Author Archives: pastorsings

The Advantage of Grace – sermon on Romans 6:12-23

July 2, 2017

We’re looking at a Wesleyan understanding of Grace this month. Two weeks ago, you examined God’s prevenient grace. Before we knew we needed it, God showed us his grace. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8) Last week, you heard the first part of chapter six in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It was all about the grace God offers through Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. We call this justifying grace – becoming dead to sin, and alive in Christ, puts us right with God. We are justified through our faith in Christ Jesus.

Today we look at another aspect of God’s grace: sanctification. Sanctifying grace sets us apart as holy to the Lord. It is through the ongoing process of sanctification that we become more and more like Christ.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:12-23

“Therefore,” Paul writes, and immediately we realize we need to jump back to last week’s passage to understand what Paul is about to say. Here’s how that passage ended, in verse eleven: “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Now verse 12 makes sense! Therefore, don’t let sin overpower you, because obedience to sin leads to death.

Sin isn’t a very popular topic in today’s churches. We don’t like to hear about the ways we fall short of God’s plan for us. We don’t want anyone reminding us that our self-centered pursuit of what pleases us is not always pleasing to God. And it’s really easy, when we start talking about sin, to point out the sins of others, as if they might be more terrible than our own mediocre sins.

But all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are all guilty, in one way or another. We all need grace. And even after we have accepted Christ’s justifying grace, even after we have begun to walk in newness of life, we keep on needing grace.

Paul tells us that we need to keep on choosing grace as we seek to become more and more like Christ. Whatever we obey, that is what rules us. If we obey sin, it leads to death, but if we obey God, it leads to life. And this is not just-barely-getting-by life. Obedience to God brings us abundant freedom for all eternity, beginning now.

But doesn’t this freedom simply mean that we can go ahead and sin, knowing that God will forgive us? In fact, shouldn’t we sin more, so we can experience even greater levels of God’s grace? No, Paul says. You’re missing the point. The point isn’t personal freedom to do whatever we want.

Theologian Rudolph Bultmann writes, “Genuine freedom … withstands the clamor and pressure of momentary motivations.” Harold Masback adds, “Mere ‘freedom from’ this law or that obligation never leads to flourishing life unless it is linked with ‘freedom for’ a higher, heartfelt commitment.” (Feasting On the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 187.) The point of grace isn’t freedom. The point is sanctification.

Now there’s a word you don’t hear at the coffee shop during the week! That’s definitely a Sunday word, a great example of churchy language that we are supposed to avoid if we want to attract new people, people who might be put off by words that only the Christian insiders understand. But do we understand what sanctification means?

The biblical definition of sanctification is to be set apart for God’s glory. John Wesley used sanctification and perfection interchangeably. We don’t like that word, perfection, either. But Wesley wasn’t trying to set up an impossible standard for living.

For Wesley, “going on toward perfection” was a life-long process of Christian discipleship. Being perfected in grace means that we become more and more like Jesus, saying and doing the things that Jesus said and did, living our lives as he would live them if he were us. It’s a process of transformation.

One of the most frequent criticisms young adults offer the church is that we are hypocrites. We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk. We say we love Jesus, but we live our lives as if he didn’t exist (Craig Groeschel, The Christian Atheist).

Paul reminds us, “What advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death” (v 21). Walk the walk, Paul tells us. Live for Christ, now that you are dead to sin. Sanctification isn’t something that happens automatically; it’s a choice we make day by day, sometimes moment by moment.

Sanctification is what happens to us, by God’s grace, when we decide to center our lives on being disciples of Jesus Christ. It is that life of discipleship that sets us apart, and gives glory to God. And here’s the really wonderful thing: when we allow ourselves to be transformed in this way, we begin to transform the world around us.

At our recent Minnesota Annual Conference, Junius Dotson, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries for the United Methodist Church, had this to say about the purpose of discipleship, or this process of sanctification:
“The point of discipleship is to influence the culture around us. We limit discipleship by segregating the secular from the sacred. We never take our faith public!
“The culture will have to live under the influence of Christ. In the world, [you] are each professionals who have been strategically positioned to reach new people and change their worldview, impacting the people around you. We don’t have to waste time in church meetings talking to death how to go beyond the church walls. We are already in every place in the community, in society.”

You have been strategically positioned to impact the people around you by the way you live out your faith, the way you ‘walk the walk.’ Think about that. How are you strategically placed to bring glory to God throughout the week?

It isn’t by our effort; we can’t strive for it. It is by God’s grace alone that we can be transformed. To what end? What’s the advantage of sanctifying grace? “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” The wages of sin is death – that’s what we earn, what is due to us right now. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord – we can’t earn it. God gives us this gift through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Yet we must choose, and the choice is always before us – Obedience to sin that results in death, or obedience to God that results in eternal life, fully transformed into the likeness of the one we follow, Jesus Christ Our Lord, who invites us to this Table now. …

 

Awakening to Love – Sermon on John 14:15-21

Aldersgate Sunday
May 21, 2017
View a video of this sermon here. 

We are drawing near to the end of this season of Easter. Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Ascension, and the week after that will be Pentecost, the birthday of the church. But today, it is still Easter, the season when we’ve been learning what it means to follow the risen Christ.

It is also Aldersgate Sunday, the day we remember how John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” as he suddenly felt sure of his own salvation. This event in his own spiritual journey led him to develop a way of discipleship that would become the United Methodist Church.

Throughout this Eastertide, we have been examining what discipleship looks like through the theme of Awakening. Thomas awakened us to the realization that doubt is a necessary element of real faith. The disciples on their way to Emmaus, maybe Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, awakened in us the need to be together: to break bread together, to examine God’s Word together.

Jesus awakened us to recognize him as the Gate to salvation, and last week, we were awakened in the Upper Room to the realization that following Jesus means surrendering ourselves completely to him, just as he surrendered himself completely to the Father’s will, and for the Father’s glory.

Each of these awakenings has highlighted a different element of discipleship: Continue reading

Disciples Who Make Disciples – sermon on Matthew 28:16-20

June 11, 2017
Trinity A
View video of this sermon here.

Do you like a good mystery? Summer reading lists always include a section on mystery novels, and some authors, like Agatha Christie, have made a career of writing them. We usually associate “mystery” with fiction, but we aren’t so comfortable when it comes to talking about true mysteries. In fact, the Protestant church through the centuries has played down any interest in the mysteries of faith, beyond reciting “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

And yet, every time we receive Communion as Methodists, we give thanks for “this holy mystery” of Christ’s body and blood being shared with us, so that we might be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood. Like it or not, following Jesus means engaging in things we can’t explain. Faith means buying into what you can’t prove, because if you could prove it, you wouldn’t need faith, would you! Sometimes, what moves us into deeper, more profound trust is our willingness to believe in the mystery.

We celebrate one of the holiest of mysteries today, on Trinity Sunday. It would be easy to get stuck in a bunch of poor analogies, trying to explain the unexplainable aspect of God’s identity as Three Persons in One God, trying to “de-mystify” the mystery. To understand the Trinity, we’d want to go first to scripture, and we’d run into a problem right away. You see, the Bible doesn’t use the word “trinity” or any kind of explanation for the Triune God – at all. Continue reading

Building Up the Body of Christ – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 for Pentecost A

June 2, 2017

We just heard the amazing story of the Holy Spirit rushing among the disciples who had been praying together for fifty days. We think of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, because it was on this day that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on  those who were gathered. But for centuries, Pentecost had been a major Jewish festival, and people came from all over the world to  celebrate it in Jerusalem.

The disciples had been huddled in an upper room together for weeks. Now they dispersed through the crowds, each speaking a different language. The people who had come from far and near each heard  the Good News in their own tongue. As Peter preached to the  crowds, thousands responded to the gospel and believed in Jesus as  the Son of God.

This is where it all began. After Pentecost, there was no going back. Somehow, these new believers had to figure out how to be the  Church, how to live and worship together in a new way.

It didn’t take long for conflict to emerge. Some thought faith should be lived out this way, and others thought it should be that way.  There were arguments over worship and teachings and how to  observe the Lord’s Supper. And because the church was made up of human beings, there were arguments over power and hierarchy.

Some thought that they had a corner on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that the gifts they had been given were somehow more important than “lesser” gifts. In the middle of all this conflict, the Church at Corinth sent a letter to the Apostle Paul, asking for some clarification. It’s a good thing for us that Paul wrote back. Continue reading

Awakening to Surrender – Sermon on John 14:1-14

May 14, 2017
Mothers’ Day – Easter 5A

What troubles your heart these days?

There’s plenty of stuff to trouble us: wars all over the globe, crime, the economy, politics … and on a more personal level, trouble can haunt us in our families: our marriages, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives, our own health – there’s plenty of trouble to go around.

I grew up in a church that was convinced it had the Right Answers to all the Big Questions, and most of the little ones. We knew without a doubt that once you were saved, you were always saved. But if you weren’t saved the way we were saved, you probably weren’t really saved.

We practiced “closed communion” for church members only. This meant observing the Lord’s Supper on Sunday nights, when visitors were less likely to show up. Ours was a very exclusive community of faith, and we were proud of it. We knew who was In and who was Out. We did not let the things of this world trouble us. Or at least, we wouldn’t admit it if they did.

We were nothing at all like the community of faith gathered around the table on the night Jesus was betrayed.

We had answers. … The disciples had questions.

We were full of assurance. … The disciples were full of fear.

We allowed only bona fide church members to receive Communion. … Jesus offered bread and cup to all his followers, even Judas, and said, “Take and eat. Take and drink.”

We were certain: we knew who was In and who was Out. … The disciples were confused: they had thought Jesus would become the King Forever. Here he was talking about dying. And it sounded like he meant “soon.”

As those confused and fearful disciples gathered around the Table, Jesus talked openly with them. He knew it would be his last chance to help them understand what was about to happen, and what they would need to know after he was no longer with them. But his words were not comforting to the disciples. They were troubling words. So Jesus gathered his friends closer.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:1-14)

It may seem strange to hear these words in the middle of the season of Eastertide. We should be celebrating the risen Lord, not going back to the gloom and doom of Holy Week, right? And many of us may associate this particular passage more with the sadness of funerals than with the joy of resurrection.

But Jesus wasn’t only teaching his disciples how to deal with his impending death, nor was he only concerned with a far-distant heavenly future. Jesus was preparing his disciples for carrying on the ministry he had begun. The Kingdom of God had broken into the world, and it would be up to Christ’s followers to continue the work of bringing it to full reality.

For us, the question “who are we following?” never even comes up. We all know from the beginning that the faith we are exploring is Christian faith. Those early disciples didn’t have it so easy. As Jews, they were still caught up in thousands of years of interwoven spiritual and physical DNA. Like my childhood church, they thought they had it all figured out.

They knew how the story was supposed to end. And they knew it wasn’t supposed to end with the Messiah preparing them for his own death. The question they were all asking themselves, but no one wanted to say out loud was this: Have we made a mistake? Did we follow the wrong guy?

So when Jesus promises to come get them later, and tells them that they know the way to where he is going, our good friend Thomas blurts out, “You’ve got to be kidding! We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?”

A couple of weeks ago, the Wednesday night Bible study group took a look at the seven “I AM” statements in John’s gospel. We heard two of them last week, when Jesus announced, “I am the Good Shepherd. I am the gate for the sheep.” Now, to answer Thomas, Jesus makes another claim to his identity.

“Thomas, Thomas, look me in the eye and listen to me. I AM the Way. I am the Truth. The Word was made flesh – that’s me. I am the Life. You don’t need to look for another Messiah. You got it right the first time. I am the way you can get to the Father. Believe me.”

At that moment, Thomas might not have known how the story was going to end, but he must have recognized that Jesus wasn’t declaring a threat – “Believe in me and only me, or else!” Jesus was offering a promise. And that promise was not only for the future, it was a promise to be with the disciples in the here and now, as they figured out how to carry forward the ministry Christ had begun.

We need to be careful about the way we interpret this particular “I AM” statement. We need to make sure we keep it in the context of this conversation between Jesus and the chosen few who have followed him most closely throughout his ministry.

When we pull this statement out of its setting, Karoline Lewis writes, it “stands as contradictory to every other “I AM” statement in the Fourth Gospel. ‘I AM the way, the truth, and the life’ becomes an indication of God’s judgment, exclusion, and absence,” rather than a word of promise.

Lewis continues, “These are words of comfort, not condition, for the disciples. There is nothing uncertain for their present or their future because of their relationship with Jesus. Of that, Jesus wants them to be secure.”[1] In other words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” is a promise for believers, not a threat for unbelievers.

Thomas must have been paying attention. We know that, after the Resurrection, Thomas will make the most powerful declaration of faith found in any of the gospels. He will kneel at Jesus’ feet and proclaim with certainty, “My Lord and my God.”

And that is what we are called to do. We are called to say with full assurance, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and I want to commit my life to following him as my Lord and Savior.” Accepting Christ as Savior is not the end, but the beginning of a life where Jesus is Lord. This is the promise Christ makes when he says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’m how you get to the Father.”

David Lose writes that this statement is “Sheer promise. And just in case we’re not sure, Jesus heaps on another promise to boot: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” All of which adds a twist to our usual conception of heaven. When Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for us, we tend to think in very far-off, eternal terms. And yet Jesus’ departure to the Father not only secures our place in God’s presence but also creates the possibility to follow Jesus, do his works, and even do greater works … right now, in this very present moment. Heaven, for John, is as much a present-tense category as it is future one.”[2]

But let’s back up for a moment. Let’s go back to that first verse again, the one where Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” This week, I studied these familiar words as they fit into the broader story, and I was suddenly struck by their connection to something Jesus says way back in chapter 12.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in the Palm Procession, and some Greeks have come to Phillip to ask, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (12:21). When Philip tells Jesus about their request, Jesus begins to talk about his impending death. Listen to what he says in verses 27 and 28: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”

Shortly after this conversation, Jesus will gather his friends in the upper room. Just as his own soul was troubled back in chapter 12, he will see that his disciples’ hearts are troubled as they gather around his table. They will argue about who is to be the greatest in his kingdom, and he will wrap a towel around his waist and get down on his knees to do the job of the lowliest servant. He will wash their stinky feet.

When Jesus’ soul is troubled, instead of asking the Father to save him from what is coming, he surrenders to God’s will, to glorify God’s name.

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, and then tells them, “ Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me,” he is inviting them to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

When Jesus says, “Those who believe in me will do the works I do, and even greater works than these, because I’m going to the Father,” he is inviting us to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

Becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work. Just as Jesus healed the sick, cared for the poor, and preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, so we are to bind up the broken-hearted, feed the hungry, and share God’s love.

But we can only do this when our service comes out of humble surrender to God’s will, giving glory to God’s name. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s what it means to come to the Father through him. It means surrender.

The Way is the way of surrender to God’s will for us. The Truth is that giving God glory is all that really matters. The Life is a life of surrender, lived in relationship with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

David Lose points out that the questions Thomas and Philip pose aren’t really questions of “How.” They are “why” questions. Why do you have to leave us now, Jesus? Why can’t we go with you? Why are you leaving us in this broken, miserable world? We might wonder the same thing. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What reason do we have to continue on the journey toward Christ-likeness?

Often, when we want answers, what we really need is relationship. The answer Jesus gives to “Why?” is not “Because.” The answer Jesus gives is his very self. ”Whatever the disciples may ask, Jesus will keep offering not simply answers but himself.”[3]

This is what he means when he says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14) Jesus does not promise to be our short order cook, serving up whatever we demand of him to satisfy our own desires.

Jesus promises himself, fully surrendered to glorify the Father. As we act on his behalf to do the works he did, and even greater works than these, he invites us to that same life of surrender.

[1] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1994
[2] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3218
[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-5-a-jesus-real-presence/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

Awakening to Fellowship – Brief Homily on Luke 24:13-35

April 30, 2017 (Easter 3A)
Watch video here.

Two Sundays ago on Easter Day, we saw the Resurrection from the viewpoint of those women who were the first to arrive at the empty tomb, and last week we heard the same story from the perspective of those disciples who were closest to Jesus, but Thomas was missing that day. He had to come back a week later, to experience the risen Lord. Today, we hear the same day’s story, but it’s from the perspective of those other followers of Jesus who were not part of the inner circle, not among the twelve. But they were close enough followers of Jesus to have been deeply affected by the events of the previous 72 hours.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. – Luke 24:13-35

A few verses later in this chapter, as the disciples are all gathered together, Jesus will stand among them and “open their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45), just as he did on the road to Emmaus with these two.

And who are these two disciples? Cleopas is only mentioned in this one story, and only Luke tells it. The disciple walking with Cleopas is never named, but – as I mentioned on Wednesday night – there is nothing in the text that tells us this other disciple had to be a man. It could just as easily have been Mrs. Cleopas.[1] That would make sense, when they invite Jesus into the home they apparently share.

But it doesn’t really matter if the other disciple was friend or spouse. What matters is that Luke tells this story in such a way that we can each put ourselves right there on the road, walking and talking intensely about these things that have just occurred. Things that disturb us. Things that have shaken our world.

These disciples are in the pit of despair. When they tell the stranger who joins them “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” it’s clear that those hopes have been dashed. We had hoped … In Greek the imperfect tense indicates continuous action that flows from the past, but it doesn’t tell us if that action is still going on.[2] How long had they been hoping? However long it had been, the events of the past few days had brought an end to their hoping. Hope was behind them, in the imperfect past.

We like to think in future tense – things will get better, the sun will come up tomorrow, life will go on, even after deep disappointment and even through grief. But often, life hands us the imperfect tense: we had hoped …

Maybe you have experienced that kind of deep disappointment. Maybe your long held hopes have been dashed. Maybe it is hard for you to recognize that Christ is walking beside you, just as he walked beside two disciples who didn’t recognize him on their way home from Jerusalem. Despair can do that. It can make us blind to the One who walks with us through our deepest hurt.

But resurrection is just as real as dashed hopes. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to hope just yet, but know that Jesus died in order to be raised from death, so that you could experience resurrection, too. So don’t worry if hope seems a thing of the past for now. The risen Christ walks beside you, even if you don’t recognize him. And this church is here to help you see him.

There were two things that Cleopas and (maybe) Mrs. Cleopas described that we should pay attention to. First, their hearts were burning as Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. Scripture was an integral part of their walk with Jesus. Second, they recognized Jesus when he broke bread, acting as host, even though he was their guest. Fellowship is at the heart of following Jesus – fellowship around the Word and fellowship around the Table.

You can be a believer by yourself, but if you want to be a true follower of Jesus, it has to happen in community, keeping fellowship with other followers of Jesus. Walking together, we teach one another what scripture means, and we remember together Christ’s great sacrifice for us in the sacrament of Holy Communion, that meal we share at Christ’s Table.

Walking together, we also remind one another that our future is filled with hope. This church is here to walk beside you, to help you recognize Jesus and come to believe in resurrection. This church is here to offer hope when you have given up hoping. This church is here to be the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, so that together we can stay centered on Christ, be sent by Christ to offer Christ, as we follow Christ.

[1] Thanks to Martha Spong (also of revgalblogpals.org) for suggesting the possibility of “Mrs. Cleopas.”

[2] Richard Swanson. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1992

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