Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Second Sunday of Easter [Year B] - April 15, 2012 (John 20:19-31)

Norman doorway at Aberdoran, Wales

Christ is risen…and a community is formed. Such a concept is so commonplace to us now, so second-nature. As a matter of fact, it probably doesn’t even register with us as essential because we’re so accustomed to practicing our faith together, in a group, but it still needs to be said. Christ is risen…and a community is formed. A community is formed because that is what we humans do when calamity strikes, when momentous events occur, when we’re hit with news that knocks us down.

The most recent example I can think of to explain this was the Louisa County earthquake last August. Like many of you, I was alone when it struck. Sitting in the office here at church, I first thought someone was on the roof working on the air conditioning again. But as the rumbling wore on, getting worse, it dawned on me what might be really happening. For a split second I thought, “Am I supposed to get in a doorway or in a bathtub? One of them applies in this situation…the other applies in a tornado.” But then I couldn’t resist: I rushed to find other people. It was a natural reaction, an instinctive consequence to tragedy: go find others. Hanne, our administrative assistant, was out in the main office. Together, we looked into the Commons for others. Two women we didn’t even know who had just left a meeting in the church had also felt the earth move and began asking us questions. Within moments, we were all trying to call family. Unfortunately, but for obvious reasons, the networks at the time were either down or busy. And then, of course…the Facebook and Twitter posts began. All afternoon people were checking in with one another—whether on-line or in person, or both—to verify stories, to soothe fears, to clarify facts.

This is precisely the scenario with the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. They gather. No stopping to stand in the doorway or get in the bathtub first. The New Testament is clear that the news about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead immediately brings about community. In John’s gospel this community of disciples, which was in all probability not limited to the main Twelve, meets behind locked doors. A community is formed for sure, but it is a community based in doubt and fright. They gather to verify the story, to soothe fears, and to clarify facts. Can’t you just hear their questions as they consult with one another?

“Did this really just happen?”
“What’s going on?”
 “Hey, are you OK?”
“What, in God’s name, do we do now?”

I imagine you can hear those questions because they are essentially the same ones we are still, in some ways, asking. Maybe I should speak for myself, but I have a hunch that many of you are here on Sunday because of the same mix of doubt, faith, and astonishment. Each of us feels somehow compelled to gather…almost as if someone might be gathering us. And we come and hear the story of that unique early morning after the Sabbath when the women went to anoint his body with spices and the body wasn’t there. And although almost 2000 years separate us from that first earthshattering morning, and although by now we’ve come to understand that Jesus’ resurrection does not constitute a calamity for us, we gather and we hear and we share our stories with one another and, even when we don’t say a word to each other, on some level we still seem to be asking,

“Did this really happen?”
“What’s going on?”
“Hey, are you OK?”
“What, in God’s name, do we do now?”

Ever since that first night in that locked room, it has been apparent that the news of Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t only mean something to individuals. That is to say, Jesus doesn’t rise from the tomb simply so that individual believers can rest in peace that their souls are somehow sealed for heaven, although that is certainly how it has often been interpreted. No, Christian faith is never a completely private affair. It is a community event. The news about Jesus resurrection is something that happens to us; it is something we hear and respond to. And even if, like Thomas, we are not, for whatever reason, immediately drawn to community when we hear the news—even if we are left out because of our doubt or other circumstances, we are still at some point pulled in to verify, fact-check, possibly even poke holes in the theories. The news about Jesus’ resurrection brings us together because that it where we will find solace. That is where we will be able to question each other and sustain each other with hope.

But more than that, this news of Jesus’ death and resurrection forms a community because that is how Jesus is going to continue to work in the world. Jesus does three things in that room with his followers on the night of his resurrection: he grants his peace, he sends them in the same way his Father has sent him, and he breathes on them the Holy Spirit, giving them—as a group—the power to forgive and retain sins. All three things—living in God’s peace, spreading the message about God’s love in Christ, and embodying forgiveness—all but require gathering and living as a community in order to live out and practice. Jesus does not return to say, “Be at peace with yourself and find enlightenment on your own.” He gives them commands that will necessitate community living and gathering. When in our confusion we gather and ask the question, “What, in God’s name, do we do now?” the answer becomes clear: this community’s life and work will be an extension in the world of Jesus’ own life and work. As Jesus is sent by the Father, so are we sent to bear to the world this unconditional love. This is what we do…and we do it in God’s name.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the community that is formed as a result of Jesus’ ground-breaking resurrection helps make room for those who doubt, helps those who linger on the border between faith and disbelief, those who still want to ask those questions, “Did this really happen?” The community of disciples becomes a borderland between the disbelieving world and the true existence of God, a place where God’s Spirit is very alive and active, drawing people in and opening hearts. As it turns out, we do find ourselves standing in a doorframe.

It is a funny thing about this story: Thomas seems to get all the credit for being the doubter, for needing to see with his own eyes that Jesus is risen, when, in fact, all of the disciples are actually shown Jesus’ wounds as proof that it was him. The gospel writer John makes sure to tell us that it isn’t until after Jesus shows them his hands and his side when they rejoice in his presence. And when Thomas finally finds his way that next week to the community of the disciples, Jesus addresses his doubt with love and patience, offering up his body once more for the sake of another.

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" Rembrandt (1634)
When the church becomes a place where doubters are condemned or shunned, where questions about faith are not welcomed and lovingly dealt with, then the church remains frozen in fear, locking its doors to the very world to which Jesus has sent it. Jesus will still be able to enter and appear, just like he does that first evening, but it will be difficult—if not impossible—for others to find the hope and comfort in the community that his resurrection has brought about. Likewise, that community of fear and suspicion will never be able to practice fully the mission of forgiveness and peace that Jesus’ Spirit has given it. Yes, Jesus is risen and a community is formed…a community that is gathered to hear, time and again, the stories of their faith, ask their questions, and hear the promise of Jesus’ constant presence even when our fear and confusion have locked him out.

Each spring I give the seniors of the youth group a letter I’ve written. It changes a bit from year to year, but the basic message is still the same. It is a letter trying to explain, in my own words, why the Church is important (This year’s group of seniors could have written such a letter to me.  I’ve learned so much from them). We all know that those first years of independence—away from parents and out of the Epiphany bubble—are times of testing, changing, dealing with all kinds of new challenges and excitements. Statistics show that many young adults fall away from the faith entering some period of doubt and less than regular church attendance. I’d like to think I might get one last word in there before they go off, sent like Jesus was sent by the Father into new horizons. The letter is probably too rambling and preachy (like this sermon), but, for what it’s worth, this is one of the paragraphs I’ve included:

“There is another big reason why we become anxious that you may wander away too long from this imperfect but nevertheless gracious community: we don’t want you to forget the stories…the stories of our faith—like how God gave Israel manna to eat in the desert on their way to the Promised Land even though they complained about it, and how God once saved Noah and the animals with the ark. Or the one about Jesus’ feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and the one about the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep. The church tells and re-tells itself those stories not simply because they are powerful and fun, but because they help us remember the most important thing of all: through Jesus, God gives true meaning for the entire world and rescues it from sin. Let me tell you, there are times you will feel like that lost sheep (as we all do, from time to time), and you will need to know God has come for you and will carry you back on his shoulders.”

Given this morning’s readings, I should add, And there are times when, when you are wracked by unbelief, hearing these stories will be like reaching your hands into the Risen One’s wounds.  You will need to be with others who are grappling with the same and wonder together at what this all means.  I propose that is one big thing the church is doing every week, doubters and believers and everyone else gathered in the doorway: hearing the story of his resurrection, allowing his words to fall fresh on us once again, and asking ourselves, once again, those same familiar questions:

 “Did this really happen?”
“Are you O.K.?”
“What, in God’s name, do we do now?”

And, because we’re here, and because we’re together, we hear the responses as they resound:

“Peace be with you.”
“This is my body, given for you.”
 “You are sent…just as I have been sent.”
“Do not doubt, but believe.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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