On the cover of the edition of Newsweek magazine that came out last week—the week of Easter—was a large cross made up of the words that said “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” It’s no coincidence that most major newsmagazines choose the week of Easter or the week of Christmas to grab us with a religious-themed article. This one in particular seemed dramatically titled and designed to get our dander up in such a way that we’ll read what the article has to say:“The End of Christian America.”
In the article, the writer, Jon Meacham, prattles on for four or five pages, giving his assessment of the recent political elections and the results of several recent polls on religious tendencies that have indicated that the number of professing, church-going Christians is down. Most interestingly (for Meacham, at least), the percentage of those who claim to have no religious affiliation at all is up: from 5 percent of the population in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008. In addition, one survey he discusses pointed to a four-fold increase in those claiming to be agnostic or atheist from 1990 to 2009.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the article was the photography. In amongst the text were various staged photos meant to highlight our supposed flight from religion: one was a photo of a pulpit microphone stand…but both the microphone and a preacher were conspicuously absent. Another shot was of a Bible lying open on an empty pew in a deserted church, as if there were no one there to read it anymore.
Whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation and purports to be one now is not the main theme of the article. Rather, the focus is on the prevailing sense of doubt that, at least numerically-speaking, seems to be growing in our culture and how the Church might deal with it. Fewer people seem to be believing our story, the one we claim to be The Story—the story that frees us and makes us people of God. And therefore Meachum points to a sense of hand-wringing, despair, fear, a feeling that (gasp) we’ve never been here before.
Or have we? From the looks of John’s gospel, it certainly seems that we have. In the episode we’ve read this morning, which always forms the gospel reading the first week after Easter Sunday, we encounter the disciples first on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection and then again the week after. The news is fresh. Jesus is alive and well, no longer in the grave, and yet doubt has already set in. Thomas goes down into history unfairly as the one who doubts, when a closer read of our text reveals that Jesus must show his wounds to all of the disciples before they recognize and believe in him. Yes, doubt has prevailed since the first evening after Jesus was raised, even among those who first heard that incredible story and sought to spread it. In fact, the disciples’ sense of hand-wringing and despair and fear is so great that they’ve locked themselves away. Not only are they bearing some skepticism as to what they’ve heard, but they know there are plenty of people in society who won’t believe their story.
This is crazy! On the very night after death has been conquered, on the very day the grave has been opened, on the very evening God has totally upended the powers of darkness once and for all, the disciples find themselves practically conquered by doubt, shut in a room, and cowering in the darkness of fear.
I always think of the second Sunday of Easter—that is, the first gathering of the Easter people after the news of Easter as somewhat of reality-check Sunday. It is one week after we’ve celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and we are forced to reflect: is anything different? Once our ears have stopped ringing from the trumpet fanfare, the amplified alleluias, once we rub our eyes from the dazzling white and settle down a bit, has the news of the resurrection done anything to us? Are we believing and living according to its promise? Or have we oh-so-easily slipped back into doubt, a lack of trust that God has indeed wrought something new for us with the raising of his Son?
The early Church grappled with this, question, too. For centuries the practice was that those who had been baptized on Easter wore their baptismal robes all week long and showed up to church on this Sunday still wearing them! This was part of a faith-inducing effort to underscore for the newly-baptized—and all those who came into contact with them—that they were now different. They were cleansed, forgiven and free, living the new life in the hope of the resurrection.
Lyndsay and Kyle, how would you like that? Imagine dressing Parker in nothing but that baptismal gown all week. No cute Baby Gap clothes or those onesies with clever little sayings on them like, “Party at my crib: 2am. Bring your own bottle.” Only her baptismal gown, every day. And she can remove it when she comes back to church next week.
That was the church’s practice, for a long time. Just as an article’s photograph of an open Bible on an empty pew in a deserted church could suggest that no one is listening to the story of Jesus anymore, a host of Christians wearing their new baptismal identity in an unmistakable fashion on the outside could proclaim that the life of faith is alive. It is real. The resurrection has, indeed, made a difference in the world’s destiny, and we are called to testify to that difference. Pretty clever practice, if you ask me, and yet, I’m sure doubt still crept in. As Bono (lead singer of the rock band U2) says in the New York Times this morning,
“of all the Christian festivals, it is the Easter parade that demands the most faith—the far-fetched and far-reaching idea that death is not the end” (New York Times, April 19, 2009, "It is 2009. Do You Know Where Your Soul Is?).
The main issue with Thomas and the other disciples as they deal with this "far-reaching idea" is that Jesus does not abandon them in their doubt. He mysteriously makes his way through the locked doors—twice—and invites them to look at his wounds, even to touch them if they need to. Unlike some leaders which equate doubting with treason, the Risen Jesus lovingly confronts their doubts and fears and seeks to address them.
More significantly, he breathes new life into them. That is, before their doubt can erode all the exciting elements of this new story, before their community becomes one primarily of hand-wringing and fear, before they begin to believe that nothing really is different, Jesus himself enters their presence and bestows upon them his Spirit, giving the story they’ve heard shape and form.
Shape and form like this: “The Lord’s peace be among you.” “Just as my life was one of mission, so will yours be one of mission.” “Receive the very Spirit of God and live by it.” “Forgive others, and do be careful with the sins you retain.” …“And many other signs which are not written in this book,” John adds.
Oh, they might not be written down, but we know them. Their shape and form are familiar to us. We know these signs when we hear of them, and they combat our fears and they break us out of locked doors and they strengthen our faith in a world that is always drifting, always, to some degree, doubting.
It sounds like a people who embrace a life of forgiveness, over and against the world’s wisdom of holding grudges. It sounds like a community that understands the necessity of loving people rather than simply tolerating them. It sounds like a group of people who live as though they are free from sin, who freely give of their own resources to care for those in need. It sounds like a gathering that has the courage to reach its own hands into the wounds of the world over and over again with the hope of healing, whether it is giving up a beautiful Saturday to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, or finding ways to send underprivileged children to summer camp, or going out of their way to comfort those who have lost loved ones.
Through all these ways and more, we know it will be him—the risen Jesus—active by the Spirit in the life of his community empowering his people to be clad in the joy of new life, assembling them once again and lovingly and patiently addressing their doubt. It will be him—the risen Jesus—bidding them to unlock the doors and live this new story. And when it comes right down to it, it will be the life of this community, with its unmistakable shape and form, through which others will understand and come to believe the news of the resurrection. And it won’t matter if the headlines say we’re declining or falling, or that the Bible is open, but people just aren’t listening anymore, or that we should be wringing our hands and writing our epitaph, because the risen Jesus will be there, offering his wounded body and poured out blood once again. And we will be strengthened to carry on.
Therefore, my sisters and brothers, deck yourselves out in your baptismal best. We have a story to tell. We have a risen life to live. For you may not have realized it before, but you—you and me together—we may be the only empty tomb some people ever see.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.