Gospel of John 20:19-31
April 3, 2016: Second Sunday of Eastertide
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Welcome to the second Sunday in Eastertide! Jesus is back! As is the snow. (sigh!) In this morning’s Gospel Jesus returns to his grief-stricken disciples. And he comes bearing a gift. Actually, THE gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit.
Receive the Holy Spirit, says Jesus to his stunned freinds.
This gift of the Holy Spirit is an essential dimension of the Easter story. In Luke Acts this gift is given to the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. But in the Gospel of John, the gift comes immediately after the resurrection; in Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples; before he satisfies the questioning Thomas, the one who, like most of us, wants to actually see the fish before he buys the story hook, line, and sinker. So before Jesus proves himself in the resurrected flesh, he offers the disciples, actually he commands the disciples to: Receive the Holy Spirit!
As our scripture tells us, the Holy Spirit has been around for awhile. Since the beginning, if you believe the wisdom literature. But not until the Incarnation, with a capital I, did the Holy Spirit become so…..present, so palpable, so intimately intertwined with our own potential and authority as children of God. With the Incarnation came the notion of the triune God. Creator, Creation, and the Spirit of Creativity that makes it all possible. The Spirit is thus born into all of creation. And so it is in our experience of the flesh that we, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading from John, receive the Spirit. Nevertheless, the Spirit has been with us since the beginning. It is not newly available…maybe just newly accessible. Receive the Holy Spirit!
I am guessing that we all have our own experiences of receiving the Holy Spirit in our own flesh. And I am guessing that, as in this morning’s Gospel, it usually comes when we least expect it and requires a serious leap of faith. That’s just how the Spirit rolls. Almost always by surprise! Among my own best examples of receiving the Holy Spirit is my beautiful chestnut Hanoverian Thoroughbred, Izzy. Izzy’s journey into and through my life was pure Holy Spirit. He was gorgeous. He was huge. And everything about him was a surprise. He was 8.1 hands high (that’s 6 feet 1 inch at his withers, the base of his neck). He was a Grand Prix show jumper who had also been in the movie Seabiscuit.
Izzy came to me by way of my dear friend Carter Heyward, as did my first horse Patience. But after a year and a half of jumping sweet Patience over small fences, I was ready for a horse that could challenge me…teach me to ride a big stride and to jump a respectable upright. I was ready for a horse that could lift me to a new level, a new level of equitation and a new level of learning about myself and my potential, whatever that meant. Carter put me in touch with her friend Eleanor Boatwright who lived on the same mountain as did Carter in North Carolina. Eleanor was looking to sell her horse Izzy. I was not looking to buy a horse, but Izzy was just the sort of horse that could teach me what I wanted to learn. And Eleanor had priced Izzy to move.
I vividly remember my call with Eleanor. I was leaning on the rail outside the refectory at EDS. I remember the sun beaming through the wide windows, warming my face as Eleanor described her dream horse, whom she had jumped in numerous Grand Prix competitions, who had been featured in the movie Seabiscuit, and whom she loved so much that she was willing to sell him for a song to someone who would love him as she had.
The phone call was almost surreal. As I listened I thought, even though the purchase price of this magnificent animal is far below his market value, there is no way I can afford him. And even though he is superbly trained to do just what I need to learn, I am way too much of a novice to be able to handle him. And even though I am already spending a couple of days a week at the stable, my life is far too hectic to be able to absorb another horse into my schedule. I knew I had no business even thinking about buying this horse. And so I was absolutely, definitely, surely going to decline this way-over-my-head opportunity. Until………..at the end of our conversation Eleanor said in her deep southern drawl: We call him Izzy, but his show name is Gift of God.
Gift of God?! Seriously?!!!! I am standing in a seminary. I am studying theology. I am preparing for ordination to the priesthood. And you are offering me a Gift of God?!!! And in an instant, less than instant really, my reasoned, sensible “no!” came out: “How will I get him up here?” And before I knew it, I had committed to a Gift of God that I had no business receiving. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible when they were called, there were a million reasons why I was not prepared, equipped, deserving, or in any way the right person to receive this Gift of God. Every facet was beyond my capacity.
But, Eleanor agreed to deliver my Gift of God to Boston. So I sold the last bit of my retail career stock, the last bit that was not already committed to my Master of Divinity degree, and I spent the next month anxiously awaiting Izzy’s arrival. I vacillated between sheer terror laced with self-flagellation for my recklessness and a self-congratulatory pride that I had taken this wild leap of faith in the name of God’s adventurous new Gift. Because, please, I ask you, how could I say no to a Gift of God?
The day finally arrived. Into the stable turnaround pulled the long shiny trailer with North Carolina plates. The truck door opened and out hopped a perfectly appointed, barely five-foot-tall stereotype of a southern gentlewoman. Gorgeous knee high leather boots. Stunning Barbour hunting jacket. Diamond rings on perfectly manicure fingers with long red nails. Eleanor opened the back door of the trailer and disappeared into the cavern. She emerged with what looked to me like a baby dinosaur. He was the most immense living creature I had ever seen from such a close proximity; close enough to read the very expensive brass name plate on his halter which, to my unmitigated horror, read not Gift of God, but Gift of Gold.
What?!!!!! No Gift of God? Oh no! What had I done?! In a flash I went from sacrificing everything for a Gift of God…..to squandering my last pennies on a horse! A Gift of Gold. I had waltzed out onto this way-too-far-out-for-me-limb on a mistaken hearing of a southern accent. A Gift of Gode!…which, apparently, in my context and wishful thinking registered in my hearing as Gift of God.
And so there I was, under prepared, under funded, under experienced, under a barrel of absolute disbelief. How could I have been so foolish?! This was not at all what I had expected. And yet, holy cow, was he beautiful. As beautiful as anything I had ever seen. And as Eleanor led him off the trailer his gorgeous deep brown eyes met mine, and I could swear I heard him saying to me, as clearly as Thomas heard the risen Christ: Here I am. I am here for you. Receive this Holy Spirit.
That was March of 2003. In March of 2007…I lost him to a brain tumor. But oh what the Holy Spirit can do in four full-on years! I had Izzy at just the right time in my life to be able to fully receive the Gift of God that he turned out to be, after all. And so my time with him was among the most spirit-filled and transformative times of my life. Every moment with Izzy overflowed with with passion and compassion, terror and mercy, stretching out and letting go, trusting and doubting. Through Izzy, I felt the Spirit work in and through every fiber of my being…and even in some fibers with which I had never before been acquainted.
I had about a year and a half with Izzy as the horse that I expected him to be. The horse that would teach me to ride like the wind and to be the proficient horsewoman to which I aspired. But very soon after I had just become comfortable in his saddle, he tore his deep digital flexor tendon. And that my friends, is a deal breaker. At least for a jumper. And for Izzy, he was never again completely sound even for riding, let alone jumping.
In between the torn tendon and the brain tumor, Izzy suffered an array, an amazing array, of medical issues large and small including two major colic surgeries. Colic is a life threatening condition in horses. Their digestive tracks only go in one direction, from front to back. There is no way to expel matter or air through the mouth. So if something gets blocked or twisted, it is a serious matter!
In June of 2004 I had just graduated from EDS. And I had accepted a position as a leader of the Mountain Mission of St. Clare in Brevard North Carolina. I was to be working with my friend Carter, who was a founding member of the Mission. And, my two horses (Patience and Izzy) and my Golden Retriever, Archie, and I had rented an apartment at the stable on Carter’s farm for the coming year.
So Carter and I loaded our horses in my trailer and headed south. But Izzy had a very rough trip. He began to colic on the trailer. And by the time we arrived in Brevard, Izzy was clearly in trouble. And as soon as I realized that he likely needed surgery, I had no choice but to head back through the narrow winding Carolina Gorge to the large animal hospital at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They were three hours of the most sheerly terrifying travel I have ever experienced.
There, Izzy had two colic surgeries in as many weeks. Carter and I watched the first from behind the big plate glass window in the gallery. I did not realize it at the time, but his surgeon later reported that his heart had stopped for a moment during the surgery. And so he was literally back from the dead. One week later he needed surgery again. And not for nothing, but neither surgery found any blockages. Neither surgery found any cause for his colic. But after the second surgery, the very wonderful medical team at UT told me that he there was nothing left that they could do. Two surgeries was his limit. What he needed was time to recover, if he was going to recover. And if not, he was not. Either way, it was time for me to take Izzy home. Frail. Fragile. And more vulnerable than straw in the wind. And that was my state of being!
So, with Carter behind us, Izzy and I and Archie headed back across the treacherous three hour section of the Smokey Mountain highway, through the winding Gorge, back up See-Off mountain to Carter’s stable, which was a full hour away from the nearest vet, if one were needed. There was nothing remotely comfortable about this situation.
There I was on top of a relatively remote mountain, essentially by myself, with my gorgeous 2,000 pound Gift of God back from the dead, but not yet out of the woods. His recovery, actually his survival, would depend on our working together. Him and me. He needed to heal. I needed to make sure that he got what he needed to heal and that he stayed absolutely quiet. So I hand grazed him every six hours around the clock, as instructed by his medical team. He needed antibiotics every four hours that I administered through the IV’s in his neck. And every morning and every evening I irrigated and thoroughly cleaned the 135 staples in his belly – the only thing keeping his intestines from falling on the ground. And so for weeks, at least twice a day I had my hands in Izzy’s deepest wounds…. they became our wounds. It was the most profound confluence of both belief and disbelief that I had ever experienced. I had never been more sure of the Spirit within me. And, I could not fathom how this could be happening. This was not the Gift of God that I had expected!
But it was a Gift of God that I got. Every minute of my experience with Izzy was no less than that….a gift of the Holy Spirit that I could never have expected or provided for myself. It was not until I was forced to put my hands in his wounds that the otherness between us melted away. Not right away, of course. Not with the instantaneous re-cognition that Thomas felt when he put his hands in Jesus’ wounds….but I am guessing, not in an un-similar way. Like Thomas, I was so far beyond my comfort zone that I might as well have been on another planet.
It was my bad to think that I would be receiving my Gift of God seated in a leather saddle soaring over a five foot jump……rather than standing in a soggy stall with 2,000 pounds of discomfort, holding an IV drip at four in the morning. And I did it all for a horse that I knew no one would ever ride again. Which is when it dawned on me that I did not have Izzy to learn to ride, I had Izzy to learn to let go without walking away. This Gift of God was not intended to teach me to be a better horsewoman, but to be a better human being.
I don’t argue much with God’s timing any more. Izzy came into my life one month after I had been made a Postulant (the first step in the ordination process) in the diocese of Massachusetts. And I lost Izzy two months after I was ordained to the priesthood. If Izzy was not a Gift of God, I don’t what is.
Thomas says to his friends: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And Jesus says to Thomas: “do not be unbelieving, but believe.” For some reason we have come to know this passage in the Gospel of John as the story of “Doubting” Thomas….perhaps because that is how many of the popular Bibles translate Jesus’ words: “do not be doubting, but believe.” But the word doubt does not actually appear anywhere in this passage. Thomas does not literally doubt Jesus. But, before he invests himself again, he wants, he needs, to see and feel a connection. He requires what we require in all mutual relationships, a point of contact. And so Jesus says to Thomas, have faith. Here I am. I am here for you.
Where are the Gifts of God among us here and now? Where are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit that we may not recognize until we put our own fingers in the wounds? The Gifts of God that maybe we think we cannot afford? The Gifts of God for which maybe we feel unprepared? The Gifts of God that are out of our league? Where are those Gifts? Because Jesus tells us to receive them. Those Gifts are the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. That may be both the good news and the bad news.
Like Thomas, maybe the only way to receive that Spirit is to is to let go of our fear and our uncertainty, our need to be competent and accomplished, and maybe even our better judgment…sometimes maybe we just need to receive Holy Spirit, because no matter what it may cost us, it will be a Gift of God. Surprise!
© March, 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
The black and white photos were taken by the wonderful Beverly Hall 2003.