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

Doubting John?

Saint John the Baptist in Prison 19th-Century Print

Sick Eye Roll Bro

John the Baptist gets plenty of love.  Off the top of my head, I think he is featured in the Lectionary at least three times each year.  We hear the story of his ministry as a baptizer (often multiple times a year), his beheading at the hand of horny Herod, and, at least in Year A, the story of his crisis of faith in prison.  With all the love that we pour on John, I can’t help but wonder why this particular story doesn’t stigmatize him in the same way the story of Thomas’ doubt follows him around.  Why do we call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” but not call John “Doubting John the Baptizer”?  There are other stories about Thomas in the Bible.  In fact, Thomas is the disciples who proudly announces that he will follow Jesus to his death (John 11:16) and at the Last Supper inquires as to they might follow Jesus to the Father (John 14:6).  So why all the dap for John and no love for Thomas?

The answer, I think, lies in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and it comes with the help of the Matthew, our narrator.  You see, Matthew uses this story to reintroduce a word that has been absent since the birth narrative, Messiah.  The scene is set this way: John has been arrested and while in prison he heard stories about what the Messiah was doing.  In Greek, Matthew uses the Greek word “Christ,” which essentially means the same thing.  Anyway, by choosing this story to be the first place he identifies the adult Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, Matthew sets this encounter up not so much as one of doubt, but of assurance.

John has heard the stories of Jesus preaching and teaching and healing all sort of people with all kinds of conditions, and he is hopeful.  John sends his disciples, at least as I read this story, in expectation of the answer.  He wants to be sure that the one who he saw as the Lamb of God really is the one that he was waiting for.  Even though the message and ministry of Jesus doesn’t quite look like burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, John seems to know, or at least that’s what Matthew wants us to think, deep down, that Jesus really is the one.

I’m not big on calling Thomas a doubter.  In fact, I don’t think he doubted at all.  Equally so, I’m glad we don’t put the weight of the doubter tag on John the Baptist either.  These were both good men, faithful disciples, who loved Jesus, but needed to see his Messiahship with their own eyes.  I, for one, can understand that.

Realer than Real – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


 

My favorite part of April Fools’ Day is waiting to see what “innovative technology” Google is going to introduce each year.  The first one I can remember was back in 2008 when Google announced Gmail Custom Time: the ability to make your email travel back in time.  When your boss asked why you didn’t send the proposal yesterday, you could run back to your office and email it dated two days ago.  You could even make it look like your boss had already read it.  People got really excited, until they figured out it wasn’t real.  My favorite was from 2012, when Google announced Gmail Tap, which would eliminate those clumsy little keyboards on your smart phone and replace it with a dot and a dash.  Sending a text or an email would be revolutionarily simple using Morse Code.  This year, Google announced Google Cardboard Plastic, a virtual reality device that was nothing more than a clear piece of plastic you wear over your face to help you experience actual reality.  The tagline for Google Cardboard Plastic was “What’s realer than real?  Probably nothing.  Or maybe something.  I doubt it though.”

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“What’s realer than real?” That seems to be the central question in today’s Gospel lesson.  The Easter story in John is about Mary, Thomas, and the rest of the disciples who seem stuck in the reality that Jesus is dead, when the realer reality was resurrection.  In fact, John tells us that his whole Gospel was written so that we might all come know that resurrection life is realer than the life of this age, and that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, each of us can experience that same kind of life.  “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.”  There are three different Greek words that get translated as “life” in English Bibles.  Psyche, from which we get psychology, is the soul: the life force that is present within all living things.  Bios, the root word for biology, is one’s livelihood: the way in which one lives their life.  Zoe, the word John uses in today’s passage, is the spiritual life: the life given to those who have been reborn by water and the Spirit: eternal life.  The life that John wants for his readers is a life that is realer than real, it is life that moves beyond merely existing: life that is abundant and everlasting in God.

The life that John hopes for us is the life that Mary, Thomas, and the rest of the disciples just could not wrap their minds around.  Resurrection living is so vastly different from the life of this age, that it can be difficult to handle.  Last week, we heard the story of Mary Magdalene, the first person to see resurrected life.  She was so tied up in grief, anger and confusion that even when the resurrected Jesus was standing right in front of her, she couldn’t recognize him.  It wasn’t until Jesus spoke her name that Mary could recognize the reality of resurrection life.  After Mary had seen that a realer life was possible, Jesus made her the first apostle, sending her to find the disciples and proclaim the Good News of his resurrection.  Her message was as simple as it was impossible to believe, “I have seen the Lord!”

Despite Jesus having three times told them that he would be raised on the third day, despite hearing what Mary had experienced in the garden, despite John and Peter having seen the empty tomb for themselves, the disciples just couldn’t break out of the sad reality that surrounded them, and so they did the only thing they could think of: they huddled in their rented room and locked the door out of fear and doubt.  Suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst, and he spoke a word of peace to them.  Mary saw Jesus, but it wasn’t until she heard him that she believed.  The disciples heard Jesus, but it wasn’t until they saw his hands and his side that they were able to believe.  Once they did, their fear and doubt were quickly replaced by joy and excitement.  After they had seen the resurrected life of Jesus, he made them apostles, sending them out in the power of the Spirit to share the Good News and to follow his example of loving service and the forgiveness of sins.  Thomas had missed this amazing encounter, and so the Apostles went looking for him.  When they found Thomas, they exclaimed a message as simple as it was impossible to believe, “We have seen the Lord!”

But Thomas couldn’t simply break out of the sad reality he was stuck in.  Despite Jesus promising on three different occasions that he’d rise again, despite having heard the word from Mary early on that first Easter Day, despite John and Peter having seen that the tomb was indeed empty, despite the new news from the whole group that Jesus had stood among them, Thomas still couldn’t quite believe that resurrection life was really possible.  He needed the same sort of proof that the rest of them had received: he needed to see those wounds with his own eyes; he needed to touch them with his own hands.  Thomas, like Mary and the rest, was so stricken by grief, doubt, and fear that he just couldn’t imagine that life could be any realer than the real heartache he was feeling.  It took a week, but Thomas got what he needed: a word of peace; a chance to see and to touch; and as a result he moved from simply being a disciple, to becoming the key evangelist in John’s Gospel.  From Thomas’ lips comes the first human proclamation of Jesus’ divinity, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus blesses Thomas, and all those who would come to believe in the resurrection life despite never having the chance to see him, hear him, or touch him.

Even when it is standing right in front of you, believing in resurrection life is not easy.  Jesus knew that those of us who would follow after the Apostles would have to work hard to keep the faith.  Unlike it was for Mary Magdalene, Jesus probably won’t be standing before you, calling you by name.  Unlike it was for the disciples, Jesus isn’t likely to appear out of thin air in our midst and offer us his peace.  Unlike it was for Thomas, Jesus won’t be inviting you to place your hand in his side anytime soon.  We are those who Jesus said would have to be blessed by believing without having seen him, heard him, or touched him.  We are those who will have to overcome the empirical evidence that suggests that, more often than not, grief and anger, confusion, fear, and doubt are as real as it gets.  John wrote his Gospel to tell you that there is something realer than the reality of this life.  Resurrection life is available to everyone who hands their life over to God and enters a relationship with the resurrected Jesus.  This new way of living after the miracle of the resurrection takes grief, anger, and confusion and turns them into the peace that passes all understanding.  Resurrection life takes doubt and worry and turns them into a joy that is complete.  Resurrection life takes estrangement and sorrow and turns them into deep relationships of trust, compassion, and love.  Resurrection life takes real life and makes it realer.

When that peace is sustained by the Spirit, when that joy grows through ongoing relationship, when that love becomes so ingrained as to simply be a part of who you are, you’ve found the sort of life that is infinitely realer than you could ever ask or imagine.  That kind of living can turn even the most timid disciples into apostles and evangelists, sent by the Spirit to proclaim by word and example the Good News that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; the Good News that resurrection life is available for everyone who believes in him; the Good News that life can be something more than nightmare it so often seems to be.  Google’s April Fools’ joke was onto something.  There is something realer than real: resurrection life. Amen.

My Lord and My God

As many of you know, the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible did not contain punctuation marks.  More often than not, this isn’t too big of an issue, as the context allows scribes the ability to discern where sentences end, which one’s are questions, and if something is said an an exclamation.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, however, we have one of those places where a lack of punctuation in the original text leaves some question about the author’s intent.

2016-03-31 09.48.11

We are all very familiar with the story of “doubting” Thomas.  For whatever reason, he was not a part of the gathering in the upper room the night of Jesus’ resurrection.  He didn’t have the opportunity to see Jesus appear out of thin air, to hear his word of peace, to examine the wounds, or feel his breath waft across the hair on his neck as it stood on end.  The disciples shared with him what they had experienced, but Thomas needed to experience it for himself.  A week later, he gets the chance to see Jesus appear out of thin air, to hear his word of peace, and to examine the wounds.  His response is recorded verbatim by John:

“My lord and my God”

Older translations tend to end this famous phrase with a period, while newer ones are more apt to use an exclamation point.  I’m not sure it makes an earth-shattering difference which one you choose, but I don’t think it is meaningless.  To choose an exclamation point makes these words from Thomas a word of overwhelming excitement and joy; while a period makes them words of reverence and awe.  Robertson’s Word Pictures say that the case of this phrase indicates the latter, that “Thomas was wholly convinced and did not hesitate to address the Risen Christ as Lord and God.”

For me, this encounter with the risen Jesus seems to have more power if it ends in a period.  It is a moment of deep realization for Thomas as doubt, worry, frustration, and stress melt away in a moment of deep knowing between Jesus and Thomas.  Jesus gave Thomas precisely what he needed to believe in the resurrection, and in so doing, offered Thomas the chance to fully see and know that his friend, rabbi, and savior had risen from the grave.  Thomas’ response, then, was one of hushed restraint, as he realized that in that moment everything had changed.

“My lord and my God.”