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.

Good News about Jesus!

“Good News about Jesus!”

Ethiopian painting, unknown artist  Philip and the Ethiopian royal official

Ethiopian painting, unknown artist
Philip and the Ethiopian royal official

Acts 8:34-35 – May 3, 2015

Who enjoys hearing good news? Just about everyone! And what about those who share good news? A relative getting married, perhaps? A new baby in the family? What about a big graduation—from college, trade school, or nursing school? The purchase of a new condo or a new car? These are all things that cause a great deal of rejoicing!

We’re going to talk more about sharing good news, but first, we need to set the scene. Tell you a little about our Scripture text for today. We are going to take a closer look at Acts chapter 8.

The risen Lord Jesus has been with His disciples and followers for a number of weeks after Easter, after the Resurrection. He ascended into heaven in the first chapter of Acts, and the great events of Acts chapter 2—Pentecost, the birth of the church at the Temple in Jerusalem—have occurred. The number of believers in the risen Jesus has simply exploded!

Four thousand came to believe on Pentecost, in one day, alone. Thousands of Jewish people heard about the Messiah coming, dying on a cross, and being raised from the dead. And they believed!

As we view the new gathering of believers at this point, in the early chapters of Acts, it’s a Jewish gathering. It’s pretty monochromatic. All of the believers have similar skin tones. All of the believers come from the same religious background. Jewish. All of the believers heard the Good News in the city of Jerusalem. All of the Jewish believers originate from an oppressed people-group in an occupied territory in Asia Minor (Israel), even if they currently reside outside the territorial bounds as their current place of residence. They still made the pilgrimage to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The disciples do not have a difficult time communicating the Good News of the risen Lord Jesus to their fellow Jews! No cross-cultural differences to be dealt with, here!

Not yet . . . anyway.

The disciples were greatly heartened by such a huge response to their spreading the Good News! They fanned out into the area around Jerusalem (just as Jesus told them to do), and continued preaching. Sharing their stories. Until—the beginning of Acts 8.

Here, we have Philip. Directed by the Holy Spirit, Philip travels in Samaria, sharing the Good News with the people he met there. People who were not fully Jewish! As if this wasn’t enough, we have the encounter just read to us. Where Philip meets a royal official from Ethiopia.

Let’s step away from the events of the reading to talk about the author of this book of Scripture.

Dr. Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles along with the Gospel of Luke, had a special concern for certain parts of the general population. He highlights women, children, sick people, and—Gentiles. Non-Jews. Dr. Luke himself was a Gentile, a Greek doctor. He therefore lifts up these powerless, unprotected individuals.

He shows God’s concern and care for the least of God’s creation. Those who are often forgotten or overlooked by the preferred ones.

This royal official of the queen of Ethiopia was a powerful man, it’s true. He wielded considerable power in the palace, in his own arena. But outside of his country? He was an outsider, for sure. And for more reason than just the color of his skin. The royal official was a eunuch. That means probably when he was a young boy—probably as he started serving in the house of the queen—he was forcibly castrated in order to serve the queen. He didn’t allow that to deter him, though. He rose in the queen’s household, became well educated and literate, and eventually became an important official, in charge of her treasury.

This official also desired to know more about the God of the Jews.

We don’t know where he heard of that particular God, a foreign God, but he had an earnest desire to learn more about the God who made heaven and earth, the God of the Jewish people.

There was a problem. A big problem. Sure, the royal official could learn about the Jewish God. He could become a proselyte, even come to Jerusalem and visit the area outside of the Temple. But—he could not enter the Temple. There were strict rules regarding that, in the Mosaic Law Code. The official was a eunuch. He was castrated. He was not fully “a man,” like every other natural male.

According to Jewish law, that made this Ethiopian’s spiritual standing with God less than that of others. He was automatically excluded from a close relationship with the Jewish understanding of God, due to factors completely beyond his control.

Did that make any difference to Philip? Let Dr. Luke tell us more.

Let’s get back to the story. After going to Jerusalem and diligently, faithfully worshiping outside of the Temple, this Ethiopian official started back to Africa in his chariot. Philip, nudged by the Holy Spirit, came alongside the chariot. The Ethiopian was reading from the book of Isaiah—aloud. Very common practice of the time. Reading aloud. Coming alongside the chariot, Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Excellent question! I can just see the scene—the Ethiopian, poring over the open book in his hands, perhaps in Greek translation (the trade language of the time). Young, strong Philip, jogging alongside, engages the official. The Ethiopian, intrigued, invites Philip to sit beside him in the chariot and explain the passage further.

One thing leads to another, and next thing you know, Philip is telling the official his story. Telling the Good News of the risen Jesus. Sharing the Gospel from the book of Isaiah, as well as his own personal testimony. The official must have known a great deal about the Jewish Bible and have been able to connect the dots of the Good News in short order! Because, what do we see next?

They come to some water. I bet the Ethiopian was so excited when he asked Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Do you understand what happened here? Philip explained the Gospel—the Good News about Jesus—to this worthy man. And in very short order, he was ready—so ready to believe in the Resurrection, to accept the Gospel!

Now at the impromptu baptism, when the Ethiopian made a public declaration of his belief in the risen Lord Jesus, did Philip stop and ask whether this man was Jewish, or not? Did he notice whether this man was an eunuch, or not? Did he care about the color of this man’s skin, or not? The conversation in the passage is not specific, but Philip’s actions certainly are!

“Both Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” That’s what Dr. Luke tells us.

The early church records let us know that this royal official not only goes back to Ethiopia—rejoicing in his absolute acceptance by our Lord as a fully beloved child of God!—but he also carries the message of that Good News to others in his home country! He tells others his story, that God fully and lovingly accepted him. A non-Jew, a person of color, even a man who was castrated.

This official became a believer, part of those who spread the Good News, that God loves each individual, no matter what.

Can we be sure that God accepts us? What about the questionable things in our past? What about those things? God still loves us. What if we don’t have very high standing in the community? God still loves us. What about the bad feelings we have in our hearts? God still loves us. What if we come from the “wrong side of the tracks?” God still loves us.

Are you a child of God? If you are member of the human race, YES. Does God love you? If you are a member of the human race, YES. Can we celebrate in God’s love? YES. Can we share that Good News? YES.

God loves you so much that God sent Jesus to this earth to die on a cross and rise from the dead on the third day. Do you believe this Good News? This fantastic, phenomenal News?

Praise God, just as much as Philip, just as much as the Ethiopian official, just as much as any other disciple, we can rejoice in the Good News of the risen Christ and share our story.

I encourage you today.  Tell someone how much God loves you!

Philip did. The Ethiopian did. And we are encouraged to do so, too. Praise 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!)