April 27, 2014 – Second Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said 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 answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Easter 2 April 27, 2014   John 20:19-31 Opening doors, walking through walls

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I was a part-time campus minister at Plattsburgh State in New York for several years (while serving nearby Methodist churches). Every week our student group would sit together, pray and study bible and have fellowship. Most weeks we’d start with sharing our best, worst, or most unusual moment of the past week.

Once, the week before Easter, I’d asked where each student would be worshiping that Easter. Most of our group would be going home. Only George said he’d be staying on campus; and probably, he said, “I’ll be worshiping at the Church of St Mattress.”

We laughed, but we also got after him, telling him he really did need to get out of bed and get to church on Easter Sunday. “Dude, this is the biggest day of the year!” One woman in our group told him to go to her church, which was just a short walk from campus… And it was kind of funny, but also not at all funny – since George had grown up in an evangelical church, and still believed in Jesus – but he was now, in his first year at college, already doubting something about the church… enough to be seriously considering sleeping-in on Easter.

The next week, when we were next together, we were all curious to hear about George’s Easter. And when we came around the circle to George and it was his turn to share, he said, “I was locked-out of church.”

Say what? Well, it turns out he had gone to the downtown church that had been recommended… where times for Sunday worship services were clearly posted on the church sign. But when George showed up for the second service at the posted hour, the doors really were locked.

“Oh my, I’m sorry! I always go to the early service, so I’m not sure, but I guess that service isn’t happening any more, at least not on Easter,” said Amanda, who usually went to that church, but had been home with her family on Easter….

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In today’s gospel reading, we’ve got the Mother-of-all-locked-out-of-church stories, with the young church huddled together behind locked doors, fearful of religious authorities.

In the opening scenes of John chapter 20, remember, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, who thinks he’s the gardener, till she hears him call her name. Mary then goes and tells other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” But it sounds like they didn’t quite believe her – or remember Jesus saying, ‘do not be afraid” – since when Jesus comes to visit, later that same first Easter, he’s got to pass through locked doors to get into church. Then again a week later, Jesus comes back to pay another call, now even after at least ten more disciples have seen Jesus alive – still, again, doors are all shut tight – strongly implying fear and locked-doors, again.

Fortunately, Jesus is a lot better at passing through locked doors than our friend George. We don’t know whether Jesus walks through walls, or if locked doors just open for him on demand – but – what we do know for sure is that Jesus isn’t limited by our locked doors or man-made barriers.

If only we could always say the same for the church. But the reality, sadly, is – many people have been kept away from churches by all kinds of walls, doors, and other barriers… Made by people, not by God…

Sometimes it’s as if there’s a big sign that says, “First Church of We Do It Our Way. The Way We’ve Always Done It… Visitors Not Welcome.” Such a church might even have a big sign saying All Welcome – but if that church’s actions tell a different story, the doors still may as well be locked…

I believe our churches here in both Cataumet and Bourne are genuinely welcoming. (I don’t know all our history – but this has been the case at least in recent years.)

But as members of the universal body of Christ, our responsibilities for welcoming people to Jesus never stop at our own church walls and doors. And many of us know plenty of stories of people who’ve gone to church somewhere and nobody even said hi. Some of us have experienced some of this ourselves, when we’ve visited a church, and not a single person greeted us. Most of us have known of churches that have lived behind locked doors, walled-in, shutting-out outsiders.

And Jesus is teaching us today how to not go there and not do that. As he enters the room, Jesus says, “Peace be with you” (literally, “Shalom to you”). He shows his hands and side, still bearing the marks of the cross and spear – bringing peace into the realm of fear. Again he says – “Peace be with you” – adding, “as the Father has sent me – so I send you.” Jesus breathes on friends, like God in the beginning, breathing life into Adam-hyphen-Eve. (They’re still one-flesh when God first breathes Holy Spirit into them.) Jesus’s breathing on disciples is also a preview of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is given to the church (in Acts chapter 2).

Jesus empowers his church by word and Spirit to continue his work, saying, “if you forgive the sins of any, they’re forgiven, if you don’t they aren’t.” He commissions and breathes Holy Spirit on us, and now Jesus is gone for the day…

But one of the twelve, Thomas, wasn’t there, and Thomas won’t believe, now, when others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas says “Unless I see for myself and touch the marks of the nails in his hands, the spear in his side – I won’t believe.

Maybe he just can’t believe Jesus is really giving all that power and authority to disciples like himself? Whatever his inner thoughts may be –

A week later disciples are again huddled together behind doors shut tight. Jesus walks in again, stands among them, says, now for the third time, “Peace be with you.” Jesus says to Thomas, “put your finger in my wounds – don’t disbelieve, but believe.” (‘Disbelieve’ is a more literal translation than ‘doubt.’) Now Thomas makes a great rebound, saying, “My Lord and my God!” Perhaps the best naming of Jesus for who he really is anywhere in the gospels. But Jesus says, “Are you believing now, because you’ve seen? Blessed are those who haven’t seen, yet still believe.”

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I can identify with Thomas. My real name is Thomas. My dad and granddad were both Thomas. My parents called me Tim to avoid calling me Tommy Number 3. More to the point, I identify with St Thomas the Doubter, because, as the poet Buck Owens has said, “I can play the part without rehearsing – all I gotta do is act naturally…”

It’s not appropriate for me to defend Thomas to excess. (Especially since I’m confessing to spiritual kinship with my namesake.) But in fairness to Thomas, we should notice that the rules are changing here. Up to now in the gospels, those who believe usually do so because they’ve seen Jesus doing what only God can do… Jesus has even said ‘if you don’t believe who I tell you I am, believe because you’ve seen the works I’ve done.’ But from now on, Jesus says, believers need to believe because of the testimony of the word of God and the witness of God’s Spirit. Blessed, from now on, are those who believe by faith, not by sight. Jesus won’t be showing up in the flesh much longer. Thomas marks the transition from seeing-is-believing as the general rule – to blessed are those who don’t see but do believe.

And in further fairness to Thomas, if we’re looking for doubting disciples, notice again the usual suspects. Starting with Simon Peter, who denies three times in one night he even knows Jesus – yet we don’t call him Doubting Peter. Remembering also the other male disciples who doubt the testimony of the women, who’ve seen the empty tomb and spoken with angels, and reported Jesus is alive. If anyone believes without seeing, it’s the women who were at the tomb. But we don’t call the guys who didn’t believe The Doubting Disciples, plural. But when Thomas wants to see and touch the evidence – he gets nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.” How fair is that?

And, yes, probably I’m defending the guilty more than I should – but I keep thinking maybe Thomas is just more honest about his doubts than most of us. Maybe Thomas is our designated doubter, speaking the doubts for all… Letting the rest of us know we’re not the only ones who’ve ever doubted. Letting us know Jesus still loves us, even when we doubt. (Which is good news, because…)

I myself still doubt at times. I’m ok with believing Jesus is born of Mary and the Holy Spirit, and Jesus was crucified and has risen and Jesus will come again to rule forever… But I confess I’ve fairly often doubted the line in the Apostle’s Creed where we say we believe in one holy catholic (small c, universal) church. I’ve often prayed, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” (Which Jesus has, in fact, been helping me with…My believing in the holy universal church seems to be getting a little better with practice…But I still need your help – to be able to believe in the church – holy and universal…)

And at the same time, I believe I’ve also heard Jesus say – there’s plenty of things we should always doubt and disbelieve.

We should always disbelieve anyone or any teaching that tries to lock us outside of the grace of God… We should always remember – no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done – Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive…” is enough to cover our sins, if we but turn to him. The bandit on the cross next to him, who asks, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom…” gets to hear Jesus say, “ Truly I tell you, today you’ll be with me in Paradise…” Jesus never shuts the door forever on anyone who might possibly ever turn to him…

So it’s right for us to disbelieve anyone or anything that tries to lock-out anyone made in-the-image-of-God from the love of God…It’s right to disbelieve anyone who tries to lock some inside, others outside God’s love, forever… As if we were completely certain of who believes what, when, and how, and who doesn’t…

The root meaning of the word believe is actually to love and put our trust in. If we believe in the Jesus who says, I am the way and the truth and the life I am the resurrection and the life I have come that you may have life and life abundantly… We should also believe Jesus will never stay locked in a tomb, walled-off apart from the living. And Jesus won’t let those who believe in him do so either.

Jesus still walks through locked doors to get to us – even when we’ve tried to lock him out of our lives…

Jesus still says “peace be with you” – even when we’ve tried to lock him out of his church…

Still Jesus invites us to share in his peace…

Still Jesus offers his full forgiveness, freely…

Still he sends his Holy Spirit. Still he enfolds us in his love… welcoming us into his life, forever…

Inviting us to sing his new song for all the world to hear…

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