Sunday, April 23, 2017

When in doubt . .

Scripture Reading John 20:19-31 (CEB)  

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Yesterday Leah sent me a message asking if I had an idea for the sermon slide this week.  My answer was kind of. Not really.  Maybe a Tree of Life?  You see, I wasn’t sure which way this message was going to go.  It’s Earth Stewardship Sunday, and I typically preach on creation care this week.  But because Easter was late this year it’s also the week when we preach on the story of the disciple we call Doubting Thomas.  What to do?  Preach on Faith?  Creation Care?   

And then a hymn got stuck in my head.  Actually, it’s been stuck there for over a week, but I’m kind of used to that.  I mean, who doesn’t get music stuck in their head from time to time.  In my case, it’s often one of the old hymns that I first learned as student chaplain in a retirement community, where it was quickly made clear to me that 1932 was a very good year for hymns.  You see, I didn’t learn hymns growing up.  The church I attended didn’t sing except on very special occasions, and then the songs were in Latin.  So hymns weren’t part of my religious upbringing.  I learned some gospel music at Bluegrass Festivals, and hymns like Amazing Grace, but when I came to the Disciples I was woefully ignorant of hymns.  I think one of the reasons I kept coming back after my first visit to a Disciples church, initially, was the music.  Congregational singing is glorious!   So anyway, there I was with a decision to make and a hymn in my head.  This particular hymn was written in 1933, but that’s close enough.  

I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today
I know that he is living, whatever others say.
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
and just the time I need him, he’s always near
He Lives! He Lives!  Christ Jesus lives today!

So, Thomas it is.  Faith. . . and Doubt.  

Poor Thomas.  He really has a poor reputation these days.  I would like to point out a couple of things about Thomas that we usually overlook.  This so-called “Doubting Thomas” is the sameThomas who said “Let’s go die with him.” in the Lazarus story.  Remember?   The disciples tried to keep Jesus from going to Bethany because they were quite certain he would be stoned to death for blasphemy, and very possibly they would be accused alongside of him.  But the very faithful Thomas says, “Let’s go die with him.”   This same Doubting Thomas was, in fact, the very first to call Jesus “My Lord and My God.”    The others had seen him, and acknowledged him as Lord, but in these Easter events Thomas is the first to call him God.   And I have to wonder what it was that Thomas was having trouble believing?  I’m sure he believed the others believed they had seen Jesus.  Perhaps he thought that what they had experienced was a ghost, or a mass hallucination.  After all, it is sort of hard to wrap our minds around someone simply getting up from the grave and walking around.  And not just walking around, but apparently walking through walls or simply appearing in the middle of a room.  These are not things that are in anyone’s daily experience.  NT Wright points out, in the Acts for Everyone Bible Study, that the post-resurrection Jesus somehow inhabits both Earth and Heaven at the same time - his body is physical when it needs to be, and non-corporeal when that is what is needed.  So he can walk through walls, and suddenly appear in their midst, and walk alongside certain disciples carrying on a conversation for hours on the road to Emmaus without being recognized.  And he can be touched.  The women can grab hold of his feet to worship him. Thomas can put his hands in Jesus’ wounds.      This is so far beyond anyone’s comprehension that I kind of don’t blame Thomas for questioning what they had seen.  

Jesus said to Thomas, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”   We like to pat ourselves on the back for believing in Jesus even though we have never seen him.  I’m not sure we deserve that self-congratulatory attitude.  Many of us believe because we have been brought up from birth believing. I can’t imagine not believing that Jesus is my Savior. Even during all the years I spent away from Church, angry at God, (although maybe mostly at Church) convinced I was going to hell no matter what I did, I still believed. I believed Jesus loved me.  I believed he had come to save the world from sin and misery.  I believed he was and is, as the old hymn says, the Balm in Gilead.   

Maybe I have a slight advantage over Thomas.   You may find this hard to believe, but I was a bit of a rebel.  When I was in 7th or 8th grade I challenged the teacher at the Wednesday night religion class by asking, “How do we know there is a God?”  Instead of being given an answer I could mull over, I was chastised for disrespect, and told I was simply to believe and not question anything.  I told my father, who, after grumbling about the teacher, took me outside.  He walked me up to a large tree and said, “This is proof that God exists.  How could the miracle that is a tree happen if God’s hand wasn’t involved?”  We talked about trees and other amazing parts of creation for a while, and I understood that he was right.  From that time forward I have had a sort of personal mantra.  When in doubt, look at a tree.  

How many of us have absolutely believed in Santa?  No doubts!  Santa was real!  And the proof was presents!  As time passed that belief may have undergone some changes.  We may not believe in the same way we used to.  But there are still presents.  

Seems to me that's the same sort of proof we have that Jesus is real.  The question isn't whether he was a real person, because the fact that he existed has been recorded in histories other than the Bible, but whether he is our Savior.   The question is whether he is the Messiah, the one anointed by God, to bring the Word to the people who most needed it, to bring light into our darkness.   And the proof, as I see it, is in the presents - the gifts that we have received as a result of our belief in him.

In a conversation the other day I said something  about ways in which Dr. King might have changed his perspective, as evidenced by some of his later writings and interview, had he not died.  It was quickly brought to my attention that he had not simply died, but had been murdered.  And yes he was, but I argued that the manner of his death didn't have a bearing on the body of work he produced prior to that.  It absolutely does have a bearing on how we remember and honor him, and certainly on the ways others have written about him, but not on the body of his written work.  He knew, from the very beginning, that he might very well die because of his work, but he didn’t let that stop him.  The same can be said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero.  All three were great teachers, writers,  theologians and preachers, men of the cloth who stood boldly against the powers that be in defense of the oppressed.  We would remember them for the body of their work even if they had not been murdered by those whose authority they threatened.  But their martyrdom has assured their place in history as men of great integrity and strong Christian faith. 

Jesus was also a great teacher, and perhaps his sermons and parables and lessons would be remembered and taught today, as the teachings of the great Greek philosophers and great Jewish thinkers of his and earlier times are still taught.  There are certainly many who see him as a teacher, even a great prophet, but nothing more.  There are those who deny his miracles and healings.   There are those who claim he couldn’t have cast out demons simply because they do not believe in demons.  There are even those who doubt his resurrection.  There are numerous theories as to why the stories of his resurrection were told, including the much derided “Dave Theory” (named for the movie Dave, in which a look alike stood in for the President of the United States).  And I must sadly point out that many of those who believe these things are Christians, even ministers and theologians.  Me, I believe in miracles.  I believe that Jesus rose on the third day, and spent the next 40 days teaching his disciples the things they would need to know to continue to carry the Good News into the world.  I believe that they went on to perform healings and other wonders, and that these things are still possible today.  

But the real proof that Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the one anointed by God to heal the world, is to be found in the gifts we receive.   The gifts of knowledge of God’s care for us, and God’s forgiveness, the gifts of peaceful heart and serene mind.   But the greatest gift we receive, the one that proves without doubt that Jesus is the one who was sent by God to heal the world, is to be found in the words that he repeated in so many different ways.   “Love one another.”  Love God and love each other.  Go out and feed the hungry, care for the poor, clothe the naked, comfort the prisoner, heal the sick.  Go out and invite everyone on the streets in to join in the banquet.  Forgive your brother or sister as many times as it takes.  Love everyone!  Welcome everyone!   Reject no one, for Christ himself welcomed all to his table.  

When we go from this place today, let us open our eyes to see our risen Savior, our living Christ, in the face of everyone we encounter.

He lives!   He is Risen!  

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