Friday, April 13, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – John 20:19-31

Read the text here: John 20:19-31
Poor Thomas.  Over the last 2000 years we have come to know the disciple Thomas as “doubting Thomas” because of this one episode in the Gospel of John.  “Unless I see… and touch… and place my hands… I will not believe,” says Thomas.  One can hardly blame him.  After all, the other disciples have not exactly been paragons of faith.  Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied he even knew Jesus and the others?  Well, our text tells us they are hold up in a secret room hiding with the door locked!  Not exactly a testimony of great faith.
These disciples (or at least some of them) had seen Jesus tortured and crucified.  They knew he was dead.  They had seen him do amazing miracles including raising Lazarus, and they had heard him predict his own resurrection.  But of course we know that they really didn’t seem to pay much attention to that.  And affecting ones own resurrection is quite a different matter.  These disciples didn’t believe anymore than Thomas.  In Mark, Jesus picks a nickname for the disciples: he calls them “Little Faiths.”  This moniker seems appropriate for the Gospel of John as well.  What Thomas is saying is this: “I want what you guys have received.  I want to experience the same demonstration of God’s power that you other disciples were granted.”
Another point about Thomas is that this story here at the end of John is not the only time we have met Thomas in the Gospel of John.  There are two other instances.
1.              Raising of Lazarus – Let us go with him so that we may die with him.
2.              During Jesus’ teaching about his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit – You know the way I am going?  Thomas says – Lord, we do not know where you are going – How can we know the way?  Jesus responds – I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through me.
In each of these Thomas is the pragmatic one, the realist.  If we don’t know where you are going we can’t possibly know the way.  If I don’t have the address I can’t program it into my GPS!  That is pretty realistic.  Thomas’ statement here at the end of John is in keeping with his earlier ones.  He knew the salvation history of Israel – he knew that God works through history in many different and amazing ways.  But this – Jesus’ crucifixion and now, resurrection – well, this was different.  Thomas’ statement can be seen as him asking this important question: “how is this consistent with what God has done before?  How is this consistent with the Old Testament and with what we all experienced in the living Jesus?”
This latter point I think is important for us, because we have a tendency to look for God to act in ways that are outside the natural and ordinary world.  We look to God for signs and miracles that are supernatural and extraordinary and while we are gazing at the sky we miss what God is doing in our midst.  We want God to heal our cancer in a flash of light and a click of the fingers, just like that.  And so we may miss that God often brings healing to us slowly through the process of a medical treatment program, a process in which God is present throughout.  Thomas I think is saying, “Hold it guys! What you’re telling me does not seem to be consistent with my experience of God though Jesus or my understanding of how God works; it is not consistent with my faith.  Show me how this is possible.”  This then leads us to perhaps the most important question that is raised by this story – what exactly is faith?
What is faith?  Does faith consist in accepting and believing extraordinary things that would otherwise be unbelievable?  Is faith completely a mental exercise?  Is faith in Jesus solely accepting the veracity of a series of incredible stories of miracles and signs – including the resurrection?  Is that what faith is?  I’m not so sure that this is faith.  It seems more like mental gymnastics to me.
As I have noted before, in the Old Testament and in the Gospel of John there is no noun for the word “faith.”  It is always a verb.  It is always an action.  The point of the miracles and the signs of Jesus and the resurrection itself is not to encourage us to sit back in our arm chairs and ponder whether or not we can find enough credulity to convince ourselves of the truth of these stories.  Rather, they are to lead us to act; they are to lead us to live lives that imitate and reflect the love and teachings and miracles of Jesus.  Mental attitudes are not even important! Ultimately it is God who creates faith.  And as we act and as we live lives that reflect the gifts of God’s love and grace and that reflect the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus, then God instills and creates faith. 
Thomas finally gets what the other disciples get: a personal encounter with the living Jesus.  And it makes a difference to him, and it makes a difference to the other disciples.  They eventually unbolt their locked door and go out into the world sharing the Good News that Jesus is raised and that the powers of death and darkness are defeated.  We too are called to get out of our armchairs, unbolt our doors and live lives that reflect this amazing Good News.
Painting by Caravaggio - 1571-1610
Note - this article is a reworking of my sermon on this text from last year.  It should be posted as Easter 2A - 2011.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflections from the Pastor – Mark 16:1-8

Read the text here: Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. Mark 16:1-2
Jesus had constantly told his disciples, which included the 12, and some other followers including these women that he would be crucified and then he would rise on the 3rd day.  The male disciples, of course, miss this point completely, and here, in the last chapter of St. Mark, it appears that the women also have not gotten the point either.  And so, they arrive at the tomb early on the first day of the week and there they find that the stone has been rolled away and a young man is sitting in an empty tomb dressed in white.  The young man speaks – Do no be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; He is not here.  Look here is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him, just as he told you.
How would you react to this experience?  How would you have reacted to this strange sight?  St. Mark tells us – and I will use my own literal translation of the original Greek:
And they (the women) exited and fled from the tomb, for they were filled ecstatic trembling.  And they said nothing to no one – they were afraid for…..
They were afraid, for….  For what?  Is that really how Mark ends the Gospel?  Yes it is.  And through the years many have been really uncomfortable with this ending.  Later writers have tried added on to it.  But Mark ended the story abruptly and leaves us all hanging, wondering what had happened next.  Now, we know from the other Gospel accounts that the women eventually did report what they had seen and that Jesus did meet the disciples in the Galilee.  But we get nothing of this from St. Mark.   The story comes to an abrupt ending and is left incomplete…. Or is it?
The story of Jesus the Messiah is over! The Romans have crucified Jesus and he is dead! And the promise and hope which Jesus inspired is over as well, and….. and….  Wait! Suddenly we realize that the story is not over.  Jesus is raised! The song is not snuffed out but is more beautiful and glorious than ever.  This is what Mark is up to here.  Mark doesn’t end the story – because the story is not over – the story continues.  Jesus taught his followers a song of the love of God, a song of the Kingdom come into our midst, a song of the overwhelming grace and love of God which will never abandon but instead will enter into the darkness of human experience in order to extend this love and grace to all.  And the song continues to be sung.  There have been lots of arrangements and different ways of singing the song; some have tried to destroy it; some have tried to stop others from singing other versions of the song! But they cannot stop the music – the song continues.  Down through the years the song has been passed on and sung by the disciples and the martyrs of the early church, by Thomas Cranmer and Martin Luther, by John Calvin and John Wesley and today by Christians the world over in communities that are diverse and different and even those at odds with each other.  The song is sung by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and it is sung here by Christ’s disciples at Peace Lutheran Church in Steeleville and the Wartburg Parish.  The song is a song of the Kingdom come, of Jesus crucified and raised to new life, of God’s love and grace, of God’s reaching out through each of us to extend these gifts to others and in this way to pass on this song.  This is our calling.  Each of us has experienced this song of the Kingdom; each of us has been touched by the risen Lord!  And each of us is called to pass on this song to others – to reach out in the love and grace of the risen Lord so that others will also experience this amazing Grace of God’s.
The story of Mark’s Gospel doesn’t have an end because it isn’t over.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!  Jesus was crucified he died and is risen, and now the power of God is at work inviting men and women, children and young people, you and me, into new and transformed lives.
But what do we do with these transformed lives?  If you are one that believes that God has healed and touched you, what difference does that make in your living? In an era of unprecedented prosperity, children are dying from hunger. In a nation of vast resources, young people are denied hope and a future. What does that mean for us who live Easter lives? This Gospel, this Good News cannot be confined to a moment in the past, nor is it simply about hope for some far off future. It is not about rules and regulations.  The good news is that Christ is alive, saving people from a living death and offering life in all its fullness. And of this we are witnesses.
Dr. Cynthia Campbell* writes: “Mark’s story of Jesus has a beginning, but it doesn’t have an end. It just keeps going and going, from one life to another, touching and transforming us one by one. The risen Christ was not at the tomb but going ahead of his friends. And that’s where we see him today: out ahead of us. Where charity and love prevail over injustice and violence; where compassion and hope replace cynicism and despair; where peace and love take root in lives that are empty and lost; where human beings know joy and justice, dignity and delight: there is the risen Christ, beckoning to us.”
When is an ending not an end? When the end is just the beginning of a story about eternal and abundant life.   It is a song that never ends!  Have a Blessed Easter!  +Amen.

"The Empty Tomb" by HeQi
The audio of this sermon is available here: Easter Hope - The Song Goes On - Sermon from 4/8/12