Thursday, April 4, 2013

Searching in the Dark

After trying to preach on this same text year after year, I felt like I finally "got it" last year (April 15, 2012).  I'm actually not preaching on "NAP Sunday" this year for a change, so I thought I'd just share this.  I don't know that I'll ever say anything better about Thomas ("Tom").

"Searching in the Dark"
John 20:19-31

If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary (and we do), and if you are an associate pastor (and I am), then today, on this Second Sunday of Easter, it is highly likely that you will hear a sermon based upon John, Chapter 20, verses 19 through 31.  Because, on the one hand, the Lectionary schedules this same Gospel Lesson every year for the Second Sunday of Easter; and, on the other hand, the Second Sunday of Easter, commonly known in clergy circles as “low Sunday,” is often a Sunday on which associate pastors are asked to preach (which is why I gently refer to it as “National Associate Pastor” Sunday, or “NAP Sunday” for short).

Now there are other scripture lessons for today on which I could preach.  I have, in fact, occasionally been led by the Spirit to abandon the Lectionary altogether and preach on “un-scheduled” scriptures.  But I have always been drawn to this Gospel Lesson (i.e., Jn 20:19-31).  Year after year, it never gets old for me.  Monotony never settles in.  I never get tired of reading these accounts of Jesus resurrected.  And I never get bored of talking about Thomas.  He’s best known as a “doubter” but (to me) he has become a friend in the faith; someone to help navigate the darkness of fear and doubt.

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 At the beginning of our gospel lesson for today, it’s still that first day of the week, that first Day of Resurrection.   Earlier that day, “while it was still dark,” Simon Peter and the other disciple had seen the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene has told them, “I have seen the Lord,” but now evening has come, it’s dark again, and the disciples are meeting in fear behind locked doors.  The scattered flock reassembles, still trembling perhaps with shock and disbelief at the crucifixion of their “good shepherd.”   We are not privy to their conversations, but I imagine them sitting there in the darkness, trying to figure out what their next move will be.  It’s dark and everything still seems uncertain and unsafe.  To many, it must have felt as if Jesus, “the light of the world,” had been “snuffed out.”

Perhaps no one spoke at all.  Maybe it was just as silent as the scriptures, and they just sat there, crouching in the dark, hoping no one would find them.  But just when the disciples feared the worst, that the story, the good news of Jesus had come to a sudden, tragic end, and that all was lost (Weems), “Jesus came and stood among them.”   And before their fear could morph into thoughts of triumph and even violent revenge—before they could try again to make him a militant messiah—Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”   Before his death he had told them, “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27).   It’s as if they had lost that peace in the midst of all the darkness and chaos of Thursday and Friday, and now Jesus is standing there, handing it back to them.  Suddenly fear is forgotten, and it’s not so dark.  Then he says it again, as if he’s pressing that gift firmly in the palms of their hands, “Peace be with you.”  And then he commissions them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

And at that moment Jesus breaths life back into them, just as God breathed life into Adam in Genesis 2:7, and he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “[w]hen he did that Christ made the Church, and in it our brother [our sister], a blessing to us.”  In this blessing is the freedom to live with one another without pretense.  We don’t have to be fake.  We don’t have to hide from one another. 

It’s a blessing often ignored, like an unopened gift.  “The pious fellowship,” he said, “permits no one to be a sinner.  So [all] must conceal [their sins from themselves] and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.”  Yet Jesus’ commission dares us to do just that, to acknowledge that we have need of forgiveness as much as the next person.  Every act of confession and forgiveness affirms the resurrection and the belief “that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Confession and forgiveness of sins are signs of resurrection, of a new creation. 

The Apostle Paul wrote that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:17-18).  We think of Sunday as the first day of the week, the first day of Creation, but “The Epistle of Barnabas called Sunday ‘an eighth day, that is the beginning of another world…in which Jesus also rose from the dead.’  Early Christians saw the Lord’s Day as the eighth day of creation, when, having rested on the seventh day, God began to create anew” (Handbook 18).

“But Thomas” wasn’t there that Sunday evening, that first-eighth-day (v.24).  He didn’t see or hear anything.  He wasn’t there.  In Scripture he’s called Didymus, the Twin, but we know him better as “Doubting Thomas”; because when the disciples repeat Mary Magdalene’s testimony, telling him, “We have seen the Lord!” it’s not enough for Thomas.  No, he needs tangible proof to believe this talk of resurrection, he needs hard evidence that this new-life-in-Christ-talk is real:  “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” (v.25) .  And for that we call him a doubter.  In his consternation and disbelief, Thomas dares Jesus to show himself; he dares him to be resurrected.  And “after eight days,” on the next Sunday, Jesus returns to their hideout and he dares Thomas to see his hands and touch the wound in his side; Jesus dares Thomas to hear, see, touch, and believe.

The painter, Caravaggio, has also become a friend in the faith, for his depiction of this scene.  It’s called The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, but I like to refer to it as, The [Audacity] of Saint Thomas.  And I can’t help but place it on the bulletin cover every Second Sunday of Easter.  Like Scripture, it never gets old.  There’s our friend, “Tom,” looking like a blind man, searching in the dark, his eyes widening with astonishment, as his finger enters Jesus’ wounded flesh.  Some like to criticize Thomas, but if he has a twin, we are it.  Look in the mirror and you’ll see Thomas.  Frederick Buechner once said, that, “Even though [Jesus] said the greater blessing is for those who can believe without seeing, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any believer anywhere who wouldn’t have traded places with Thomas, given the chance, and seen that face and heard that voice and touched those ruined hands.” 

We’d like to think that we’re better than Thomas, but who among us has moved from the darkness of doubt to the light of belief, who has ever confessed, “My Lord and my God!” without some experience of the Resurrection, some flesh-and-blood encounter with the Risen Lord?  If you have, you are blessed!  But I confess that I am one who needs to hear and see and touch, so that I can “declare […] what [I] have seen with my eyes, what [I] have looked at and touched with [my] hands, concerning the word of life.” (1 Jn 1:1). 

I want to believe the poet/playwright, Archibald MacLeish, who said that “there’s always another scene”; I want to believe the Christian mystic, Howard Thurman, who said that “life’s contradictions are not final”; I want to believe that at the end of every episode of this Christian life appear the words: “To Be Continued…”; but I need something or someone to hold onto to navigate the darkness.  Don’t you?!  Aren’t we like Job sometimes, who said, “I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him”?

This is why Jesus’ commission to the disciples (to us) is so important, not as a theory, but as a practice.  Through Christ’s commission we may be as Christ to one another.  “As the Father has sent [Jesus], so [Jesus] send[s] [us]…If [we] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if [we] retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (v.22)  We all need to experience the giving and receiving of forgiveness, and can do so because we have received God’s Spirit and this great commission.  And I’m not talking about the purely sentimental kind of forgiveness that assumes that in an instant everything will be fine.  The visibility of Jesus’ wounds reminds us that Good Friday happened, and that forgiveness, resurrection does not erase the past; But it does allow for healing and for life to go on, even though things aren’t the same.  There is a new creation!

Real forgiveness is difficult.  Most of us find it easier to withhold forgiveness, to hold a grudge.  It’s the road most traveled, and that’s why I think we have practices like “passing the peace.”  We often downplay it as a friendly greeting during worship; a great way to show visitors how nice we are.  But we should really consider it practice for forgiving, for resurrection, for pushing back against the darkness.  When you hear “The peace of Christ be with you,” hear also “Christ is risen.”  And when you hear “and also with you” hear “He is risen indeed.”  You may feel like you’ve been doing this for so long it has lost all meaning, but if we live together long enough, church, there will come a time when saying those words and shaking hands or hugging will be all the light someone needs.  Suddenly, this world won’t seem so dark.  The same is true for the times we join in the Prayer of Confession and tell each other, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  It is not always easy to say, but we do; we have to. 

Much of what we plan and do as the church is preparation for the times when we will be called to live out the love of God, being the visible, flesh and blood Body of Christ.  As Peter Gomes once said:  “[We offer our own lives] as the immediate and ultimate ‘explanation,’ remembering that Christian truth is advanced not by postulates and formulas, the bone-crushing logic of arguments point and counterpoint, but in the living flesh of human beings.”  If there’s any proof of the Resurrection, we are it, friends.

So thanks be to God for Jesus, who lived, died and was raised to new life, who has always “lightened this darkness of [ours].”  Thanks be to God for the gift of peace and forgiveness, that we might live together.  Thanks be to God for Thomas, who questioned, doubted and dared, and taught us to say, “My Lord and my God!”  Thanks be to God for every person has been Christ to us, anyone who ever gave us a reason to believe that the darkness did not overcome the [light], that there is always another scene, that the contradictions in this life are not final, and that this episode is:

“To Be Continued…”


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I know "the flower fades"...but

For the past few years, as people are gathering for worship on Easter Sunday, we have engaged in the practice of "flowering the Cross"--i.e., we adorn the large, free-standing, wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary with fresh-cut flowers to create a beautiful symbol of the Resurrection.  If you hadn't been at any of the worship services during Lent and Holy Week, you probably wouldn't notice the contrast made by that flowery cross; it'd just blend in nicely with the other flowers in the room, and the brass ensemble, and the Hallelujah Chorus.  And that's okay, I guess.

But today, three days after Easter Sunday, I thought I'd tell you about what few see.  This morning I went into the sanctuary and began to remove the flowers from the cross, dry and withering (They were cut flowers, after all.  We knew they weren't going to last forever.).  Yet as I carefully removed each flower, I had the sense that something sacred (just as sacred as what happened on Easter Sunday) was taking place.  It was sacred, in part, because I knew that I would not be throwing those flowers in the trash, but would instead take them out to the compost pile of our church's garden.  There those flowers will continue to fade, but they will eventually help give rise to healthy food (mostly vegetables) that will ultimately give nourishment to the folks who eat at the House of Bread.

Easter Sunday has come and gone, but the season of Easter, of Resurrection continues; and so, the life and work of the Church continues.  We're here every Sunday, and every day in between.  Thanks be to God!