The Beauty of Believing without ‘Seeing’

The scriptures tell us the evening on the first Easter Sunday; the disciples gathered behind locked doors to make sense of all the events that had transpired. From entering Jerusalem in an exciting display of heroic welcome to the last meal they shared to Jesus, to their brother, Judas betraying Jesus, to his passion and death, and then there was Peter- Jesus’ “Rock” who was a leader among them.  What on earth could have just happened?  What did it all mean?  Who would sort out for them so they could process all the events?

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Amidst all the commotion of the previous week events, one disciple, Thomas shows up late- for reasons not known –  and seems to miss out on the discussion.  What the disciples reported to their fellow disciple Thomas they had seen seemed unbelievable. And Thomas didn’t believe it! They said they saw Jesus alive. Well, Thomas saw him alive until late the previous Friday afternoon when Thomas saw him dead. It was now Sunday afternoon — and to what they said they saw, Thomas’ response was, “Seeing is believing,” and until I see something different from what I have already seen, I will not believe a word of what you say.

And for that little exchange, Thomas has gone down in history, not as the disciple Thomas, but as “doubting Thomas” — with his entry in my desk dictionary! I looked it up., a “doubting Thomas” as defined by Webster’s dictionary is “a habitually doubtful person.  And not just about Jesus. About anything. A “doubting Thomas” is one who when presented with the facts, stresses his or her right to raise questions, and demand proof, and doesn’t believe it until they get proof.

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Thomas wanted tangible, touchable proof that Jesus’ was still around.  He did not need further proof of Jesus’ death.  Thomas was there.  He saw with his own eyes that the Christ had been crucified.  He wanted the same proof that Jesus, whom he had witnessed beat to death, wanted evidence that he was alive and has been seen by the other disciples.  For Thomas, there was no doubt that Jesus was dead, and every reason under the sun to doubt that Christ was alive.  For his honesty, he has gone down in history as “doubting Thomas” — the man who doubted the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the term “doubting Thomas” has negative connotations to this day.

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But it shouldn’t.  Because Thomas isn’t alone, even in this Sanctuary.  And Jesus said not one negative word or comment about him.  From the very beginning, on the eve of the first Easter, doubt was a part of the risen Christ.  We say Christ is risen, we even sing it together in our worship, but do we act like it’s accurate?  Do we sincerely believe Christ was raised from the dead?  Or down deep do we, like Thomas, tend to doubt the story of Easter?

Jesus says to him, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  Don’t doubt, start believing.   Doubting has to do with debating the facts; while believing would have put our trust in something or someone.  One involves my intellect; the other my whole life.  One involves accepting something as true; the other is that I am already accepted by the one who calls himself “the truth, the way, and the life.”

It’s not really up to us to factually proof the resurrection the way the world demands facts and figures, but that we believe in the power of the creator that God’s love is naturally stronger than the power of death.  And consider what it means for you and me.

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Thomas insists that the risen Christ cannot be separated from the crucified Jesus.  And in these after Resurrection Sunday, when the altar lilies are beginning to fade, when the pretty Easter eggs are gone, and the bad news headlines are personal grief’s threatening to overshadow the good news of Easter, we need Thomas and his example of the persistent desire to see Jesus.  And grow in our understanding that doubting is part of our journey of faith.

As tender as it is to admit, we all have our doubts.  Doubting is not the opposite of faith, but are incorporated into our active life of faith, and our faith in Christ need not be perfected in this life.  There’s no way we can discover all that God wants to reveal to us in the waters of our baptism.  There is more to have revealed to us.  Jesus himself showed up with battered hands and scarred up fee, and that’s how the disciples recognized him.  That is the reality of our discipleship.

You are and doubt but are encouraged never to lose our faith.  His doubts lead Thomas to an encounter with Jesus.  For us, it might mean we seek a life of faith that serves us better as we mature, once we examine and let go some of the thoughts that formed our childhood faith as we discover a more profound richness to our adult lives.  Unpacking our doubts can indeed be frightening, going to the liminal place where transformation can happen, but much encouragement and understanding comes from those times when we face our misgivings head on and seek a deeper understanding of our lives in Christ.

Jesus did not blame Thomas for his questions and for seeking a new reality.  So often, we interpret our doubts to mean disbelief, but in the risen Christ there is no condemnation, not for Thomas nor for you and me.  Growing in our faith begins with curiosity, and faith being a living active thing, as Luther aptly describes it, must be fed for it to produce.  So what are you feeding your walk of faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ?

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May we learn a lesson from the life of the Apostle, Thomas, that there are things in life that will never be proven.  Jesus says, “Thomas, you have believed because you have seen.  But, blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe.”  With these words, Jesus is describing you and me.  We ’ll never see the crucified Jesus in this life, you and I will not have the opportunity to place my hands on his wounded side and my fingers into his scars.  It will never be proven to you and me that he was indeed raised from the dead.

There will be times when we encounter the darkness of doubt in our souls and will face our doubts about our faith in the risen Christ.  We might even equate this feeling of gloom and believe we are losing our faith.  Remember in the light; God reveals the glory of the resurrection.  In the moments of life, God has told you that God will not desert you.  In the moments of light, God had said to you that the resurrection is the reality.  Don’t let the darkness cause you to doubt.  Don’t doubt, but believe.  And if you question, know that that it’s ok.  God meets us just where we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!

Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.

“Celebrating God’s Saints” A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

All Saints’ Sunday is exactly as the name suggests; we celebrate all saints.  Saints living and those who’ve entered the church triumphant.   We remember how the saints have showed us what the Book of Acts calls The Way.  The first Christians were known as people of The Way.   Many of those saints we remember not because they sought to be rich or happy or well-fed or popular, but because they made sacrifices, often without knowing the names of those for whom they were sacrificing.

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Do we take their Christian witness for granted?  You bet we do.  That’s why we need days like today to remind us of the Christian forerunners of thousands of years who remind us even to this day to keep our lives’ priorities in check with the God’s values.  Those lives of the saints whom we’ve never met, but who put their lives on the line so that we might gather to worship the risen Christ.   Saints from hundreds of years, or even thousands of years ago who gave on our behalf.  Sacrificing their happiness for a greater joy that comes with serving in the name of Jesus Christ.   They sacrificed their own fulfillment so that others could be filled. They sacrificed their own need to acquire more so others might have enough. They sacrificed their own popularity in their fight for the well-being of others.

This is All Saints’ Day, a day we honor those saints who have gone before us and whose memory is precious to us. It is no accident that these challenging words from Luke are chosen for this special day, for it is wrestling with these words that we come to understand the faith of a saint.

Today’s Gospel tells us that death and resurrection are the great levelers. Status things which seem so important to us now — money, gourmet food, entertainment, and popularity — should not seem important to us in this world; and they will be worthless when we are saints in the life that is to come.

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We live in a time when winning and success are so important, that coaches who lose too many games are fired, the bottom line of a company’s profit-or-loss statement gets the most attention from stockholders, and even congregations are judged as “successful” or “unsuccessful” by comparing this year’s average attendance with last year’s. All Saints’ Sunday is a good time for us to hear once the sports cliché:  The question is not whether we won or whether we lost, but how we played the game.

Because, when we get down to it, we have to admit, it’s not easy living the life of a saint. Jesus talks about that life, and it just sounds backward. “Blessed are you who are poor,” but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who weep,” But “woe to you who laugh.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Oftentimes, these words get twisted. “What are we supposed to do?” we ask. “Be a doormat? Lie down and let people trample all over us?” How in the world are you blessed when things are going badly? We think we are blessed when things are going well for us and we’re healthy and happy and safe. But the saintly life isn’t about wealth, popularity, or comfort. It’s about faith and hope, resurrection and life, compassion, love, and purpose.

The saintly life is not just about staying out of trouble. It’s not passive. It isn’t wimpy to live as a saint. To live as God’s holy people takes courage. Turning the other cheek is courageous. It’s bold and it’s tough and it’s impossibly gutsy. “No,” it says, “you will not win. I will not give up. Jesus died for me, rose for me, called me holy, and I will not let that go. I will not let anger and revenge and sin get the upper hand.”

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That’s backward to our way of thinking. It’s not natural. What we want to do, what we are inclined to do, is still largely our selfishness talking, our fear talking, and our sin talking. The good, the noble, the righteous, the merciful, the generous, and the loving — that is God talking. That is God calling. To live the life of a saint is to live in God’s mercy. To live the life of a saint is to live in the often-uncomfortable paradox of being the sinners we know ourselves to be, and at the same time, being the holy person God says we are. Maybe you don’t feel especially holy, but you are. God is calling us to be holy. God is calling us to be his. God is calling us forward. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. But God is with you and will always be with you, just as God is with all the saints. Amen.