Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter 2019
Acts 5:27-32 Psalms 150 Revelation 1:4-8
The preacher ended his “evils of alcohol” sermon by saying, “The world would be a better place if everyone poured their beer, wine and whiskey into the river!” Then he sat down. The song leader stood and announced with a smile, “For our closing song, let us stand and sing Hymn # 365: ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’”
As we gather today, as the family of God, as a religious community, we are celebrating the Great Fifty Days. Joan Chittister reminds us that religion celebrates what the rest of the world forgets – the inherent goodness of life itself. It is religion that builds joy and excitement, happiness and satisfaction, God centeredness and trust, fun and holy leisure right into the midst of life.
The Great Fifty Days are the period of rejoicing in the Risen Lord between the Easter Vigil and Pentecost. During this time the Paschal candle is lighted at all services and “Alleluia” is said and sung on all possible occasions. The Easter Season provides opportunities for the church to reflect on the post-resurrection appearances to the disciples and to celebrate anew the blessing upon those who have not seen and yet who believe.
John uses parallel “double stories” in providing testimony to these post- resurrection appearances: two disciples and Mary Magdalene and the ten disciples and Thomas. Each double-story speaks of faith and of doubt overcome by a special appearance of Christ. These four experiences of the Risen Christ are not random examples; they are recounted to further affirm to us that there are different types and levels of faith.
Throughout the Gospel, John has shown that there is faith based on signs and there is faith that needs no signs; there is weak faith and strong faith; shallow faith and deep faith; growing faith and faltering faith. To John, faith is not a decision made once, but a decision made anew in every situation. Notice that the last “convert” in this Gospel is Thomas, already a disciple, even one of the Twelve. This understanding of faith encourages as well as instructing members of the church who sometimes feel guilty that their faith was not born full grown in one dramatic experience.
Four points caught my attention in today’s text. The first concerns Thomas. Even though this Gospel portrays him as courageously devoted to Jesus and theologically alert; even though tradition associates him with a mission to India, Thomas has been, because of this text, tagged “Doubting Thomas.” But see him in the context that John intends. The beloved disciple believed with no evidence but an empty tomb, Mary Magdalene believed because of a word, Jesus called her by name, and the ten disciples believed because they saw the Lord. But for the absent Thomas, faith could come only with difficulty; too much was at stake. He could be sure only after physical contact, but whether he actually touched Jesus is unclear. For some, faith is as gentle as a child on grandmother’s lap, but for others, it is continual wrestling with doubt. Jesus approaches the disciples in different ways because all our experiences are different and our approaches to life are different.
The second thing that struck me was Jesus’ response to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This statement is most important, to assure the readers that faith is just as much a possibility for them – for us - as for the original disciples. Faith is available to all people in all places and times with no loss of effectiveness due to distance from Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, having recited different ways faith was generated in the earliest Christian community, the writer pronounces upon the readers the blessing of Jesus Christ. The blessing comes after Thomas’ awareness of Jesus , “My Lord and My God.” It is one of the strongest declarations of faith recorded in the New Testament. We didn’t go to the empty tomb last Sunday and see the risen Christ for ourselves, and yet many of us believe. Jesus is in the business of meeting people where they are and then moving them to where he wants them to be.
The third thing has to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise of the Spirit is repeatedly given by Jesus in the farewell discourses (chapters 14-16). Here it is fulfilled: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’”(v.22). Simple as it is, this is John’s Pentecost. John tells us of many functions and benefits of the Holy Spirit in his earlier chapters (14-16). But only here are the apostles given authority to grant or refuse to grant forgiveness of sin. Through the apostles, the church is joined in continuity of mission, authority, and benefit to Jesus Christ.
Finally, the final verses read, 30-31 obviously are a conclusion, not just to this narrative, but to the entire Gospel. There may have been a time when the Gospel closed here, before chapter 21 was added as an epilogue. If so, John’s last word was to state as the purpose of the gospel - the generation of faith. Because the book assumes that the readers already have some faith in Jesus Christ, this purpose is clearly to clarify, inform, and deepen faith so that it may be full and life-giving. The last word to the world that crucified Jesus is not a judging but a gracious word: “That through believing you may have life in my name” (v.31). The assurance of John 3:16 has not been forgotten: “For God so loved the world.”
Faith is the key to a life of grace. Faith is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve. In the Greek, it is an action word as well as a noun.
To admit that we take certain things on faith is saying that we are willing for things to not make perfect sense all the time. But still, we want faith to be affirmed by certain evidence, so that a leap of faith may be a manageable one. In the Easter season, we celebrate the biggest mystery of faith: that Jesus was slain for the sins of the world and that he rose from the grave. This fact of faith, compared to all the other fantastic stories about Jesus (healing miracles, walking on water, knowing people he has never met), is the hardest one for the human mind to comprehend.
So in thinking about Thomas’ journey of faith, what is faith to us? Who is God for us? There is a transforming power available to all of us. Faith is the key to unlocking that power. We are called to live a life of faith in close relationship with God in Christ. Faith is freely and wholly saying “yes” to God’s invitation to be in relationship. But how do we live out our faith in the day-in-and-day-out of our lives?
Several years ago, I was been dealing with a woman to get my house in Augusta painted. She was a recovering alcoholic. She had worked for a contractor, so between jobs she was open to doing smaller jobs. That fall, she painted the exterior of my house and the kitchen. Her house burned down about a month later and she had been struggling since then. I was trying to get her to paint my living room. She was to come on Monday to begin. She didn’t show. So, I called to check on her – goes directly to voicemail. She texts me that she will be there on Tuesday. Monday night I move the furniture out to the center of the room so she can get to the walls. Tuesday, no show. Tuesday night I call and she texts “I know God is trying to get next to me.” I call to respond – goes to voice mail, so I text “how can I help?” Wednesday no show. Wednesday night, I call to see how she is doing and it goes to voicemail. She texts – “bad girl, need your help” Again, I text, “How can I help?” She replies “I’m not in trouble, just being honest.” I text “My prayers are with you.” She texts – “I NEED GOD” Wow, I pause and pray how to respond to that – I need God! I reply, “God is with u.” I call to tell her voicemail that God is with her, that her asking for help opened the door for God. Faith is shouting, “I need God!” and then living our lives as if it were true. Faith is believing that God responds to us saying, “I need you.”
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she challenges us that a walk in the darkness can lead to wisdom, deliver us from fear, increase our faith and bring us closer to God. She states that during difficult times in her life, those times of darkness, she has learned things in the dark that she could never have learned in the light, things that have saved her life over and over again. So, she concludes that we need the darkness as much as the light. We have to look for God in the darkness. We have to broaden our faith to encompass the darkness and to bring new light with us.
When I was in high school, I learned to water ski. I had no trouble getting up and was rocking along, until I started thinking how unnatural it was to be on top of the water. Then I let go of the rope and promptly sank. I think faith is like that. As long as we are connected to God, as long as we hold onto the lifeline to God, we stand firm in our “yes” to God. When we let go of the rope, we drift, we sink, we lose focus, we fall and we fail.
Steven Charleston wrote, “God’s grace is not an object but an energy. It is not a thing once given, as if it were a reward, but a force of transformation that alters the fabric of the finite. It moves. It bends and shapes and flows. Like liquid love it wraps around obstacles firmly set and renews them with the chemistry of change. Faith is how we draw grace toward us. Hope is how we focus its power. Love is how we release it into life. When these three are in motion, faith, hope and love, the energy becomes tangible. Prayer is the catalyst. Mission is the action of grace: God’s gift at work in the world.”
During this Eastertide, we can readily voice that we need Godand then act with all our hearts, minds, hands and feet that God responds to our prayer. God needs us! Amen.