Saturday, April 7, 2018

Year B, Easter 2, John 20.19-31, “I can’t believe it”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
I love Thomas.  I can relate to him.
First of all, because Thomas was one to state the obvious.
For example, when Jesus was speaking about going to prepare a place for the disciples, he says to them:
“You know the way to the place where I am going."
Then Thomas responds, stating what was probably on everyone’s mind:  "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"
Then there is the sarcastic side to Thomas.
After Jesus had narrowly escaped being arrested in Jerusalem, and had gone over beyond the Jordan, he heard that Lazarus was sick and dying.
Hearing that he decided he would go right back to Jerusalem, in spite of the risk.  The disciples warned Jesus that the Jews had nearly stoned him to death the last time he was there, still Jesus persisted.
Thomas’s response, offered in a biting tongue is:  "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
And then, of course, there is this scene following the resurrection. 
"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."
Seeing is believing.
That’s the old adage.
Jesus says:  "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Actually, I think that the struggle for Thomas was not what he hadn’t seen, but what he had seen.
Thomas doubted because he had seen the nails driven into Jesus hands, he had seen the spear thrust into Jesus side, he had seen Jesus breathe his last, he had seen him die.
It’s what he had seen, that was the problem.
I think that faith often requires us to believe, in spite of what we have seen.
Would it be easier to believe in Jesus if we could see him face to face?
I think that most of us would absolutely love to have seen Jesus.  Wouldn’t we?  I have to admit that I’m a bit envious of those who had the rare opportunity to live at the time of Jesus, and to know him on a personal basis.
There’s a part of me that says it would be so much easier to believe if I had been there with him, if I had witnessed the miracles, sat at his feet as he taught, and followed him wherever he went.
But I think the truth is that were we given that opportunity, we would struggle to believe.
Most of the people who did witness Jesus’ life and ministry, DID NOT believe in him. 
It is actually easier for us to believe in a Jesus of our own imagination, than it is to believe in a Jesus that is a specific person.
It is easier to imagine Jesus, than to see a human being, and believe that this one, in all his particularity is the Son of God and our Lord.
Familiarity breeds contempt.
It was hard for the people in Nazareth to believe in Jesus, because they knew him.  They knew his mom and dad, and his brothers and sisters.  They had seen him grow up.  Some of them may have even changed his diapers. 
“Son of God?”  No, that’s just Jesus.
Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?"
Those who knew him the most, throughout his life, had a hard time believing. 
When Nathanael first heard of Jesus, his response was "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
What if Jesus came to us today, and was in fact a farmer’s boy from Endicott?
Would that make it easier to believe in him, or harder?
 And then there is this matter of the authority with which he taught and ministered.
He was not part of the institutional Church.
This is a hard one for pastors, I think.
“As a called and ordained pastor. . .”
That’s my authority.  That’s what sets pastors apart from their congregations. 
I went to seminary.  I passed the tests.  I was called by the Church to this ministry.  I was ordained.
“By what authority do I do what I do?”  By the authority given to me by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and currently, a call issued by the Synod of our Church.
But Jesus wasn’t like that.
He was not a priest.  And though he was often called a “Rabbi”, or a “teacher”, he had no official status within the religious hierarchy of his day.
He wasn’t “ordained” in any sense our modern use of the word.
Could we believe in such a person, a self appointed prophet that was not part of the institutional hierarchy of the Church?
And then there is the problem of Jesus being a specific person.  It’s easier to imagine Jesus, perhaps like so many of the paintings we have seen.  But most of the paintings that have portrayed Jesus, have not portrayed him as a Palestinian Jew. 
Glen Funk was an elderly gentleman in my first parish.  He was an accomplished artist.  And one of the things he did was to paint for our congregation a portrait of Jesus.  He actually used the face of a local logger that he had sketched.  Most of the members of the congregation did not like his portrait of Jesus.  “Not my Jesus.” Was the response.
What if Jesus came to us today as a real human being?
What if he were black?  Or Hispanic?  Or, ugly?  Could we believe in such a Jesus?
For that matter, what if Jesus came to us today, and his name was not Jesus, but Jessica?
Emma Gonzalez. 
This young woman, a survivor of the Parkland Florida school shooting, has emerged onto the American scene in a big way. 
Her crew cut.  Her youth.  Her standing against the predominant culture and politics of the day.  Her speaking ‘truth to power’, and saying more with six minutes and twenty seconds of silence than many say with all sorts of political rhetoric—what if Jesus was like her?
And then there is another problem about Jesus.
“This man eats with tax collectors and sinners.”
Imagine Jesus coming to us today, and instead of being found in the Church, he was associating with the undocumented migrant workers in our country.
Or what if he spent much of his time with the Gay Community?
Or what if he spent more time with drug addicts and prostitutes than with religious people?
Could we believe in such a Jesus?
And finally, what if Jesus was lying in a pool of his own blood on a hotel balcony, like Martin Luther King, Jr did that day in Memphis fifty years ago?
Would it be easy to believe in a dead Jesus?

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.
Faith actually believes in spite of what you see.
One of my favorite lines from “Jesus Christ Superstar” is “You'd have managed better
If you'd had it planned
Now why'd you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?

If you'd come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”
If seeing was believing, and God wanted us to believe in his Son, Jesus, it might have helped to wait until we had video cameras.  Then on Sunday mornings we could all sit around and watch Jesus ‘do his thing’.
Instead what we have is a Word.  Written in a book.
It’s an unlikely tale about an unlikely Savior.
Yes, he came from a village like Endicott, the son of a carpenter.
He had no earthly, institutional authority whatsoever.
He probably didn’t look the way we imagine he looked.
He was in many ways, more like Emma Gonzalez than we dare to admit, speaking an uncomfortable word to those in power, and captivating a nation.
He offended the religious leaders of his day by associating with all manner of sinners.
And most of all, he died.
He hung from a cross covered in blood, his side pierced by a sword.
But over and against all of this we have a Word, a spoken Word that declares that this one particular person was God’s Son.
Seeing may not be believing.
Hearing is what brings us to faith.
As we have heard the Word, the Spirit gives us faith to believe.
 I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
These are the words of Martin Luther in his Small Catechism.
We do not believe because we have seen.
We believe because we have been called by the Spirit.
We believe because we have been enlightened with the Spiritual gifts God offers.
We believe because we have been set apart for God.
We believe because God has kept us in the one true faith.
We believe, not because we know who Jesus is, but because he has known us, and claimed us as his own.
Thanks be to God.

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