Are We Fearful?

“Are We Fearful?”

John 20-28 st-thomas

John 20:19-29 (20:19, 26) – April 19, 2020

Have you ever been afraid? I mean, really scared? I am talking about so scared that you wanted to hide away from the people in charge, permanently? Maybe it was you, maybe it was some acquaintance or friend, but some people have really been scared so much that they stay holed up in some hiding place, some attic or some upper room—just like the disciples, after they watched their Rabbi Jesus get arrested, beaten and then crucified.

Two thousand years later, we all know the rest of the story. Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, that first Easter morning. What was it like for the disciples? I mean, the men disciples? Sure, they had heard from the women disciples that the tomb was empty. Peter and John had even checked things out at the tomb for themselves. It was true! The tomb was empty! I am sure that news caused a great deal of excitement, discussion, and wonder!

But, what about other feelings? What kinds of other emotions were happening to the disciples? How did they feel on the insides? Were their stomachs doing flips? Were their hearts in their mouths? Were they filled with amazement? Fear? Doubt? Or all of these emotions, all at once, or in stages? Could the disciples be hiding out behind locked doors because they were afraid, embarrassed and ashamed? What were they doing as Jesus died? They certainly were not with Jesus at the cross—except for John. Were they afraid of what Jesus would say to them about all their desertions if He really were alive again? [1]

John’s Gospel tells us, plainly, that the disciples were afraid. Fear is a legitimate emotion and reaction to a dangerous, scary experience.  Sure, the disciples knew that the tomb was empty, but that did not stop them from being afraid. I also suspect that they feared that the Roman authorities might come after them, as known associates of the Rabbi Jesus. The disciples did have good reason to be afraid and anxious of the people in charge.

And right into the middle of all this fear and anxiety—even though the disciples knew about the empty tomb—Jesus walked through a locked door into the upper room, greeted the disciples, and they were suddenly overjoyed! As if a modern switch were flipped, the disciples’ emotional expression flipped, too.

Except—for some reason, the disciple Thomas was not present in the upper room on that occasion. We don’t know why. The Gospel of John does not say. The other disciples told him, excitedly, “We have seen the Lord Jesus!”  But, Thomas was skeptical. He responded, “I need proof for myself. Unless I see the nail marks and put my hand in the wound in His side, I will not believe.” I can just see Thomas crossing his arms across his chest and turning his back to his friends. “Nope. No way. That is too big a whopper for me to swallow.”

Do you know someone who needs concrete proof in order to believe something? Different people’s minds work in different ways. Certain types of people need concrete evidence in order to convince them of the truth, or of the facts, or of someone’s honesty. Thomas was that sort of a person: a “show me” sort of guy. He needed that kind of proof in order to truly believe.

Whether we are talking about two thousand years ago, or about today, people have not changed. One type—one size does not fit all. Some people hear about the Gospel and believe right away. Other people hear about heavenly coincidences, or “God-incidences,” and then come to believe. We can compare Thomas’s skepticism before belief to Paul’s Road to Damascus experience, where the apostle Paul had a sudden “come to Jesus” moment. (Literally.) The New Testament holds up both of these very different experiences as valid.

I have heard sermons about “doubting Thomas.” As if there is something shameful or wrong with being skeptical! I suspect Thomas didn’t know whether to believe or not to believe; there is no shame in being skeptical! We can see that different people come to their own sense of belief in their own individual way, because God has created each of us as unique individuals. Is it any wonder that each of us comes to God in our own personal way?

When you and I think about this Gospel narrative in light of today’s events, there is indeed a great deal of fear and anxiety. Just as there was with the disciples, so it is right now. All over the nation, all over the world the virus COVID-19 makes all of us afraid and anxious. This virus is even more dangerous than the Roman authorities, forcing vast groups of people all over the world to curtail their travel, their interaction, even to the point of quarantine.

Yet, just as our risen Lord Jesus spoke to the disciples and declared, “Peace be with you!” He says the same thing to us. “Peace be with you!” Jesus has declared His peace to fearful people and to dreadful situations over and over again, throughout history. In times of serious illness, in times of conflict and war, in times of natural disaster—Jesus has these hopeful, heartening words for us: “Peace be with you!”

Jesus can come alongside of each of us, through fear, through anger, through desperation, and through grief. And if Jesus is at our sides, walking next to us even though we walk through dark valleys, that is peace, indeed. Jesus gives us His peace, no matter what.

Amen, alleluia!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-second-sunday-of-easter-april_13.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 2A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

Unless…

“Unless…”

Jesus and Thomas illustration John 20-24

John 20:19-31 (20:25) – April 8, 2018

Imagine a city under martial law. Soldiers prowling the streets, night and day—and especially at night. The occupying army and the city authorities come down hard on the civilian population. Sure, the army of invaders polices the city efficiently, but the civilians have very little freedom of movement, very little freedom of expression. This kind of oppressive living would be very difficult. I am thinking of various cities and regions in Asia, Africa, Central and South America. Also within recent memory, we can add places in Europe that were under martial law and forces of occupation. Scary stuff.

We enter the scene in the Gospel of John right after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, late that Sunday evening. We find the disciples cowering behind locked doors, as John tells us.  They were very much afraid!

Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era was not quite as bad as some places we can imagine from our modern day. Israel was not under strict martial law, but there were many rules and regulations concerning freedom of movement and about public gatherings. I suspect the capital city Jerusalem was a big headache to the Roman soldiers in charge of maintaining the peace, especially at the times of year of big festivals. Including Passover.

As we eavesdrop on the small group gathered there in the Upper Room, we can tell most of them (if not all of them) are scared to death. Perhaps, they thought of what had happened on that awful Good Friday. Perhaps, they considered where each of them had disappeared to. We are not told, and we can just imagine their sad and frightened conversation.

When, suddenly—suddenly—Jesus appears. The Gospel record tells us, “Then Jesus came and stood among them.”  He does not even come in through the door, but just walks right through the wall. Or, the closed door. Locks do not matter to Him. Can you imagine how shocked and scared the disciples were at this sudden appearance? Of someone they had seen die and get buried only three days before?

This must have been a terrifying, mystifying, and joy-filled experience for those disciples in that Upper Room. We can hardly imagine the deep outpouring of all kinds of emotions when they saw their Rabbi Jesus, risen from the dead. Alive once more.

Notice that Jesus did not say “What happened? Where were you? What do you mean, running away and leaving Me all alone? You screwed up! You guys are losers!” No, Jesus did not say anything angry or shaming like that. Instead, He said, “Peace.” Can you imagine? Jesus wished all of His friends “Peace.” In other words, “It is okay. I understand. I forgive you.” Can you imagine how the disciples felt when they heard this marvelous expression from Jesus? [1]

Except…not all of the disciples were there to witness this visit, this post-Resurrection appearance of our Lord. One disciple was missing. Thomas. We do not know why, or where he was, or what he was doing, only that he was indeed missing.

Let us turn to the account from John 20, and listen to what happened: “24 One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the Twin), was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

He did not believe. Cut Thomas some slack. Perhaps some of us might have been in the same situation as Thomas, if we had not been there either, immediately following the Resurrection. Thomas is called “Doubting Thomas,” and sometimes he is even scoffed at. But, I prefer to think of him as “Skeptical Thomas.” He did not want to believe in mere hear-say, or in false reports, or in wishful or magical thinking. No, he wanted to have firm evidence of something so serious and earth-shaking as his Rabbi coming back to life. And, can we really blame him?

I love what one of my favorite commentators says about Thomas. Carolyn Brown says that “no amount of explaining can make ‘doubter’ into a positive adjective – especially in this story.” She wants to describe Thomas as a curious person who wanted to see for himself what his friends had already seen. [2]

Did something similar ever happen to you? Did you ever miss a big event (for whatever reason), and then had to listen to your friends and acquaintances excitedly go on and on about that big event? So much so, you wished they would just cut it out, and stop chattering about the big event that happened? Do you suspect Thomas might have felt that way?

At least Thomas is honest! If we look further at the Gospel of John, we see that Thomas was the disciples “who cared enough to interrupt Jesus when he did not understand what Jesus was saying (in John 14:5). He really wanted to understand Jesus.” [3]

How many of us today can say that same thing? Can you relate to Thomas? How many of us really are trying to understand what Jesus said, and what He meant? Thomas certainly is straight-forward. He is skeptical, but he also wants to find out exactly what happened. Put his hand in the spear wound in His side, and his fingers in the holes in Jesus’s wrists.

This sounds so much like many journalists today. They want to find out, first-hand, and get all the straight information. Get the whole story. Perhaps Thomas might have made a great reporter, if they had had newspapers in the first century.

We can ask questions, too. It takes courage to ask questions. We can be skeptical of God, too. God knows we all have questions. There is no honest question Jesus cannot handle.

Children have wonderful questions for Jesus. Carolyn Brown is now retired, but before she retired, she was a Director of Children’s Ministry at a Presbyterian church. Children ask God some serious, penetrating questions, like: “Why didn’t you make me taller or prettier or smarter or…..?“ “How can God pay attention to everyone in the world at every minute?” “Why can’t I see you or at least hear your actual voice like people in the Bible did?”  [4]

There were some confused disciples and puzzled followers of Jesus after His Resurrection, too. But, Jesus does not answer us in long, drawn-out explanations. Instead, He shows us Himself. He showed Himself to Thomas, and showed his fresh wounds. He said, “Stop doubting, and believe!”

What was Thomas’s response? “My Lord, and my God!”

Thomas saw Jesus’s wounds with his own eyes, A skeptic like Thomas could work his way through honest uncertainty and come to a ringing statement of faith.  What is more, Jesus then said ““Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!” And that includes all of us, today.

Can you and I make a rock-solid statement of faith like Thomas, too? Please God, we can, and we will.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-second-sunday-of-easter-april-12.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 2, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Participate in God’s Mission

“Participate in God’s Mission”

mission word cloud

John 20:19-21 – June 5, 2016

The Morton Grove Community Peace Vigil happened last Wednesday night at the Civic Center on Dempster Street. This was a wonderful opportunity for the larger Morton Grove community to get together, pursue peace, and celebrate the diversity that is Morton Grove. The people who attended did their part to promote peace, harmony, hope and friendship.

I have not been saying much about the negative side of this Peace Vigil, or the Peace Project, either. I haven’t wanted to focus on all the negative stuff, and highlight the down side. Instead, I want all of us be positive and hopeful! To pursue peace and promote harmony. However—I do not want anyone to be naïve.

We see and hear reports on the news about the negative side, regularly. Alienation, dissention, fear, and even the threat of violence. That was very much a part of what the followers of Jesus felt immediately after the Crucifixion.

They were afraid for their very lives, and for good reason! Since their leader and Teacher had just been arrested, tried and crucified, it is not beyond possibility for the Jewish or Roman authorities to also come after the close associates of the upstart, rabble-rouser Rabbi Jesus. I suspect I might be very much afraid, if I happened to be in their shoes. (or, sandals)

Let me set the stage. Our Gospel writer John opens the scene in the Upper Room, where Jesus and His friends met for the Passover Supper. The time is immediately after the Resurrection. The horror, shock, fear and anger of the last few days are still overwhelming the disciples. And John has Jesus entering a locked room—the Upper Room. Jesus just died on the cross, a couple of days ago, for goodness sake!

Imagine the intense fear at seeing what everyone suspects to be a spirit, a ghost.

Jesus does not stop there. He gives His disciples a normal, conventional greeting of the day: “Peace be with you.” Just as two friends might say to each other on the street, the marketplace, or in the synagogue. Except—I think Jesus was reminding His followers of the promise He had just made a few days before. The promise of peace. The gift of His peace. Peace be with you. What’s more, He repeats it!

I would like to interrupt for a moment. Give a bit of background. St. Luke’s Church is taking the exciting and historic step of rejoining the United Church of Christ.

In order to help prepare this congregation to rejoin the UCC, I recently enrolled in the course the denomination offers on the History, Theology and Polity of the United Church of Christ. In the past two months, I have read books, written research papers, and had several intensive all-day sessions of class time. Several weeks ago, I received a whole packet of information and material from the UCC.

The UCC has several formal statements—statements of purpose for the whole denomination. One of these includes a Statement of Mission, which is straight-up biblical in every point, every expression. I was fascinated by this particular statement, which includes a preamble, followed by different expressions of Christ’s mission.

Which brings me back to our Gospel reading for today. Here, the resurrected Lord Jesus gives His followers a command, an exhortation: Reading from John 20: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After He said this, He showed them His hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.’”

Jesus gives us a succinct statement of mission in John 20. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” This is how Jesus sent His followers out into the world.

I’d like for all of us to turn to the insert in our bulletins. We will look at the UCC Statement of Mission now. In particular, I want us to concentrate on the preamble: “As people of the United Church of Christ, affirming our Statement of Faith, we seek within the Church Universal to participate in God’s mission and to follow the way of the crucified and risen Christ.”

This is as clear as clear can be: a clear command for everyone—all of us—to participate in God’s mission. Just as the risen Lord told His disciples in John 20:21, we are commanded to bring people to God. To introduce them to our Lord.

Participation. How does that work?

For that, we need to look at the reason Jesus came to this world. He loved humanity, and gave Himself for them. Jesus had compassion on people. Jesus loved people so much, He wanted to reach out and introduce them (or, reintroduce them) to the Lord. And here in the Gospel of John, he gives us the same command.

Do we love the Lord? Can we introduce people to our God? If we do, we are following Jesus, participating in the mission of the church.

Wait a minute! Participate in mission? But, how? When? Can anyone help me? Going out and doing things? Talking to other people, people I don’t know, sometimes? That’s scary!

There are lots of ways to tell other people about God. Another way to introduce people to God is through action, by doing things for God. Common things. Everyday things.

Dallas Willard, an important Christian writer and professor of philosophy, had this to say about doing things for God: don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel. He advised Christians to get on board with a ministry or mission that already was moving. There are so many places and missions already started. Just think of what this church, St. Luke’s Church, is involved in. One big thing is the Maine Township food pantry. That is certainly a mission. Giving food and finances to hungry people? Hunger never stops, no matter what the time of year. It is always a great idea to give to food pantries. And—giving food is a common, everyday thing.

Our church financially supports two missionary couples, too. We pray for Bundled Blessings (the diaper pantry ministry) and for the Rev. Dan and his work with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. Those are all outside of the church. Inside our church, we have the Good Shepherd fund, and the St. Luke’s email Prayer Project, our weekly ministry of prayer through email.

            Participate in God’s Mission. Show God’s love to others. Isn’t that what Jesus is commanding all of us to do here in John 20? Seems pretty straightforward to me.

Today, as throughout the past 2000 years, Christians strive to follow Jesus’s command.

As many of you know, this church is in the process of rejoining the UCC; the denomination has formulated its mission—to do what Jesus said. Just like Jesus did, love one another. The mission of the church is often showing that love in everyday ways. Concrete, helping kinds of ways.

For our Summer Sermon Series, we are going to take a closer look at what the UCC denomination says about Jesus’s command. Each week this summer we will be looking at a different aspect of Mission, as set forth in the UCC’s Statement of Mission.

This church—St. Luke’s Church—is on a Mission from God. Will you participate?

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

 

Seeing is Believing!

Seeing is Believing!

“Seeing is Believing”

Jesus and Thomas illustration John 20-24

John 20:24-29 – April 12, 2015

Seeing is believing! Or . . . is it?

I wonder what things come to mind when I mention the phrase, “Seeing is believing”? Or even, “I won’t believe it until I see it!” Sometimes, people can be really doubtful about things. I can just imagine several people I know folding their arms across their chests and saying, “Unless you show me . . . “

In the gospel account we read today, from John 20, the disciple Thomas had just that reaction. After the resurrection, the first time Jesus came to the disciples, Thomas was not there. We’re not told why, simply that he wasn’t there. Maybe he was scared, maybe he was away, or out of town. Maybe he was sick. We just aren’t told why he wasn’t there.

The ‘why’ is not the important part. The fact that Thomas wasn’t present is. Thomas had doubts. Sincere doubts.

Truth to tell, the other disciples’ story was a little farfetched. I mean, how many people have you known who came back from the dead, and walked through walls into a locked room?

I wonder. I wonder if Thomas’ reaction strikes a chord with anyone here today. How many of us today are like Thomas? Doubting that Jesus has risen indeed from the dead? Or, completely missing Jesus, and doubting that Jesus is even here at all, today?

Let’s think some more about Thomas and his reaction. Thomas not only doubted, he also refused to believe! He not only doubted, he wanted concrete proof. Tangible proof, proof he could touch and feel and handle. Thomas wanted to put his hands in the nail marks on Jesus’ hands. That’s pretty concrete.

As I thought more about Thomas and his reaction and attitude toward Jesus and His first appearance to the disciples, I was reminded about my children. Generally, children have concrete thinking processes, especially smaller children. I have four children, and I’m accustomed to talking with them and communicating in more appropriate ways for their age groups. My children are just about grown up now. But when I used to explain something about God to my children, sometimes it was difficult for the younger ones to fully grasp the ideas I’m trying to explain. And they can ask some pretty hard questions. Gee, sometimes it’s difficult for me to know how to explain things about God to anyone who asks!

Maybe Thomas needed more concrete explanations, too. We just aren’t sure. The Gospel of John isn’t clear at this point. We as readers don’t know why Thomas had difficulty believing. But the gospel account says he did.

How many of us today are like Thomas? Not sure? Not believing? Closed up behind the locked doors of feeble faith? Not believing that Jesus can make a difference in our lives today? Could Jesus come and reveal Himself to Thomas? Can He come and reveal Himself to those today who are fearful, doubting, and unbelieving? . . . Can He reveal Himself to me?

Perhaps Thomas even had difficulty finding something to believe in, since he had so recently seen his Master and Teacher arrested and crucified. Grief, fear, anger, dashed hopes, shattered dreams. I strongly suspect several, if not all of these, were operating in Thomas’ life at this time.

These strong feelings and emotions inside are intense, and raw. From what is known today about the stages of grief, Thomas could very well have been feeling awful, angry, fearful and upset. Thomas could have felt like his life was falling apart. But Jesus can break through all of that. Jesus could enter Thomas’ life with new hope, standing right in front of him. In the same way, Jesus Christ can enter through the closed doors of our hearts, and meet us where we are, with open arms.

Just as Jesus did not leave Thomas high and dry, to figure things out on his own, so Jesus will not leave us. Our Lord came to Thomas in the upper room, despite his doubts and unbelief, and Jesus also comes to us in our doubts, and in our unbelief.

Now, Thomas didn’t actually see Jesus, at first. He had just heard from others who had seen Jesus. But then, a second time, the risen Lord appeared to the disciples. Again, in the locked room, and this time, Thomas was there.

What were Jesus’ words 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 responded with that tremendous affirmation, “My Lord and my God!” Praise God for the sincere, heartfelt response of Thomas.

Jesus’ words to His doubting disciple serve as words of comfort and reassurance to me. I know I have doubts and fears, sometimes. And just as Jesus did not leave Thomas doubting, so too, Jesus will not leave me doubting, either. He will welcome me with open arms, coming through the locked doors of my fear, anger, doubt and unbelief.

Thomas saw Jesus. Seeing was believing, in Thomas’ case. Moreover, the risen Jesus continues with the statement, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” –here’s the best part of all. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What was that Jesus just said? Did I read that correctly? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” So–the Gospel of John says here that all who have not actually seen the risen Lord and yet have come to believe are indeed blessed.

That means Christians throughout the centuries are blessed, since they have come to believe in Jesus Christ and yet have not actually, physically seen Him as risen from the dead. That means you and I are blessed, since we have come to believe in Jesus Christ, too. How awesome is that? I am–you are–we all are blessed because the Lord Jesus says so!

Just as Jesus helped Thomas to believe, so the Gospel of John helps us to believe, too. This Gospel was not only written to bear witness so long ago, in the first century, some years after Jesus was raised from the dead. This Gospel was also written for the many generations which have come to believe throughout the centuries. And that includes us, too. Even though we may have doubts, and unbelief, and wonder whether, and why, or even why not, Jesus comes to us in our doubts and unbelief. Our Lord comes to us with reassurance and open arms and says “Do not doubt, but believe!”

Praise God that as we come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, we can have life in His name. And Jesus can come to us, at any point in our walk with the Lord, no matter what the circumstance happens to be, no matter where we are in our lives. Thank God that Jesus will be there for us and with us, no matter what. May we all be able to affirm, with Thomas, that the risen Jesus is our Lord and our God.

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)