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.



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