Sunday, May 29, 2011

Evangelizing Love


I’m sure that all of us by now have seen pictures and video from the devastating storms in Joplin, MO that have struck deep in our hearts.  There was one particular video that I saw in the aftermath that has particularly stuck with me.  When the tornados came, a number of people were caught in a convenience store.  They took shelter from the storm by crowding into the big walk in refrigerator.  In the video, you hear panicked voices as the wind swells and the storm begins to batter the building.  As the storm builds, you hear the voice of one man as he begins to say “I love you.  I love you guys.  I love all of you.”  The video is posted below:

Upon watching the video, I thought to myself, here is a guy who truly gets it.  When faced with mortal danger, in the dark with the winds blowing, he takes the opportunity to tell everyone that he loves them.  He doesn’t know if he will have a future, he doesn’t know what might happen in the next moments.  What he does know is that there is nothing more important for him to than express his love for those around him.
Thankfully, it appears that everyone who was featured in the video survived the tornados that ripped through town.  But I wonder-  why is it that it takes tragedy to cut through our defenses, to loosen our tongues so that we can finally say to one another-  “I love you.”
I think its partly because its a powerful sentiment- one we are afraid that people might take the wrong way.  And I think its also because we fear that that expression of love will be one-sided-  that we will feel silly because the other will laugh, or that we’ll be rejected when they doesn’t respond in kind.
Expressing love can be a difficult and dangerous thing to do.  And yet, it is a vital part of who we are as Christians.  Furthermore, expressing and embodying love is perhaps the most core quality of the God we worship.  It is certainly at the core of everything we can learn from the stories of Jesus in scripture.
Perhaps the most famous verse of John is  “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son”-  God loved us so much, that he desired to be close to us.  To be among us, to be able to clap the shoulder of his friend, to hug his mother, to weep upon hearing of the death of his friend Lazarus.  In this passage we heard today, we come upon Jesus in the upper room, sharing a meal with his disciples.  But before the meal can even get under way, Jesus removed his cloak, got down on his hands and knees, and washed the feet of his disciples.  Truly, this was a man who was not afraid to express love.
I need to confess that I probably don’t preach that enough.  Frankly, I probably don’t believe it enough in my own life.  Often when I look at scripture and pray, what comes to mind is all of the ways I fall short of who God intends me to be.  And when I read scripture to get ready for a sermon, my thoughts often flow to the ways we as a congregation, and we in our society, need to change to live up to our calling as disciples of Jesus.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with that persey; God does indeed want us to examine our hearts, our minds and our actions so that we may live into God’s intentions for us.  But I need to express more often, both to you and to myself, that God loves you.  God loves me.  Exactly as we are.  There is nothing we need do; no way for us to earn that love.  God simply and overwhelmingly loves each and everyone one of us.  So, lets not wait for tragedy to express something important:  I want you to turn to your neighbor and say-  God loves you exactly the way you are.  Now turn to the other side and say-  God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
So, what does God, what does Jesus, ask in return for that love?  Well, we are asked to return that love.  At times, that can be hard to swallow.  I sort of understand how to love someone I can see, feel and touch.  How do I love God, how do I love Jesus, when there isn’t a tangible aspect to it.  This passage today provides the solution-  to love Jesus is to keep his commandments.  Now lets be clear, this isn’t a quid pro quo thing.  If you don’t keep Jesus’ commandments, God doesn’t stop loving you.  But the question isn’t how do you get God to love you-  that’s done.  The question is how do you love God-  and that is by keeping his commandments.
But, what does that mean?  There are lots of commandments in scripture-  which ones do we keep?  Well, let’s keep it simple today-  When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, what did he reply?
  1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength;
  2. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
So-  we are to return love with love.  And in fact, Jesus sweetens the offer.  He said that he’ll send his advocate- what we call the holy spirit, to help us love one another.  The spirit won’t leave us alone, but will always be with us if we can be so trusting.  If we can trust that God loves us, and that God’s spirit is with us always, can we not lose a bit of our fear.  Maybe we can learn to grow beyond our fear of rejected love.  God continues to love us whether or not we love God, maybe we can do the same.  Maybe we can say I love you, or live I love you, to someone else and not be afraid that they might not return that love.  We can release our fear- because we don’t need them to return love to survive-  we are loved more then we can know.  We just need to express that love.
I want you to turn to someone near by and tell them I love you.  Now, this doesn’t mean you necessarily have to have warm and gushy feelings for them, that your heart goes a flutter every time they walk in the room.  But, you can say I truly want the best for you, I want you to experience all the good that God has set forth for your life.  If you can say that, then you can say and mean I love you.  Find someone nearby, and say that to them.  If you dare (and they seem willing), give them a hug too.
So if Christian Love 101 is know God loves you, love God, Love your neighbor, love yourself, what’s Christian Love 201?  Its helping others to realize God’s love for them.  That, by the way, is fundamentally what evangelism is about.  Its not about convincing people of a doctrine, or convincing them they are a horrible, sinful person, or convincing them to say specific words at a religious event, its helping them to realize that they are loved by God.  In our first scripture today, Paul showed us how this could be done.
Paul goes to Athens, is invited to stand in front of the cities elite scholars and philosophers, and proceeds to give a philosophical discourse on the nature of God and Christ’s resurrection.  He argues from natural law, quotes two Greek poets, and argues about the true nature of one particular Athenian statue.
Ok, I can hear you now.  “You tell us evangelism is just about helping people to know that God loves them, and your example is Paul giving a speech on philosophy?  Really?  How is this about God’s love?”
Well, Paul recognizes something.  We have the saying, the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach, right?  Well, the key to an Athenian’s heart is through philosophy.  Paul wants to communicate God’s love.  But to do it, he knows he has to speak their language.  So, he draws upon all that he knows and can learn about Athenian culture, and tries to express it in the way they will understand it best.
That is the way that Paul’s love is expressed.  He doesn’t say, understand it on my terms or else, he loves the Athenians enough to go to their city, to learn their culture, and to try to connect on their playing field.  I think at church some times, we try to do the opposite.  If you want to learn about God, you are going to have to come to my building, worship in the way I am comfortable, and speak my language to hear about the love of God.  Learn what music you listen to?  Too hard, and besides, I like my music better.  Go where you are?  Look, I would, but you like to hang out in scary places.  Can’t you just come to my neat church and sit in my pew (but not my seat!!!).  
So maybe we wouldn’t say any of those things, but do our actions show it?  Do our actions show that we are doing everything possible to demonstrate God’s love to those outside the walls, or do we want people to love God on our conditions, and our turf?  
Evangelism doesn’t have to be scary, but it does require us to demonstrate love.  We don’t have to give a discourse, but we do have to learn how to communicate with those outside these walls.  We don’t have to give a speech on public square, but we do have to hang out and develop relationships with people outside of the church.  
Doing evangelism like that can stretch us.  What if they reject what I say?  What if they don’t like me?  My friends, are we not confident of God’s love?  Can we not release that fear, knowing that God’s spirit goes with us?  Brothers and sisters, God’s love and spirit goes out before us.  Its already working in our friends, our relatives, our acquaintances and our neighbor’s lives.  May we be bold enough to show our love for them.  May we be loving enough to seek out the key to their heart.  And may we be confident enough to say that “God loves you, exactly the way you are.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

Trust requires investment


If you are a member of the finance committee, I’d like to you to raise your hand.  I just want everyone to know who they are.  In light of today’s scriptures, that we can always trust God when we are in the shadow of death, and that the apostles shared everything in common, the finance committee is prepared to receive your car keys, deed to your home, life insurance policy, etc. just as soon as your ready.  
How come no one is moving?  You mean today’s scriptures weren’t powerful enough for you to give up all your worldly possessions and trust entirely in the fidelity of God and your brothers and sisters in Christ?  Well, I thought I could save you the sermon if we were all ready, but ok, I guess I’ll give one anyway.  But don’t let me stop you...any time you feel so inspired the finance committee is ready and waiting.
Ok, so in our contemporary culture, this seems like almost an absurd request.  None of us, I assume, are prepared to so radically turn over our possessions and our lives to one another for the purposes of care.  Is this just a radical cultural difference that we cannot wrap our heads around?  It is true that there were jewish sects present at the time of Jesus who lived in communal life.  These Essenes, as they were called, practiced asceticism, voluntary poverty, and abstinence from worldly pleasures like marriage.
So, at a certain level, we can acknowledge that this type of living wouldn’t have been as foreign to the early disciples as it is to us now.  We also have to recognize our difficulty in reading this passage with fresh eyes in light of our own culture.  We live in a society that greatly values individual rights, and individualism.  We want to be unique in our expressions and we do not want to be dependent on any other person to get by in life.  We are a “pull yourself up by our bootstraps” kind of culture.  Though this has always been a part of our american dna, I think this was made even more prominent in the last century.  First, because increasing wealth as a culture meant that we moved from inter-generational households to a culture where failing to live on your own as an adult is interpreted a sign of failure.  Second, because of the role communism played as a key fear and oppositional force in so much of our culture for generations.  For those born of my generation and younger, communism has always been a relatively faded relic.  But I know to many here, it was a living and breathing threat to our mortality.  How many of you ever had to practice hiding under your desks in a nuclear drill?  How many remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Or for whom the Vietnam war is quite formative.
So when we hear verses like “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”, I recognize that this sets our cultural alarm bells on high alert.  So lets try to delineate between our gut reaction to this bible verse and the disciples actual position.  Communism, as experienced in the 20th century, took the form of a violent revolution led at the top levels of society.  The Jesus movement was non-violent and largely consisted of people on the margins.  Communism was largely imposed on the societies whereas the Jesus movement was voluntary and open to all.  Communism, at least in the form we are most familiar, was opposed to expressions of God whereas the Jesus movement was initiated by our living Lord God.
So, lets just take a minute, breath in and out, and let go of some of our cultural alarm bells and try to hear the scripture again with fresh ears.
Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This was a community devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.  Sounds like a lot of what we try to do in church, right?  We try to share our knowledge of scripture and God, to enjoy one another’s company, to eat together, boy do we eat, and to share of the troubles of our souls and life our concerns to God.  Well, to a greater or lesser extent, we try to do all that.  But, then how come we aren’t ready to take the disciples’ next step and hold all in common?
I think in many cases its about a lack of trust.  We are afraid that if we fall down and are hurt, no one will care.  Or, maybe people will express sympathy at first, but if our pain continues for months on end unceasingly, that people will just avoid us rather than deal with our pain.  Or that we are struggling financially, and can’t see the bottom, but don’t feel like there is anyone we can turn to who will provide assistance without a large dose of judgment.  Or that we are lonely and sad, and see happy people and happy families, and assume that we can have no place in their happy little worlds.
And so, when we experience this pain, we have a tendency to withdraw.  To retreat into a small corner and hope to just outlast the dark time.  I think its one of the reasons Psalm 23 is such a comfort to people.  It speaks of a God who seeks us out in the darkness.  A God who walks with us in when we stagger through death’s dark valley, a God who stands with us when we are mocked by our enemies.
I want to affirm that God is there in these moments.  When we are at our weakest, God is there trying to care for us.  God’s love is ever-present.  And yet, and yet, in these moments we often don’t feel it.  We often feel as if everyone, even God, has abandoned us.  
So what’s the key?  How do we reconcile this ever-present God with our feelings of loneliness?  And how do we find this wonderful community that you can trust completely with all that you own and all that you are?
I think it begins with admitting our need for help.  That almost sounds cliche now-  the language is all around us in AA and other addiction programs.  But whether or not you have a substance abuse problem, the ability to admit that you do need to rely on others is the key first step to entering into and experience the wonderful community promised by God and the early disciples.  
Imagine that you are a sheep here for a second.  You just know that you have your life together and all is going well.  Eventually, you decide you are tired of all this bleating around you, and you are tired of the shepherd constantly watching you and dictating where you are allowed to go.  So you set off on your own and leave the flock.  It seems good for awhile, but then, on a dark night, you begin to hear howling all around you.  You’ve realized you’ve found yourself in danger and have very little chance of finding your way out.  You suddenly feel scared and alone.  Now- its not that the shepherd and the other sheep don’t care, they just are at such a distance that they can’t hear your call, can’t protect you with the crowd, and thus, you face the wolves alone.
Well, we can be grateful we have a God that is never satisfied in leaving us alone. In the last verse of Psalm 23, it reads “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.”  Even in those moments of darkness, God is chasing after us.  And unlike the shepherd, God is guaranteed to find us, if we can stop running long enough for God’s love and beauty to catch up.
Its the same with that magical experience of this first Christian community.  They were able to share in each others joys and pains, but it required two things-
First, a community that was willing to show up and care.  Are we such a community?  When someone shares a need, do we rally to their cause?  When we notice someone in pain, do we seek to comfort them.  I’m happy to say I have heard many stories where this is true.  I remember Jane Kozdrone expressing how this community rallied behind her when her husband died.  But we must be vigilant about this.  It only takes one failure by a community when someone is in need for that trust to dissolve.
And second, we as individuals are called to do something crucial.  Each individual who came into the community brought with them everything they had- and they trusted to it to the care of others.  Are we willing to do that?  Are we willing to bring both our blessings and the darkest places of our heart, and share it with one another?  Because if we are not, its hard for the community to respond.  Unless we have invested something of ourselves in the community, how are they to recognize us when we have need?  If we almost never come, or if we slip in and out Sunday morning without sharing with one another, how are we to know when that day comes that you need a hand, or a shoulder to cry on, or our prayers?  We don’t operate as a quid-pro-quo organization, its not that you have to give something to receive any kind of care.  But its in the giving of yourself that you truly become part of the community.  Its in the giving of yourself that a true bond can be created.  And it is then, when we are in community, that we may praise God, have the good will of all people, and add to the number who will be saved.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bin Ladin and the Road to Emmaus


When I was an undergrad, our college chorus would periodically give concerts both at school and local churches.  As a music major, I performed often enough that I didn’t often invite my friends and family, who lived more then 2 hours away, to the majority of the concerts.  Sometime my first year, we gave a concert in this beautiful cathedral in downtown Columbus.  The concert went well and I returned back to my dorm and began studying for the next week’s classes.  Later that night, I called a friend of mine and began to tell him about the concert.
Right away, I knew something was off.  My friend seemed a bit distant and his responses to me were gruff.  Finally I asked him what was wrong.  
He replied-  “How can you just act like nothing happened today?  I came all the way down to Columbus to surprise you at your concert, and you didn’t even bother to thank me, or to acknowledge that I existed.”
“Oh,” I said stunned, “I’m so sorry, I had no idea you came to the concert.”
He replied, “Come on, when you were standing at the front of the church getting ready for the concert, I walked up the center aisle and stood 15 feet from me.  I waved my hand at you and you starred right at me.  You didn’t respond at all!  Finally, I stopped waving, and feeling stupid, wondered back to my seat.”
You see, I didn’t know my friend was coming, so it never even occurred to me to look for him.  I couldn’t recall that night what I might have been thinking of when he came up and waived at me.  I have no doubt I might have been facing his direction, but I apparently was preoccupied with thought.  Even when he stood in front of me and waived, I simply didn’t, or couldn’t, see him.  I’ve since found that that is a habit of mine.  If I don’t know to look for someone, they have to pretty much come up and tap me on the shoulder before I will notice they are there.  What I can see is apparently terrible limited to what I expect to see.
This is the same malady that affected those two followers of Jesus as they transversed the long road back to Emmaus in our gospel account today.  Following the death of Christ, they had waited three long days in Jerusalem.  We have no idea what they did those days, but they must have huddled closely together with other followers of Christ because they apparently were there when the women came from the tomb to say that Jesus’ body was missing.
The women’s message, however, does not seem to bring about joy.  They must have assumed the obvious, that someone had stolen Jesus’ body, and discounted the vision of angels as simple hysterics.  I mean, what other logical conclusion is there?  Even if they had believed Jesus when he said he would rise in three days, they certainly hadn’t seen it yet.  They had waited with the other disciples for 3 long, terrible days.  And yet, there was still no sign of Jesus.  Finally, they must have decided to give up and return home.
As they plodded along the road, they are interrupted by a stranger who simply appears to be clueless about all that is going on.  After the question is asked, scripture indicates “they stood still, looking sad.”  The NIV translates this as their faces were downcast.
Can you picture the scene here.  A long 7 mile walk.  Hopes and dreams crushed.  Their savior dead, the body stolen, no hope to be discerned.  Have you ever seen someone walk like that.  Head hanging low, just kinda putting one foot in front of another?  Have you been at a viewing, or a reception after a funeral, and seen the hushed tones of conversation. This is the atmosphere I imagine when I try to picture these two men.
For three days, they waited for their savior to return.  And then, wouldn’t you know it, just as they leave the city, Jesus suddenly appears.  Time to celebrate right?  But some how, some way, they stare right at Jesus and don’t see him.  They talk to him, but don’t recognize him.
How can this be?  How could they have followed Jesus this whole time, and yet somehow not recognize him when he appears?!?  Scholars have debated this over the years.  One commentary said that “Luke wants us to infer that senses were supernaturally dulled.”  Other scholars place the blame on the men themselves- “they failed to recognize Jesus because, like many a modern sceptic, they were convinced that miracles of that sort could not happen.”
Neither extreme seems like a satisfactory answer to me.  Though Jesus often spoke in parables that were confusing to the disciples, I cannot recall another occasion where Jesus supernaturally causes others to not see the truth.  In fact, Jesus’ stories are filled with occasions where he heals blindness and opens peoples eyes to the kingdom of God which is all around them.  I also wouldn’t castigate these two followers of Jesus as hardened skeptics, they did indeed wait 3 days in Jerusalem before leaving- presumably to see if Jesus would indeed rise.
No, I think they do not recognize Jesus because they have resigned themselves to the belief that death wins.  While they may have held out hope for a while, they are returning to Emmaus resigned to defeat.  All the parables of Jesus were for not, death wins.  All of the healing Jesus’ ministry brought about matters not, death wins.  All of the love shown to the poor, the outcast, the sick, the imprisoned, are irrelevant. Death wins.
Once you’ve come to accept that reality, its hard for anything else to penetrate it.  Think about for a moment the miracle of birth.  A couple comes together at the right time, and in nine months, new life enters into the world.  Though there are ways that we can help to keep the process healthy, the journey from an egg to new life occurs almost entirely outside of our control.  From the tiniest of cells comes a complete human being.  This is an amazing display of God’s creative powers of life.  And it occurs all around us, everyday!  And yet, that is certainly not what captures our attention and imagination.  The overwhelming power of life that surrounds us is so constant that it fades into the background.  If you tune into the evening news, they don’t lead every night with “Miracles abound!  New life is created!”  We almost become blind to it.  And then, having lost our wonder at the power of God to bring forth life, we begin to notice instead the reality of death and destruction.  And fear begins to overwhelm us.  And we begin to believe that those who demonstrate the powers of violence and terror hold the real power in the world.
Brothers and sisters, I have been struggling most of the week about how and whether to discuss this next section of the sermon.  I realize that it will broach a sensitive and controversial topic, but it has nonetheless hung heavy on my heart and been foremost in my thoughts all week.  I have said since I arrived here almost a year ago that I will never claim to have the last and final word on an issue, and will never expect all to agree with me on issues ranging from theology to politics.  A church where we have the permission to question and disagree, and can do so with love in our hearts, is a healthy one indeed.
When word broke late Sunday night that President Obama was set to address the nation, I like many others flipped to CNN and began to surf the internet trying to figure out what was going on.  As the news began to break that we had successfully killed Osama Bin Ladin in a raid on his compound in Pakistan, I immediately began to feel a little disquieted.  As I listened to Wolf Blitzer declare that this was a tremendous night that Americans should celebrate, I found that my heart was anything but jubilant.
As I sat exploring my feelings, I knew that my discomfort was not born out of feelings of mercy or compassion for the death of Bin Ladin.  Though his death brought me no joy, there was no part of me that particularly wanted to mourn the death either.  In light of Jesus’ command that we should love our enemies, I recognize that I need to continue to confess my short comings to God.
No, I realized that my discomfort was spurred more by how we might react to his death as a country.  My unease only grew as I watched coverage of the spontaneous celebration that began to unfold in front of the White House, as young people flocked to the streets and began to shout USA, USA, and sing God Bless America. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in conversation and reflection trying to determine exactly why I was struggling.  Though I am sympathetic to pacifism, I am enough of a pragmatist to know that if I were in the president’s shoes, I too would have ordered the raid that killed Bin Ladin.  No, I was more disturbed by the glee being expressed over the killing of another individual.  As evil and vile as Bin Ladin’s actions were on earth, his birth was another of God’s miracles, he had a family, a mother and father just like the rest of us.  Even if we approved of the killing, even if we thought it was some measure of justice, was it not a time to quietly reflect and to mourn the tremendous loss of life and innocence over these past ten years?  I struggled with the seeming disconnect between a country that often declares itself to be Christian and the seemingly un-Jesus like response to this particular death.
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus followers were blinded with grief and fear over the death of their savior. The question that I would like to leave you with today, is that if Jesus Christ had suddenly appeared in our midst this past Sunday, would we have recognized him?  If our Lord and Savior broke bread with us and said, “Peace be with you,” could he have heard it amidst our celebration?  Or might we, like the disciples before us, have been blinded by the belief that it is death, and not life, that has final victory?  Do we believe that it is human justice, rather than God’s divine love, that has the final word?  As we continue our own walk toward Emmaus this day, let us open our eyes to the miracles of love and life that are around us, so that we may see Jesus’ active presence in the world.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fleeing from the Tomb

Mark 16:8-  “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Each of the Gospels describes the story of the disciples reaction to the resurrected Jesus differently.  Matthew has the disciples receiving his message relatively calmly and  has them respond by going out on mission through Galilee and into all the world.  Luke and John have different accounts, but the core theme in both is that the disciples either don’t recognize Jesus or express doubt at his resurrection.  My favorite post-resurrection account by far is Mark’s in which he has the disciples respond to seeing the risen Christ by fleeing in fear and essentially hiding under a rock.
Doesn’t that seem like the mostly likely, and logical, reaction?  Your messiah, your rabbi, has just been brutally slain.  At any moment, you think you might be next.  Suddenly, that person that you know died seems to appear before you.  I can tell you, if my long deceased grandfather were to suddenly appear before me, I might hightail it out of the room myself.  At the very least, I’m making an appointment at the nearest psychiatrist's office.
Though Mark’s Gospel ends on a cliff hanger, we know that this wasn’t the last word.  After all, if they had remained under a rock, there would never have been an early church.  Eventually, they must have managed to dust themselves off, shed their fears and begin to engage in ministry.  They began to tell their stories, love one another, and the movement took off like a wildfire.
Now that the spectacular miracle of Easter has occurred, do we find ourselves energized and engaged in ministry, or hiding under a rock waiting for the air to clear?  When God comes calling, there is certainly a part of me that always wants to stay hidden.  What if Jesus wants something hard?  What if the Holy Spirit directs me out of my comfort zone?  These fears are real and, in large part, justified.  We too have to go through a process in which some aspects of our life may have to die so that we may be resurrected today as transformed individuals.  We can take comfort and should celebrate the face that Jesus loves us and will take care of us for all of eternity.  But we can’t rest in that.  When the living Christ appears, we must eventually dust ourselves off, emerge from the shadows, and step out into the world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Doubter vs. The Rock

1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31


One of my favorite characters in all of scripture has been Thomas-  Doubting Thomas as he is often named.  Here’s a poor fool who just can’t accept good news when it comes to him.  His 10 closest friends, the other disciples, testify that they have seen and interacted with the living Lord, and yet, that isn’t enough for him.  He declares “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.”

This week’s lectionary seems to set up a clear contrast for Thomas.  As opposed to the doubt expressed in the Gospel reading, the letter attributed to Peter seems to testify to the rock solid nature of Peter’s faith.  After all-  is he not the one whom Jesus referred to as the rock by whom I’ll build my church?  He’s even given the nickname-  Cephus, which means rock.  His testimony is far more pious than Thomas-  he declares that Christ has “given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you”

So, clearly, this must be an object lesson for us.  Be like Peter- firm in our faith, and not like that dastardly Thomas, right?  That fits well with a message we hear at times in regards to faith.  If your faith is shaken, people are told that they need to go to church and “get right” with God.  If a grieving widow shakes her fist at God, she might be told that its wrong to blame God, that its wrong to say such horrible things, and instead she needs to remain strong.  

How are other kinds of doubts received?  If someone is unsure of an aspect of scripture, if they struggle with one part or another, can their faith be affirmed?  And what about theology?  Do we have room to question that?  Is our journey of faith set with Peter- the rock- on one side and Thomas-the doubter-on the other?  This being faith, the other betrayal, and we need to stick as close to this side as possible?  How do we know if we have crossed the line?

Let’s look at Thomas and Peter to see if we can make any kind of determination.  We’ll look at Thomas first-  this should be easy, we’ll just look for the point at which Jesus rebukes him-

“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Hmmm, Jesus does say “Do not doubt but believe,” but only after allowing Thomas the evidence he was looking for.  Rather than being rebuked, Thomas was given a chance by Jesus to explore his doubts.  It was through that exploration, and through coming in contact with the living Lord Jesus Christ, that Thomas is able to confess “My Lord and my God.”  Now lets imagine for a second that Thomas had simply taken his fellow disciples word for it-  he would never have needed Christ’s presence at all to declare his faith.  Jesus would never have needed to allow Thomas to explore his wounds.  No, it is only through doubt, and by admitting his doubts and exploring it, that Thomas experiences Christ.  

There is a story about a pastor who went to the leadership board of his church to hand in his resignation. He told them he had all sorts of doubts, and felt that he had lost his faith, and thus was convinced he should tender his resignation.

Now the congregation loved and revered their pastor.  So the board prayed about it, returned and announced that they refused to accept his resignation. "If what you are experiencing is doubt, then come and preach your doubts," they told him. 

The pastor stayed, and spoke about the doubts, issues, concerns and struggles that he was wrestling with.

After two years passed, he once again stood before the church's leadership council, this time to thank them for the opportunity they had given them. He had gone through the tunnel and had come out the other side, finding faith again in the process.

It was through exploring his doubts that the pastor could once again “find faith.”  I put “finding faith” in quotes because I am convinced that he was following his faith all along.  Something tugged at his soul.  Perhaps he had questions he needed to answer.  Perhaps he had some understandings about God that he needed to let go of.  Exploring those doubts was a way of affirming, rather than negating, faith.

So what about Peter than?  Even if we remove the stigma from Thomas, we still know that it is Peter- the rock- whom we should try to emulate.  I mean, if we have doubts we should explore them, but better to never have them in the first place, right?  Better to have a faith that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”

Peter must have been so revered by his fellow Christians.  I mean, a man of such strength and honor.  Let’s see what Paul had to say about this sterling of a man-

“But when Cephas (ooo, wow, he’s even using his nick name- the Rock, here comes the praise) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned... he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy” - Galatians 2:11-13

Huh....not exactly what I was expecting.  Paul condemns Peter as a hypocrite.  He says that while Paul followed Jesus’ teachings about eating with the gentiles for a while, he eventually went back to the practice of only eating with fellow Jews.  And Peter preached to the church in Galacia that they should do the same-  they need to keep kosher and only associate with others who keep kosher.

Now isn’t this the very Peter who had a vision from God about it being ok to eat anything?  What is going on here?  Jesus had a table that was open for all, why is Peter closing it?  What is going on with this rock of faith?

Perhaps Peter earned the nickname for other reasons.  Perhaps the reason Peter was called Rock was that he was so stubborn that even a vision from God could only move him for a bit, before he resettled in his place.  Peter just seemed to be so sure about his ways, about his belief that being holy meant, in part, being circumcised and keeping kosher.  And, he certainly had a lot of evidence to support him-  remember- Jesus was a faithful Jew.  He was circumcised and most likely followed the the dietary law.  None of his critics accuse him of it.  So, why should Peter be swayed?  Yes, God gave him a vision, but apparently Peter’s faith was too strong to be swayed.  Even God could not induce lasting doubt in Peter.

So, what is faith then?  Is it keeping to the courage of our convictions, being the rock in a storm?  Or is it in expressing and exploring our doubts?  Rather than seeing doubt as something to fear, perhaps it can also “be celebrated as a vital part of our faith.”  Perhaps it is only in that environment that we can be open to the movement of the Holy spirit and can make a real decision.

Let’s take an example of two couples getting married.  One comes and says, “we are sooo looking forward to getting married.  We just know we are perfect for each other.  We will be married our entire lives and it will be blissful.”

Well, what do you say married couples?  Clearly, they are delusional!  Marriage is hard.  But, if you believe that all will be perfect, of course you will get married without doubting.  If a marriage only means bliss until death, is there a real decision here?

The other couple come and say-  “Well, we’ve decided to finally make the leap and get married.  Look, we know it is going to be hard.  And we certainly aren’t perfect.  Looking around in the world, we know there is a pretty decent chance this marriage may not stand the test of time.  But we love each other, and we want to give it a shot.”

Now here is a couple with their feet firmly planted on the ground.  They enter into marriage knowing full well the difficulties they might face.  “This is the very point when a real decision needs to be made....To decide for marriage knowing that all manner of things may conspire against the union is to make a truly daring and authentic decision.”  It’s to get married with one’s eyes wide open.

Let us engage in faith with our eyes wide open.  Let's not force them shut and cling tight, let our eyes be open to the way the spirit is moving among us.  Only a genuine faith can embrace doubt, can explore it, and be open to transformation.  Because it is when we are open, when we are honest, and when we express our concern, that Jesus Christ can appear to us, and say Peace.