Sunday, May 29, 2011

6th Sunday of Easter - May 29, 2011

Was Jesus Christ the Son of God born in a lowly stable so that you would have more rules to follow?  Did Jesus Christ go around teaching and healing and casting out demons so that you would have more rules to follow?  Did Jesus Christ die on the cross so that you would have more rules to follow?  If you followed the rules well enough, would God love you more?  Do you prove your love to Jesus Christ by following the rules?  Is that the point of being a Christian, following the rules? 

No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And no.

The gospel lesson for today is open for people to make all kinds of mischief on these questions.  Years ago, the old sinner heard, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  The old sinner hear these words and clapped his hands together gleefully and said, “Aha!  I knew it!!  I knew I had to do something!  I knew God’s love wasn’t free!  I knew that all of my efforts weren’t in vain!”  The old sinner loved nothing more than the idea that he had to add something to God’s grace in order to be right with God. 

Here is what the old sinner did with today’s gospel lesson.  When he heard, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” then he thought, “If I don’t keep the commandments, then I won’t be loving Jesus.  And if I don’t love Jesus, then I’m in trouble!”  And then he pondered these things in his head and he came to a solution, “If I keep the commandments, then I show my love for Jesus.  And if I show my love for Jesus then God will love me and I’ll be saved!” 

So, back in the day, the old sinner didn’t drink or smoke, he didn’t dance or play cards.  And he showed up for church on Sunday.  He knew these things didn’t save him, but they were proof that he was serious, that he loved Jesus.  The old sinner knew that Jesus demanded obedience, and doing or not doing these things was keeping up his end of the bargain.  And so he tied himself to the rules.

These days the sinner does things a little differently.  The new sinner hears, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” and thinks, “The commandment Jesus is talking about here is love.  I am supposed to love everybody.”  The new sinner then goes about and tries to love everybody by making sure that they don’t feel judged.  The new sinner goes around and tries to tell people that sin isn’t really sin.  Because if people feel guilty about their sins then they won’t feel loved.  For this new sinner, the worst sin is judgment.  And so, keeping Jesus’ commandment is shown by non-judgment and inclusivity.

The new sinner justifies himself by being tolerant of everything.  The new sinner becomes a kind of slave to the Jesus’ commandment to love one another.  But the new sinner doesn’t trust God to love those sinners just as they are.  And so he tries to protect them by covering up God’s law and replacing it with lots of affirming and loving language.

All of this is malarkey, of course.  The old sinner and the new sinner absolutely refuse to get it.  They desperately try to stay in control.  The old sinner wants to be holy enough to deserve God’s grace.  The new sinner wants to get rid of sin altogether so that others won’t be condemned by it; the new sinner is actually trying to protect other people from God by changing his rules!  But they have both misunderstood.

When Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” he is not giving you a rule to follow and he certainly isn’t saying that there’s no such thing as sin.  He is not calling into question your love for him and demanding that you provide some proof, some kind of action on your part. 

No, he is providing reassurance.  “If you love me, and I know that you do!, then you are going to keep my commandments.  I am going to be pleased with you.  You are going to do so well.  I will be sending you the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be at work transforming you.  He is the Spirit of truth and he will teach you.  You’re not going to be orphaned, trying to work this stuff out for yourselves.  No, you’re going to love me and the Father is going to love you and I’m going to love you.  We’re family.  So don’t worry about it.  Don’t get bogged down in it.  Trust me, it’s going to be okay.  Because I live you are going to live too.”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

5th Sunday in Easter - May 22, 2011 (Graduate Sunday @ Christ)

Twelve or thirteen years ago there was a group of kids who went to school for the first time.  No doubt there was plenty of excitement that day.  Kids instinctively know that going off to school represents a big change in their lives.  They’re excited to learn, sure, but even more than that, they are excited to grow, to stretch out, to get older.  They are like plants that, having coming through the topsoil stretch skyward, greedy for the sunshine.  But I’d be willing to bet that there was some fear and uncertainty that day too.  What was the teacher going to be like?  And the other kids?  Would they be nice or maybe not so much?  What about classes?  Would they be hard?  It’s one thing to get your own backpack and a desk with your name on it at the school; it’s quite another to be forced to move on from what you know, whether it be familiar daycare or mom’s side.  On the cusp of something new and unknown, there was uncertainty.  What was going to happen?

In our reading from the Gospel of John, the disciples are caught in uncertainty.  For three years they have gone around with Jesus.  They have listened to him preach; they have seen him heal the sick; they have even witnessed him raising Lazarus from the dead.  It has been a busy and amazing time together. And now, he has brought them together for one last meal together, the Last Supper.  And he has told them that the time has come for him to leave.  He will be killed the next day.   They did not expect this.  They were not prepared for it.  They did not know what to do. 

To make the situation even more tense and bewildering, during the supper, just before our verses begin, Jesus reveals something shocking, “One of you will betray me.”  They don’t quite fully understand, even when Judas gets up and leaves the room, but there’s no doubt that it is unsettling. 

And some days the uncertainty just pours down.  After Judas leaves they continue talking together about the future.  Peter looks forward with bravado and declares, “I will lay down my life for you.”  Jesus replies, “the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” 

For three years they have been a group together, depending on each other, living together, eating together.  Now it all seems to be changing so fast and they can hardly catch their breath.  Jesus is going to die?  One of them is a betrayer?  Faithful Peter is going to deny Jesus?  The future which they have been looking forward to now seems so uncertain.

And so Jesus begins to comfort them.  That is what our gospel lesson is about.  Jesus is speaking words of comfort to his disciples who are faced with a very uncertain future.  First he tells them that they’re not going to be separated forever.  That he’s going to his father’s house where he will prepare a room for them and then he will come back and bring them too.  And then he adds, by way of reassurance, “You know the way where I am going.”

Thomas cries out in frustration and anxiety, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  He may as well have said, “Lord, what are we going to do without you?  What’s going to happen to us?”  On the cusp of something new and unknown, there is uncertainty. 

On a day like today, we might well have questions like Thomas did.  “Lord, I don’t what’s going to happen when I leave home.  I don’t know how I’m going to be able to pay for school.  I don’t know if the Guard will accept me.  And where are they going to send me?  Will I be able to get a good job and get ahead in life?  What am I going to do with an empty house now that my kids are gone?

When Thomas cries out, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus answers him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Thomas cries out in uncertainty.  Jesus Christ responds with certainty. 

When you cry out in uncertainty, or just wonder to yourself in private, Jesus Christ responds, “I am your certainty.  You can count on me.  Whatever else is going on, wherever you’re going, I am the one who assures your future.”  What does this mean?  For one thing, it means that your future isn’t some kind of destination, some kind of goal towards which you are moving.  If your goal is a college degree, one day you’ll find yourself graduated and wondering what to do.  If your goal is the military, one day you’ll find yourself discharged and wondering what to do.  If your goal is to start a family, one day you’ll find that your kids are leaving home and you’ll be wondering what to do.  Jesus Christ says, “I am the way.  I am the certainty.  I am the one who doesn’t change.  I have chosen you.  All the rest of it can change all it wants to, my promise to you doesn’t.” 

Graduates, you are headed into a great deal of uncertainty.  I’d love to give you all kinds of wisdom that I’ve picked up along the way, but here really isn’t the place for it.  What I want to tell you today isn’t my wisdom; it’s just the truth.  In all of the uncertainty into which you now step, Jesus Christ is your one and only certainty.  If that seems strange or difficult to understand, don’t worry.  The disciples didn’t understand it too well either.  But that’s what Jesus told them.  And then he followed through.

5th Sunday of Easter - May 22, 2011 (alternate sermon @ St. Peter)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Today, Jesus gives us a very simple command; he tells us to be perfect like God. 
He tells us to be perfect like God.
He tells us to be perfect like God.
Now that is quite a command!  When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, at least they seemed realistic.  The people of Israel still weren’t able to keep them, mind you, but at least it seemed like they had a fighting chance.  What are we supposed to do with this new commandment from Jesus?  This sermon is going to be about how three different people understand God’s commands, particularly this big one from Jesus. And at the end, it will be a sermon on what we as Lutherans know about such things.

Now there is a certain kind of person who hears God’s command to be perfect and gets excited.  Lets call this person Tom.  Tom gets excited because he is an observant man.  He pays attention to the news.  He is involved in his community.  He has noticed what happens when God’s law is broken or ignored.  All kinds of trouble!  Abortion, drug abuse, violence, divorce.  Tom is a kind-hearted man and he wants good things for people.  “If only we would take God’s commands more seriously then we wouldn’t have so many of these problems,” he says.  Tom gets excited when he hears God’s command to be perfect because he has faith that if we just tried harder, God would work through the law to make us into better people.

There is another kind of person and we will call her Jane.  Jane hears God’s command to be perfect and she cringes.  She takes God’s law seriously too, but she’s well aware that she hasn’t kept it very well.  Jane made some bad decisions when she was younger, got pregnant when she was still in high school, married the father.  Divorced the father because he had a drinking problem.  She’s always trying to do the right thing.  But it’s always seemed out of reach for her.  And so when she hears God’s command to be perfect she just feels guilty.  “God, why does it have to be so difficult,” is what she says.  “Oh well, I guess I’ll just keep trying.”

Bob is another kind of fellow altogether.  He runs his own business and places high value on getting things done.  He hears God’s command to be perfect and it strikes him as unrealistic.  Bob is a practical man, after all.  “Clearly,” he thinks, “Jesus was just exaggerating to make a point.”  For Bob, God’s commands are more or less good moral suggestions that sometimes are relevant and sometimes aren’t, depending on how well they work.  What’s important is “living right.”  That is what God is really interested in, after all.  Each person needs to use a little common sense to live right and that should be fine.

So there you go.  Three different kinds of people who hear God’s command in three different ways.

As you might imagine, there are problems with all three.  Or rather, there is a particular problem with all three.  When Tom, Jane and Bob hear the gospel lesson for today and when they hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” their minds are trapped.  They immediately start thinking about whether or not they have kept the command.  “How well have I done?” is what they are thinking.

  • Tom thinks that he’s done pretty well, by the grace of God.
  • Jane knows that she’s messed it up and wishes she could go back and do a better job of it.
  • Bob congratulates himself for being reasonable enough to live right without getting hung up on being too literal.
All are thinking about how well they have done.  And I don’t blame them one bit.  That’s just how people think.  It’s perfectly rationale.  In their own ways Tom, Jane and Bob are each responding rationally to the command of Jesus.  But so long as they remain stuck there on the command, they are missing the part that really matters.    

The gospel is not rationale.  God’s choosing you to be his child is not rationale.  Quite to the contrary, the gospel comes out of left field.  It’s about the most irrational thing that you can think of.  Trying to explain it can rob it of it of its beauty and its power so here it is.   

When God looks at you, he isn’t trying to figure out whether or not you’ve been perfect.  God does not say, “Well, you’ve really shown some improvement.”   God does not say, “If only you’d just try a little harder!”  He looks at you and he sees his son, Jesus Christ, absolutely perfect and without fault.  And then he says to you, his voice swelling with pride, “I am pleased with you.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

Funeral of Edna Louise Boysen

I wish that I could stand before you today and honor Edna by saying some personal things about her.  I wish that I could speak specifically to her experience and her life.  I wish that I had had the chance to meet her and spend some time talking with her.  I do wish these things, but to no avail.  You are the ones who have known her and loved her.  You are the ones with stories and memories that mean so much on a day like today.  So be it.  For my part, I can only tell you about someone who knew Edna too.  And I’ll tell you about that person, Jesus Christ, using the scriptures that Edna wanted read today.

First, Psalm 23.  Jesus Christ is a shepherd.  This means that his job is to care for his sheep, provide for them, lead them, and protect them.  Jesus Christ leads his sheep beside the still waters of baptism, giving them the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. 

Jesus Christ leads his sheep through the valley of the shadow of death.  This shadow draws painfully close, touching those we can hardly bear to lose.  We can hardly bear it.  Yet he brings us through.  He brings us through this valley and he gives us comfort to endure.

Jesus Christ prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies.  That is to say, he richly provides for us even when all kinds of evil and adversity are all around us. 

Jesus Christ is our shepherd.

Next, 1 Corinthians.  Jesus Christ is the victor over death.  We read that “death is swallowed up in victory.”  We read that death has lost its sting.  I can assure you that death did not give up its power gracefully.  Its sting was not removed cheaply.  No, in fact the victory of Christ over death was very expensive indeed.  It required that the very Son of God, Jesus Christ must bear the sins of the world, and even become sin itself, and it required that he suffer and die.  The death of any innocent is a price beyond measure, too horrible to contemplate.  The death of Jesus Christ is more expensive than that and more horrible, yet this great evil is turned to good by an all powerful God.  Instead of being swallowed up by death Jesus swallows it up himself.  He puts death to death.  And so we can declare that death has lost its sting. 

Jesus Christ is the victor over death.

Next, Romans.  Jesus Christ refuses to be separated from us.  He sits at God’s right hand interceding for us.  What does this mean?  First of all it means that we require intercession.  We are sinners.  We do what is evil in the sight of God.  We fall short.  We rebel.  We love ourselves more than we love others.  In short, we sin against our God over and over again.  We require intercession.  And this is what Jesus does.  He says, “Father, you must forgive.  For I have died and been raised for that one.  She has been baptized in my name as well as yours.  Do not regard her unrighteousness, but instead look at my righteousness.  For I do not wish to spend eternity without that one.  I refuse to be separated from her.”  The strength of the love of Christ is such that it will not allow any such separation. 

Finally, John.  Jesus Christ brings us to be with himself and with the Father.  An oft heard religious message is that we must seek God, make a decision for him, invite him into our hearts, turn our lives over to him and so on.  This is nothing else but to say that we must bring ourselves to Jesus.  And if we’re responsible for that, then it’s really not much further to say that we must bring ourselves all the way to the father.  This is not true.  It is false.  We do not bring ourselves to the Father, nor do we bring ourselves to Jesus Christ.  In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explained it like this, “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.”  No, it is Jesus Christ who comes to us.  And having collected us and sealed us with his blood, he brings us to the Father where he has prepared a room for us and where we shall live with them forever. 

As I said at the beginning, I wish that I had had the chance to meet Edna and know her.  By all accounts she was a wonderful woman.  But thank God that Jesus Christ knew Edna.  Thank God that Jesus Christ was her shepherd and that he conquered death for her.  Thank God that Jesus Christ has interceded on her behalf and has promised to bring her to live eternally with God. 

As for us who remain......  May God work repentance in us and may God cause his gift of faith to grow in fullness, bringing forth fruit in this world, until the day that Jesus brings each one of us to be with him also.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

4th Sunday of Easter - May 15, 2011

The gospel lesson for today, taken by itself, is pretty hard to understand, I think.  At least for me.  I mulled it over for a couple of days, talked with the men’s group about it and still felt like I didn’t have a hold on it.  It’s about sheep and I don’t know much about sheep.  Plus, the little I know I already preached about a month or two ago.  What more can I say about it?  It wasn’t until I put the ten verses of our gospel lesson into its context that it started getting a little clearer.  You see, John chapter 10, verses one through ten is  actually just a portion of a larger storyline that is going on during one of Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem.  Our gospel lesson is a smack-down that Jesus delivers to the Pharisees, the religious leaders.  But we don’t get that if we don’t read the whole thing together.  So even though it seems like a pretty long passage, I’m going to read it so that we can hopefully understand what’s going on. 
[Read John 9:1-10:10]

So how does our gospel lesson fit with that whole story about the man who was born blind?  The blind man whom Jesus heals is a sheep.  All his life, people have looked down on him.  They have robbed him of his dignity.  In his culture, it was a widespread assumption that diseases and physical handicaps were caused by sin.  Being blind meant that he must have sinned pretty badly.  But since he was blind from birth, maybe it wasn’t him who had sinned, maybe it was his parents.  Either way, all his life people have looked at him and seen the stain of sin.  And in so doing they have robbed him of having a decent life.  The religious leaders, the Pharisees, should have been the ones to declare God’s mercy.  They should have been the ones declaring God’s lovingkindness to this poor man.  They should have been the ones to declare the worth of each of God’s creatures.  But they have not done so.  The man born blind was a poor defenseless sheep in the sheep pen and they have treated him with contempt.  Instead of being his protectors, they have been thieves and robbers.

And then one day a voice comes.  This blind man hears a voice.  The voice speaks to him as mud is put on his eyes.  Then the voice tells him to go wash it off in a pool of water.  He hears that voice and without really having any reason to believe it, he goes and washes his eyes, his useless eyes, his blind eyes that were the symbol of how sinful and shameful he has been all of his life.  And when he does, all of a sudden he can see. 

So again, in the terms of the images that Jesus uses, this man is a poor sheep, stuck in a sheep pen where he is beset by robbers and thieves [the religious leaders], even though it should be a place of protection.  And the voice of a shepherd comes and calls him out.  And he hears and he trusts and he goes out through the gate...... into a better life...... into green pastures...... into abundance.  For that is what the shepherd has called him to.

Jesus is using these images to deliver some news to the religious leaders. Jesus is telling them to their faces, that they are the thieves and robbers.  He is telling them that they are not really the leaders of the people.  Jesus is attacking them, accusing them.  And the funny thing is, they just can’t see what he’s talking about.  They “see” themselves as being the leaders; they “see” themselves as being the righteous ones; they “see” themselves as being the judges of everyone else.  According to the religious leaders it is everyone else who is blind.  But here Jesus tells them, “No, you are the blind ones.  You think so much of yourselves, but you’ve been a curse for the people you should have been protecting.  You’re not shepherds, you are thieves and robbers.” 

Further, Jesus is announcing to the religious leaders that he will be calling his sheep out, that his sheep will no longer be subject to them.  He is talking about the establishment of the Christian church, where people will believe in Jesus and escape the authority of the old religious system, which only robbed them.  These people whom he is calling out, these sheep, are the first Christians. 

So, to summarize, this is what Jesus has told the religious leaders.  “The people are not yours.  The authority is not yours.  I will call my people and they will believe in me and have life and they will have it abundantly.  They won’t listen to you.  Take this blind man.  He heard my voice and he received his sight and he has come to believe in me.  He is just the beginning.  There are many more to come.  You’re going to try to destroy the work I’m doing, but it’s all over for you.”

So that is the explanation of our gospel lesson for today.  It is an accusation and it is a statement of intent, a promise.  Jesus accuses the religious leaders and he tells them and the others what he is going to do.

Now this is the work that Jesus Christ has been doing ever since.  He has been calling his people into abundant life, freeing them from thieves and robbers.  What does that look like these days?  What robs people of abundant life?  Alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, greed, busy-ness, abortion, racism, self-fulfillment at the expense of responsibility....... and so on.  These things (and others,) as well as the people who condone and encourage them, rob us of the abundant life to which Jesus calls us. 

But my point this morning is not to end here, dark and grim, with the thieves and robbers.  For that would be to miss the point entirely.  When Jesus declares his intentions, he is declaring a promise.  He does not say, “I am going to try to do battle with these things.”  No.  He declares victory and says, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.”  Jesus has life for you.  It is an abundant life.  And it is an eternal life.  Given to you.  Because you are his sheep and he has called you.  Amen 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

3rd Sunday of Easter - May 8, 2011

The sermon this morning is really very simple.  It has two main points that lead to a problem and a conclusion: 
The first point is this: God prevents us from knowing and seeing himself. 
The second point is this: God reveals himself to us. 

I. Unrecognition
On Easter afternoon, Jesus meets two guys on the road.  As it happens, these two guys are disciples of his.  They weren’t part of the inner circle, but they’ve been around him before, heard him speak, seen him do miracles and so on.  They say as much in their own words, “Jesus was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.”  They knew Jesus.  But strangely, on this particular day they just don’t recognize him.  Why not? 

Simple.  And this is the first main point.  It was God who actually prevented them.  Verse 16 says, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  Though they knew Jesus and though we know that they will recognize Jesus again, for the time being at least, God blinds their eyes and prevents them from seeing him.  Why?  Why wouldn’t God want them to recognize his Son?  Maybe there’s a good reason.  But it doesn’t say what it is.  We don’t know why.  What we do know is this: God prevents them from recognizing Jesus.   

This lack of recognition is not limited to the Jesus who is right in front of them.  They also do not recognize how God works.  They thought that the Messiah was going to be a powerful prophet who would save their country Israel.  They thought that Jesus was that man.  But Jesus has been crucified so they are in confusion.  They thought they understood God’s plan.  But they didn’t. 

These two men also had some information from the women who had gone to the tomb that very morning.  The women had told the other disciples that the tomb was empty.  These two men had heard this testimony, but they did not understand what it meant.  They were in the dark.  It had not yet been given to them to understand.

            In any event, without knowing it, they walk along the road in the presence of the risen Christ.  Without knowing it, they listen as the Son of God explains the scriptures to them.  Without their knowing it, God is alive and at work. 

II. Recognition
            They arrive in Emmaus, the little town at the end of their journey.  Jesus makes as if he is continuing along down the road, but they invite him to stay with them, using words that we know from the Holden Evening Prayer service that we sing for Lent, “Stay with us now, for it is evening, and the day is almost over.”   They sit down for supper.  Jesus takes the bread. He blesses it.  He breaks it.  He gives it to them. And it is then they recognize him.  Why?

            Simple.  And this is the second main point.  It was God who revealed himself.  Verse 31 says, “Then their eyes were opened.”  It wasn’t them who opened their own eyes; their eyes were opened.  Why?  Why does God choose to reveal himself now?  Maybe there’s a good reason.  But it doesn’t say.  We don’t know.  What we do know is this: God reveals himself to them.

            In any event, just as they are allowed to recognize him, Jesus disappears.  And so they turn around and go back to Jerusalem where they can share this good news with the others.

So there are the two main points:
1) God prevents us from knowing and seeing himself.
2) God reveals himself to us.

III. Problem
Now I promised that the two main points would lead to a problem.  The problem is this.  Those two disciples didn’t have any choice over the matter.  They don’t get to choose when and where God is revealed and when and where he stays hidden.  It isn’t that they didn’t recognize Jesus.  It’s that they couldn’t.  God prevented them from seeing.  He prevented them from knowing.  And then, when and where it pleased him, he revealed himself to them.  What in the world are we to make of that?

First, I want to connect that to us.  I want to say it bluntly.  God keeps things hidden from you.  God prevents you from seeing and understanding what you would like to see and understand.  This runs contrary to the modern mythology of man, which presumes that all things can be explained and understood.  We can collect evidence and explain how something happened, just as the disciples became aware that the tomb was empty, but there is a limit here.  We don’t know why.  We can explain how a tornado works.  But why does it hit and destroy a town?  We don’t know why.  We can explain how a hurricane works.  But why did it hit and destroy so much of Haiti last year?  We don’t know why.  Pat Robertson famously tried to explain why, by saying that two hundred years ago Haitians had made a pact with the devil in order to get their independence.  If these things are so easily explained, what did the people of Mapleton do?  Again, I will say this bluntly, God keeps things hidden from us.  God prevents us from seeing and understanding what we would like to see and understand.

Of course this is not limited to natural disasters and matters of science.  We experience this in our individual, private lives.  My grandfather was a Lutheran minister.  When he was about 40 years old he was diagnosed with a rare spinal disease called syringamyelia.  Due to the severe pain it caused him, he was forced to retire about ten years later.  Normally speaking, it would have killed him sometime soon thereafter.  But it didn’t.  It just got worse and worse, year after year.  He slowly lost the ability to use his hands, to walk, to do anything other than endure.  He endured for twenty-five years after being forced to retire.  Looking back at those years so filled with pain, I ask, “Why did he have to go through all of it?  Why did he have to suffer so much?  Why didn’t God have mercy and take him sooner?  Why?”  I don’t know.  God keeps things hidden from us.  God prevents us from seeing and understanding what we would like to see and understand.  

So that is the problem that I mentioned.  We are not in control.  We can ask why, but often we do not receive the answers we want.  Painful events happen out in the world and close to home.  We desire to know why, to understand.  But for some reason, God does not share his reasons with us, he prevents us from knowing.

IV. Conclusion
At the beginning I mentioned that there was a conclusion, not just a problem.  Face to face with this problem, what can the conclusion be? 

The conclusion, God’s conclusion, is simply this, Jesus Christ.  That is all.  Maybe that doesn’t seem to answer the question that you have.  Too bad.  Maybe that isn’t emotionally satisfying.  Too bad.  Maybe you want something more or something tailor-made just for you.  Too bad.  Whatever questions or heartaches or tragedies you have, this is God’s answer.  This is the conclusion that God has for you.  God has given Jesus Christ to you.  And like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he is revealed to you in the breaking of the bread.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

2nd Sunday of Easter - May 1, 2011

Aside from Judas the betrayer, there is no other disciple who has a worse reputation than Thomas.  Or should I say, Doubting Thomas?  Throughout the history of the church Thomas has been pointed at and warned against, “Don’t be like him!  He’s the one who refused to have faith in Jesus until he had proof.”  These days, however, there are folks who are rehabilitating Thomas, who even think that he outdid the other disciples in faith because he confessed that Jesus was God before any of the others.  So which is it?  Is Thomas a bum or a hero?  Is he doubting Thomas?  Or someone else?

First of all, what really happened?  Just how did Thomas get stuck with such a lousy nickname?  The traditional interpretation goes like this.  After Jesus was crucified the disciples gathered together in a house.  They were legitimately concerned about their own safety, so they were keeping their heads down.  Plus they were comforting each other in their grief.  Then they got the word from the women that Jesus wasn’t dead; he had been raised from the dead.  Later that night Jesus appeared to them and they all believed; they had faith.  Thomas had taken off somewhere, though.  And when he returned and when they told him what had happened, he refused to believe.  He insisted on physical proof, “Unless I see the marks 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.”  All the other disciples believed, but he did not.  Therefore, he is rightly called Doubting Thomas. 

It is true that Thomas did come to believe after Jesus again appeared to the group the following week.  Thomas was there this time and saw Jesus for himself.  At this point, he had his proof.  But the traditional interpretation is that his faith didn’t quite measure up to the faith of the other disciples because he had needed proof.  What Jesus says to him seems to reinforce this view, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Reading between the lines, this sounds an awful lot like Jesus is rebuking Thomas.  Hence, he has been saddled with the unfortunate nickname all these years. 

Now this interpretation follows pretty closely the bible text.  But it isn’t the only way that one can interpret the events that took place.  As I said, these days there are many who are trying to rehabilitate Thomas.  Perhaps he wasn’t as bad as we have been led to believe.  Their interpretation might be a bit more like this:

After Jesus was crucified, his disciples were terrified.  And so they hid behind locked doors.  They hid on Saturday and they were still hiding there on Sunday.  Some of the women had some courage and they went out to see the tomb.  Once they came back with the news that Jesus had been raised, a couple of the men went to check, but by evening time, they were all locked behind closed doors again out of fear.  It was on the evening of that first Easter Sunday that Jesus appeared to them.

There was, however, one disciple who was not there.  Thomas.  We are not told where he was or what he was doing, but it seems possible, maybe even probable, that he had more courage than the other disciples.  He wasn’t immobilized by fear and hadn’t shut up himself up behind locked doors.  In any event, he missed out.  Upon his return the disciples told Thomas, “Guess what?  We saw the Lord!” 
“Yeah right.” 
“No, really.  We saw him.  The door was locked and everything and then all of a sudden he was here.” 
“You bunch of sissy cowards.  You’re too chicken to leave the house and so you sit around and conjure up fantasies to try to make yourselves feel better.  He’s dead.  I saw him die.  Unless I see the marks 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.”

Interpreters who are sympathetic to Thomas will point out that Thomas wasn’t asking for any more proof than the other disciples had gotten.  And this is true.  Jesus had shown them the nail marks and the surely could have touched them.  And in any event, it’s no great example of faith that they had displayed.  Sure they believed, but they had seen him.  It’s easy to bring yourself to believe when you see with your own eyes.

The interpretation continues like this: when Thomas finally did see the risen Christ, he not only believed that Jesus was risen.  He also confessed that Jesus was God.  This confession went beyond what any of the other disciples had said.  And so, according to these interpreters, Thomas is actually a better example of faith for us.  Sure, he didn’t believe right away, but when he did come to believe, his faith went further than all the others.  You might even call it, “better faith.”

So which is it?  Are we right in calling Thomas, Doubting Thomas?  Is he really an example of a poor kind of faith?  Or is it just the opposite?  Was he more courageous than the other disciples and did he show a better understanding of who Jesus really was?  Did Thomas have better faith?

Perhaps you won’t be too surprised if I tell you that neither of these are right, that both of them completely miss the point.  How so?  Both of these interpretations teach that belief, faith, is somehow the responsibility of the individual.  They both teach that the individual is responsible for having faith and for the quality of that faith.

Let’s look at the first interpretation.  The disciples who saw Jesus believed.  Thomas didn’t.  Disciples = good.  Thomas = bad.  Those disciples must have done something right.  Thomas must have done something wrong.  Simple.
This is bunk. 

How about the second interpretation?  It makes the same kind of error.  The other disciples only call Jesus, “Lord.”  Thomas calls him, “My Lord and my God.”  Therefore Thomas has better faith.  Simple.
This is also bunk.

There is something here that he is hiding in plain sight.  There is an obvious point that has to often been missed.  Nobody had faith.  Nobody.  Not the women.  Not the men.  Not Thomas.  Not the other disciples.  When Jesus died, absolutely nobody had faith.  Period.  Nobody deserves to pat themselves on the back.  They didn’t have faith because faith isn’t something that a person can produce.  It’s not the result of a decision.  It’s not the result of being a good person.  Faith comes as a gift.  Mary Magdalene was the first to receive this gift.  Some of the disciples received it when she told them about the risen Lord.  For some of the disciples, faith was not given to them until Jesus came and spoke to them that first night.  And for Thomas?  Thomas did not receive the gift of faith until the next week.

The point of this is to hopefully make it clear that faith is not some kind of great thing that we choose for ourselves, something that makes us better than anyone else.  Faith is an amazing gift that has been given to us.  That explains the meaning of Jesus words to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  These words do not mean, “Good for those folks who believe without evidence.”  No, not at all.  Jesus’ words mean something more like, “Those folks who will come to believe?  They are getting such an amazing gift.”  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.

And so I tell you this morning, You all are so very blessed.  You have received an amazing gift.  You haven’t gotten to see Jesus in the flesh just yet.  Nevertheless he has given you the gift of faith, the same gift of faith that he gave to the disciples and the same gift of faith that he gave to Thomas.  Or should I say, “Believing Thomas?”