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Sermon for April 12, 2015: The “E” word
Alleluia. The Lord is Risen! The Lord is Risen Indeed. Alleluia!
“The strife is o’er, the battle done. The victory of life is won. Our songs of triumph have begun. Alleluia. The three sad days are quickly sped. He rises glorious from the dead. All glory to our risen Head! Alleluia!” We have journeyed in our hearts through the darkness of crucifixion into the light of resurrection. We have exchanged the quiet pensiveness of Lent for the ringing joy of Easter. The crosses have been unveiled, the
Easter finery worn and, sadly, the pews are a bit emptier. It is undeniably the second Sunday of Easter. So, what do we do now?
The thing about Lent is that, while it is by no means “fun,” it is well-defined. On Ash Wednesday we are “invited to observe a Holy Lent by self-examination and
Repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We give things up and we take things on. We dutifully sing the boring hymns and carefully avoid saying, “The ‘A’ word.” We do all of this so that we can feel closer to Jesus. We do it to deepen our relationship with God. We do it in the sure expectation of our salvation. And on Easter morning, we put on our Easter outfits, inhale some of the candy from our Easter baskets, and roll into church singing those “Alleluias” like sailors on shore leave. We come together to celebrate the foundation of our common belief – not to worry about what comes next. We’ve
heard this story before. We know what comes next.
But Jesus’s disciples didn’t. According to the author of the Gospel of John, even after being told Jesus had risen, the disciples remained in hiding – that is, until Thomas finally encountered the risen Christ. Poor Thomas- he’s gone down in history as “doubting Thomas,” and been portrayed as an example of an unfaithful disciple- all because the author of John says that Thomas wouldn’t believe that the other disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus until he could see and touch him for himself. It is notable, however, that the gospel writer fails to remind us that the other disciples weren’t won over so easily either. If you recall, when Mary told the disciples that she’d seen and spoken to Jesus at the tomb, they didn’t believe her. It wasn’t until Jesus found them cowering behind a locked door and showed them his hands and his sides that they believed it. Of course, when they realized that it was Jesus who had been resurrected – when Jesus breathed on them and empowered them with the Holy Spirit – when Jesus demonstrated his divinity, they rejoiced. Just as we rejoiced on Easter Day. And then, apparently, they did nothing. According to John’s gospel another week went by and they were sitting in the same place when Jesus returned and appeared to Thomas – and it didn’t take long for Thomas to identify
Jesus for who he is –“My Lord and God”
Those words are the last thing spoken by any disciple in John’s gospel. They are immeasurably important because they herald the end of the gospel and the beginning of Christianity as we have come to know it – Christianity based on the belief in a risen Christ – on the belief in a living God.
Many people have read Jesus’s response to Thomas’s exclamation – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe,” as a condemnation of Thomas for a lack of belief – but I don’t think Jesus is actually describing Thomas. I think he’s telling Thomas what to do – and it’s the same thing he already told the other disciples. Jesus is telling them to go out and make believers of those who do not know him – who do not know God.
Our scripture readings tell us -and we know from our presence here today – that the disciples did become apostles and led many people to belief in Jesus Christ – but it wasn’t easy. The fact that the author of the letter of John asserts that the apostles saw with their own eyes and touched with their own hands what they declared to be true suggests that Thomas wasn’t the only one that wanted some physical proof of Jesus’s resurrection. And although Luke’s description of the early Christian community in the book of Acts certainly makes it look ideal, John’s letter implies that many people opposed their mission. One of the arguments used to discredit the early apostles was that they were not perfect. True believers, according to some Christian leaders, must be perfect. Since Jesus gave the disciples the power to forgive or retain the sins of others, they must be without sin themselves. Not so, says John. No one can be perfect, and if you pretend to be perfect, you are making God into a liar. God knows who we are – and God sent Jesus into the world because God knows we need to be cleansed from sin – not once, but continually. Christians are not people that are better than other people. Christians are people who know that they’re not better than other people. Christians are people who have come to understand that the only way to be forgiven our sins is to confess them.
I believe that when Jesus told the disciples that they could forgive and retain the sins of others, he wasn’t talking to them as individuals. He was telling them about the power they possessed as a community. I also don’t think that Jesus meant that even as a community they were capable of judging others. I believe he was telling them that as a community they could show others that they have a choice – between truth and lies, between light and darkness, between death and life. Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit not so they could use it as a club to punish people, but as a balm to heal them.
God knew they wouldn’t always get it right. The disciples forsook Jesus in his earthly misery, failed to recognize him when he returned, and then chose to huddle together in a hidden room even after Jesus told them to go out and deal with the sin in the world. They liked the rejoicing part of the resurrection, but they clearly weren’t too excited about the mission piece.
We are like that too. We love Easter. We love to share our mutual delight in knowing that the saving grace of Jesus is once again and always will be among us. It seems like that should be enough – that believing and worshipping should be enough to call ourselves Christians – to earn our Easter. But it’s not – because Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to stay in their inner room and talk to one another. Jesus told them their mission was to go out into the world – and he gave them the tools they needed to be successful. He gave them the Holy Spirit- just as he gives us the Holy Spirit.
Maybe we feel it more clearly on days like Easter, but make no mistake; it’s always with us – and it’s meant to be shared. We are meant to share it. We are meant to evangelize.
Oh, that word! For many of us the word “evangelism” has distressing implications. It makes us think of people trying to force their beliefs on others –of people judging others – of people claiming to know what is right – and who is wrong.
Many of us feel a strong need to differentiate ourselves from that type of
“evangelism.” We want to make sure no one thinks we are that kind of Christian. We are people who love to welcome others into our church home –and we’re good at it. We are generous in providing material and spiritual help to those in need. We try very hard to live our faith. But we are uncomfortable leaving our “inner room” to go out into the community and talk about our faith. It’s not what we do. It’s not who we are.
Except that according to the gospel of John the Evangelist, that is what we’re supposed to be doing- that is who we are. Notice that in his encounter with Thomas Jesus never reprimands him for asking for proof; Jesus basically says, “Go ahead and do what you need to do to believe – because the people I’m sending you to – they will have to come to believe without seeing– so take what you need from this inner room because it will not be easy.” Jesus told Thomas what came next, and he gave him what was necessary for him to do it – his faith – his Easter joy – and his friends.
Jesus gave the disciples one another – because he knew they could not do it alone. They needed to do it together. The power of their witness and the grace they experienced in their ministry was because they were of one heart and soul. They received the rare and wonderful gift of community – a gift that provided them with the courage to make themselves vulnerable by witnessing to what they believed.
We have received the same gift. We are a community of Christ – but St. Clement’s is not our inner room where we can hide for fear of those who would judge or mock us. It is the place where we learn what comes next. It is the place where Jesus gives us what we need. It is the place where we feel his presence and cry out in exultation, “Alleluia! My Lord and my God.” And it is the place from which we go out to do the work God has given us to do, so that others may also come to believe and have life in him. Alleluia.
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