world.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe for they shall have life in his name.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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