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Believing God

(a sermon for April 19, 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31)

So… how about this morning we just say a few good words on behalf of Thomas?

That’s right… Thomas, as in 

Doubting Thomas,” that nickname that has forevermore been bestowed to anyone who has ever been even remotely skeptical about anything!  I mean, never mind that history has recorded Thomas as having been a fiercely loyal disciple of Jesus: it’s believed that after the resurrection Thomas brought the good news of the gospel to the ancient region of Khorasan, located in what is now Iran and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where to this day there exists an Order of St. Thomas which claims Thomas as its founder; in fact, legend also has it that it was in India that Thomas was martyred for his faith, pierced by four spears.  It can safely be said that Thomas lived a life fully devoted to Christ, and yet, what is it that everybody always remembers about Thomas?  It’s that he was the one disciple who would not, could not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead… unless and until he had proof.

And really, friends, who could blame him?

You know, it’s been said that each of the disciples in some way or another serve to represent an aspect of ourselves and our own personalities: Peter, for instance, represents our tendency to be bold and impulsive about things; Matthew, the tax collector, tells us of the importance of leaving our old ways behind to follow Jesus; and James and his brother John, the fishermen who left their nets behind, tell us a lot about the courage it takes to answer a call.  But of all the disciples, Thomas was the diehard realist of the group, and as such, represents the more skeptical part of our nature!

Thomas, you see, knew what was what; he knew how life works, where the limits are placed and what it is you have to look out for.  And if there was one thing Thomas knew for certain, it was that when someone dies, that person is dead and gone and cannot, under any circumstances, return!  And so, when he heard the other disciples talk about having seen Jesus on that Easter evening, and how they’d seen the wounds in his hands and side, Thomas was not about to take what they said at face value, for what they were saying broke all the rules.  Yes, he could hear the joy in their voices as they described to him how Jesus had appeared to them in the darkness of that Easter night; and he did remember how that very morning, Mary had run to them, breathless with the news that she’d seen the Lord!  

But you see, to Thomas’ mind this was all too incredible to even consider. Because Thomas knew exactly what he’d seen; and what he’d seen was Jesus die; in fact, Thomas could still feel the dull ache of emptiness inside of him because Jesus had died.  It was painful enough to have to accept the fact that Jesus was gone, but this?  Jesus… alive?  No… no matter what anybody else was saying, he hadn’t been there to see it, and Thomas, ever the realist, was not about to place any kind of hope in that which he hadn’t personally experienced himself!

Of course, this is not to say he didn’t want that experience.

We know this because, as John tells the story, when Thomas heard what the other disciples were claiming, he responded the only way he could: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Bottom line, Thomas needed some hard evidence of this so-called resurrection if he was to believe, and therein lies the part of this story that makes us uncomfortable; mostly because, truth be told, we’d like to see that evidence ourselves!  Theologian John Westerhoff explains it this way:  “Poor Thomas,” he writes, “desired only sacrament, only an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual truth of the resurrection.  He didn’t doubt the stories told, but he did want some sign.  [And] that’s the story of our lives,” Westerhoff goes on to say. “It isn’t enough for most of us to be told that someone else loves us; we want that person to do something that expresses love for us.  So it is with Easter faith – it’s difficult to believe the words, but an action along with the words surely helps.”

I suspect we can all understand that!  I remember once way back when I was in the seventh grade, and one of the girls in my class came to me with the news that there was another girl in the class who really “liked me.” (And not just “liked me,” mind you, but liked me liked me, which, when you’re 13 is something altogether different!)  Now, I was way too shy ever to do anything about that revelation, and even at that ageI remained fairly skeptical as to how legitimate this confession of “like” actually was! But, oh, I wanted it to be true, and I remember waiting for some sort of outward and visible sign to come forth from my admirer: you know, the tell-tale look, the note inside the home room desk (the one that read, “Do you like me?  Check Yes or No”).  My doubt, you see, wasn’t so much as denial, as it was the desire for it to be true!

For so many of us, you see, doubt is not so much a nagging source of denial as it is the persistent push that keeps us searching.  It’s the way we seek to know and to name what it is that we believe, and then to live up to that belief.  Thomas’ doubt was not borne of any kind of weakness nor was it an exercise in mental or spiritual acrobatics.  Thomas doubted in order to become sure; he was not content with second-hand believing.  He asked questions, he pushed the envelope, he wrestled with truth as surely as Jacob wrestled with the angel; and in the end, what Thomas believed, he owned…

…and it seems to me that’s a pretty good definition for faith.

It strikes me, you know, that right about now we’re all living in the midst of a modern-day age of doubt; a time when our natural -born skepticism has become mingled with fear.  I don’t know about you, but everyday I go to the news hoping for some good news regarding this current pandemic crisis; but what I get is not at all reassuring with mixed signals at best.  So not only do I end up not knowing what to believe, I begin to wonder if there’s any end in sight to this crisis and if life will ever get back to normal.  I think you’ll agree with me when I say that these are the days when doubt flourishes! 

Like Thomas, I suppose, we need proof; we want some empirical evidence that things are going to change for the better… but the kind of evidence that goes beyond daily briefings and data reports.  I dare say that right now you and I need the kind of assurance that will drive out our fears, calm our anxieties and ease our ever-increasing weariness we’re feeling over having to stay away and apart.  We need peace… the kind of peace that will strengthen us for the full way ahead and that will bolster us to face whatever obstacles and storms are still before us.

We need the peace that comes from the Lord.

What’s interesting about this story of “Doubting” Thomas, of course, is that when the risen Christ appears to the disciples a week later, this time Thomas is with them and he gets the “proof” that he’d insisted upon.  Jesus even offers him the opportunity to actually reach out his hand and touch his side so that he would “not doubt but believe.”  But in the end, Thomas never actually does touch Jesus.  Maybe all it took was to actually see Jesus standing there to shift his point of view; maybe it was the fact that Jesus had specifically reached out to Thomas in his doubt; or perhaps it came from a sudden profound awareness of God’s shalom, God’s whole peace, that had come in the greeting and the very presence of the risen Christ.  But whatever it was that moved Thomas, his response ends up being the single most profound and complete recognition of who Jesus is; and though it doesn’t say, I have to think that the words were spoken in barely a whisper, for such was his sudden wonder and amazement: “My Lord and my God!”  To which Jesus answers, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

And blessed are you and me when we believe, most especially in such difficult and uncertain times as these…. understanding, of course, that what we’re given in believing is not a clear slate of answers as to how and when things in this world and our lives are going to resolve themselves.  What we’re given in believing, beloved, is God… and all of God’s sure and certain promises that come to us in the Risen Christ.

It’s sort of like what Frederick Beuchner has said is the difference between “believing in God” and “believing God.”  Believing in God, he writes, “is an intellectual position.  It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud’s method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet.

“[But] believing God is something else again,” he continues.  “It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship.  It doesn’t leave you cold like believing the world is round.  It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle.  It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.  We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice but to do otherwise.”

Beloved, in these times when doubt cannot help but daily run rampant through our minds and our hearts, we would do well to believe God… to believe his presence with us… to believe his power over the world… to believe his hope in which we abide… to believe his peace that passes our human understanding… and to believe his perfect love that casts out all fear. 

Our good news, today and every day and amidst every struggle we face, is that God is with us and loves us… and we know it, we have our proof, because Christ, our Lord and our God, has risen indeed.

I pray that even as these difficult days stretch onward, we’ll each and all open our eyes to the signs of his presence that are all around, finding in his wonders the joy of his countenance and the truth of his love.

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2020 in Current Events, Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

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Three Gifts

IMAG1587(a sermon for April 3, 2016, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31)

Let me just say this up front: I don’t blame Thomas for his doubting!

Of course he was skeptical about what the other disciples were telling him about having seen the Lord; of course, he asked for proof!  Because by its very nature resurrection is an in-credible, that is, an unbelievable thing!

There’s the rub about Easter, you see; and pretty much always has been: the fact that there is really no empirical evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually took place!  And I suspect that’s why so many of us identify so strongly with Thomas: like him, we weren’t there at the empty tomb on that first Easter morning to see the folded grave clothes or to hear angels in dazzling white speaking the good news of his resurrection; we weren’t a witness to Mary’s breathless excitement as she told of having seen Jesus in the garden; and neither were we present later that evening when Jesus stood there among them.  We weren’t there; and so we’re left to depend on the gospel accounts of eyewitnesses, the testimony of apostles and saints, and the history and tradition of the church as our evidence that the resurrection was real.

It’s rather remarkable when you think about it:  here is a pivotal event of human history and culture that has become the central facet of our Christian doctrine; it figures as the primary confession of our baptism; it’s what sets this religion apart from all others in the world, and it’s the prominent theme of our prayers, our songs and our sacraments.  As the Christian church, we are accurately defined as people of the resurrection. And yet, even now and even within the church (!),  like Thomas many of us still have a difficult time grasping this as physical and historical truth.

Of course, we’re not alone in that kind of doubt: over the generations countless theologians, scholars, philosophers, scientists and historians have sought to find some kind of “rational” explanation for what happened on that morning.  Perhaps Jesus wasn’t really dead, but merely near death and later resuscitated; maybe, as some have suggested, there were political motives involved, with disciples concocting the whole story in order to spark a revolution amongst the Jews; and then there have been those who have sought to poke holes all through the story as it exists, right down to an 18th century French philosopher by the name of Renan who discredited the whole account of the resurrection on the basis that the news of Jesus’ rising came from women “possessed by passion!”  Even just a few years ago, there was the so-called “Jesus Seminar,” that concluded that the only thing that happened on Easter was that the disciples of Jesus had an experience of Christ’s presence which they later described as the risen Christ.

None of this, however, jibes with the gospels’ proclamation of what happened, nor can it explain away or diminish the power of it. The bottom line is that everything that we know about the resurrection ends up proclaiming the impossible and unbelievable made real: the physical, bodily resurrection of a dead man to life.  It’s not that Jesus simply appeared to die, but that Jesus was dead; in fact, he died a death more cruel and painful than human heart can imagine!  But then; by the power of God on Easter, Jesus was alive!  Christ arose (!), God’s own act of victory over life’s greatest defeat, that of death.

This is the truth of our Christian faith on which everything else is built; this is the “good news” that the disciples were sent forth to preach and to make disciples of all nations, and it’s this truth that makes us the church, and continues even now to direct and shape our common experience and our shared mission.

So… all that having been said; what do we do with that lingering doubt?  How do we deal with good ol’ “Doubting” Thomas: not only the one we’ve read about in this morning’s gospel, but also the one who tends to dwell in our hearts; the one who says, “Unless I see” for myself, or touch and feel to have some solid evidence, “I will not believe?”

Well, the good news of the gospel this morning is that you and I are in fact offered three gifts with which to deal with our doubt, three gifts that have been aptly described as our “inheritance as followers of the living Christ.”  Just as Thomas was given what he needed to “not doubt but believe,” we also are given something from the Lord to begin to grasp, in our own hearts, the truth of the resurrection.

The first of these three gifts is PEACE.  Did you notice that the very first thing that Jesus says to the disciples when he appears before them is, in fact, “Peace be with you;” in the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Eirene… but most certainly in the language of Jesus himself… Shalom! 

These were words that touched at the very heart of everything the disciples were fearing at that moment: yes, fear for their very lives; but also another kind of fear, one much more devastating: the fear that comes when in one moment everything you’d ever hoped for and dreamed about is shattered forever, and you have no idea what happens next.  Well, for the disciples, such a moment came at the foot of the cross; and now they’re left to try to somehow pull the broken pieces of their lives back together.   So imagine what it was to suddenly have Jesus standing there “among them,” breathing His Spirit upon them and giving them what they needed more than anything else at that very moment: a blessing of peace.

Maybe you remember a time as a child when you were engulfed with fear: perhaps you woke up in the dark of the night after bad dream, or you somehow got separated from your parents and were suddenly all alone and helpless; but remember how good it felt when that person you loved was there to calm your fears and bring you comfort?  Or perhaps there’s been a time in your life when you’ve been so despairing, or grief-stricken, or angry, or hurt over something that you’ve begun to feel as though there’s nothing else there but the pain of it; but then, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly there’s that measure of strength you need to get through that moment, that day, that experience. It’s peace: a “wholly” divine peace that passes all of our human understanding; a peace given by the one who has overcome the pain of the world.

The dictionary defines the word despair as “the complete loss or absence of hope,” and so it is when we despair in this life. But our good news is that the Risen Christ drives out despair; by his resurrection we are given the sure and certain hope of life, no matter what.  It’s true and lasting shalom, our peace; and one gift that Jesus gives us that might “not doubt but believe.”

And then, secondly, there’s the gift of PROOF: not proof in the sense of finding DNA evidence on the Shroud of Turin, or by virtue of some archeological find linked to events in 33 AD, but rather proof in the sense that just as Jesus gave Thomas his opportunity to put his finger in “the mark of the nails and [his] hand in his side” so that he could believe, you and I are given what we need in order to believe; that is, if only we will be attentive to it.

Such proof  comes in a variety of ways: some do find it in the symbols of springtime and flowers and new life; others find it in life’s incredible capacity to not only hang on, but flourish in the midst of the worst possible circumstances; still others will tell stories of how amidst their worst circumstances they had an experience akin to being reborn!

I remember a story I heard some years ago from a retired pastor who spoke movingly of the downward spiral of his life following the death of his wife two years before.  It was a tragedy that not only left him grief stricken, but one that also forced him to confront many of the mistakes he’d made in his own life and relationships over the years. It was all so painful, he said, at one point he’d actually come to the conclusion that life itself was not worth living; and began to consider not only leaving the ministry, but also… leaving.  But then somehow, miraculously, the truth of the resurrection got through to him and he began to see – and at first only in a glimmer – that if Christ overcame the world, there was certainly hope for him and the renewal of his life; and so he could hang on a little longer.  Finally, this man said, he was quite literally coming back to life.

It’s been said that in the midst of life there are countless little “deaths” that each one of us face; in our bodies, in our relationships, in our emotions, in our world.  Death is real and cannot be denied; but in the risen Christ we also experience resurrection in ways we can’t imagine until it actually happens to us. Within everything else we face in this life, there is this overriding truth that our Lord deeply desires for us to have life, and have it abundantly:  and if we will open ourselves to that, he will give us the proof we need to come to that life.

So we’re given PEACE, then; and PROOF.  And the third gift flows from both of these, that of PURPOSE. As Jesus said to the disciples on that Easter evening, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  We are sent by the risen Christ to live and to work in his name!

Over the years I’ve become a big believer that there is strength to be found in embracing that which is real and rock-solid even as everything else in life seems to be spinning out of control.   It seems to me that one good way of shedding ourselves of doubt is to purposefully live in the reality of the resurrection; and friends, that’s done by answering Christ’s call to discipleship!  That’s another central truth of our Christian faith: that each of us has been commissioned by Jesus himself to tend the suffering, to be peacemakers, and to work for justice; and that’s true, no matter what our qualifications, gender, ethnicity, wealth or lack thereof.

The resurrection becomes real for us when we’re about the work of our Father’s kingdom; it comes when we’re joyfully serving one another and reaching out to those who are outcast in any of a number of ways.  Actually, friends, I can tell you that this is what I really love about the church: that when we’re here together, when we’re doing what we’re called to do and we’re at our best in seeking to be what God intends for us to be, it’s then we discover that the beginning and the end of our journey is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen!   It’s in that knowledge that you and I stand among those whom Jesus calls blessed, “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We live in an age when there’s seemingly no end to that which seeks to discredit or tear down the whole notion of faith; so much that just makes us struggle to hold on to what we know, or at least what we hope to be true.  But thanks be to God, we have this truth that that Christ is risen… indeed!   And it’s a truth that our Lord stops at nothing to assure us of, again and again and again; in the peace, proof and purpose of his presence.

I pray that each one of us here today might know those three gifts as our own; and that we might stand with “Doubting” Thomas in proclaiming in true faith, “My Lord and my God!”

So might it be, friends; and so might we be.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2016 in Church, Discipleship, Easter, Faith, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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