Monthly Archives: April 2017

Awakening to Faith – Sermon on John 20:19-31 for Easter 2A

April 23, 2017
Watch the video here.

It’s still Easter. Put yourself in the upper room for a moment. Imagine what it was like to have waited there together over the Sabbath, hiding behind locked doors. All your hopes and dreams have been crushed. The One you thought would free you from oppression has been brutally executed. You are afraid.

Then something happens that you can’t quite explain, and you aren’t sure you can believe. Some of the women have gone to the tomb early in the morning, and they come back breathlessly exclaiming that the tomb is empty. He isn’t there. They babble on about seeing angels. Something about “he is risen!” Could it be true?

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31

If you compare these two appearances of the risen Christ, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost.

But John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
Believe the Good News!

And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” And believing – or “faithing,” if there were such a word in English – is such an important concept that this verb appears six times in this passage, and 90 more times throughout the rest of John’s gospel.

Believing is more than intellectual agreement. It’s more than understanding or accepting an idea as true. Believing means trusting, or having faith in something. Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe that Jesus is the Christ, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

If those Jesus sends fail to share their faith effectively, others will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be retained. They won’t experience forgiveness. (20:23) The stakes of this mission are high. And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing for John. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the gospel story. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (John 1:39).

A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34).

In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and ‘seeing’ means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up unexpectedly until they get it. He offers shalom three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Shalom. The disciples were afraid, but this time, when Jesus appears, he doesn’t give the “Stop being afraid, fear not” greeting that we have come to expect when a messenger from God shows up. Instead, he offers peace. Over and over again.

But notice that this risen Christ also offers some astounding evidence to prove he is who they can barely believe he is. Instead of showing them himself in flawless resurrected glory, he holds out his hands, and shows them his side. He offers his wounds, symbols of his own vulnerable humanity, as proof of his identity.

This is the same Christ who breathes Holy Spirit on a room full of people mere hours after walking out of a tomb. And here he is, not once but twice, offering peace from wounded hands that have felt the ultimate pain and suffering a human can experience. But pain, grief, and wounds are not signs of weakness. Rachael Keefe [2] writes,

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that perfection is to be prized and that we should keep other things quiet. This mindset is causing us harm. If the risen Christ identified himself by his wounds, then why do we go to such extremes to hide our own?

We are enamored with perfection in western culture. We must look perfect, act perfect, be perfect. We shy away from any displays of imperfection. … How many people are afraid to be honest about their own struggles for fear of judgment? For fear of being seen as weak or in need?

Funny how we have done this to one another when we worship a God who conquered death, but saw no reason to remove the marks of human frailty. The … marks of sin and death were clearly still visible, reminding us of our true nature. We are fragile and finite. We can bruise, bend, and break in countless ways for reasons sometimes beyond our understanding. Many things can wound us deeply. Why deny that? Why hide it?”

Keefe goes on to consider what it might look like in our worship if we offered each other our wounds, our pain, our vulnerability as frail human beings when we “pass the peace.” This might give “Peace be with you,” a new and profound meaning. It could help us recognize that we, as the church, embody a Christ who is both wounded and whole, just as we are. “Peace be with you” then becomes a reminder of healing and hope, not just a casual “Glad to see you” greeting.

“If the Son of God, the risen Christ, can use his wounds as proof of his life, experience, and identity, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing? Here I am. Here are my wounds. Touch them if you need to. I am God’s beloved. Peace be with you.” (Rachael Keefe)

This brings us to the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

Thomas gets a bum rap, I think, when we call him “Doubting Thomas.” After all, his confession of Jesus as Lord and God is the strongest statement of faith we can find in the gospels. Thomas is the one who told the others, “if he’s determined to go to Bethany, where his life has already been threatened, we might as well go die with him, too.”

This kind of faith, this kind of believing, includes a healthy dose of doubt. Frederick Buechner, put it this way: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[3]

Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for building faith. It is only when we ask the hard questions that God can provide us with answers to deepen our relationship with him. This is how God gives us tools to share our faith with others when life throws hard questions at them.

And maybe this is the reason John gives us the story of Thomas a week after the resurrection. To remind us that it is healthy to doubt, so that our believing, our “faithing” keeps awake and moving. And it is also healthy to recognize our risen Lord – not because of his white raiment or the halo artists paint around his head – but because of his deep wounds, still evident and fresh a week after he has conquered death once and for all.

Like Thomas, may you see those wounds and know that Christ sees yours.
Like Thomas, may you own your doubts, so that your faith may grow.
Like Thomas, may you bow before Jesus and say with assurance, “My Lord, and my God.” And through the very act of believing, amid your doubts, revealing your wounds, may you have life in his name.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2, 397.
[2] Rachael Keefe: https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/blood-sweat-and-tears/
[3] http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/10/26/doubt

Who Will You Tell? Sermon on Matthew 28:1-10 Easter A

April 16, 2017

For those of you who haven’t been with us throughout the season of Lent, let me bring you up to speed. We’ve been reading a book together called Unbinding Your Heart. It’s about learning how to share our faith. Some of you are here today because someone handed you a green card and said, come worship with me on Easter. Welcome! We are really glad you accepted the invitation.

You need to know that, before the person who invited you here today put that card in your hand, a lot of us were praying for you, not even knowing your name. Our hearts are getting unbound, and I hope that today, your heart will be opened, too, so that you can let in a little bit of the love that is filling this church.

Last Sunday, I talked about expecting the unexpected when Jesus shows up. We considered the fact that Jesus is always with us, but we have to start expecting him in order to see him. And it was a Sunday full of unexpected surprises.

One of the behind the scenes surprises was that the palms did not get delivered as we had expected. I had gone to bed Saturday night expecting to improvise, inviting everyone to wave the palm of your hand. But Cleo, faithful servant that she is, went to HyVee early Sunday morning to pick up the palms, so we had leafy branches to wave after all.

Claire brought her whoopee cushion to the children’s message. That was unexpected. Continue reading

What Did You Expect? Sermon on Matthew 22:1-11 Palm Sunday A

April 9, 2017

So tell me, how has Jesus shown up in your life over these past five or six weeks, as we’ve been asking God to unbind our hearts? What did you expect when we began this Lenten journey, and how has reality matched your expectations? Let’s do a quick review.

First, we learned that the “E” word, Evangelism, doesn’t need to be a scary thing. Evangelism is simply sharing your faith with other people. Even a reluctant evangelist, like Ananias, can tip someone into God’s love like a domino, starting a chain reaction that can go in unexpected ways. Kris shared her story of bringing her grandchildren to church after they had questions about her Nativity set. Like Ananias, Kris tipped someone into God’s love.

We learned that, before we can effectively share our faith with others, it needs to be a healthy and mature faith. We need to develop a strong relationship with God, going deep with Jesus often in prayer. So we set up the prayer wall, and began adding our prayers to it, prayers for people and situations God had laid on our hearts.

During the third week of Lent, we looked at the trinity of relationships – our relationship with God, with each other, and with those outside our church. We saw that unresolved conflict within the church can prevent people outside the church from developing a relationship with Christ, and some of us must have started working on resolving a few conflicts, because a spirit of peace has begun to fill this place. At least one visitor has noticed this.

In week four, we learned what brought Sue into a life of faith when we played the “Who Am I?” game. We heard how our own personal story is a powerful means of bringing others to Christ. The Samaritan woman at the well showed us that the Kingdom of God is for all who believe, regardless of backgrounds, ethnic roots, or cultural differences. Christ offers living water to all, a well springing up to eternal life. And we have jars of that living water to offer to others.

Last week, the paralytic who was let down through the roof, and Lazarus who was brought up from the grave, drew our attention to barriers that prevent people from wanting to know Christ. Some barriers are internal, and others are external. Bo Wright shared his and Dru’s experiences as they looked for a church when they moved here to New Ulm, and why they settled on First Church as their church home.

All of these stories, whether from our own experiences or from the Scriptures, have something in common. In every case, God has shown up in unexpected ways. Continue reading

Picking Up Your Mat – Sermon on Mark 2:1-12 Lent 5A

April 2, 2017

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” – Mark 2:1-12

Imagine what it must have been like to live in Capernaum when Jesus lived there. Have you ever wondered what Jesus’ house must have looked like? When he called his first disciples, and they asked where he was living, he had said, “come and see.” So he must have had some place he called his own when he was in town. As the word spread that Jesus was home, people started to gather outside his door. Pretty soon there was a whole crowd.

In that crowd, there are four people. They have a friend who can’t walk. Now, this story doesn’t tell how these people decided to carry this guy to Jesus’ house. It doesn’t say if they felt awkward bringing him to Jesus. It just says that they did. When they arrive, they face some obstacles. Continue reading

Putting Down Your Jar – Sermon on John 4:5-42 (take two)

You can find the script for this message here. This account of the Samaritan woman at the well was first preached in 2014, a few months after I began an appointment as First UMC’s pastor. Three years later, this text fit quite well in the Unbinding Your Heart sermon series. So here is the updated version.

Sometimes, a first-person story gets to the heart of the matter more effectively than a description of events. Sometimes, talking about the Word doesn’t mean as much as simply speaking the Word from inside the story. So on this fourth Sunday of Lent in 2017 (third Sunday of Lent in Year A, if you follow the lectionary cycle), I put on a scarf and told the story of the Woman at the Well from her perspective. Here’s the video.

As you meet Christ at your own personal well, may you recognize what the people from Sychar recognized: Jesus is the Savior of the world. That means he is the Savior of you.  Believe this Good News!