Tuesday, April 12, 2005

April 10 Sermon, "I Need A Sign"

John 20:19-31

I can relate to the Rev. Jill LaRoche Wilson from Paoli, Pennsylvania when she says, "Alleluia! Christ is Risen! A couple of Sundays ago, there was a lot more oomph to the alleluias. The past weeks has been a difficult one in the life of our world, and I just don’t think we’re in as much of an alleluia sort of mood anymore. We suffered with Terri Schiavo as she died, and we can only imagine the hurt, pain, and loss felt by her family and friends. The politics and rhetoric surrounding her lead many of us to relive the death of loved ones --relive times when we had to make a similar decision about the life and death of someone we loved." Even this weekend, news came out that a Cornwall, CT man was given probation after helping a friend with terminal cancer commit suicide. The Hartford Courant staff writers claim the entire town of Cornwall supports the assisted suicide as an act of caring. All to say, many of us are reflecting on life and what it means to live a holy life. Some of us are thinking about our death and what a holy death might look like. Last week in Italy, as Pope John Paul was buried, the world was given a glimpse at what a holy death can in fact look like.[i]

Here is a rundown of the top stories in today’s new alone: There is a deadly virus sweeping Angola, and another in the Pacific Rim. One of the suspects in the ’96 Olympic bombings pleaded guilty, a third earthquake shook Indonesia this morning , San Joses State suspended their dance team for being too sexy. It’s hard, the weeks after Easter, to face our crazy world. It’s even more difficult to face the doctor who says, “I’m sorry. We’ve done all we can” Or the family member who is destroying his or her life with drinking or drugs. After Easter Sunday, we wake up to a world that is not changed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Life goes on and we doubt if Easter really makes a difference in the world around us.

It’s OK if you have some doubt. You are in very good company if you feel that way. I’m not just talking about Thomas, who must forever bear the nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas isn’t the only disciple to doubt the resurrection. When we read the accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels, the disciples share a common bond: their first reaction to the news of the empty tomb is doubt and fear. They didn’t know what to make of it.

This morning we’re going to discuss what to do when we begin to doubt the resurrection power of Christ. What do we do when we encounter moments in life where the resurrection seems like an empty promise? What do we do when we need to encounter Jesus, and we aren’t sure if he’s going to be there when we need him? What do we do when we need a tangible sign that Jesus is alive and at work in the world? Today’s text speaks to some different times when he can trust Christ to show himself to us.

To begin with, Jesus reveals himself to those who continue a connection with church John tells us that Thomas was not locked away with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them. Thomas missed seeing Jesus. And because he was not an eyewitness to the Jesus sighting, he refused to believe the hearsay of the other disciples. I wonder where Thomas was when Jesus first showed up. Some think that Thomas’ doubt kept him away, but that’s unlikely. Thomas never lacked courage. He loved Jesus. He was ready to die with Jesus in Jerusalem (John 11:16). When Jesus died, I’m sure Thomas was brokenhearted. Maybe Thomas was so brokenhearted that he couldn’t meet the eyes of the other disciples. He just wanted to be alone in his grief. Thomas withdrew from Christian fellowship. He sought loneliness rather than togetherness. And because he was not there with his fellow Christians, he missed the first appearance of Jesus.[ii]

Perhaps John is suggesting to us that Christ appears most often within the community of believers that we call the church. When we separate ourselves from the church, we take a chance on missing Christ’s unique presence. When sorrow comes to us, when sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves up and refuse to meet people. We want our pain to be private. However, our times of pain are the very times we need each other. When we gather together with our sisters and brothers in Christ, we are most likely to meet Jesus face to face.[iii] So, if you need a sign that Jesus is real – if you want to see Jesus, don’t go it alone. Continue your connection with the church.

Once in the church, we need to realize that Jesus reveals himself to those who don’t deny doubt. The church often handles doubt by squashing it. But, Jesus didn’t blame Thomas for doubting. Jesus understood that Thomas needed to struggle through his doubts. Once he did. Thomas daringly defended his faith in Jesus as the risen Lord. In fact, tradition claims Thomas became a missionary in Persia and India, where he was tortured and martyred for his faith.[iv]

I don’t know about you, but I am skeptical of people who say that they’ve never had any doubts—people who always seem so sure. Authentic faith always begins with honesty – even honesty about our doubts. Sometimes I have my doubts. Sometimes I wonder if my whole ministry is based on absurdity. I see the pain that others go through. I sit with the sick and dying. I hear the cries of families who have lost someone closer to them than life itself. And sometimes I think silently to myself: Is it all true? Is resurrection reality?[v]

I don’t want to be a doubting Thomas and neither do you. But we are frequently faced with unresolved issues of faith, questions that have no easy answers. As the church, we often tend to dismiss questions and doubts as the byproducts of immature faith. In our conviction that we at least know some of the answers, we sometimes act as if we have ALL the answers. Do you know what the three least-used words in the vocabulary of the church are? I DON’T KNOW!

Emerging faith honors the value of doubt. Thomas comes to his expression of faith only after stating his misgivings. The kind of faith that will see you through the dark nights of the soul rarely comes without questioning and doubt. In fact, it usually comes as a RESULT of questioning and doubt. So, why has the Christianity developed such a negative attitude toward doubt? We’ve been brought up in a religious environment in which doubt is pictured as the opposite of faith. But doubt is not the opposite of faith. Unbelief is the opposite of faith. Doubt has a positive role to play in faith development.

Our Lord doesn’t meet our doubts with scolding, but with a demonstration of grace. If we want to see Jesus, we need to embrace doubt. But it can’t stop there. We need to allow God’s grace to transform our doubt. Jesus reveals himself to those who found their faith on frailty.

What if the church changed its view of and teaching about Thomas? What if we began to picture him as a person who had the courage to admit his lack of understanding? What if the church began to celebrate Thomas’ willingness to express his honest doubts? Could we help people to see that Christian faith is a belief that exists in the presence of doubts rather than a belief that has to remove all doubt in order to exist? Could we in the church begin to believe that faith is strengthened by acceptaning our doubts? Perhaps we’d be seen as people who cling to their faith in spite of the uncertainties of life – people who are just as human and fallible as anybody else. We need to learn the benefit of doubt. We need to embrace the truth learned from the example of Thomas that doubts may not always lead to answers, but they almost always lead to spiritual growth. I like what Frederich Buechner wrote: “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Thomas may have doubted, but when he saw the resurrected Lord faith began to take roots in his heart. And once faith took root Thomas cried, “My Lord and my God!” His faith was strengthened when he was honest enough to question and brave enough to touch the wounds of Christ.

There was once a small boy being raised in a frontier city by his grandmother. One night the house caught on fire. The grandmother, trying to rescue the boy who was asleep in the bedroom upstairs, was overcome by the smoke and died in the fire. This dusty old town didn’t have much of a fire department. A crowd gathered around the house and they heard a small boy crying out for help. The lower floor was a wall of flames and no one seemed to know what to do. Suddenly, a man pushed through the crowd and began climbing an iron drainage pipe that ran to the roof. The pipe was hot from the fire, but he made it to a second floor window. The man crawled through the window and found the boy. With the crowd cheering him on, the man climbed back down the hot iron pipe with the boy on his back, his small arms tightly wrapped around the man’s neck. A few weeks later, a public meeting was held to determine custody of the boy. Each person wanting the child was allowed to make a brief statement. The first man said, “I have a farm and could give the boy a good home. He would grow up on the farm and learn a trade.” The next candidate was the local school teacher. She said, “I am a school teacher and I would see to it that he received a good education.” Finally, the banker said, “The wife and I would be able to give the boy a fine home and a good education. We’d like him to come and live with us.” The presiding officer looked around and asked, “Is there anyone else who has anything to say?”

From the back row, a man rose and said, “These other people may be able to offer things I can’t. All I can offer is my love.” Then, he slowly removed his hands from his coat pockets. A gasp went up from the crowd when they saw his hands -- hands terribly scarred from climbing up and down the hot pipe. The boy recognized the man as the one who had saved his life and ran into his waiting arms. The scarred hands proved that this man had given more than all the others.

The scarred hands of Jesus overwhelmed Thomas; then he believed The Christian faith, carried by the wounded hand of God, keeps a firm hold on us, even when we doubt. Our examples are frail followers like Peter, Mary Magdalene, James and John and Thomas — doubting Thomas. What the Lord did for them he can do through them for us, if we only let him. Continue your connection with the church. Don’t deny doubt. Found your faith on frailty. Then you will see Jesus and begin to work in your life.

[i] http://www.stpetersgv.org/sermons/20050403.html and http://www.courant.com/news/yahoo/hc- suicidestory0410.artapr10,0,6357287.story?coll=hc-aol-yahoo-nws-hed
[ii] William Barclay, The Gospel According to John (Edingurgh, St. Andrew Press, 1955), 320-321.
[iii] Barclay, 321.
[iv] John Foxe & Harold Chadwick, The New Foxes Book of Martyrs (North Brunswick, NJ: Logos, 1997), 8.
[v] www.SermonIllustrations.com, April, 2000.

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