Friday, May 4, 2018

“Living With the Questions” - APril 8, 2018

Text: John 20:19-31

Last Sunday morning, the choir processed in to that great Easter hymn, there were lilies and tulips and daffodils all around and even noisemakers.  There was the excitement of Easter.  But that was then, and this is now.  Now, those Easter eggs aren’t nearly so exciting.  Now, those chocolate eggs are gone, leaving only foil wrappers in their wake.  Now, the extended family has gone back home – or maybe you are the family who has come back home.

On Easter, we can get caught up in the excitement.  But the Alleluias fade, and that is where we meet Thomas.  Thomas is not part of the glorious celebration of Easter.  Thomas is just trying to make it through another day, just trying to get by in a crazy, mixed-up world where things have lately become very confusing and frightening. 

He sounds kind of like us, doesn’t he?

When we left the disciples last Sunday, Mary Magdalene had met Jesus at the empty tomb and returned to share the news: “I have seen the Lord!”  But the other disciples had a hard time believing Mary’s news.  They were together that evening, still in fear, behind locked doors, when Jesus appeared among them. 

“Peace,” he said.  “Shalom.”  It was the common greeting.  But then he said it again, for emphasis.  “Seriously – peace be with you.”  The disciples had been through the wringer emotionally and spiritually.  And Jesus proclaims peace on them, meaning life and hope and well-being and wholeness and security.  He continued by saying, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

Imagine that you are in the disciples’ shoes, having seen your friend and leader and teacher arrested and killed.  You are fearful for your own life, but now you somehow see Jesus again.  What a swirl of emotions.  And in the midst of all of that, the forces that led to Jesus’ crucifixion were still at work.  How was peace even possible?  Peace was made possible through the Spirit.  “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says.

The spirit made peace possible.  It helped to bringing about community.  And it was missional – Jesus gives the disciples a charge, sending them out.  Knowing what the world had done, how could they possibly go out into the world?  They did so by the power of the Spirit.

And then, speaking to the disciples on that Sunday night,  Jesus made this statement that has always bothered me and that we usually want to just glide right past.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  It sounds like way too much power and that there would be a lot of potential for abuse.  “Ok, you are forgiven, you are not forgiven, you – I’ll think about it.”

Actually, there isn’t a Greek word that translates exactly as our English word forgive.  The word Jesus uses here means “let it go.”  If you let go of sins, they are gone; if you hold on to them, they are held on to.

The sense here is really holding to account.  If someone acts abusively and they are forgiven, and they abuse again and are forgiven again and it keeps happening, that is not forgiveness as much as it is enabling.  Jesus is saying don’t turn a blind eye to wrongdoing.  Don’t keep saying “let it go” to hurtful behavior.

But then, there is a time for letting go and when we do, it means that the wrongdoing no longer defines the future.  Forgiveness helps to make possible a new future.

They may seem odd, but we need to think about Jesus’ words in context.  Jesus said these words to the community, to a group of disciples who were being sent out.  Instead of a few holy people having secret powers to forgive or not forgive, Jesus is commissioning his disciples to go out and speak prophetically, holding to account sin, but also to offer grace and God’s forgiveness – a letting go of the past that makes possible a new future.  And this mission is possible by the gift of the Spirit.

All of this happens on Sunday evening.  Think about all the disciples had been through.  Think about how powerful this moment must have been.  But Thomas was not there that evening.  We’re not sure where he was or what he was up to.  Whatever the details, wherever he was, Thomas was not there.  But the other disciples told him all about it.  I’m sure they relived every little detail.

Now it is not that Thomas thought everybody was conspiring to pull one over on him.  He didn’t necessarily doubt that they believed it.  But he needed to have his own encounter with Jesus.

What did Mary say?  “I have seen the Lord.”  What did the other disciples say?  “We have seen the Lord.”  Thomas is asking for nothing more than the others had already received.  They had seen Jesus, they had heard his voice, they had seen his scars.

He is called “Doubting Thomas,” but I think Thomas has got a bad rap all of these years.  None of the others believed based on Mary’s testimony, but we don’t call them doubters.  And we don’t call Simon “Denying Peter.”  I’m not sure why Thomas gets that label.

In some ways, it is actually admirable that he doesn’t believe.  If like the others, he had refused to believe based on Mary’s testimony, but then believed when these guys told him, Thomas would be a typical chauvinist pig who wouldn’t believe an emotional woman but would take the word of some men.  But not so; he is an equal opportunity disbeliever.  He really does want to find out for himself.

I think that Thomas would have been shocked to know that nearly 2000 years later, we would be here this morning discussing his reaction to the news that Jesus was alive.  He simply had a natural reaction to news that was not normal or natural at all.  He’s skeptical when he finds his friends all worked up about something that sounds too good to be true.

To be honest, there is a lot to like in Thomas.  Thomas wouldn’t fall for those deals that sound too good to be true.  He wouldn’t believe everything he read on the internet.  He wasn’t susceptible to scam artists.

A lot of us are like Thomas.  We value evidence.  We value science.  We value that which can be proven.  But then we come to church on Sunday.  And we worship a God whom we cannot see and who cannot be proven.  We profess faith in something that cannot be apprehended in a strictly scientific way.

And if we are honest, we will admit that there are actually a lot of things that can’t be proven like a mathematical formula, and that these are some of the most important things in life, things we absolutely depend on.  Things like faith and hope and courage and love.

We can never have life all figured out.  We will never have God all figured out.  The only way to live honestly is to live with a mixture of belief and uncertainty.  We will never have everything nailed down 100%.  We have to be able to live with the questions.

The Bible itself, in fact, is full of doubts and questions.  The Psalms are not simply God’s words to us, but also our words to God, and they contain the full range of human emotions.  The writer time and again will cry out to God, question God, and express honest doubts.  On the cross, Jesus quoted from the Psalms when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Even Jesus questioned God.

When asked about his return Jesus said, “No one knows the time, not even the Son, but only the Father.”  Even Jesus did not have all the answers.

This is the way life is – filled with both certainty and uncertainty, bedrock belief and deep questions.  Times when faith is easy and times when faith is hard.  There are those wonderful moments when it is easy to say, “Alleluia!  I know that my Redeemer lives!”  And then there are those times when faith is harder to grasp, when we’re not exactly sure what we believe, when we may wrestle with our faith.  Our lives involve searching and praying and rejoicing and wondering and struggling and believing, sometimes all at the same time.

I sat in with the Theology Class a few weeks ago.  We watched a presentation by Richard Rohr.  He was talking about levels of spiritual development and “liminal spaces.”  A liminal space is a time of transition, a place where we are on the threshold of something new, a time when things are changing.  It can also be a very difficult time, a time of doubt, a time of confusion.  Often it may be a time of pain and loss that we experience.  It can be through those kinds of times that we grow spiritually.

It was certainly that kind of time for the disciples.  It was that kind of time for Thomas.  But when we face times of doubt, times of uncertainty, even times of despair, we can come through those times with new insight, greater compassion, and a deeper faith. 

Several years ago, there was a College for Seniors class that went to a different house of worship each week to learn about the history and beliefs of that particular group.  One week, they were here at our church.  I told them all about Baptists, and in the course of it tried to explain about the numerous varieties of Baptists and how they were different.  It didn’t take long for me realize that I was probably confusing a lot of people.  They wanted to hear, “This is what Baptists believe and this is what Baptists do,” and I was saying, “Well, some believe this and some believe that and maybe even within a particular congregation, not everyone will be in agreement.” 

One person couldn’t believe that we didn’t use the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, and I tried to explain that most Baptists would not have a problem with what is contained in the creeds and we might even recite a creed occasionally, but it’s just that we are not real big on an external authority mandating faith.  Baptists sometimes say “We have no creed but the Bible.”  Of course that begs the question of what does the Bible say, but it’s a statement Baptists sometimes use.

Actually, there are Baptist statements of faith, but they are intended to describe what we generally believe, more than to prescribe what we have to believe or state what we have to sign on the dotted line.

The individual freedom and responsibility that we stress – freedom and responsibility to search, to explore, to believe, to decide for myself, to commit my life - is part of what I like about being a Baptist.  And maybe it is part of what I like about Thomas.  It’s not that he didn’t appreciate the witness of his friends.  He just needed to decide this for himself, on his own terms.

Of course, deciding for ourselves and making our faith our own faith can be risky.  Because all by ourselves, we can wind up off course.  By ourselves, we can end up out in left field somewhere.  That is why we always need to balance individual belief and personal faith with the fellowship and support and encouragement and accountability of the community.

It is very interesting that while Thomas does not yet believe, he is still there the next Sunday evening.  I love this.  Part of the value of the community of believers is that sometimes, when we can’t believe or we’re not sure of what to believe, or we’re too tired or too hurting or too weak or too depressed to believe much of anything, others can carry us and be there for us and maybe even believe for us.

The best place for us to struggle with hard questions, the best place to be honest about our doubts and to honestly seek answers is in the Church.  And so as a church, we need to be sensitive to those who are struggling, sensitive to those who are seeking.  We need to be mindful of those who don’t have it all figured out.  Which, if we are honest, includes every single one of us.

Being faithful, if nothing else, means being honest with God and honest with ourselves.  If we can’t be honest about our doubts, we can’t be honest about our believing.  If we can’t be honest about our doubts, we can’t be honest about our faith.  It strikes me that we hold back on expressing questions and we also hold back on expressing our faith.

Thomas sets the bar pretty high, but he gets the answers he needs.  And who in John’s gospel do you suppose makes the greatest confession of faith, the highest expression of belief in Jesus?  Of course, it is Thomas.  Thomas says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”  In all the gospels, this is the highest expression of Jesus’ identity.

Thomas wants answers, and he gets them.  But in the end, he makes a leap of faith, just as we are called to do. 

We don’t always find the answers we want, certainly not in as dramatic a way as Thomas did.  The life of faith involves trusting in God, living in relationship with God and others, and following the light that we have, even as we live with those questions that are not easily answered.

According to tradition, the apostle Thomas traveled to India, to the city of Madras, and led people there to belief in Christ.  The church that grew in that place, the Mar Thoma Christian Church, has survived 2000 years of persecution as a minority religion.  The church developed a worship life and liturgy without any written word.  Imagine the surprise of Portuguese missionaries who arrived in the 17th century and found that Christian faith was already alive and well, even though the Mar Thomas Christians had never heard of such a thing as the Bible!  What a legacy to leave behind: one who would not believe without seeing leaves a church that does believe, even without the scriptures.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  He was speaking of us, questions and all.  Amen.

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