— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Second Sunday of Easter ~~~
Later on that day (the day of Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to Mary in the garden), the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side.
The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.”
Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”
But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”
Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”
Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”
Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”
Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”
Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it (from The Message a translation by Eugene Peterson)
A news flash came through my in-box this week that could well be placed in the category of “damning with faint praise” or “it could have been worse” or “so this is what passes for good news these days.” The headline was “PCUSA Membership Decline Has Slowed.” Now there’s a pick me up! That headline has all the pizzaz of this possible headline – “Dentists Reporting a Reduced Increase in Root Canals.” A slowing decline in membership in our denomination is somewhat encouraging but hardly inspirational.
The article went on to say, however, that fewer churches left the denomination in 2018 – 203 churches left in 2015 and 2016 but just 34 left in 2018. There has been an increase in people coming into membership by “Reaffirmation of Faith” and “Profession of Faith” (baptism) – moving upward from 12,900 in 2017 to 22,000 in 2018. We are still not doing very well, however, with young people. Youth professions of faith dropped from10,716 in 2017 to 9,578 in 2018.
“While the difference is not great, we are encouraged by the slowing trend downward,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). “The church of the 21st century is changing and we still believe God is preparing us for great things in the future.”
I think God has been preparing the church for great things in the future since Jesus breathed on the disciples in that locked room. In this story there are very important cues, lessons for the church to be ready for the ministry to which we are commissioned. Today I will briefly highlight three lessons. Preachers think in threes – three things that God is teaching us to prepare us for the great things God has in mind for us now and in the future.
1) The resurrected Jesus invited the disciples and invites us to overcome our fears and step out of our locked rooms into the world to carry on the ministry of Jesus. We as individual people and as the community of faith need to live fully and compassionately in this world and not be overcome with anxiety or fear. God does not demand success in all our outreach but lures us in the direction of acting faithfully. We can act in love and compassion and trust God with the rest.
There was a photograph and story in the USA Today newspaper back in March about John Sato, a 95-year-old New Zealand man and a veteran of World War II. Mr. Sato couldn’t sleep after the Muslim massacres in Christchurch. To show his support fo the Muslim community, the 95 year-old left his house and rode four different buses to attend an anti-racism rally in Auckland. “I thought it was so sad. You can feel the suffering of other people,” the veteran told RNZ. Mr. Sato also made this observation – “The tragedy in Christchurch, look at what it brought out in people. It shows the best of humanity.”
Photographers captured the touching moment when a police officer and actor Bruce Hopkins from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy walked alongside the man, helping him down the road (USA Today, March 28, 2019). A police officer helped Mr. Sato make it home after the march.
Jesus calls us to live in this world doing good without fear!
2) The resurrected Jesus did not throw out Thomas because he had questions and doubts. A church that is going to embody Jesus in this world will be a church that does not throw us out because we have doubts and questions all along the journey of faith. Our honest questions and struggles of faith will make the church a stronger embodiment of the love, goodness, and grace of Jesus Christ.
There is an old story told about St. Augustine.
One of his students asked Augustine –
“What God was doing before God created the world?” Augustine answered –
“Creating hell for people who ask such questions!”
I trust that was a tongue in cheek answer. The point for us is that a church will be more able to embody the call of Jesus by pushing up against dogma and strident beliefs and not condemning people who ask difficult questions. It makes sense in life to ask questions, to seek to understand, to not just accept something because someone in authority tells you to accept it. We need to be open to learning from other people and maybe even people in authority but that does not mean we have to buy into what is being offered hook, line, and sinker. We need to be a community that welcomes honest struggle and doubt.
Marecelo Gleiser, a Brazilian-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth, recently won the Templeton Prize, an annual grant of $1.5 million awarded to someone who has made an exceptional contribution to life’s spiritual dimension. Gleiser considers himself an agnostic, yet he maintains that atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. Science for him is a way to pondering the mysteries of existence, an endeavor calling for humility. Atheism is a declaration, and scientists don’t make such declarations, he says (as quoted in Christian Century April 24, 2019 from Scientific American, March 20, 2019).
I think this emphasis in the Templeton Prize on humility and openness as keys to spiritual progress as well as scientific progress is exactly what Thomas in the Bible was embodying. Thomas was not ready to accept the declarations of his fellow disciples; he had to push to find his own way and Jesus responded to Thomas in a way that brought him into a place of belief.
3) The resurrected Jesus did not condemn the disciples but offered them peace. A church that is preparing for what God will do with us in the future will be a graceful church that offers love and peace not judgment and exclusion.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
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.”
What a surprise this must have been to the disciples. That Jesus was still around to talk with them, of course, that would have been shocking, but what about the first words the raised Jesus said to the disciples – Peace be with you. These disciples, you will remember, had all scattered when Jesus was arrested. These disciples had run when the authorities came for their beloved friend. Peter had denied Jesus. He had lied to save his flesh and blood. Thomas, who had pledged to die with Jesus, was no where to be found when Jesus was taken into the custody of the religious authorities and then Rome. There had been, between Jesus and his disciples, a serious and tragic breach of friendship and courage on the day of Jesus’ arrest. So, when Jesus was raised and meeting the disciples as the resurrected Lord he could have said:
“Where did you go?” Or “Why were you so weak?”
Or, “I will never forgive you..”
And the disciples would have lived the rest of their lives locked up in a prison of guilt and shame, and they would have passed that guilt and shame on to others.
But what Jesus said was…
Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, I send you.
The disciples became recipients of pure grace, forgiveness, mercy, and peace and then they were told to take that grace, forgiveness, mercy and peace to the rest of the world.
The Church of Jesus Christ has a choice. We can be agents of judgement and shame – always ready to remind people of shortcomings, failings, sins; or, if we will breathe in deeply the breath of Jesus, we can be about the work of proclaiming the grace, peace and forgiveness of God. Jesus could have extended judgement to the disciples for their failures, for their lack of courage, for their lies, for their fears, for their broken promises, but, instead, Jesus said to the disciples –
Peace be with you …. 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.
The Church has a choice, but the choice is clear –
our work is forgiveness and grace!
So, let us prepare ourselves day by day to be the Church Jesus calls us to be by living without fear, by making room for the doubters and walking humbly before God, and by being a community of peace and forgiveness. Who knows what God will do with us next!? Thanks be to God! Amen.