Sunday, April 23, 2017

Encountering Christ (a sermon from John 20:19-29)

I love the story of the little girl who woke up during a thunderstorm and was afraid. After a bright flash of lightning and loud roar of thunder she threw off the covers and scampered into her parents room. Her mother awoke as she came through the door and immediately asked her what was wrong. She told her mother that she was afraid. Her mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid, sweetie, God is with you.” Very astutely her daughter responded, “I know, mom, but I want someone with skin on her face.”

That’s what we get in John’s Gospel. Interpreters have described John’s Gospel in various ways. It’s been called a spiritual Gospel and a mystical Gospel, but the description I like best is Incarnational Gospel. Incarnation is perhaps the most dominant theme beginning in the prologue with the Word becoming flesh. In John, Jesus is presented as being at one with God; God’s unique Son who is completely obedient to God’s cause and will. As such Jesus incarnates, embodies in flesh and blood, manifests visibly through his life, through his words and deeds, what God is like. 

The figure who really stands out in our text today is Thomas, sometimes called doubting Thomas. We tend to use that phrase negatively do we not? Do you want to be known as a doubting Thomas? No one wants to be a doubting Thomas. And yet Thomas in his doubt meets the living Christ and is led by Christ through his doubt to give us the most highly exalted Christological confession in the Gospel. He exclaims of Christ, “My Lord and my God.” What is important about this confession that we need to understand is this: Thomas is not making a confession of some particular belief about Jesus. He is rather expressing his trust in and commitment to Jesus.

Faith as doctrine, faith as belief in propositional statements comes later. The creeds come later. Some historians argue that the primary purpose and function of the first creeds was to give cohesion and unity to the Roman Empire. Undoubtedly this was behind Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of Rome. The formulation of the creeds was a convenient way to keep Christians from fighting and squabbling over doctrine. They helped to solidify the empire. Once the creed was set, any deviation was called heresy, and we all know what happened to heretics don’t we. It was politically motivated. Of course, a unity based on coerced uniformity is a false unity. But practically it worked to unify the Holy Roman Empire.

In the days before Constantine, in the days when this Gospel was written, to proclaim Jesus as Lord was a very dangerous and subversive proclamation. Both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor. “Son of God,” and as “God manifest” were also titles given the emperor. We know this from public inscriptions on buildings and coins that have been unearthed by archeologists. When the early followers of Jesus confessed Jesus as Lord they were saying in essence: Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. They were declaring their primary allegiance to Jesus, that is, to the virtues he embodied and the values he lived by. They were declaring that their first loyalty and commitment was to God’s kingdom, not Rome – the kingdom that Jesus embodied and proclaimed. What would it mean for us to say that our first commitment is to the kingdom of God – not America, not civil religion, not political party, but the kingdom of God?

Our doubts need not keep us from God. Christ meets us where we are – doubts and all. If our doubts lead us to real God experience, to authentic spiritual experience that helps us to become more loving, compassionate, courageous persons and communities, then our doubts may be our salvation. 

When I pastored in Maryland, I had a member who worked as a police chief at the capital. I was invited to give a prayer at the installation of some new officers, and while there my friend was able to arrange a visit with the Senate chaplain, Lloyd Ogilvie. I asked him: What do you think is the greatest spiritual need in our country? He said, without much hesitation: For religious people to know God.

What he meant, of course, was to know God in relationship, to have authentic God experience. If all we have are beliefs handed down to us, which we have accepted without effort or struggle, without questions or doubts, then all we really have is a second-hand faith. Some might say a second hand faith is better than no faith. I’m not so sure. A second-hand faith can serve as a substitute for and an immunization against any real God experience, any real encounter with divine grace, truth, and love.

Religious people without any real God experience have information about God, but they don’t really know God. Religious people without genuine God experience can be terribly mean and vicious, ready to inflict pain and retribution, in order to protect their particular definition of God or their particular version of faith. Rather than being transformed by divine love through real God experience, religious faith becomes simply a way to show one-upmanship, to control and divide the world between “us” and “them.” For religious people who have never been changed by divine compassion and love, religion may be nothing more than a way to promote themselves and their group.  Religious faith becomes a source of pride and condemnation of others. If our doubts can lead us to genuine encounter with the living Christ like Thomas had, then I say bring on the doubts.

In the movie, Doubt, at a Catholic elementary school Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with a student in the school. The younger Sister James was the one who originally suspected something, but later her fears dissipated and she came to the conclusion that Father Flynn was just concerned about the boy, who was the only African-American in the school. Sister Aloysius, however, went after Father Flynn with a passion. She was able to get Father Flynn to resign by telling him that she called a nun in his previous parish and had found out about his prior history of infringements. She lied; she really didn’t do it, but somehow she convinced herself that lying here was okay. Sister James is out of town when Father Flynn resigns. When she returns Sister Aloysius tells her that the Bishop made Father Flynn pastor of the Saint Jerome church and school, basically giving him a promotion. She tells Sister James that she told the Bishop, but the Bishop didn’t believe her.

Here is part of the conversation between between the two sisters: Sister James says, “Father Flynn is gone / Yes,” says Sister Aloysius. / “So you did it, you got him out.” / Yes. / Donald Miller is heart broken (that was the boy Father Flynn spent time with) / Sister Aloysius says, “That can’t be helped. It’s just till June” / Sister James says, “I didn’t think Father Flynn did anything wrong.” / “No. He convinced you?” / “Yes, he did.”
Sister James asks, “Did you ever prove it?” / “To whom?” responds Sister Aloysius / “Anyone but yourself.” / “No.” / “But you were sure?” / “Yes.” / Sister James says, “I wish I could be like you.” / “Why?” / “Because I can’t sleep anymore.” / “Maybe we are not suppose to sleep so well.”

After Sister Aloysius admits to Sister James that she lied to force Father Flynn’s resignation we see a side of Sister Aloysius that we haven’t seen before. There is pause in the conversation. She begins to break down. She says, “Oh, Sister James.” Sister James draws close, “What is it, Sister?” Sister Aloysius says, “I have doubts.” And she begins to weep.

Some would see the ending of that story as a tragedy. I see it as a break in the darkness, a ray of light, a ray of hope. Until this moment Sister Aloysius had shown no misgivings, no struggle, no doubt. She was zealous and even arrogant in her certitude. I suspect much like Paul or Saul of Tarsus before his encounter with the living Christ. She justified her lie to get Father Flynn to resign. But here, finally, in her confession to Sister James, Sister Aloysius expresses doubt and in doing so she expresses some humility. I see this as hopeful because her admission of doubt to Sister James might just be the first step toward her redemption.

When Jesus says to Thomas in our Gospel story, “Do not doubt,” or a better translation would be, “Stop doubting,” Jesus is really saying, “Don’t let your doubts keep you from trusting in me and living for the kingdom of God.” Our doubts can lead us to real change. Our doubts can be the path that leads to personal and communal growth, healing, and redemption.

After Thomas’ confession Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” I do not read that as some kind of indictment against Thomas because he doubted. I read it as an affirmation that all are blessed, that all are capable of experiencing God’s love and grace no matter what their history or experience. To “see” is to experience. We have diverse experiences in life and not all of us have the same opportunities and advantages. That is how life works. God does not micromanage the world, so this is not about God blessing some and not others. Life can be very unfair. But whatever our experience, whatever our history or place in the world God is always wooing, drawing, inviting us into relationship – to claim our belonging in God’s family and to take an active role in our becoming the person God has called us to be.

Christ meets us where we are, doubts and all, to lead us to a better place. That’s the first thing. Now, the second thing is that the better place where Christ wants to lead us is a place he knows all about. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And when he says to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit” he is assuring them that the Spirit that empowered him will also empower them. They will be able to love the way he loved. They will be able to serve the way he served. They will have the moral resolve and courage and compassion that he had, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. He is telling them and us that the Spirit that filled him can fill us and lead us to larger place – out of our little, ego driven selves into a greater love and compassion. The Spirit prompts us to let go of our little selves, so that we can participate in a larger story and a bigger love and a greater purpose.

And at the heart of this greater story and love is the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
It’s interesting that forgiveness is highlighted in the sending out of Jesus’ followers to be agents of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What does this mean? Jesus is telling us that the privilege and responsibility of forgiveness, the gift and obligation of forgiveness resides with us. It does not reside in the Temple liturgy of sacrifice or with religious leaders who would like to use it as a means of control and management to determine who is “in” or “out.” It rests with us. It is given to all. And of all people, disciples of Jesus must be practitioners of forgiveness and dispensers of grace. And if that is not a priority, then we have no right to claim to be followers of Jesus.

As we live out the grace of God through giving and receiving forgiveness in our families and communities we reflect who God is and what God is like, and we point the way toward God’s ideal beloved community. Forgiveness may be the most important work we do. Living a life of grace and compassion is far more important than confessing a belief in a creed or squabbling over doctrine. We don’t touch the heart of God by professing belief in some doctrine. We touch the heart of God when we love the way God loves.

Paul says that we are saved by grace – not just grace received, but grace dispensed, grace extended others through acceptance and forgiveness. Our practice of forgiveness is as essential for our own salvation as it is for the salvation of others. Forgiveness is the grace of God flowing in us and through us that brings healing to our relationships and to our own souls.

Jean Vanier says: “To forgive is to break down the walls of hostility that separate us, and to bring each other out the anguish of loneliness, fear, and chaos into communion and oneness.” It’s no wonder Jesus spoke of the giving and receiving of forgiveness in the model prayer as a central part of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s central to God’s will and vision for the world.

So then, the living Christ meets us where we are – with all our doubts and struggles. He shows us how our doubts are not bad things, but an important part of the process of becoming persons who incarnate God’s grace and truth like Jesus. The living Christ calls us to be his agents and ambassadors of grace in the world – dispensing blessings, working for peace and justice, and practicing forgiveness.

Our good God, let us not be fearful of admitting our questions and doubts. Give us the will to face them and the faith to trust in your love most of all. Let us be open to your Spirit that we might embody your grace and forgiveness and help bring about your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.



Monday, April 17, 2017

Setting Loose the Power of Life (a sermon from John 20:1-18)

The last two weeks in my Sunday School class we reflected on Jesus’ death in general and his cry of forsakenness on the cross in particular. No one in my class thought that God had actually forsaken Jesus, but we all concurred that Jesus felt forsaken and was expressing his sense or feeling of God’s absence in echoing the cry of the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When I asked, “Why do you believe that God did not actually forsake Jesus,” someone said, “Because God raised him up.” And that response, I think, gets to the heart of what the resurrection is about.

Actually, you wouldn’t need a resurrection to believe in an afterlife. I used to treat the resurrection of Jesus as if it was the great proof that there is life after death. But that is not really what it is. It may indeed be a sign, a foretaste of what is to come, but we don’t need the resurrection of Jesus to believe in an afterlife. There are non-Christian traditions that believe in immortality. The key meaning in the Gospels of Jesus’ resurrection, of Jesus appearing alive after his death, is vindication. When Jesus appeared to the disciples alive, when the first disciples became convinced that God had raised up Jesus, the one who was crucified by the powers that be is now proclaimed as Lord. While the powers that be said “No” to Jesus, God said “yes.” Jesus didn’t raise himself. God raised Jesus. That was the message the first disciples preached. And when God raised Jesus God said “yes” to the message he proclaimed, the life he lived, and the way in which he went about his death.

It’s in the aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus that the early followers assign redemptive significance to Jesus’ death. This is why Paul can say, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.” God was right there with Jesus. The suffering Jesus endured – his physical suffering, his humiliation and rejection, the desertion of his own friends and followers, the betrayal, and his sense of the injustice and evil of humanity coming to a climax on the cross – all of that darkness formed a cloud around his consciousness closing out in any sense or feeling or awareness of the divine presence. But God was as near and close to Jesus as God always was. And God’s vindication of Jesus shows us that.

What does that mean for me and you? It means that we are never alone, we are never separated from God and God’s love, even though we might feel like we are. Just because we do not sense God’s presence or cannot feel God’s presence, does not mean God is not present. It also means that God enters into our plight. It means that God shares in, participates in our suffering. The God who was in Christ is also in you and me. This is what Paul means when he says that the Holy Spirit or the living Christ indwells in our bodies and souls individually and in the church corporately and in the creation universally. This is what Paul means when he says, “Christ in you, your hope of glory.” Jesus told the woman of Samaria, “God is Spirit.” God as Spirit inhabits our lives. God as Spirit is actively engaged in the human condition. Apart from the divine Spirit we would not be alive. So God experiences what we experience. Our suffering is God’s suffering too. Such is the vulnerability of God.

In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave (that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by miraculous power). If he had, says Berry, he would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we his slaves. For if he had, then “even those who hated him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then. From that moment,” writes Berry, “the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

Berry argues that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures” and in this “groaning and travailing beautiful world.” Berry writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds still are bleeding”

God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing in our pain and loss. The living Christ is our brother in suffering. God in Christ descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. So we need not let our disappointments and discouragements, our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection separate us from God, but rather we should let them draw us into fellowship with a God who suffers with us.

God’s vindication of Jesus in raising Jesus up was not just about Jesus. It is God’s vindication of what Jesus lived for and stood for. It’s vindication of the message Jesus proclaimed about the kingdom of God and the way he incarnated the kingdom of God in his life and work. And the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. It’s about right relationships – putting relationships right in our families, our communities, our societies. It’s about justice. Not justice in the sense of retribution and getting what you deserve. But restorative justice, social justice, gracious justice, justice immersed in grace and mercy, justice the liberates and uplifts and empowers the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the downtrodden. It’s about loving God and loving neighbor. It’s about doing unto others what we would have them do unto us. It’s about the power of love and life at loose in the world – a power that transform us and puts us right with God, each other, and all creation.

This power of love and life can take many forms and be expressed in diverse ways. When Mary first encounters Jesus she does not recognize Jesus. She mistakes him for the gardener. What is different about Jesus? This lack of initial recognition occurs also in the appearance story of the two disciples headed to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke. In John the disciples do not recognize Jesus when he stands by the lakeside. That there is something different about Jesus is subtly suggested in the other appearance stories in John where Jesus has to show the disciples his scars in his hands and side. So we might ask: What is John trying to tell us? I believe, John is helping us transition from the historical Jesus who incarnated bodily the grace and truth of God to the living Christ who is Spirit, and who resides in all of us and who speaks to us and guides us in many, many different ways.

In the story Mary clings to Jesus and Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Mary wants to cling to her relationship to Jesus as it was before his death and resurrection, but that is not possible. Nor is that possible for us. God is ever moving us forward, changing us and transforming us in God’s love to be more loving people. We can’t go back and take up old negative patterns again. We have to let go of our hate and negativity, and allow the Spirit of love and life to set us free and set us loose to love freely, consistently, and unconditionally. 

Author and pastor Philip Gulley shared a letter he received from a reader. The reader thanked Gulley for his book, “If the Church Were Christian.” He tells Philip about being very active in church when he was a teenager and into his early 20’s. Then he came out as a gay man and he knew what would happen. He writes,

“The fear, anguish and worry about what would happen if I came out moved me to almost take my own life. Thankfully I did not. I prayed, I wept, and in that moment of darkness, had the first real spiritual experience of my life, an experience that let me know that God was okay with me exactly as I was.” (You know, so often it takes an experience of God’s love . . . And here is what I find amazing about the Power of Life, the Power of Love at loose in the world, namely, that it can break through layers of bad teaching, socialization, and tradition.)

He continues, “I was kicked out of the church. I was disowned by my family. I was shunned by every friend, every person I had ever known. I found myself alone in the world. Truly, completely, utterly alone. I was 23 years old, young, scared and bruised.
Amazingly I found faith again. Most people who are raised as I am never find faith again after they are shunned. Many become atheists or agnostics, totally rejecting any thoughts of God. I’m thankful I was able to re-form my faith. I had to start from scratch. I asked all the hard questions I had never been encouraged to ask, and now have a more vibrant, joyful and expansive vision of God, the world, and faith. He concludes by saying: “I thank God for holding me in the light, and keeping me close. I thank God for my life.”

That, sisters and brothers, is the power of the resurrection, that is the power of love and liberation at loose in the world. Like Mary we resist this power. We want to hold on to life as it was. We cling to our fears and insecurities. We replay our complaints and painful grievance stories. We hold onto negative attitudes and habits. We cling to our old ways of thinking (“stinking thinking”) and toxic ways of handling problems and struggles. And so we resist and quench the power of life, the power of the divine Spirit, the power of love and liberation at loose in the world. We resist the love that can heal us and transform us.

God’s vindication of Jesus is God’s vindication of love. The power of love will prevail. Love will win. Not by using the means and methods of the world. Not by repaying evil for evil. Not through violence and force. But by turning enemies into friends.

Martin Luther King Jr preached a wonderful and challenging sermon titled, “Loving your enemies.” He mentions how hate is just as injurious to the person who hates as to the one hated. It “scars the soul and distorts the personality.” Why did Jesus command us to love our enemies? King says it’s because “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” By its very nature, says King, “hate destroys and tears down”; whereas love “creates and builds up.” Love, he says, “transforms with redemptive power.”

People will say, says King, that this is not practical, but the practical way has lead us deeper into confusion and chaos. King says that with every ounce of energy we must continue to fight injustice, but, he says, “we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and obligation to love. While “abhorring segregation,” says King, “we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.”

I believe God will create the beloved community, and I believe the resurrection is God’s promise that love will win. Win, not by force, not by using the violence of the world, not by returning blow for blow, but by turning enemies into friends. The NT reading from the epistles for Passion Sunday was Philippians 2:5-11. I think it may be even better suited as an Easter reading. Paul admonishes the church to put on the mindset of Christ, to model the humility and self-giving attitude and lifestyle of Christ. (By the way, this is what the writer means in Colossians 3 when he instructs us the church to set their minds on things above). After Paul instructs them to put on the mindset of Christ, then he quotes an early Christ hymn that says that the Christ emptied himself and humbled himself  and was obedient to the will and love of God even to the point of death on a cross. Then the hymn proclaims: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth [that about covers everyone doesn’t it?] and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

I remember hearing that interpreted years ago to mean that God will make everyone in heaven and in hell bow down to Jesus. God will have to force some people but they will bow down. But that is not what the text says at all. To confess Jesus as Lord was a confession early followers of Jesus made at the time of their baptism. It was a redemptive confession signifying that they were committing their lives to live by the love of Christ. This early Christ hymn that predates Paul envisions a day when all God’s enemies will be turned into friends. That’s how love wins sisters and brothers.

God’s resurrection of Jesus is vindication that love will win. I don’t know how or when that will happen. It may be in this world or it may be in a different world. I don’t know. But I believe it to be so. I believe in the love of Jesus as the most transforming power in the world. And that gives me hope. And it can give you hope too.

I know I have told this little story a number of times before but it’s such a beautiful parable about the hope that the love of Christ brings to us. There once was a painting that hung in a gallery of Foust playing chess with the Devil for his soul. It appears that the Devil has Foust checkmated. The Devil is hovering over the chess board with a delightful glee, while on the face of Foust there is a look of bitter desperation.

Some people in the gallery would inevitably gravitate toward this painting. If they were going through a difficult time, a time of great disappointment and grief, or if, perhaps, they were living on the brink of despair, the painting spoke to them. The painting seemed to capture the sense of hopelessness they were experiencing.

One day a chess master entered the gallery and for the longest time simply stared at the painting. Then suddenly, out of the quietness of that place, came a loud shout, “It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” exclaimed the chess master, “the knight and the king still have moves left.”

Because God raised Jesus from the dead, because love is the greatest power in the universe, because the love of Christ brings life out of death, we still have moves left. You still have moves left. All is not lost. Love is going to win.

Our good God, may your magnanimous and unconditional love for us, embodied in Jesus’ life, poured out in his death, and vindicated in his resurrection, reach us in our spirits, in our awareness, in our consciousness today regardless of where we are on life’s journey. Help us to see that no matter where we are today, life is not hopeless. We have moves left. And that no matter what befalls us, or what burdens we may have to carry, you will be with us bearing them too. Give us the faith to believe that you suffer with us and share our stories. Give us the faith to trust in your love and grace. Give us the faith to be faithful ambassadors and practitioners of the love shown us in Christ our Lord.