Obstacles to Church Growth

God abhors you

I believe there are two primary obstacles to church growth these days, two obstacles that prevents people from being baptized.

1)       Some believe their sins are so great, that they are outside of the boundaries of God’s love. Or, they at least they believe they will be treated that way if they go to church.

2)       Some believe no one is outside of the boundaries of God’s love, but they believe most churches today believe that some people are.

This is why I believe the 21stcentury church needs to pay careful attention when this Ethiopian Eunuch asks Phillip if there is anything preventing him from being baptized.

Which begs another question, “Are we doing something, or are we not doing something, that is preventing people today from coming to Jesus?”

I believe Acts chapter 8 has much to teach us on this subject, especially those of us who are trying to do church in 2018.

Verse 26 of chapter 8 reads:

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go…:

One obstacle that I believe stands in the way of people coming to Jesus is that we have forgotten our call to “get up and go” to meet people where they are. Too many Christians these days are sitting back, expecting people to come to us.

And not only do we need to get up and meet them where they are, out on the road, even on a wilderness road, we are to meet them where they are, period.

The problem is that churches too many churches not only expect people to come to them, but they expect them to come in a manner that meets their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come to them that look like them, behave like them, and believe like them.

Let’s face it, excluding the other seems to be something that comes very naturally for us. I think if we are honest, we would admit, that we would much rather be around people who are a lot like us.

Some have said that it may be part of our evolutionary DNA. It’s some inborn, natural instinct of survival. Fear the different. Beware of the other. Trust no foreigner. Avoid the outsider. So we instinctively put up these barriers all sorts of obstacles.

But this is what fuels racism. It supports white nationalism and isolationism. It builds walls, discriminates, excludes and demeans the other.

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he talks about the dangers of being led by the flesh and not by the Spirit. Because we human beings can easily be led by the flesh. A false prophet or Anti-Christ-like leader can quite easily stoke the fear of the outsider that is inside all of us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a stable genius to lead us  to hate the other.

However, the Spirit leads us to take a higher road.

Notice that Luke tells us that the Spirit had to urgePhilip, the Spirit had to push Philip, pull Philip, to get up and go to this chariot to meet this Eunuch from Ethiopia.

Philip, I know this may be hard for you. I know this may be against your natural inclination. But go to this chariot and meet this stranger foreigner, this victim of bad religion who had been ostracized from the community of faith, this one demeaned and exploited for his sexuality, this one who has been clobbered by the Bible by those who arbitrarily pick and choose scripture passages like Deuteronomy 23:1 that says Eunuchs are forbidden to enter the temple, this one who has been taught his entire life that he is despised by God. Go to his chariot and meet him where he is. Do not stand above him or over him. Do not judge him or condemn him. Join him. Get into the chariot and sit beside him. Ride alongside him. Engage him. Listen to him. Learn from this other, this stranger, this foreigner.

I believe there are thousands of people living here in Fort Smith who are not here this morning, who are not worshipping in any church, because the church simply refuses to be urged by the Spirit to go out with love and grace to meet people where they are, especially those considered to be outsiders.

Philip meets the Eunuch who is reading from the book of Isaiah. This should not surprise us. For this is one of the most hopeful books in the Hebrew Bible for those who have been marginalized by sick religion, for those who have been taught that they are despised by God. Imagine the hope that burned in this Eunuch’s heart when he read the following words we find in Isaiah 56:

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
beside those already gathered.

Philip heard him reading from Isaiah and asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Eunuch responded: “How can I understand it unless someone interprets it for me?

What a great question! What a better place this world would be if more people understood that the Bible needs to be interpreted.

I do not believe God ever intended for people, on his or her own, to pick up the Bible, and arbitrarily lift scripture passages out of their contexts, and try to understand it or follow it. I believe this is one of the reasons that churches are in decline today. Too many Christians are using the Bible out of context to support all kinds of hate and injustice.

And because of that, there are countless people in this world, countless people in this community, who are the victims of sick religion. They feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the church. They have been taught their entire lives that God despises them. They have no idea that God loves them and has a future for them— All because no one has interpreted the Bible pointing to the Jesus who came into the world, not to condemn the world by to save the world, to love the world.

The eunuch then began to read from chapter 53:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.

Then Eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’

The Eunuch was asking: Who is this one was also ostracized and marginalized by others, as I have been? Who is this who was led like a sheep to be slaughtered? Who is this one who has been humiliated and denied justice? Who is this who had his life taken from him? Who is this one who is just like me? Who is this one who relates to me so well, who understands my pain, who knows my heartache, who empathizes with my sufferings? Is it Isaiah? Or is it someone else?

Then, Philip tells the eunuch the good news. The one who understands your pain, the one who knows your heartache, who empathizes with your sufferings is none other than Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The one who relates to you, identifies with you, and because of that, loves you, welcomes you, accepts you, and forgives you like none other, is the very one that others said despised you.

When the Eunuch heard this good news about Jesus, the words of the prophet became not only hope for the future, but good, glad, certain news for the present:

For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Suddenly, the barriers fell. Walls crumbled. Obstacles disappeared. And the very doors of the Kingdom of Heaven swung wide open.

It is then the Eunuch, this one who had no name and no future, but now has an everlasting name exclaims, “Look here is water! What is to prevent me then from being baptized?”

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

And the church grew.

Let us pray together.

O God, help us to get up and go out to meet people where they are (not where we might want them to be) meeting them without judgment, without condemnation. Guide us always interpret the scriptures in the light of Christ, sharing the good news of his unreserved love, unconditional acceptance, and unearned forgiveness with all people. And all means all. Amen.

Invitation to Communion

The bread is ready, the cup is filled, the table is set for all people.

Let all who are hungry for the love of God, come and be fed.

There are no hurdles standing before you. There no walls to climb over, no hoops to jump through, no obstacles to go around.

Let all who are thirsty for new life, come and share the cup.

There is nothing preventing you.

Let all who want to follow Jesus, come and join the feast.

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Love One Another

Tolerate

1 John 3:16-24 NRSV

It the Fourth Sunday of Easter, like the very first disciples we have gathered together on the first day of the week to be with our family of faith.  Why? There are certainly a lot of other places we could be this morning.  But here we are.  We are here, together as a community of faith, because like the very first disciples, we have seen the risen Lord!

Somewhere along the way, probably during some of our weakest moments, those moments of pain and despair, those moments of great anxiety and fear, those moments of hunger and thirst, when we needed him the most, the risen Christ showed up. He inexplicably came into our lives, stood in our presence, and filled us with a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding.

So here we are, gathered together on this first day of the week, assembled in this place as those who have seen the risen Christ, as those who have experienced the marks of his suffering. We’re here because we believe in Easter. We believe in the wonderful good news that Christ is alive and, even more than that, he is alive for us.

So here we are.  Now the question is: what are we supposed to do? How are we to live as Easter people?

There is no more direct answer to this important question than the answer that is found in the book we call 1 John.

When I was in seminary, I had to take two semesters of Biblical Greek and at least one semester of Hebrew. In my first year of Greek, the first book of the New Testament that our professor had us to translate was 1 John.

Why 1 John?  Because in all the New Testament, the Greek in 1 John is the most simple and direct. There are no complex, convoluted arguments, no long clauses or other linguistic difficulties that make the translation of some of the other New Testament books a nightmare. 1 John is simple and to the point. In fact, I can sum up the entire book in basically three words: “Love One Another.”

Three of the most simple, most direct, but at the same time, most difficult and complex words ever put together in one command. Yet, this is how God expects believers in the risen Christ to respond to Easter.

Love one another. It is difficult and complex because the “one another” we are supposed to love is not just our friends and family, but also those who have misused and mistreated us. We are commanded to love those who look, believe, behave, and live differently than we.

So, although we have this direct commandment to love one another, we still think, “Surely God must have meant something else.” For it really doesn’t make any sense. We don’t even think it is possible. And let’s face it. There are just some people in this world that are impossible to love.

We can understand God saying something like, “You know, in this fragmented world of sinners, let us learn to live with each other.”  Now that’s a good commandment! Despite our differences, let’s just get along! Live and let live.

What about “Be tolerant.”  I like that commandment.  I don’t have to like him, but I guess I can somehow tolerate him. I suppose I can in someway put up with her.

What about “love the sinner and hate the sin.” Ooh, that’s a good one! I can love ‘em, and at the same time, I can hate everything about them! I am pretty sure I can handle that.

How about, “Let bygones be bygones.” I like that. We’ve got to move on. We can’t nurture our resentment forever. It’s not healthy. We need to get over it. Although that is sometimes easier said than done, I think I can obey that commandment.

But the scriptures say considerably more than that. “Love one another.” And here in 1 John, it is a direct command.

Unable to obey this command, many today have reduced our faith to some sort of selfish, personal and private spirituality. People are fond of calling themselves “spiritual.” And when they say they love one another, I suspect they are only talking in some spiritual sense that is never fleshed out in a tangible way. 1 John reminds us that we need to recover a love that compels us to physically lay down our lives for one another, never refusing to help a brother or sister we see in need. We need to love, not in word or speech by in truth and action.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, puts it this way: “If you say you are full of the Holy Spirit, but if your spirit doesn’t lead you to speak up against injustices and oppression, then your spirit is suspect.”

Yesterday, I counseled a couple planning getting married. I pointed out that nowhere in the ceremony will the minister ever ask you if you are “in love with one another.” As if love is some kind of spiritual thing. No, you will be asked, “Will you love? Do you promise to love?” Because love is not a feeling. Love is action.

This summer, I will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the day that I promised before God and a congregation to love Lori. Thirty years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a long time.  And I know, so before she says it, I’ll say it for her—it’s been even longer for Lori.

When you really love another, you have this wonderful capacity to always look at best that is in that another. I know Lori does that with me, or she wouldn’t be with me today. When I do all those things that annoy her, that get on her last nerve, she somehow has the ability to look past it. And in so doing, my weaknesses, my quirks, and all of my shortcomings grow small, while my virtues, the few that I have, grow large. That is love.

Love necessitates that no matter what the other has done to disappoint us or hurt us, we focus on the positives. Love compels us to look for mitigating circumstances or to devise strategies whereby we earnestly attempt to see the other in the very best light.

If another hurts us, love compels us to ask ourselves questions like, “I wonder what’s going on in his or her life that made him or her treat me this way?” or “I have certain ways about me that antagonize others. I wonder how I antagonized him?” or “I have gotten a lot of good breaks in my life. I wonder what bad breaks she got that makes her view me in this way?”

Because once we decide that love is not an option, once a war begins, once we decide that we can’t look past another’s shortcomings, we free ourselves to demonize the other. In war, all moral bets are off. Once the shooting starts, we free ourselves to only see the worst in the other. You know the old saying?  In war, we actually kill our enemies twice.  First, we kill any shred of humanity in them, and then we kill them with bullets.

But First John tells us to love one another. This means that when we are wronged, all moral bets are not called off.  In fact, according to this ethic, it is precisely when we are wronged that the true moral test begins.  Elsewhere, the scriptures remind us that if we love those who show love to us, what is that?

Why are we commanded to love this way?  Why does Easter demand such a thing?

Because when the risen Christ showed up, when he came to us offering us a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding, we realized that although we had betrayed, denied and abandoned God, God, in Christ, loves us.

God not only puts up with us, gets along with us, tolerates us, but God loves us. God doesn’t love us and hate our sin, because love doesn’t keep account of our wrong doings. God looks past our failures. God sees the very best that is about us, and then calls that best that is within us all to come out. God loves us, and therefore commands us to love one another. “If I have loved you, then you should love others.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do!

When they mistreat us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they use us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they hate us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are unlovable, we’re going to love ’em.

When they belong to another faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have no faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have polar opposite political views, we’re going to love ’em.

When their sexuality differs from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are differently abled, we’re going to love ’em.

When their race, ethnicity, language or citizenship differ from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re sick, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re hungry, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re afraid, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re lonely, we’re going to love ’em.

For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, we’re going to love ’em, because we have seen the risen Lord. We’re going to love ’em, because we believe in Easter. We’re going to love ’em because we’ve experienced a divine, unconditional love— A love that demands us, compels us, and commands us to love one another in truth and in action.  Let us pray together.

O God, teach us how to love as you have loved us. Teach us to love the unloved and the unlovable. Teach us to see others as you see them; teach us to see ourselves in the light of your forgiving, forbearing love.  In the name of the risen Christ we pray.  Amen.

 

Invitation to the table

As we come to these moments of communion, none of us is “pure and blameless.” But because of the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus lavishly showered on each one of us, we can come to the table of the Lord without fear or hesitation, trusting that God’s grace revealed in Jesus creates a welcome space for all to come, confessing and trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

The Jesus Fish

Hell coming

Luke 24:36-48 NRSV

Our scripture lesson this morning has always intrigued me, especially the picture of the resurrected Christ asking for and eating piece of broiled fish.

When I was growing up, my Baptist church had a week of revival every August. We had services Sunday Night through Friday night, and concluded the revival with a fish fry on Saturday.

Six long nights: 30 minutes of singing; one hour of preaching; and then thirty more minutes of altar call. It was hot. It was humid. It was more scary.

The guest preachers would always preach that heaven or hell is coming, and it’s coming sooner than later, so we better get ready! Although I’d never really feared going to hell; as a nine, ten, eleven-year old, going to heaven was not a place I wanted to go to anytime soon.

The only thing that got me through the week, and I suspect a few others, was that big, delicious fish fry that awaited us on Saturday.

Every year, without exception, preachers would frighten us with their heaven-or-hell-is-right-around-the-corner sermons. However, I remember that one preacher preached a particular sermon that made me feel a lot better about going to heaven.

It was Friday night, and bless his heart, I suppose he was trying to connect the revival service with the fish fry that everyone was looking forward to the next day.

He said that one of the most appropriate things we can do at the end of these services is to have a fish fry. He said: “After all, most of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. And Jesus called the disciples ‘fishers of men.’”

He also pointed out that the early Christians used the Greek word translated “fish” as an acronym for the first letters Greek words translated “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” and how the sign of the fish was used to identify Christian communities, especially during the time when the church was persecuted.

But he did not get my full attention until he said: “But the reason that our fish fry tomorrow is especially appropriate is because when we all get to heaven with our new resurrected bodies, we are going to eat fish with Jesus, because after Jesus was resurrected, Jesus ate fish!”

For the very first time all week, I wanted to jump out of my pew and shout: “Amen! Brother, preach it!” Because that preacher answered one of those deep theological questions that no one could answer for me, a question that was more important than: “If God created the world, who created God?” or “Who was Cain’s wife? or “Did Adam and Eve have bellybuttons?”

He answered the all important: “Are we going to be able to eat in heaven?” The answer is a resounding yes! We are going to be able to eat fish! And for someone who loved to eat, and especially loved eating seafood, it took the fear of dying right away.

I really like this interpretation; however, I am pretty sure Luke, through the telling of this story, is trying to teach us something more.

Last Sunday, one of you asked me: “Isn’t Tilapia what they call ‘the Jesus fish?’” That really got me thinking about our scripture lesson this morning. What kind of fish did Jesus eat? And, what was the risen Christ trying to teach the disciples, and teach us, by asking for and eating a piece of broiled fish? Do you suppose Jesus, in his new resurrected body, was hungry? After all, from all we know, he hasn’t had anything to eat since that Thursday evening in the upper room.

To answer these questions, like all biblical questions, it is always important to put the story in its context.

The disciples had disappointed Jesus, and they knew it. The disciples had failed Jesus, and it was obvious. The disciples had forsaken Jesus, and they were cowering. For thirty pieces of silver, one of them betrayed Jesus with a kiss and then took his own life. One of them denied three times even knowing who Jesus was. To save their own necks, to avoid carrying a cross themselves, all of them in some way had abandoned Jesus in his hour of need.

And now they have received news that Jesus had come back from the grave. Which meant that he was probably coming straight for them. And considering their great failure at discipleship, they just knew that if he was coming, he was bringing hell with him!

“While they were talking about this…”

Can you imagine their conversation? “What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? How do we hide?”

John tells us the doors of the house where the disciples had gathered were locked for fear of the Jews. Perhaps the name of one of those Jews was Jesus.

It is then,

Jesus himself stood among them… They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Notice that they were not only “startled,” they were “startled and terrified.”

I bet they were!  Like a ten-year old at a Baptist revival! For I am sure that in that moment they just knew that heaven or hell was right around the corner!

But then, notice what happens next. Jesus does not point out their failures. He doesn’t mention their denials, their betrayal, their abandonment. He does not shame them, guilt them or say anything to elicit any feelings remorse whatsoever for their bad behavior.

There are no words of judgment or condemnation. Jesus doesn’t give them a sermon on how they should have been better or even how they could do better.

Jesus surprises them and surprises us by saying, “Peace be with you.” To those who have very good reasons to be afraid, Jesus says, “Peace.”

He empathetically asks: ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

It is then where Jesus begins doing all that he can to relieve their doubts and fears. He shows them his hands and feet to prove that he was not some vengeful ghost come back to haunt them for their misdeeds.

And seeing a little joy in their eyes, but still sensing some lingering apprehension, Jesus takes it a step further and asks for something to eat. They hand him a piece of broiled fish that he eats in their presence.

He eats “in their presence.” It has been said that in sharing a meal with someone that we become most aware of who we are and with whom we are.  In the previous scripture passage, on the road to Emmaus, when was Jesus made known to them? In the breaking of the bread.

Throughout the world, sharing a meal with someone has always been understood a great act of solidarity. Thus, in eating that fish, Jesus was not only making the statement that he was not some vindictive ghost, Jesus was making the statement that he was their merciful friend. He was their gracious brother. In spite of all of their denials and betrayals, in spite of being abandoned, tortured, humiliated and crucified, Jesus still loves them and is still willing to join them at the table.

If the disciples had any doubts that their sins were forgiven, those doubts quickly vanished when Jesus took the first bite of that broiled fish.

And it quickly became apparent to the disciples that the fish Jesus asked to eat was not for him. It was for them. It was not the risen Christ who was hungry. It was the disciples who were hungry.

So, what kind of fish did Jesus eat?

It was a fish of unconditional love. It was a fish of unlimited mercy. It was a fish of radical inclusion. It was a fish of amazing grace. It was a fish that revealed nothing on earth or in heaven can ever separate us from the love of God.

It was a fish that revealed God is always willing go a step further to proclaim the good news of Easter: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

“My love for you has no end. My love for you never fails. My love does not keep an account of wrongdoing. My love is without reservations, without conditions. My love offers a grace that is greater than all sin and a peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Peace be with you, for you are my sons. You are my daughters. I have always loved you. I still love you. And I will love you forever. I will forgive you always. Peace, for I am making all things new. Fear not, for I am working all things together for the good. Do not doubt, for I am the resurrection and the life, and because I live you will also live. Peace be with you.”

The risen Christ ate fish—filling, satisfying, delicious fish—not because he was hungry, but because we are hungry.

It is very important for us to pay close attention to what happens next in our lesson: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations.”

What kind of fish did Jesus eat? He ate a fish that has the power to open minds!

Perhaps more than anything else, what the church needs are more minds that are open to understand the scriptures teach us that graceis what we are to proclaim to all nations.

Grace. Not judgment. Not condemnation. Not fear. Not shame. Not fire and brimstone. For those things never bring peace. Those things never bring healing.

It is unconditional love and peace that is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning right here, from this very place where we became witnesses to these things:

  • Where we witnessed the words of the resurrected Christ: “Peace, be with you”: words spoken to remove all fear.
  • Where we witnessed the wounds in his hands and feet: wounds that have the power to heal the world.
  • Where we witnessed the Risen Lord eating a piece of broiled fish: where we experienced a grace that will satisfy the hunger of all humanity this day and forevermore. Peace be with you. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

This is the Lord’s table. He is the host. We are his guests.

He welcomes everyone to come and eat and be nourished, fed and forgiven.

Come and eat and live!

The only people excluded from our communion table are those that Jesus himself would exclude and that is nobody.

All are welcome.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Go in courage and peace, proclaiming the Risen Lord to all!

Having witnessed unconditional love and unfettered grace,

Be a people who bring hope and justice to a hungry and hurting world!

The peace of the Lord is with you now and forever. AMEN.

Absent Thomas

More togeter

John 20:19-31 NRSV

On the very first Easter Sunday, John tells us that the disciples had gathered together in a house. The doors of the house were locked underscoring the great anxiety they were experiencing. Peter had probably reported to the disciples that Jesus’ body had apparently been stolen. So, they were all probably afraid that the ones who had stolen the body of Jesus would soon be coming after them.

The disciples are not only fearful, they were also despairing. The Jesus for whom they had left their families and all forms of security to follow was gone. The one in whom they placed all of their trust had been crucified. The one for whom they all vowed to even give up their very lives was dead, and now his body is missing.

It is then, as they were gathered together as a community of faith, Jesus shows up and speaks to them great words of comfort and assurance: “Peace be with you.”  Jesus, wanting them to know that he was the very one who was crucified, showed the disciples the wounds on his hands and in his side.  And suddenly, the disciples fear and trembling was transformed into rejoicing.

I believe this speaks volumes about the presence of the risen Lord. First of all, the presence of the resurrected Lord is always transforming. When Jesus shows up, despair is transformed into hope, fear into rejoicing, and as the wounds on his hands and in his side testify, death into life.

John also tells us that Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He then breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is why this glorious event is commonly referred to as “John’s Pentecost Story.”  For John, this is where the Church is born and commissioned.

However, in the middle of all of this rejoicing, we get our first inkling that something is wrong. It is here we read that sometimes dreaded conjunction: “but.”

ButThomas, who was one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  All of the disciples were gathered together in community with their family of faith—all of them, except Thomas.

We can only guess where he was—somewhere perhaps out on his own; someplace withdrawn, somewhere isolated, in some private sanctuary. We just know he was absent from his community of faith.

Later, when the disciples find Thomas and tell him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas responds with those infamous words that has given him the nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.”

We like to call him “Doubting Thomas.” However, when you think about it, that is really an unfair designation, because Thomas is really no different from the other disciples. Thomas is not asking for anything more than the other disciples received on that first Easter. The only thing that makes Thomas different from the others is that he was not present with his community of faith when they gathered on Sunday morning. He’s not so much a “doubting Thomas” as he is an “absent Thomas.” The risen Christ showed up as the disciples gathered together in community, and absent Thomas missed it all!

No, we really don’t know why Thomas was absent on that Sunday. But those of us who have been a part of the church could certainly guess, couldn’t we?

Have you ever been tempted to stay home on Sunday morning? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t need those people down at the church to experience God! After all, there are people there who have hurt my feelings. There are people there who get on my nerves. I can experience God better on my back porch, taking a walk in a park, or watching the sunrise all by myself.”

Maybe Thomas was tired of the politics, tired of being around people who were all about power and control. Maybe he was tired of all the self-absorbed arguments about who was going to be seated where in the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe he was simply sick of being around people who were constantly disappointing Jesus—people who could never follow through with their commitments, keep their promises, fulfill their obligations. Maybe he was tired of all of the back-biting, manipulation, resentment, and jealousy. And perhaps he was sick and tired of the way he personally kept failing, kept making mistakes, kept falling short.

So when Sunday came around, Thomas stayed home. Thomas decided that he could worship God better on his back porch with a cup of coffee and a sunrise. And who could blame him?

But here’s the problem.

In staying home on Sunday, in avoiding community, in missing church, Thomas not only missed the transforming presence of the risen Lord and missed his commissioning to be the church in this world,

but in verse 26 we read, that Jesus did not appear to Thomas until “a week later.”

Think about that. A whole week later. Thomas, the only disciple who missed seeing Jesus, the only one who missed the transforming power of the risen Christ, the only one who missed the commissioning of the Holy Spirit, did not receive a personal, private visit from Jesus on Monday morning. He didn’t get a phone call on Tuesday, or a card in the mail on Wednesday letting him know he was missed. There was no text message on Thursday, no email on Friday or facebook post on Saturday.

Thomas had to wait an entire week—until when? When the disciples were again gathered together in community. For it is in community where we experience the Risen Christ.

Listen again to verse 26. “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” I bet he was!

And just like the week before with the other disciples, Jesus gives Thomas what he needs to experience the fullness of his transforming presence. Jesus says 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.” And this time, not so much because Thomas had stopped questioning, stopped doubting, but because Thomas was present, because he was in community, the risen Lord gave Thomas what he needed to exclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

One of the biggest problems with the church today is not doubt, but a belief that the gospel can be lived a part form community.

The Christian faith today is that it has been moderated to a private, personal transaction between the individual and God. The community-organizing, campaign-building, forward-marching, culture-challenging gospel of Jesus that hast the power to face and transform the world and it’s troubles has been reduced to an individual’s personal ticket to leave this world and its troubles behind.

Our faith has become more about a personal relationship with God and less about a going on a public mission with God. It has become more about worshiping Jesus in the heart and less about following Jesus in the world.

But it was Jesus who announced the gospel by saying:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free… (Luke 4:18).

As follower of Christ, this is our mission. And there’s is just no we can accomplish this mission alone, by ourselves, watching the sunrise or walking our dog in the park.

Because the gospel of Jesus is not good news to the individual. It is good news to the poor.

The gospel of Jesus is not about the release of an individual’s soul. It is about speaking out to release all who are held captive, physically, systemically and spiritually.

The gospel of Jesus is not about an individual closing their eyes in thoughts and prayers to the troubles of this world. It is about possessing eyes that are wide-open to the world’s problems and having the power to come together to do something about it.

The gospel of Jesus is not about individual freedom. It is about coming together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, leaning on one another and on God, while working for the liberty and justice of all.

It is only by coming together as a community that we become who we were created to be as human beings and called to be as disciples of Christ. Our faith in the risen Christ is personal, but it is never private. It is through our coming together, that we experience the fullness of the presence of the risen Lord and are given the power transform the world.

The church is far from perfect. There can be power plays, accusations, denials and desertion. There’s apathy, jealousy, resentment and failure. There’s cowardice, compromise, manipulation, selfishness, intolerance, and malicious words. This is the way it has always been, even with the first group of disciples.

However, when we come together in the name of Christ, something miraculous happens that we call Easter. In spite of all of our imperfections and sin, the risen Christ shows up. He gives us what we need to believe. And we are transformed. And then we are commissioned to transform the world.

A Day for Fools

fool

John 20:1-18 NRSV

For the very first time in my lifetime, Easter is on April Fools Day, which presents the preacher with the perfect opportunity to point out the foolishness of it all.

The Apostle Paul outrageously asserts:

“The way of the cross is foolishness” to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

We witnessed some of the foolishness last week. Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Savior of the World, arrives in the capital city, not on a powerful war horse, not on a white stallion, not in a royal entourage, but bouncing in on the back of a borrowed donkey.

I believe ne of the most troubling things about our faith is the attempt by the church to try to deny or even conceal the foolishness of the gospel. Ashamed of to be labeled a fool, there is this tendency to take the all of the foolishness that is inherent in the gospel and re-package it as just another brand of worldly wisdom, common sense, something on which all Americans easily accept and agree.

A recent survey by Bill McKibben reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”[i]  However, that statement is from deist Ben Franklin; not the Bible.[ii] In fact, “God helps those who help themselves” is one of the most unbiblical ideas. It is Jesus who made the dramatic counter assertion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But, deep down we prefer Ben Franklin don’t we?  Doesn’t sound so foolish.

Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, writes: “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd. Remove from Christianity its ability to shock, and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry.” He goes on to name a few of Jesus’ shocking and foolish assertions: “Blessed are the meek; love your enemies; go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.”[iii]

Listen to some of the most popular preachers today. Christianity is not about absurdity; it’s about positive thinking. It’s about how to be successful and happy and satisfied and effective at home, at work and at play, in marriage, in friendships, and in business. There is no cross bearing. No Jesus bounding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. No foolishness. It’s no wonder the church today looks more like a country club than it does the living body of Christ.

Perhaps this tendency to rationalize the gospel has been with us since day one. Just listen to Mary and the way she rationalizes that first Easter morning when she saw that the stone had been removed.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple…and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb…

Of course this is what must have happened. Anyone with a lick of common sense can deduce this. It would be foolish to believe anything else!

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

A very reasonable thing to do in this situation.

As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white…

They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

“And I do not know…”

She almost confesses to her problem right there, that she “does not know,” but it becomes obvious she is still grounded in earthly wisdom, still constrained by common sense.

“I don’t know where they have laid him.”

“When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus

Of course it’s not Jesus. That would be absurd.

1Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener…

Of course he’s probably the gardener. That’s just good common sense.

 She says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

A rational request, a reasonable appeal.

But the good news is that the risen Christ is continually liberating us from the restrictions of rational thought, reasonable assertions, and all of the limitations of human reason!

The Risen Christ is continually breaking the restraints of common sense, pushing the boundaries of human logic. He is continually calling us out of the world that we have all figured out to live in a new realm that many would regard as foolish.

And notice how is does it. He breaks the barriers of worldly wisdom, the presuppositions that Mary has of what is going on in this world and not going on in this world, by calling her by name.

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

And for Mary, this is the moment she takes a great stride into the absurd, the moment her whole world is suddenly transformed. This is the moment Mary began walking by faith and not by sight.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes these words:

[Jesus] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

The Apostle Paul is writing about a miraculous change that has been wrought in his life because of the change that has been wrought in the world through God in Jesus Christ.

Paul is saying that at one time he understood Christ with the wisdom of mortals—as a great teacher, a fine moral example.

But now he is able to see in the death and resurrection of Christ, a radical shift in the entire world. In Christ, a new age has been inaugurated. The whole world has changed. Just as God brought light out of darkness in creation, God has now recreated the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

This is what the great theologian Moltmann was trying to point out when he said,

“We have attempted to view the resurrection of Christ from the viewpoint of history. Perhaps the time has come for us to view history from the viewpoint of the resurrection!”

Paul was saying that when Jesus was raised from the dead, the whole world had shifted on its axis. All was made new.

This is exactly what happened to Mary when the risen Lord called her by name.

 Mary recognizes the risen Christ, turns and says to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

And Mary experienced a transformation that was so real, that she was compelled to announce it to the world: “I have seen the Lord!”

You know, it’s one thing to experience something that you know the whole world thinks is foolish. But it takes foolish to a whole other level when you go out and share that something with the world.

But that is just what people who have experienced the good news of Easter do.

That is why on this April 1, when some look at us gathered here, praying and singing, preaching and baptizing, and say that everything that we are doing here today only confirms their preconceptions that this day is a day for fools, we smile, and we respond: “You have no idea just how foolish we are!”

How foolish? You ask.

Oh, we’re foolish enough!

  • We’re foolish enough to believe that the only life worth living is a life that is given away.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe those who hunger and thirst for justice will be filled.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe the last shall be first.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that all things work together for the good.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that this world can be a better place.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that character still counts, morality still matters, and honesty is still a virtue and all three are still possible.

And we are foolish enough to take foolish to whole other level!

  • We’re foolish enough to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  • We’re foolish enough to forgive seventy times seven.
  • We’re foolish enough to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the very shirt off our back.
  • We’re foolish enough to feed the hungry, love an enemy, welcome a stranger, visit a prison, befriend the lonely.
  • We’re foolish enough to stand up for the marginalized, defend the most vulnerable, and free the oppressed.
  • We’re foolish enough to call a Muslim our brother.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that someone with Cerebral Palsy can run a marathon.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe students can build an affordable house for a family who struggles to make ends meet.
  • We’re foolish enough to get back up when life knocks us down.
  • We’re foolish enough to never give up, never give in, and never give out.
  • We’re foolish enough to believe that nothing can stop us, not even death.

 

Because, although it may seem absurd, Somebody loves us.

Somebody came and taught us to see the world in a brand new way.

Somebody picked up and carried a cross.

Somebody suffered.

Somebody gave all they had, even to the point of death.

Somebody arose from the grave.

And that same Somebody found us and called us by name.

 


[i]Bill McKibben, “The Christian Paradox,” Harpers Magazine, July 7, 2005.

[ii]Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by the application of reason and observation of the natural world.  Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth or religious teaching.

[iii]http://sojo.net/magazine/2007/08/foolishness-cross