Sunday, April 28, 2019

Doubt Boldly: 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. (NRSV)
Easter Flowers by John on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“Oh, Thomas…”

I can just hear the frustrated sighs and grumblings from the other ten disciples when Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus is alive.

Put a group of people together in a room, and you’re bound to have at least one Thomas: someone who’s pessimistic, broody, and always looking at the dark side of things. Think of Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live or Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

Meanwhile, your group is bound to have boisterous, outspoken, and domineering people. Among the disciples this would’ve been Peter, along with James and John (nicknamed The Sons of Thunder). They were the loudest voices in the room; the natural-born leaders. Many of the quieter folks follow, like sheep—which leads the phenomenon known as Groupthink: the innate desire for harmony and conformity that minimizes discussion, critical evaluation, or dissension.

But Thomas was not one to keep quiet and play along, just because. And I’m sure that this made Thomas a bit of a pariah within the twelve.

It certainly hasn’t made Thomas a hero for us who read the Gospels. In fact, the only disciple to have a reputation worse than Thomas is Judas Iscariot, the betrayer. Yet Thomas’s doubting seems, in a big way, like betrayal. He is refusing to believe the good news that Jesus is alive and that he kept his promises. He is putting conditions on his faith—and you can’t do that. One would expect, then, that if Jesus was going to show up, it would be to condemn Thomas for his doubts and perhaps even terminate his discipleship.  But that’s not what happens.

So instead of looking at Thomas with critical eyes, let’s look at him with gracious eyes. Let’s see him as Jesus sees him.

Thomas has just suffered the terror and trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion. Just before Jesus departed for Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas pledged his willingness to go with Jesus into Jerusalem and die with him. Surely that was on Thomas’s heart as well.

Fast forward to Easter Sunday, and Thomas is absent when Jesus appears to his disciples. Perhaps he was overwhelmed with sorrow and needed some time alone. Perhaps he was hiding out so as not to be hunted down and killed like Jesus. Maybe he was annoyed with the disciples and had to get away from them. Who knows

Either way, Thomas misses out on the chance to see Jesus alive. What Thomas wants—what he covets—is to see him, hear him, touch him, know him.

It’s not wrong for Thomas to covet his neighbor’s faith; to experience the power and presence of the risen Christ the same way that others do. Therefore, Thomas does what few others would do in his position: he owns his doubt.

Let me explain: for as much as we think of faith as something personal, it is, in reality, deeply interpersonal—and highly susceptible to Groupthink. You see people who appear to have the most vibrant faith. They have no fear when it comes to praying aloud or speaking aloud of what God is doing in their lives. They know the bible like the back of their hand. They go on mission trips and do outreach. They have no vices or bad habits; and they never do anything wrong. And nothing ever seems to bother them; nothing ever goes wrong in their lives.

But you have suffered. You’ve made mistakes. You’ve broken the Ten Commandments four and five at a time! You hear the Gospel promises, then you look at your own life—and it doesn’t add up. You have questions. There are doctrines you cannot accept. There are truths you cannot understand. You’re not one of those “Super-Christians.”

Therefore, you assume that you don’t belong. That Christ won’t accept you. That the Church won’t accept you. Instead of owning and giving voice to your doubts, you avoid them. And before long, you turn away from Jesus Christ and indulge your spirit in other things. You hear the Gospel with indifference. You resign yourself to never having a closeness with the risen Christ.

I truly believe that it’s better to be angry at God than indifferent or apathetic towards God—because at least your turning something towards God.

Thomas’s heart was broken by what he’d been through. The doors to his soul were locked tighter than the doors to the house he was inside. But in the same way that locked doors failed to keep the risen Jesus away, your questions, struggles, failures, hurts, and doubts won’t keep Jesus away. Jesus always said, “it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus gives special focus to anguished and tormented souls—because these are the ones who need resurrection most of all. Just the same, Jesus needs this church to be a refuge for anguished and tormented souls. We’re not a country club of Christians who have it all together. Instead, we give shelter to God’s children who are burdened with doubts, questions, fears, and shame. Jesus is determined to draw near to you, so that you will see him, know him, and confess with Thomas: “my Lord and my God!”

So don’t hide away your doubts or keep your questions to yourself. Don’t feel that you’re a failure because you have worries and fears. Own them! Doubt boldly!

One way you can do this is to take the doubt offering card—and write a question or a doubt and put it into the plate. If you’d like me to talk it over with you, put your name on it! It can be about anything!

Doubt is nothing to feel guilty about. You can’t have faith without doubt. Yet Jesus reveals himself within the questions, within the fears, within the doubts, within the disappointments. So doubt boldly! Jesus is with you to make the doubts a pathway that brings you to where Thomas is today—to say and believe, “my Lord and my God!”

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Roses and Resurrection: Luke 24:1-12 - Resurrection of Our Lord

1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (NRSV)
rose, partly open, with dew by Martin LaBar on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

The whole world watched in sorrow as the Cathedral de Notre Dame went up in flames Monday afternoon. Fire crews worked frantically to put out the flames and save not only the building, but the numerous artifacts housed inside.

This was the beginning of resurrection—even as the cathedral still burned. It didn’t matter then—nor will it matter now—how many artifacts are permanently lost; how long it will take to rebuild; or even if the cathedral is rebuilt. There will be resurrection.

And you don’t necessarily need a building for there to be resurrection. Even though it’s a priceless treasure and engineering marvel, Notre Dame is still worth less than a single human life. But resurrection does not mean that everything will go back to the way it was before. And that is where this gets difficult.

For all our singing and celebrating this Easter morning, the Easter morning was a moment of confusion, trauma, and terror.

Don’t think for a second that the empty tomb marked a return to business-as-usual for Jesus’ disciples and friends. It didn’t erase the horrific events that had taken place over the last three days; nor did it undo Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, or the disciples’ desertion. Jesus was crucified. Jesus died. His resurrection will not change that.

When the women speak of the two angelic men they saw in the tomb, who told them that Jesus has risen, the male disciples dismiss it as an “idle tale.” But that wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. The more they talk about his resurrection—the greater the risk they themselves will end up crucified.

So it wasn’t just foolish; it was dangerous to talk about resurrection. This is the point to which we can identify.

What good is “resurrection talk” when you’ve just buried your parent, your spouse, or your child? How can you speak of new life to someone who’s just been placed in a nursing home, essentially waiting to die? What kind of resurrection can you expect when you’re deep in poverty and buried in debt?

What business do we have proclaiming resurrection in Leechburg, when the mines and mills are all gone? Can there be resurrection for this church, when you consider that we’re just a shadow of our former self in terms of our size—and younger generations keep leaving the church in droves?

Shouldn’t we just learn to accept that “things will get worse before they get better?”

For as much as we speak of Jesus’ death; his disciples, friends, and loved ones died as well. Even as they slowly come to believe in him, nothing is going to change the fact that there is still loss and uncertainty.

This is where their reality meets our reality. Loss and uncertainty are the “thorns in the rose of resurrection.” We hate change because change means loss. We hate uncertainty because we’re not in control of the future. Resurrection isn’t so much an event as it is a process and a journey. You’re moving forward without knowing what your moving forward towards.

But hear again what the angels tell the women at the empty tomb: “Remember how Jesus told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” As they remembered what he said, they remembered what he did. Immediately, faith and hope are born even though these women had not yet seen Jesus alive. Thus began their resurrection.

The memory of Christ’s promises and deeds of faithfulness in the past comprise the soil out of which resurrection blossoms. Even before it happens, we wait expectantly for it, as in springtime. We are people of resurrection. Boldly and courageously we live, trusting in God’s power to create new life where you least expect it.

Instead of dwelling on the past and vainly scrambling to recreate it, Christ’s call is to bring resurrection hope in the places and among the people where death and despair have taken hold.

Regardless of what happens at Notre Dame, Christian churches are growing and flourishing despite rampant poverty and the deadly threat of oppressive governments and terrorist groups.

It’s not too much for Christ to bring resurrection into nursing homes, even though the residents will likely never go home and live like they did before. It’s not too much for Christ to bring revival and renewal to the Church, even as individual congregations struggle and decline. It’s not too much for Christ to meet human needs with abundance even as money runs short. And it’s certainly not too much for Christ to make you a new creation, no matter how badly you have failed or how horribly you have suffered. We must stop living as if Jesus is dead—and as if we’re dead.

There is no salvation without the cross. There cannot be renewal where there was no loss. There cannot be resurrection where there was no death. These are the thorns in the rose of resurrection.

There is no going back to before Good Friday. We can only go forward. But even amid the trauma, terror, confusion, and bewilderment life often brings, in Christ you pass over from death into life. Today we celebrate the promise. Tomorrow, you will live it out.