In 1996, I was captured by the writings of Kathleen Norris. I had read Dakota and The Cloister Walk and then got to hear her speak at the old Borders Book Store on University Avenue in 1997. At that speaking event, she shared that she was in the process of writing a new book about the vocabulary of faith especially focusing on “scary” or misunderstood religious words like judgment, salvation, sinner, etc. She asked us, the audience, to suggest to her any theological words that we thought were difficult to understand or scary that she might include in her book. As soon as she asked that, I was trying my hardest to come up with a word that I could contribute. And I thought and thought…but I couldn’t come up with any scary theological word. Worse yet, I couldn’t even come up with a theological word! Anyway, you might be surprised but Kathleen Norris was able to write her book without any help from me. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith was released in 1998. It’s a book I often return to.
One of the religious words she tries to unpack is the word infallibility which has to do with the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. This is a very misunderstood idea across the Christian denominations. And how Norris first invites us to think about this word is with a story:
“A mother tells a story of her fifteen-year-old son who had recently obtained a learner’s permit for driving. She had accompanied him while he drove to a shopping mall, but as it had begun to rain heavily while they were indoors, she suggested that she drive home. Her son had never driven in the rain, which gave her pause. He insisted that he needed the experience. She acquiesced, but reluctantly, and as he drove out of the parking lot, she began to offer a steady stream of advice. The boy snapped at her to cut it out. She snapped back, “I don’t know what you know, and what you don’t know—I’m only trying to help!” “Mom,” he said, “just assume that I know everything.”
Norris shares “Considering that most of us walk around swathed in clouds of our own personal infallibilities, I believe that papal infallibility is the least of our worries…My point is infallibility is a scary word to me not because it represents a “Catholic” problem, or even a Christian one…but it is a problem for human culture.” It is a temptation/condition that lives in every human heart.
What happens when we think we are infallible? We become unteachable, locked in our own sense of rightness. And this is where Mary’s address to Jesus catches my attention. When Mary recognizes the resurrected Jesus she calls him “Rabboni” which means teacher. Mary doesn’t first call him Messiah. She calls him teacher. Why? Because maybe Mary knew that the wisdom Jesus taught and lived was something she needed to continue to learn, live and breathe. This resurrected Christ, Mary’s rabbi, was inducting her into a new way of seeing God, herself, and the world and this would take her entire life to learn and live into.
Now if I could recommend a theological word to Kathleen Norris to write about it would be the word resurrection. Believe it or not, it did not make her book, her A list of words. I know that for many in progressive Christian communities, the word resurrection is scary, misunderstood, and for some just plain foolish. Ah, these very painful, untidy stories of the Easter narratives! But let’s keep in mind that there are others who consider themselves progressives and who find great hope in these untidy stories of resurrection. There is always a spectrum of ideas and understandings among us—and hopefully we can be open to ideas that are different than ours.
Do you know what? Some of the youth have suspicions and difficulties about these stories as well. Some argue that because one cannot prove that Jesus actually was physically resurrected, the story stops with his death. The temptation to simply reject what we can’t handle is always there. But in our time together I gently invite them to stay with the stories. My approach is to come in from another angle. Instead of trying to come up with evidence about the resurrection, which I think is going down a rabbit hole, we look at different evidence. What we do is go to the book of Acts and read all the stories about the early followers and how their lives were radically transformed and as a result set the Christian movement in motion. And we wonder how did this happen? What did these early followers experience in the resurrected Christ (however that experience happened) that made them think of God and faith so differently? How did their experience of the resurrected Christ get them to change their behavior? These are questions we all can wonder about.
I would suggest that the early followers experienced a quality of love that was so beautiful that it burst open in them a new image of God. And what was this quality of love like? First, it was love without rivalry. No longer was God understood as being on their side—God was wooing them with this love to break down the ethnic and religious barriers that existed among them and Gentiles. Their image of God radically shifted from “God is for us” to “God has no favorites.” No longer did they forge their identity by defining themselves as different than others and creating us vs. them categories. Love was inducting them into a new identity. Second, no longer was God understood as a God who inflicts violence—because no rivalry existed in God, there existed no violence. And God was calling them away from their own lives of rivalry, hatred and violence and instead wooing them into a new way of life. And so as we read these stories, we see that resurrection is ultimately about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships; relationships between God and humanity, between one another and ultimately between all elements of creation.
Therefore on this high feast day we call Easter, instead of us questioning the resurrection, might we allow the resurrection to question us? Who are we in light of the resurrected Christ?
For me believing in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t about proving if Jesus was actually resuscitated, but it’s about understanding that the resurrection is God’s alternative to the myths of violence. Believing in the resurrection, I can no longer fight violence with violence in the name of God. I’m to “fight” violence with forgiveness. For me Jesus, the resurrected Christ, is my ever-present rabbi because his wisdom is what I need to soak in over the course of my life, every day of my life because it’s contrary to how I often want to live. Every day I have thoughts of jealousy, of rivalry, of self-righteousness, of judgment and there are certainly times when I act on these thoughts. But every day, thankfully, the resurrection questions me. Every day this resurrected Christ, this rabbi, woos me to trust in a quality of love that is without rivalry, without violence but instead is filled with beauty and forgiveness.
In middle school Sunday School, I explain this inner transformation with symbols. I have us think about our human anthropology/our make-up. And we talk about rivalry that exists in all of us. They can relate to this—we talk about jealousy—how we desire things that other people have, the temptation to think we are always right (infallibility), the need to one up someone else, the us vs. them mentality which leads to exclusion. They get the concept of rivalry. And we talk about how this has the propensity to become our true north. But in the resurrected Christ, we are invited to allow forgiveness to be our true north. This is how the story of resurrection impacts us, questions us. I share with them that this is a process that happens over time. And this is why the Resurrected Christ is our Ever-Present Rabbi, inviting us in every day to this new way of being.
Like Mary, we too, can call Jesus Rabbi because we recognize our need to be taught from the place of grace—where no rivalry exists. We recognize that our need to be right has interfered with receiving forgiveness. And we recognize the powerful truth that when forgiveness becomes our true north we are led into life and healing.
Today, Easter Sunday, is a day for proclamation, not explanation. It is the day to meet the Resurrected Christ—the One who changes everything. Amen.