Friday, April 28, 2006

Sermon for April 24, 2006

I Need a Sign
John 20:19-31

I guess Easter is over for another year. The lilies are fading, attendance is down from last week, and the candy has long since been devoured. And in churches all across America today, substitute preachers fill the pulpits. Pastors often take the week after Easter off. There are two main reasons we are advised to do this. First, the week before Easter is usually a very busy week in the life of the church and the preacher. There are additional worship services to prepare, all of which require extra time and energy. And then comes the main event: the Easter Sunday worship service. Do you know what the Easter service is for the preacher? It’s like the Super Bowl for preachers. It’s like the seventh game of the World Series, or the NCAA Championship! If you’ve got a good sermon in you, you’d better trot it out for Easter! I try to have a good sermon prepared every Sunday – sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail - but Easter is special. Not only is Easter the holiest day of the year for the church, it is also the only chance the preacher may have to communicate the Gospel to those who come to church only once a year. We know that last Sunday, in churches all over the United States, people who could usually care nothing about the church 51 Sundays out of the year put on their Easter outfits and came to worship services. Most of them are not in church today. They’ve gone back to their normal Sunday routine, whatever that may be. While these “Easter Christians” sometimes frustrate me, I have to confess that I have a warm place in my heart for those folks who only show up for church once a year. As we worship, I can see their faces register shades of doubt and puzzlement at the apparent faith of everybody else. They look to the right and to the left and see other people singing “Christ the Lord is risen today.” But when they go back to where they live the other 51 Sundays of the year and receive the news of the death or serious illness of a loved one, it’s hard for them to accept Easter’s assurance that “death is swallowed up in victory.”

It’s hard, the week after Easter, to pick up the morning newspaper and read murders in communities, or to face the doctor and hear, "I’m sorry. We’ve done all we can." The fact is that all of us – not just our Easter visitors – have to wake up on the Monday after Easter to a world that has not changed because of what we celebrated. Life goes on and Easter doesn’t seem to make a difference. I want to tell you that it’s okay. According to the witness of Scripture, you’re 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 Easter in the Gospels, one thing they all have in common is that the first reaction of all the disciples when they first receive the news of the empty tomb is doubt and fear. They didn’t know what to make of it.

This morning we are going to discuss what to do when we begin to doubt the resurrection power of Christ. What do we do when 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 sign that Jesus is alive and at work in the world? Today’s text from John’s gospel 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

Look at verse 24. John tells us that Thomas was not locked away with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared. 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 doesn’t seem likely to me. Thomas never lacked courage. He loved Jesus. He volunteered to go to Jerusalem with Jesus when the other disciples were afraid. Thomas was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. He’s the kid in your class who raised his hand and asked the questions that everyone else was thinking but never asked. Biblical scholar William Barclay thinks that 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. No matter the reason, I can’t help but notice that Thomas separated himself from the disciples. He withdrew from Christian fellowship. He sought solitude rather than fellowship and he missed the first appearance of Jesus.[1]

Perhaps the gospel suggests to us that Christ appears most often within the community of believers that we call the church, and when we separate ourselves from the church, we take a chance on missing Christ’s unique presence. When we disconnect ourselves from our brothers and sisters in the church, we can’t fully experience God. When sorrow comes to us, or when sadness envelops us, or sickness visits us, we tend to close ourselves up and refuse to meet people. That’s the very time when, in spite of our sorrow, we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people. But we are most likely to meet Jesus face to face when we are with others.[2] So, 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.

Jesus didn’t blame Thomas for doubting. So often, the church handles doubt by squashing it. But Jesus never condemned Thomas for doubting. I think Jesus understood that once Thomas worked through his doubts, he would be one of the most faithful men in the Kingdom of God. 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. 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 mourn the death of a loved one. Sometimes I think silently to myself: Is my faith true? Is resurrection a reality?[3]

Growing 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 each of us must endure rarely comes without questioning and doubt. In fact, it usually comes as a RESULT of questioning and 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.

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!

Couldn’t we respond more positively to questions and doubts by using them as learning opportunities? Can’t we learn from our doubts and questions that even though we don’t know exactly where Jesus is leading us, it’s enough to know that he makes the journey with us? 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 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? After all, he wasn’t willing to profess Jesus as Lord without believing. What if the church celebrated Thomas’ willingness to express his honest doubts? Maybe we would 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? Maybe w would believe that faith is actually strengthened by an honest acceptance of doubts. Maybe then the church would be seen by unbelievers, or those unchurched folks we’re trying to attract to our churches, or those “Easter Christians,” not as people who think they have all the answers, but as people just like themselves. 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.

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!" He was then sent to pronounce to the world along with the other disciples that forgiveness had come.
When they began to build a suspension bridge across the Niagara Gorge, it all began with engineers flying a kite across the chasm, playing out the kite string until the kite reached the farther shore. Then twine was tied to the string, and rope to the twine, and wire to the rope, and cable to the wire. In due time, mighty cables were suspended from great towers and anchored on either side in the depths of the earth, and the bridge was built.

So the Christian faith, erected by the hand of God, carries you and me and generations through time to the further shores. But it all began with the frail strands of people like Peter, Mary, Paul, 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.

[1]William Barclay, The Gospel According to John (Edingurgh, St. Andrew Press, 1955), 320-321.
[2]Barclay, 321.
[3], April, 2000.

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