Easter 2 • 3 Apr 2016

Acts 5:27-32
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Rev. Chris Udy

Over the last few weeks
the ABC has been screening a program
called ‘Keeping Australia Alive’.
One of the stories,
about a kidney transplant
between a woman and her daughter,
reminded me of some research
about people who’ve received transplanted organs
and who believe they have received,
not only the gift of new life in the organ itself,
but also something of the personality and character
of their organ donor –
especially if the organ is a heart.
Apparently one in ten heart transplant recipients
believe that something more than muscle
has been transplanted.
Some say that after the transplant
their taste in food had expanded,
and that now they enjoyed foods
their transplant donor had preferred;
some said their lifestyle and personality had changed -
they enjoyed exercise as they hadn’t before,
or they now liked classical music,
or they now wrote romantic poetry.
Some even reported having memories
of a life that wasn’t theirs -
and one woman said
she knew and reported her donor’s name
long before she’d been given any official information.

One documentary on heart transplants
interviewed a number of scientists and academics
who suggest that memories
aren’t only stored in our brains.
They believe that the nerve cells
that keep our bodies connected and functioning
are all used to encode memories,
so when a heart is transplanted,
the nerve cells that also get transplanted
carry some of the donor’s memories
into the new body.
These academics say
that the core of who we are,
the essence of our character and personality,
is not, as most scientists would tell us,
confined to our brains.
The whole body is involved in making us who we are -
and the heart, they would say,
has its own unique contribution to our wisdom.

The makers of the documentary
also interviewed surgeons and physicians
who were involved in the transplant procedures -
and while they all remained very polite,
and said they wanted to respect
what their patients were telling them
about new memories and shared lives and so on,
they really couldn’t see that it was possible.
One of the surgeons insisted
that when this kind of new information emerges -
when a new idea like this comes to light -
it needs to be refuted -
we need to question it and probe it
and test it and doubt it -
and if it survives that process of being refuted,
it then wins a place
in our store of knowledge and our daily lives.
It was clear in the documentary
that the physicians and surgeons involved
were nowhere near ready to accept
that a transplanted heart had a memory -
and when I looked up similar ideas on the ‘net
I found an article on it in the Sceptic’s Dictionary
that began with a quote from a Dr John Schroeder,
who works at the Stanford Medical Centre.
Dr Schroeder says emphatically:
“The idea that transplanting organs
transfers the coding of life experiences
is unimaginable.”

“Unimaginable”. It’s a very strong word;
“impossible even to imagine,
beyond the mind’s ability to conceive” -
but obviously someone is imagining it -
maybe even having an experience of it -
so Dr Schroeder’s emphatic rejection
of this strange new idea
perhaps says more about Dr Schroeder’s imagination
and his approach to life
than it does about the way the world works.

Transplanted memories
are certainly a long, long way
from established medical science -
but not too long ago
the idea that the earth moves around the sun,
or that time could get faster or slower,
or that earthworms and human beings
could both be built from genetic blueprints
that are pretty much the same -
was also unimaginable.
What we can imagine changes;
what we trust and believe changes;
what we experience, test and observe
also changes.

The story of Thomas
is one of a very few passages in the Bible
that we read in the lectionary every year.
On Christmas Day every year
we read about the Word becoming flesh;
on the day of Pentecost
we read about the Spirit’s arrival in Jerusalem;
and on the first Sunday after Easter
we read about Thomas.
So - for the people who put our lectionary together
the story of Thomas is important -
his story represents something
that they think we need to reflect on every year -
but what is it?

Well - one of the possibilities - one of many -
could be the idea of proof for the resurrection.

Last Sunday we remembered
that the Easter gospel rests on two separate traditions -
two different sources
of information about the resurrection of Jesus.
The first is the empty tomb,
and every Easter we read from a different gospel
about that journey the women made
from Jerusalem in the early morning light
out to the tomb - only to find it empty.
Every gospel -
including the original short gospel of Mark -
announces the resurrection
with an empty tomb.
Mark’s original gospel even stops right there -
with the empty tomb,
the angel announcing that Jesus is no longer dead,
and the women running away in fear.
So that tradition - that form of the gospel story -
is the oldest and most widely repeated
gospel witness to the resurrection.
Jesus was killed, but his tomb is empty -
Jesus is no longer dead.

But as soon as gospels like Mark’s -
that’s gospels that told the story of Jesus
in a narrative form -
as soon as gospels like Mark’s
came to be written and copied
and spread around the Church
writers and copiers began adding things on.
Matthew and Luke included extra reports and stories
about Jesus appearing:
in Matthew Jesus appeared to the women
on their way back to Jerusalem;
in Luke it was to some disciples on the Emmaus road
and then to the rest of the disciples;
those who later rewrote the end of Mark’s gospel
included a summary
of what everyone else was saying.
But when John’s gospel appeared a little later again,
he included a different set of appearances:
first to Mary Magdalene, weeping outside the tomb;
next to the disciples,
locked in their house in fear;
then, a week later,
to Thomas, who’d been missing the week before;
and finally, back in Galilee,
to all the disciples, beside the sea,
where Peter was forgiven
and commissioned to pastor the Church.
Where the tradition of the empty tomb
is almost exactly the same in every gospel,
the appearance stories in each of the gospels
are different -
and when we look at our oldest Christian records -
at our earliest written witness to the resurrection
in Paul’s letters -
we find it different again.
In his letters to the church in Corinth we read
“now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,
of the good news that I proclaimed to you,
which you in turn received,
in which also you stand, ...
For I handed on to you as of first importance
what I in turn had received:
that Christ died for our sins
in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, (or Peter)
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared
to more than five hundred brothers and sisters
at one time,
most of whom are still alive,
though some have died.
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born,
he appeared also to me. ...
so we proclaim, and so you have come to believe.”

The appearance traditions are different -
and they’re not entirely consistent,
so when the early church
started to compare
letters and gospels that had emerged independently
from the different Christian communities
around the Mediterranean,
their differences were quickly noticed -
but the witness of Thomas reminds us
that although it looks like a story about proof,
in fact it’s not.

Thomas blusters that he won’t accept
that the resurrection has taken place
until he touches the wounded hands and side of Jesus -
but when he’s offered the chance
he doesn’t apparently take it;
something in his encounter with Jesus
moves him beyond the proof
of what his hands could tell him.
His response to Jesus’ invitation
to come and touch his hands and side
is the first and deepest affirmation of Christian faith:
“My Lord and my God” he says,
and that both brings an end to his demands for proof
and announces the beginning of resurrection faith.
And it’s then that Jesus replies -
to all of us as much as to Thomas -
“Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen
and yet have come to believe.”

None of us are Christian
because Jesus physically appeared to us -
or at least I don’t think so.
None of us are Christian
because we have physical, forensic proof
that the tomb was empty
and that Jesus appeared and actually spoke
to one person or another.
The foundation for our faith
is not physical proof of the resurrection -
because none of us have it.
None of us,
and no-one for a very very long time
has ever had scientific proof of the resurrection.
All of us, and generation after generation
of Christians before us
including those who first read Thomas’ story,
have chosen to be Christian,
not because they saw an empty tomb
or touched the risen Jesus,
but because they experience
something persuasive and compelling
and attractive and hopeful
in the community of those
who tell them the stories of Jesus.
So all of us are Christian
because something of the life of Jesus -
something of his personality, his character,
his love and his wisdom,
has found its way,
through the community of faith,
generation after generation, to us.
When we hear the stories of his life
in a Christian community,
we recognise them
as stories about our lives too.
When we gather around the communion table
to eat the broken bread and share the wine
we are energised and nourished
by a sense of his presence among us.
Something of his memory, his hope, his Spirit,
lives and grows in us -
something of his love, his grace, his courage
motivates our hearts -
and all of that has happened
without a transplant, or a transfusion, or a graft.

So maybe there is something
to these transplant stories -
something that can’t be discovered
through the process of refutation
or the scientific method of doubt.
There is a wisdom of the heart -
not to be discovered
in transplanted muscles and nerves,
but in the sacrificial love
of those who offer something of themselves
to bring healing and new life to other people.
There’s a wisdom of the heart,
not in transplanted memories,
but in the lives and stories of people
who learn to trust, as Thomas finally did,
in the grace of a loving and forgiving community,
and who then discover
that in and through and behind that community
there’s a Spirit, a presence,
with the personality and character of Jesus
and the wisdom, grace and compassion
of our Lord and our God.