Sunday, April 30, 2017

Blessed Belonging: Acts 2:14a, 36-41 - Third Sunday of Easter

Picnic Table by Gord Fynes.  Creative commons image on flickr
14aPeter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed [the crowd], 36“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. (NRSV)
I’m sure we can all agree that we have a beautiful sanctuary here at First.

But it didn’t always look like this.  For almost fifty-five years, it looked like this… 

I’m sure we can all agree that the old sanctuary was beautiful as well.  But the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 inflicted such severe damage on the structure, and two decades later it was inevitable—that something drastic had to be done. 

That’s the tyranny of time: it brings change. 

In the New Testament, the biggest change Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. In today’s reading, Peter puts the responsibility of the crucifixion squarely upon the people standing before him—none of whom were the high priests or Pontius Pilate.   

Faced with these stark realities, the people ask, “what should we do?

Looking at today’s world, that’s a good question, what should we do?  I feel as though we’re at a crossroads like this church was in sixty years ago—except the question isn’t about the building; it’s about people.

What should we do about all these empty pews—while the vast majority of our neighbors have no church affiliation? 

What should we do about two hundred students of our local school district facing hunger?

What should we do about all the people dying of overdoses?

What should we do about all the family and friends on our prayer list?

What should we do about “this corrupt generation” we’re living in?

I’m sure Peter’s words brought to mind something about what you see happening in the world today that’s troubling to you.  With everything from secularism, immorality, to the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, a truly corrupt generation is one that cannot perceive God’s activity in its midst.

There’s so much happening around the world and even right here that can dash away your hopes.  And yet, Jesus is calling and gathering together his church from even this corrupt generation.  His arms are open wide to include every sinner who bears personal responsibility for his crucifixion (which is all of us.)

Today’s baptism is a beautiful sign of the Spirit is moving right here, right now, calling grandparents and little babies; teenagers and baby boomers, millennials and Gen-Xers, all into this beautiful community called the Body of Christ.  And that’s not all…

Jesus is feeding hungry children through the food bank and Community PATH—by your support.

He’s providing clothing.  He’s comforting the bereaved.

He’s answering the prayers of the people on our prayer list. 

He’s calling little children to faith. 

In all this, Jesus is using your hands and your voices to do it!  And none of this would be possible if we were not a church.  Not a building, but a people.

So if you ask, what should we do, the answer is simple: you should belong!  2,000 years ago, three thousand persons were called and gathered into God’s saving activity in the world.  In their worship, in their service, and in their relationships, they came to recognize the presence of Christ.

It starts in baptism—where God declares your belonging.  As you embrace your belonging, two things happen: the first is repentance.  God purges away your love and desire for the things that draw you from Christ.  The fear and selfishness that focuses you on yourself give way as God liberates your spiritual gifts for the good of all.  Then you are drawn into relationships through which we magnify the presence of Christ to each other.  After all, Jesus doesn’t use programs, projection screens, or praise bands to build the church.  He uses people!

As we face what is unquestionably a challenging time to be church, relationships are one of God’s greatest gifts—and as we see what God has accomplished here today, we need to be asking how we can grow and deepen the relationships we have with one another.  Not only that, Jesus wants you to recognize that beautiful gifts await you in the neighbors you haven’t yet met—or just met. 

Churches die when their members let themselves be cut off from everyone but themselves; when they sit in judgment of the people who are not like themselves.  But they thrive and grow when they embrace Christ in each other!

That’s our call today—to carry on what God has accomplished today in the baptism of our sister in Christ.  You and I proclaim our belonging to one another in Christ.

And it is so beautiful to belong.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Holy Doubt: John 20:19-31 - Second Sunday of Easter

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Portal romànic de Santa Llùcia de l'Abella by Angela Llop.
Creative commons image on flickr.
For centuries, Christians have celebrated the second Sunday of Easter with the Gospel story of Doubting Thomas.

This year, I’ve resolved to say nothing disparaging about him.  I will not call him “Doubting Thomas” again—because when I do, I feel like I’m saying that there’s something wrong with him.  That simply isn’t fair.

Thomas, along with the male and female disciples, have just suffered the soul-crushing trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion and death.  The male disciples failed to stand by Jesus through his passion—so they’re feeling a lot of guilt right now, too.

All the sudden, Mary tells the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  Later that evening, Jesus walks through locked doors and shows himself to them, alive. 

Thomas, however, is absent that evening.  When he hears the news of Jesus’ resurrection, he doubts.  He will not believe unless he can see and touch Jesus for himself. 

A week later, very little has changed—because even though the eleven saw Jesus alive, they’re still too scared to venture outside their locked doors.  This time, however, Thomas is there and Jesus reappears.

Is Jesus angry with Thomas?  Has Thomas sinned by not believing what Jesus had been telling him all along, that he would die and rise again?

How do you think Jesus is towards you and your doubts?  Is he mad at you because you are questioning? Will he reject you until you start believing?

If Jesus just walked right through the door, and let you give him the once-over he does for the disciples, there’d be no reason to doubt.  But that’s not possible.

And no one’s ever doubted God because their life has been so perfect.  Doubts always accompany disappointments, disillusionments, and discouragement.  Doubt happens when questions don’t get answered, such as “why do bad things happen to good people?”  “Why aren’t my prayers being answered?”  “If God loves us so much, why can’t we see God?”

These aren’t unreasonable questions.  They are very human questions.  And yet, doubt feels such a
shameful thing.  In a culture that celebrates strength and perseverance, doubt is weakness.  It’s a failure of faith.  Because of this, many Christians will hide their doubts and keep their questions to themselves.  At least then, you don’t have to face the shame of doubting.  But hiding and ignoring things doesn’t make them go away.  Eventually, some Christians will disconnect and disengage.  “When in doubt, just drop out.”

Thomas may have been at the point of giving up—but it is then that Jesus shows up. 

Even though you and I don’t get to see and touch him like they do, there is still a beautiful promise here…

Jesus doesn’t discard people who doubt.  He doesn't abandon people who are too scared even to leave home.  He meets you in your time of fear and your place of doubt. 

Notice how Jesus breathes on his disciples, and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit…”  The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ way of restoring faith that’s been bombarded with doubt.  More than resuscitation, this is resurrection.  Thomas and his fellow disciples are a new creation.  Jesus is giving them the faith they will need to go out into the world and carry on his ministry.

In the end, doubt plays a very important role in faith.  Think of it this way: in the same way that there is no resurrection without death, there can be no faith without doubt.  After all, you’re believing in a God you cannot see—and trusting in promises that may not be fulfilled in the immediate future. But rather than doubts killing your faith, Jesus meets you in them.  If you doubt because of something you’ve suffered, Jesus wants you to know his healing.  If you doubt because of something you’ve done, Jesus wants to forgive.  If you have doubts because you see so much evil in the world, Jesus wants to use you to make the world a better place!

Jesus can take your doubts and your questions and use them to grow your faith!  Faith is formed and strengthened in a lifetime of it dying and being reborn.  Like a fruit tree being pruned to bear more fruit, your doubts allow for Jesus to prune away beliefs that are misguided.  He will use your questions to draw you deeper into the Word and into prayer, so that he may speak something new.  He may even lead you in a completely new direction, as he does for Thomas and the disciples!

The challenge, then, is not to drop out or disengage—but to persevere.  Besides prayer and the Word, one of God’s greatest ways of helping you in times of doubt and questioning are other Christians.  Every believer struggles with doubts.  If anyone says otherwise, they’re mistaken.  Jesus intends for his church to be a safe place to be a doubter and a seeker!  

So challenge yourself—name before Jesus everything that causes you doubt.  Present to him your doubts as an offering. 

Then pray this prayer: “Jesus, open your arms to me in all my places of doubt.  Give me the faith to believe and see that you are near.”

Finally, make up your mind to do one thing differently every day, in bold defiance of your doubt. 

Then, you will see: Jesus will meet you in your time of fear and your place of doubt.