Sunday, April 7, 2013

A sermon: Living in the in-between times

"Living in the in-between times"
April 7, 2013
Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge
John 20:19-30

The church exists to share and continue a story, one that is meant to evoke emotion, connection, and action.  As many times as we hear the story, we hear new challenges in the text, and feel the highs and lows as we cycle from conflict to resolution and back again.  Last week we may have come with weary hearts, like the women arriving at the tomb, bowed down by the weight of a Holy Week and Lent marked with emotion and great loss.  We carried our defeats--our loss of hope, the painful separation of death--on backs badly bruised with the sting of humiliation. Feeling crushed by the despair of failure...ours, and the alleged failure of our seemingly absent God, the cross was a shadow looming over us.

But we got to be witnesses of the story’s surprising twist: when the women reached the tomb, something looked different.  They realized that the stone had been moved, and the cave was open, almost inviting.  They, like us, were drawn in, expecting the stink of death, and yet found...nothing.  The tomb was empty.  They were filled with confusion, fear, anger, and hope...what had happened?  Who had taken him?  There was a memory tickling their minds...something about resurrection, about leaving and returning, but what could it mean?  

Before the understanding and hope of the resurrection, there was fear and uncertainty, an in-between time where they stood in the great emptiness, with the echoing of silent questions, and awaited an answer that would make sense of all of the nonsense.  Perhaps you’ve been in that place…or maybe you’re there now.

We still wait, in a world that has known a Savior, and in that same world that seems to have abandoned him.  If the message was love, why is there so much hatred?  If he came to bring peace, why are we so divided?  We are caught in the now, but not yet...the time between Christ's resurrection and second coming, when we hope things will finally be set right.
We wait, hoping for advances in equality as we anticipate the Supreme Court’s decision on proposition 8.  We wait, fearing the volatile situation in North Korea.  We wait, with our own personal and communal struggles, seeking healing and restoration.  We wait, wondering when love will win, and God’s peaceable kingdom will reign.

We woke up on Easter Monday to a world that likely looked much the same.  Our Easter finery was put away (more laundry to do and another trip to the gym to work off the big meals and all the candy).  The plastic eggs were put into storage for the next year, another completed cycle of re-enacting the drama that for many of us has lost its feeling.  The Passion story devoid of all passion.

What is the meaning of Easter and what did it change?  Do we really believe the story, and if we do, why doesn't it change us?

I think for me, sometimes, the story has become too familiar, to the point of making me numb.  There's something wrong when an event as fantastic as a resurrection isn't enough to shake me out of my stupor. 

So I ask you to join me today in putting yourself in the story.  Imagine what it was like for the disciples in those tenuous days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday and beyond. Picture having seen the friend that you’ve followed to for the past three years get arrested, brutally beaten, and killed.  You have run, fearing for your own life, and faced the guilt of betraying the one that you promised to follow…even unto death.  You have experienced a different kind of death as the faith you once held so strongly was challenged, the hope that drove you was disparaged, and you were confronted with others’ fear transformed to evil.  And now you wait, locked behind closed doors in terror, trying to make sense of it all. 

Hear the story from the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 19-30: 

19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

Into this chaos of emotion enters Jesus, with the words, “Peace be with you!” (repeat).  What would his words, his very presence, mean to you? 

Jesus knew of his disciples’ fear and incredulous disbelief, and invited them to see his hands and side, the very evidence that what they had witnessed was real, and was yet beyond what they could actually see and comprehend.  He was no ghost, no hallucination of overwhelmed people, but the real and physical Christ, raised from the dead by God.  He again bids them “Peace” and as their recognition turns to joy, he says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  Jesus breathes into them the Holy Spirit.  Just as God the Father breathed life into his creation, Jesus is now breathing new life into his disciples, calling and empowering them to carry on his work, forgiving in his name. 

We soon discover that not all of the disciples were present for this reunion.  Thomas, called the Twin, was told of Jesus’ reappearance and he responded in a way that has forever branded him as “Doubting Thomas”.  He says that he must see it for himself in order to believe.  Now Thomas has gotten a bad rap, and yet how many of us would respond accordingly?  We live in a world where proof must be given, mysteries solved, and theories put to the test.  Rationalism trumps mystery, and logic and science reign over matters of the spirit.  In our time, “belief” means intellectual acceptance of something that can be proven.  And so we have History Channel specials on the search for Noah’s Ark right beside faked documentaries (mockumentaries) on mermaids. 

Although he’s labeled as the doubter, let’s not forget that earlier in John’s gospel it was Thomas who understood the gravity of Jesus’ impending return to Jerusalem and said to the other disciples, “Let us also go so that we may die with him.”  Thomas was on a journey of faith and discipleship much like ours.  Some days he seemed to “get” it and, and some days he tried, but didn’t quite make the connections.  But I think it’s interesting to note that when the other disciples were cowering in fear in the room where Jesus appeared, Thomas was not there.  Why was that?  Had he given up?  

 I think, perhaps, he continued to live in faith, seeking what was to come.    Like his friends, he didn’t understand all of what had happened, but unlike them, he wasn’t letting fear rule his life.  Perhaps he was even searching for Jesus so that he could receive the same gift his friends had been given…that he be allowed to witness it for himself, to see the wounds and to physically touch them, to once again see his friend Jesus.  Jesus showed his wounds to the disciples, understanding their disbelief.  And when he appeared to Thomas, he was not angry at his doubt, but invited him to touch and see, reach and feel, stop doubting and believe!  Thomas discovers that he doesn’t need the proof he demanded.  Just the sight of his friend and teacher is enough to lead him to make the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, “My Lord and My God!”  Notice that the other disciples only recognized him as their Lord, not God.  Somehow Thomas’ doubt had taken him further in his faith and understanding.  Thomas seems to learn that belief transcends what can be seen.

I don’t think that doubt and belief are mutually exclusive, that you either have doubt or faith, but that instead they coexist.  We can move between the two, using our doubts to motivate us to seek God and grow in our faith.  Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the willingness to look beyond it and embrace something greater than we can understand.  As many have said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty”.  I have read that over the years the meaning behind the word “belief” has changed.  Before the 17th century, “belief” was used to mean “commitment” and correlated with the Greek “pistis” for “faith” and the Latin “credo” for “creed” which literally translates, “I turn my heart to”.  Belief was not intellectual acceptance of a doctrine, as it came to be known, but a deep feeling of the heart, and a commitment to action. 

One of my favorite scriptural passages is the story where a man is imploring Jesus to heal his sick child.  The boy has never been able to speak, but is plagued by a sickness that causes him to have seizures.  The father asks Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Jesus retorts, “If you can?  Everything is possible for him who believes.”  The man, wanting desperately for his son to be whole and well, cries out, “I believe!  Help my unbelief!”  We are all caught in a similar tension of belief and unbelief as we live in the time in between Jesus’ resurrection and return. 

 Most of life is lived in the in-between times.  In fact, if we think of it, these common moments are the very essence of life.  We may have a special day where we celebrate a new job, but then for the years to follow, we get the mundane task of working it.  There are birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations, but these isolated days mark the passing of years of normal living.  Our church calendar marks special days like Epiphany and Christmas, and seasons like Lent, Advent, and Pentecost.  Easter itself is a season of 50 days.  But you know what takes up the majority of the church year?  A thing called “Ordinary Time”, which takes up 33-34 weeks of the year.  It is the time between the holy days.  And just like the best part, arguably, of an Oreo cookie is the cream filling, some of the best and most important times in our lives and in our church are the times between the special days.  These are the times when we wait expectantly, but also continue the work of living as Christ has called us to do.

Jesus appeared to his disciples to renew their hope and to bestow his spirit, giving them a calling.  As the Father had sent Jesus into the world, Jesus was now sending the disciples to continue his work of love, forgiveness, and redemption with all of creation.

We are witnesses, and we too have been sent to continue the message.  We are the ones who are blessed because we have not seen, and yet believed.  We are in the middle of our story, caught in the tension between conflict and resolution.  Our story is just a paragraph in God’s unfolding saga, and yet, we play important roles, offering forgiveness to others in Jesus’ name.  We are the ones who must reach out to the broken and touch those hurts with the healing message of Christ.  We must have a faith that is big enough for questions, searching, doubt, and pain; we must be open to embrace others and walk with them even when we don’t feel like we have it all together ourselves.  Like Thomas, though, we must not let doubt or fear keep us locked up, but find the freedom to keep living, keep seeking, and keep doing God’s work.

The Easter story of resurrection and Jesus’ return is beyond good news...this is real hope for a world that is filled with death and darkness.  New life!  Rebirth!  Another chance when it all seems lost!  That’s what resurrection is all about!

A liberal bishop was asked if he actually believed in the resurrection.  "Believe it?" he said, "I've seen it too many times not to!"

And so, we step back into our ordinary lives, but perhaps our senses are more attuned to the signs of resurrection around us--the daffodil poking out of the still cold ground, the surprising reconciliation, the promise of something new.  I think of my friend's hope as she interviews for potential new jobs after years of unemployment.  I rejoice with another who had the courage to face bad news and realized it wasn't so bad after all.  I witness the painful struggles of faith and know that while certainty is not a given, strength and growth may lie on the other side.  I ponder the significance of forgiveness, of all the commands Jesus could have given, and realize it’s just what this broken world needs.  Grace to be accepted and loved, healing from our hurts, and restoration to the lives God intends for us.  I think of Eboo Patel, who is an American Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, which works to unite different faiths through acts of service.  He says that he has learned that the solution to fighting hatred is to respond to ugliness with beauty.

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?  He took the ugliness of his death on the cross and turned it into the beautiful gift of forgiveness.

Every day holds the potential for Easter as we put our trust in a God who won't be bound by the ordinary.  Can you believe?

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