Believing is Seeing

Audio of today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read the text here.


Lost in the busyness of Holy Week was a publication by the Gallup pollsters that once again reminded the Church of the importance of good preaching.  In a survey that asked people what factored into their decisions about church attendance, 76% of respondents said that “sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” were a major factor in where they went to church.  75% also listed “sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” as a major factor.  With no offense intended to my colleague Ken Stein, only 38% suggested “a good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music” as a major factor.[1]  These statistics are nothing new.  I’ve been hearing about the need for quality preaching since before I went to seminary.  Seminaries, to their credit, do the best they can within the confines of a three-year curriculum to help would-be preachers begin to hone their craft.  At VTS, we were required to take a semester and a half of homiletics during our Middler year.  Much to my benefit as a preacher, I had the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel for a full semester.  Judith’s teaching style matched me to a “T”: she is exceedingly Type-A and loves rules.  She worked hard to mold us into good preachers.  Her goal was to teach us how to “proclaim the gospel in such a way it can be heard by the head and the heart.”  Even though I violate most of them on a regular basis, including at least two in that last clause, I still have Judith McDaniel’s patented “12 Homiletical Norms” saved in my files.  I will never forget her number one rule in preaching: “Settle for one point, well made.”  She was so serious about the need for one clear point that without an obvious thesis statement in the body of the first paragraph, your sermon could not be graded as an A.

Having now violated that norm as well, I can say that I am in good company.  It isn’t until his Gospel is almost over (and some scholars think maybe it was over) that John finally gives us a clear statement of his purpose for putting the story of Jesus to parchment.  “These are written,” John writes, “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.”  All the poetry, the signs, the discourses; all the time spent on the high priestly prayer and the Passion; all the details and the care with which he wrote them, were included so that we might come to believe.  It might feel like this thesis statement is simply an appendix, tacked on after the story has been told, but I think John decided to include it here on purpose.  This thesis for belief comes right at the tail end of a story that shows us what belief requires.

This story takes place while it is still Sunday, the first Easter Day, the first day of the week and the first day of new life.  That whole scene at the tomb that we heard about last week had just happened that morning.  John and Peter had seen the empty tomb and gone home when Mary came barging in, breathlessly declaring, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what did the disciples do with that news?  There was no Alleluia Party, I can tell you that.  No shrimp cocktail.  No champagne punch.  No cake.  Only fear, disbelief, and locked doors.  This pattern of testimony and skepticism wasn’t new.  Back at the very beginning of John’s Gospel is the story of Andrew who, after he had encountered Jesus, went to tell his brother Peter.  Peter needed his own encounter, and so off they went to meet Jesus.  The pattern repeated the very next day when Philip ran off to find Nathaniel who is famous for responding to Philip’s testimony with, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Belief based on the testimony of someone else proves challenging in John’s Gospel.  John knows that belief in Jesus is easiest with a personal encounter. [2]  But after the Ascension, John also understands that coming to faith based on the testimony of someone else is the norm, and so he wrote his story, that we might come to believe having never seen.

Back in that locked house on Easter evening, other than Mary Magdalene, we have no idea if any of the disciples gathered there actually believed that Jesus was really risen from the dead.  If anyone did believe, they were likely the most afraid.  When Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, it sealed the deal on his execution.  Imagine what havoc Rome and the Temple would wreak upon Jesus’ friends if he really had the power to come back from the dead!  Those who were still unbelieving likely had similar fears with the added thought of how awful it would be to get yourself killed for following some guy whose tragic death was made more pathetic when he wasn’t resurrected like he said he would be, but his body was stolen to perpetuate some ridiculous hoax.  The disciples had heard Mary’s testimony, but they couldn’t come to believe, when suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst.

That morning, Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord was simply her name.  Now, the disciples were offered peace and his wounds, and like Mary, they rejoiced at the sight of their risen Lord.  Well, not all of them.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there.  Like Andrew going to find Peter and Philip running off to find Nathaniel, the disciples went in search of Thomas with the Easter proclamation of Mary Magdalene on their lips.  “We have seen the Lord!”  Here is where most preachers will go off on a tangent about Doubting Thomas, but I refuse.  Partially because Judith McDaniel’s voice is reminding me that I’ve already failed pretty miserably at settling on one well-made point.  But mostly, I refuse to beat the dead horse of Doubting Thomas because I think calling Thomas “doubting” is a bad reading of the Scripture.  Thomas didn’t have any less faith than the rest of the disciples had shown the week before.  All he asked for was what Mary and the rest all received on Easter.  He wanted to see and touch Jesus.  Like everyone else in John’s Gospel, before Thomas could believe, he needed to encounter the risen Lord.

It took eight days, but Thomas got his chance, when back in that same locked house, Jesus once again appeared in their midst.  Again, he offered peace.  He invited Thomas to touch his wounds and asked him to give up his unbelieving ways just as the rest of them had a week earlier.  Jesus invited Thomas into a relationship, which is what belief is all about.  Believing in Jesus means that we trust that he is who is says he is and will do what he has promised to do.  It means that through his resurrection, we can enter into an ongoing relationship with him by following where he leads.

It is into this relationship that John hopes all of us will enter.  Both he and Jesus know how difficult that will be for those of us who would come later.  Unlike Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel, Mary, the Ten, and eventually Thomas, we don’t have the opportunity to encounter Jesus face-to-face.  Much as we would like him to, Jesus isn’t likely to miraculously appear in our midst, offer us peace, and invite us to touch his wounds.  We who believe without seeing are blessed, Jesus assures us, because ours is a faith much more challenging to maintain.  The disciples came to believe through seeing.  We will have to come to see through believing.  Eventually, if we stick around long enough; if we can hang on to belief through its infancy; if we are open to the Spirit, we will have our own opportunities to see Jesus, to receive his peace, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.  Through belief, Jesus enters our lives, despite whatever doors we may have locked in fear, and we are blessed.  He enters offering peace, and invites us to abundant life in his name.  God knows, it isn’t easy to maintain an Easter faith without seeing Jesus face-to-face, but when we can, we are assuredly blessed in believing.  Amen.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3222

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My Annual Plea for Thomas

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I grew up attending St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  Underneath this grand stained glass window, I cut my teeth on the Book of Common Prayer, made a joyful noise in VBS, learned what it means to pray for one another, fell in love with that one note in “O Holy Night,” and even preached a time or two.  More than anything else, however, this window has remained in my memory.  It shows the risen Lord offering the wounds in his hands to Thomas with is usual symbols of the spear by which he was martyred and the carpenter’s square indicating his profession before joining the 12.

Despite the fact that neither Jesus nor Thomas appear to have eyes in this window, it seems clear that Jesus is looking at Thomas with compassion.  Despite what our common reading of the standard Gospel lesson for Easter 2 might try to tell us, I am convinced that the encounter between Jesus and Thomas is not one of rebuke by Jesus or doubt by Thomas, but of mutual affection and joy.  See, Thomas didn’t want anything more than what the rest of the disciples had received.  He wanted to see Jesus risen from the dead.  He wanted to know that it wasn’t some sick joke.  He needed to have some proof before he could give his life back over to the one in whom he had placed so much hope.  Jesus, for his part, seems more than willing to give Thomas what he needs.

His hope for Thomas is the same hope Jesus has for all of us.  “Don’t continue to be unbelieving, but believe.”  Jesus goes on to assure the many of us who would follow after Thomas and the others, that faith need not come from seeing and touching.  Instead, those who do not have the opportunity to see Jesus face-to-face are even more blessed by their faith.  Even so, we who follow Jesus may not see him physically, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll have the chance to meet him, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.

As you prepare your sermons for Easter 2, dear readers, please don’t wag your finger at Thomas.  Refuse to call him doubting.  Instead, offer him up as the example of all those who had the opportunity to see the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.  Remind your flock that while we don’t have that chance, each of us can meet Jesus in faith and be blessed.

Shalom, Eirene, Pax, Peace

The world of Biblical studies is constantly changing.  New archaeological discoveries breed new realities.  New interpretive lenses bring new understanding.  Whether it is the Canonical approach, the Historical-Critical Method, the JEDP Documentary Hypothesis, or the Jesus Seminar, scholars need to publish or perish, and so Biblical studies journals are filled with papers.  Some aren’t worth the pixels on the screen, while others will stand the test of time.  One that continues to carry weight (pardon the pun), is The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, common called Strong’s Concordance, which was first published in 1890, but continues to find its home on the shelves of preachers to this day.  Strong’s is basically a list of every word that appears in the Bible; all 8,674 Hebrew and 5,624 Greek words contained therein. It is a helpful tool for anyone who would like work in the original languages of the Scriptures, but isn’t exactly a Greek or Hebrew scholar.

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That’s one Strong neck beard!

Strong’s Greek word number 1515 is Eirene, the Greek word for “peace,” which Jesus speaks over his disciples in the opening verse of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  One of the definitions of eirene, way down at the number five slot is “of Christianity, the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot, of whatsoever sort that is.”  How spectacular is that sentence?  Anyway, what struck me this morning is the reality of the disciples’ fear, and Jesus’ just as clear declaration of peace.

The disciples, despite having heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene that Jesus was raised from the dead, cannot find peace.  They are still very much stuck in fear, and are far from content with their earthly lot.  Whatsoever sort it is is still one of confusion, uncertainty, and the stark reality that the news of Jesus’ resurrection meant that the cross hairs of the Roman/Temple Alliance were aimed squarely at them.  Whether or not Jesus was actually raised from the dead, the fact that his body was missing from the tomb meant bad things for his closest companions.  They gathered in that upper room afraid for their lives, and Jesus entered the locked space, and said:

Shalom, Eirene, Pax, Peace

It’ll take several more encounters with the risen Jesus and a pretty hefty dose of the Holy Spirit before the disciples are able to find that tranquil state in which dying for their faith in the risen Lord isn’t something to be feared.  But on this night, the first evening of the resurrection reality, Jesus invites them to begin the journey.  He invites us as well.  In the midst of whatsoever sort of earthly lot are in, Jesus offers us the eirene of God that passes all understanding.  He invites us to find in him the tranquil state of the soul.

The Collect Call – a homily

I preached out noon service today and focused on the Collect for Easter 2.

As many of you know, I grew up attending Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Up in the choir loft there is a three story tall by nearly twenty feet wide stained glass window of Thomas reaching out to touch the wounds of Jesus.  Even though I’m a decade removed from almost 20 years of seeing that window and hearing sermon after sermon about our namesake, Doubting Thomas, I still feel like I need a break from the story of Thomas.  I just feel bad for the guy.  It’s like a cartoon I saw last week, where Thomas is talking with two other disciples, his hands raised in exasperation as he says, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter “Denying Peter” or Mark “Ran Away Naked Mark.”  Why should I be saddled with this title?”  Or the famous 1602 painting by Caravaggio where he very clearly insinuates that the other disciples, the ones who just last week had seen Jesus’ hands and feet, were just as eager to actually touch the wounds as Thomas was.

So, rather than focusing on how I believe that Doubting Thomas didn’t actually doubt, instead today I want to share with you a new resource that is available this Eastertide, but that I hope will continue throughout the year.  The Collect Call is a podcast, a weekly recorded message, put together by two of my Acts 8 Moment friends, Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale and Holli Powell.  Brendan and Holli are both lay people.  Brendan is a member of All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, and Holli is at Holy Trinity in Georgetown, Kentucky.  Each week, they spend about 20 minutes reflecting on the Collect of the Day for the upcoming Sunday.  You should really listen to it; they are smart, funny, and engaging.  If you don’t do podcasts, you can listen to it on acts8moment.org.

The Collect Call for Easter 2 is only their second attempt at this thing, and they did an amazing job; breaking the Collect down into bite sized pieces and reflecting on what the prayer, that is often hard to wrap our minds around right at the beginning of the service, is all about.  Each prayer is only about 50 to 75 words, but they are rich with meaning.  Take this week’s Collect for instance, a prayer that first appears in the Gregorian Sacramentary from about the year 600, we pray “Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

There are words in there that rarely get used, even in the life of the Church.  Paschal Mystery, new covenant of reconciliation, and profession of faith are all terms that we may or may not know, but we trust our priest to pray them on our behalf.  The Paschal Mystery, which comes from the Greek word for Passover suggests that Jesus is our Passover Lamb, sacrificed so that his blood might free us from bondage to sin and death just as the blood on the doorposts set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt.  Through faith in that incomprehensible mystery, God invites us into relationship with him, restoring our fallen nature so that we can be reconciled, that is “find a way to carry these disparate ideas of death and life within us.”

Finally, we pray to the God who gave us this new life for help making our lives match what we say we believe.  Here’s where the rubber meets the road.  How different would my life look if I lived out everything that I was saying in the Creed: that God is the creator of all things, seen and unseen; that Jesus is the only begotten Son; that the Holy Spirit is the giver of life; that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic?  How would it change the way I buy things, the way I treat my neighbor, the way I vote, if every decision I made was based on what I believe about God who established and invites me into to the new covenant of reconciliation?

It is easy to gloss of the Collect each week; it happens so early in the service and they are filled with fifty cent church words, but what we pray really is important.  Because they set a tone for the week, I encourage you to listen to The Collect Call, to think deeply about these weekly Collects, and to pray them day by day.  Who knows, in the end you might find yourself even more willing to show forth in your lives what you profess by your faith; that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Amen.

Walking the Talk – Why I blog

I wasn’t going to write a post today.  I haven’t even sat down at my computer until now, and it is already 4:14pm.  I just wasn’t going to do it today, until I read today’s post by my blogging compadre, The Rev. Evan Garner.  Evan was part of a three person panel talking about blogging for ministry at the Bishop’s Clergy Conference in the Diocese of Alabama.  He reminded me that while this blog has been and will always be a blog for me; a place where I work out the Biblical text for myself, I have 150+/- page views everyday from people who come to Draughting Theology for a variety of reasons: preachers working on sermons, my parishioners looking for what I’ve got to say today, random Google searchers who want to know what salvation looks like, lost souls in search of comfort, and the occasional random search bot who has come in search of Search Engine Optimizing Key Words.  So, feeling like I should say something, I opened up LectionaryPage.net and stumbled upon the Collect for Easter 2.

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Easter 2, 1979 BCP

And I was reminded about why I started blogging in the first place.  Way back in 2005, my seminary classmate, Scott Peterson, invited me to take part in a group blog during Lent in 2005.  Our goal was to write daily, reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the 10 Commandments.  Following that, I invited other VTS class of 2007 members who were starting the dreaded summer of Clinical Pastoral Education to blog their experience.  Many of us had had ministry experience before seminary: teaching Sunday school, leading youth ministries, Stephen Ministers, you name it, but for the first time that summer, the rubber of our new vocation was meeting the road; we were going to have to show forth in our lives what we professed by our faith – that we were called to be ministers of the Gospel.

In the 9 years and close to 1,700 posts I’ve written since, I’ve turned my attention to blogging the Sunday Lectionary.  I engage scripture as something that is living and breathing – something that has something to teach me today.  I believe that with all my heart, and so my goal is to show it through my writing.  Some days, I accomplish that task, and some days I don’t, but it is always the goal.

With that goal in mind, I guess my question to you, dear reader, is this, “what does your life show that you believe?”  If those two things aren’t matching, how can you change your life to better fit what you believe about God’s dream for his creation?  Or, as my well worn title suggests, how can you walk the talk?

On Being Sent – Apostleship

There are a lot of important verses in the Bible: Genesis 1:1, Micah 6:8, John 3:16, Mark 16:15, and Romans 12:12 come immediately to mind.  Apart from some of the theologically significant ones like Genesis 1:1, John 19:30, and Acts 2:4, usually the most important verses in Scripture are lessons for the reader and their community on how to live the life of faith.  Through these verses, we are called to love, to serve, to preach, and to repent, but there is perhaps no more important call than the commandment to go.

On that first Easter night, after Jesus had appeared in the room through locked doors, he offered them Shalom, the Peace of God, and then instructed them, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  John uses two different words to convey the message of being sent: Jesus was sent “apostelos” by his Father and he is sending “pempo” his disciples.  Despite John’s use of these words interchangeably through his Gospel, I find it odd in this particular situation that he would use both words.  It just doesn’t make sense in the context of the sentence.

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  We are sent by Jesus under the same commission that he was sent by his Father, that is, we are “apostelos,” or more familiarly, Apostles.  I ran across a blog post by Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor at Connexus Church in Toronto, Canada, entitled “Why we need more entrepreneurial church leaders, not more shepherds.”  In it, he argues that what the Church as lost is leadership that has at its very core an identity as Apostles, which he defines in the 21st century context as “spiritual entrepreneurs.”  He argues that there are five skills of the modern day Apostle that are crucial to the future of the Church.

  1. Willingness to Risk
  2. Experimentation
  3. Restless Discontent with the Status Quo
  4. Boldness
  5. Bias Toward Action

Nieuwholf give a nod to Apostleship as a gift, but as we read the Resurrection Day account in John 20, it become clear that one is not sent except with and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  These qualities, which I agree are extremely important and mostly missing in my context of The Episcopal Church, come from the deep peace of the Spirit of God.

There was a time when I thought of myself as an entrepreneur.  Back when I was Business Administration student at Millersville University, I took every entrepreneurship class I could find, but the Church is built for shepherds.  Rectors, mostly solo priests these days, are so busy with the hamster wheel of ministry that there is no time to think outside the box and certainly no incentive toward risk and experimentation.  Maybe that’s why I’m approaching my 7th year as an Associate.  There is time, and even some incentive, to think beyond the walls, to be sent forth with the power of the Spirit, to bring about change for the good of the Kingdom.  I’ve been feeling discontent as of late, and I think I understand why.  I’ve allowed myself to get comfortable, complacent even.  Perhaps it is time for a spiritual kick in the ass and an Apostleship booster shot.  Not just for me, of course, but if Jesus’ call is any indication, the whole Church should be looking for ways to be sent.

The Disciples’ Fear

Every year, on the Sunday after Easter, Episcopalians hear the same Gospel lesson.  The story is affectionately referred to as the story of “Doubting Thomas,” and while he plays a prominent role in the story, Thomas is not the focus of my attention today.  Instead, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself chewing on the 10 other disciples on that first night.

John tells us that it was evening.  It was getting dark outside and the day was over, but nobody was getting ready for bed.  Instead, the disciples had made their way back to the upper room and locked the doors “for fear of the Jews.”  When we read this story in isolation, it is easy to forget that Jesus has already made a post-resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel.  Earlier that morning, very early indeed, Mary Magdalene had made her way to the tomb and found it open.  After telling Peter and another disciple about it, she made her way back to the garden where the profound weight of the last 3 days came sweeping in upon her.  She sat down outside the empty tomb and began to weep, when Jesus came and called her by name.  Off she went again, running to find the disciples to tell them, “I have seen the Lord!”

It is about 12 hours later when the scene in the upper room opens up, and the disciples are locked up tight.  Their fear doesn’t stem from what happened on Thursday night and Friday anymore.  Instead, they are afraid because of what happened this morning.  Jesus is alive and on the loose, and there are a lot of people who are going to be awfully ticked off about the empty tomb.  Those who put Jesus to death will no doubt assume that someone has stolen his body, and the first suspects will be his closest companions.  The disciples are locked in the upper room because they know that the case of Jesus’ missing body means that their death warrants have already been signed, and they are terrified.

Nine of the ten disciples who were in the upper room that night will eventually die for their faith.  All of them will be persecuted in one way or another.  Once they experience the risen Jesus, they’ll have the strength to stand up for his Kingdom, but as the story from John 20 opens, they aren’t there yet.  They’re yet to be transformed by the power of the resurrection.  I wonder, as I sit in the comfort of my office, in a country where there is a 0% chance of my being persecuted for my faith, let alone killed because of it, have I had that transforming experience?

A week later, the disciples are back in the upper room and the door is still locked.  It takes time, even once we’ve seen the risen Christ face-to-face, to step out in faith.  I wonder, if I’ve had my transforming experience, what is still holding me back?  What is holding you back?  What are you afraid of?  What makes you keep the door locked?