The sermon for week April 15, 2012
April 15, 2012
Last Sunday the church was full as friends and family gathered to celebrate the holiday. The Lenten season of fasting and repentance ended with a resounding “Alleluia!” The mood was one of joyful celebration. The trumpets led the way and the bells followed as we joined our voices together and sang: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” And now some of us are back; but our expectations are no longer the same.
It is difficult to maintain the excitement of a high holy day for an extended period of time. Few celebrations, however significant, can sustain the weight of the expectations we place upon them. Easter stretches our imagination to accommodate a new vision of who we are and who God is calling us to be. Some of us will never be the same; yet for many of us the return to life’s familiar rhythms is a comfort. We need time to reflect. We need time to believe.
The disciples who gathered together on that first Easter were no different. They, too, needed time to reflect upon the significance of the events that had occurred that week during Passover in Jerusalem. They needed time to grieve; time to comprehend that while they slept Jesus was betrayed by one of their own. They needed time to comprehend their loss before they returned to their boats and the sea from which they came.
Jesus’ disciples had watched their lives collapse around a Center that failed to hold the weight of their expectations and hope. The powers of darkness had prevailed. And now the disciples were like any other persecuted minority who hide in fear from the local authorities. Life in Jerusalem had returned to the brutal reality of the Roman occupation, yet nothing would ever be the same.
Out on the streets of the city whispers about Jesus and his disciples grew louder as the political and religious authorities sought to confirm their suspicion that the disciples of Jesus had stolen his body. Now, those who had been closest to their slain leader were huddled together in darkness and fear, waiting for a future without hope.
Mary Magdalene told the frightened disciples she had seen Jesus; but none of them believed her. When they heard Mary’s description of the empty tomb its silent message simply confirmed their fear. To Jesus’ disciples an empty tomb meant “He is not here,” not that “He is risen.”
Convincing these skeptics would require intimate, personal encounters with the One who had shared their lives and denied their dreams. News “too good to be true” requires proof.
Over the next six weeks Jesus provided exactly that. Again and again Jesus condescends to meet his disciples at the level of their doubt. For the suspicious Thomas, it meant a personal invitation to finger his wounds. For the humiliated Peter, it required a bittersweet scene of rehabilitation in front of his peers.
During the interval that occurred between the Resurrection and Ascension Jesus appeared to his disciples on several occasions, reassuring them and confirming his identity so convincingly that no disciple would ever deny him again.
The historical record shows that the disciples were changed from a small band of followers hiding in terror to a courageous body of believers who spread the message of the gospel throughout the world, in spite of persecution and even death. Without a doubt, the disciples were dramatically affected by their encounter with the Risen Christ; for it is unlikely that anyone would conspire in a fantastic lie for which they would willingly lay down their lives.
One could reasonably expect those who were closest to the experience of Jesus’ resurrection to be changed by it. But what about us? How does the resurrection of Jesus affect Christians today?
Like Thomas, most of us must make our own sense out of what happened to Jesus and decide what it means for us. The Postmodern generation may seek Jesus; but like the early disciples we prefer empirical evidence that we can see and touch. This desire for proof is so characteristic of our humanity that Jesus anticipated our skepticism by proclaiming a final Beatitude to those who would become his disciples: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed.”
When Jesus spoke these words he was looking down the corridors of history right at us. None of us has ever seen Jesus with our own eyes, much less fingered his wounds. We are here today because we have heard the story of Jesus and we either believe it, or hope that it is true.
Jesus recognizes the persistent struggle between faith and doubt with a final blessing upon “those who have not seen, and yet believed.” It is a Beatitude which acknowledges the difficulty we all encounter when we are required to trust a deeper reality than what we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands.
The words that Jesus said, and the reports of those who witnessed these things are all we have to hold on to in an era of cynicism and doubt. At times it feels small and insignificant; but so is a mustard seed, which has become the most reassuring “standard measurement” of our faith!
Doubt, after all, is not the opposite of faith; but rather that dark place where the seed of faith germinates until it is ready to bloom.
When the risen Christ breathed Life into a small and frightened band of followers shortly after his resurrection, they became the Church. Jesus doesn’t seem to notice their sinfulness and ineptitude. Instead, he enters the room through locked doors and gives them a gift that until then had only been given to prophets and kings, the gift of the Holy Spirit. To the Church which had nothing, he gave everything, everything that was needed to become the Church. His work on earth was finished, theirs had just begun.
Today’s gospel gives us a picture of the church with nothing we’ve come to associate with “church” as we know it. There was no pipe organ, or even an old upright piano. No choir. Not even a pastor. In fact, it’s a picture of the church at its worst, the first miserable little congregation ever to take upon itself the mission of the “Church.” This was a church with absolutely nothing going for it except that when it gathered, the risen Christ pushed through the locked door, and stood among them.
The main-line churches in America often resemble that first church: frightened, discouraged and defensive. In a political year the Church’s voice seems to belong to those who shout slogans from the streets. These voices project an image of the Church as divided among an assortment of ideologies; which can be identified by how one stands on the political issues of the day.
Is it any wonder that more people are sleeping in on Sunday mornings rather than engage in a community they have come to view as judgmental and ideologically extreme? Yet The New York Times reports that while Americans may be avoiding organized religion, they are not running away from God. 93% reported they believe in God. Now they are running up the score among those who have not seen and yet believed. They believe in God. They don’t believe in the Church. Maybe that’s because when they look at the Church, they don’t see Christ.
Faith, after all, is not a matter of believing in the Church. The Church has proven time and time again that it is not worthy of our trust. The Church can only lay claim to its identity as the Body of Christ as it reflects the life of Jesus in word and deed in the culture of which it is a part. The book of Acts describes the early Church as a group of believers who “were of one heart and soul.” They reflected the life of Jesus in word and deed, and “great grace was upon them all.”
It is not in the Church’s power to convert anyone; but the power of the Holy Spirit working through us has the power to change the world, by the sharing of God’s grace. Now we “who have not seen and yet believe” must be faithful in lifting up the image of Christ for the current generation if we are to realize the promise Jesus made to his disciples when he said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.”
“The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church,” writes Gordon MacDonald. “You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”
During the Lenten season we were privileged to hear some of the stories of how the church had influenced those who work and worship here. No two stories were the same. Some told of the positive influence of the Church throughout their lives. Others related painful and slow recovery from experiences of discrimination and rejection they had suffered from the Church. Yet the fact that they were here, sharing their stories, meant that somewhere in their personal experience of the community of the Church, there had been something authentic, something Real, that kept them coming back.
Steve Long told the story of serving as a camp counselor for a group of junior high boys a few years ago. They didn’t want to go to church camp, and they began to act out their shared grievances. It looked like the boys and their counselors were headed for a long week! Over the course of a few days, however, the boys settled in and by the end of camp they were reluctant to leave. They may not have identified the movement of the Holy Spirit at the time; but whatever accounted for the change, it must have been Holy! Steve identified the movement of God’s Spirit in his own life as “spiritual formation” and provided this description of the process, “What the Church does is encourage me to actions I might not choose on my own,” he said.
Many of us who listened to the stories that were shared were encouraged to reflect on our own journeys of faith, journeys that have brought us here today. Their stories and our own contain a common thread, the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit we often refer to as God’s grace.
When writer Philip Yancey reflects on his faith journey in relationship to the Church he describes it as a pilgrimage “marked by wanderings, detours and dead ends. I see now that what pulled me along was my search for grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.”
We are the Church, not because of our building, or because of the choir, or organ, the preaching or the various activities. We are the Church because Christ has given us the gift of his Spirit, which empowers us to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love with a mission that reaches out to all people, affirms the sacredness of Life, and works for peace and justice throughout the world.
We are the Church with absolutely nothing going for it except that when we gather, the risen Christ is in the midst of us.
Unlike Thomas we do not believe because we have seen with our eyes, but rather because we have been touched by the love of God we recognize in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a love story with the power to change our lives.
As the community of faith, we are the continuing evidence of the truth of the resurrection. It is remarkable that 2000 years later, the stories about what Jesus said and did are still told. It is amazing that in an era when only what is seen is believed, you and I can be so overwhelmed by the passionate love of God made visible in Christ that by faith we can say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” This is the moment of truth that creates the Church, the Body of Christ, the living, vital evidence that Jesus is alive to a world that yearns to see and believe. And this is how you and I become the blessed and improbable prophets of a mystery we can never fully understand; but only proclaim.
He is risen! Need proof? Just look around you! He is risen, indeed!
Thanks be to God.