“Benefit of the Doubt”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 3, 2016 • Second Sunday of Easter
The Word in Song: Christ is Risen! Sing Hallelujah!
“Benefit of the Doubt”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 3, 2016 • Second Sunday of Easter
The Word in Song: Christ is Risen! Sing Hallelujah!
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
May 18, 2014
1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-7
Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and I enjoyed a visit from my daughter’s family. When my son and daughter were young children, I told them all the time, “you are the best boy (or best girl) in the whole wide world!” And they, bless their little hearts, would respond, “And you are the best mom!” That ritual was repeated this past Sunday, but now, of course, Meg is not only the best daughter, she also is a candidate for “best” mom as well. And with two grandsons, I have to be careful that I differentiate between the two best boys. Isak is the best four year old boy, and Lukas is the best three year old boy in the whole wide world. I wouldn’t want either of them to think they were not the best for one second! I imagine in your own families there are a lot of “bests” too – best moms, best dads, best children and grandchildren.
But objectively speaking, I have no illusions about being the best mom in the whole wide world. I would never win that contest, if there were to be one. And probably, again objectively speaking, there are other little boys out there in the world who might possibly, by some stretch of the imagination, equal Isak and Lukas in the best category. In fact, some of them and they are right here in this church. The thing is these statements of superlatives – best boy, best girl, best mom, best dad – are meant personally and privately. When I say them, when you say them, we mean it within our individual families. And we are telling the truth from our own experience, knowing full well that these are personal evaluations and statements of affection, not meant to apply to the entire planet, but just for us and our relationships. The people next door, or down the street, or on the other side of the globe know the best in the whole wide world also within their families. So, these are not words of absolute, universal truth, but particular words of love and attachment meant for particular individuals.[i]
This realization has helped me to come to an understanding of today’s scripture reading, the words of Jesus to his disciple Thomas who had expressed concern about Jesus’ leaving them. “Lord,” he said, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus answered him – answered Thomas particularly—that’s how John describes it — “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Jesus had told the disciples earlier in this last conversation with them, “do not let your hearts be troubled.” But Thomas, you know – the one we’ve labeled the doubter, but who probably should better be remembered as the questioner – is troubled. He doesn’t know what to think; he’s worried about Jesus’ talk of going away. Probably the other disciples don’t have a clue about what Jesus is talking about either, but Thomas is the one who speaks up and asks for more information. “How can we know the way?” And Jesus responds directly to his personal question; just as he responded after his resurrection directly to Thomas’s need to see Jesus’ actual wounds before he could believe along with the other disciples that he was risen.
Unfortunately over the centuries, Christians have turned these words of comfort from Jesus to his questioning disciple into what some call a “clobber text,”[ii] a passage of scripture often wielded as a weapon in theological debates. They have been used to bludgeon opponents into submission and have become in some religious circles a litmus test for faith or a rallying cry for Christian triumphalism. These words of encouragement and comfort have been used to “prove” we Christians have the corner on God, and that people of other faiths are condemned.[iii] Of course, it is my personal belief that whenever we turn the Bible into a weapon against others, it ceases to be the word of God and simply becomes a tool of our own fears and desire for power and control. And nothing is more sinister than cloaking what is really our own personal anxieties and needs, in the garb of God’s word. Truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
If we put this passage into its historical setting, hopefully it becomes clear what John is trying to do for his congregation. He was writing somewhere around the year 90 or so, to a small group of believers, probably living under persecution, who had found in Jesus a revelation of the nature of God. He had become their way to God. They clung to his memory. When they heard about him, when they thought about his life, when they reflected on his deeds of kindness and mercy, when they contemplated his death and the forgiveness he offered from the cross, when they reflected on his miraculous resurrection and his return breathing peace, they knew that he was, as Paul had written earlier, “the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In life and in death Jesus was the embodiment of the unfailing love of God, consistently leading through all circumstances toward what was good and just and holy.
When John was writing these words for his little congregation, he wasn’t thinking in terms of the world’s great religions. He was thinking in terms of his small group of believers. And Jesus’ words would have been heard by them to mean, “None of you within this community will come to know God except patterning your life after mine.”
I would not be here this morning if I did not believe these words to be true for me and for our community as well. I was born into a Christian, specifically United Methodist, family and the way of Christ has been the way that I have been taught to follow since my baptism as an infant. It is my tradition; it is my heritage; it is my identity. And I believe that Jesus shows us the way we are to live; his way incarnates the truth about the nature of God; and his way of truth leads us to God and to abundant life.
Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is our way to God, but at the same time Jesus is God’s way to us.” If we follow Jesus’ way through faith, obedience, prayer, acts of kindness and mercy, and sacrificial, unselfish love, we will find our way to God. And likewise, God finds God’s way to us by revealing God’s self to us in Jesus, as John wrote at the beginning of his gospel: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory.” (John 1:14)[iv]
These words of faith are a confessional celebration of the transformation that John’s community found and our community has found through Jesus, the Christ, and the eternal life available in the here and now if we will but accept his invitation to follow. When he spoke these famous – sometimes infamous words – I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” he wasn’t speaking a warning to unbelievers. He was not thinking of Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. He was speaking encouragement to Thomas and his own disciples, his friends, the ones who knew him best, among them Peter who had already said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living god.” He wasn’t so much speaking about being the gateway to heaven as a means of excluding people from the presence of God, as he was speaking about being the inclusive model for life lived in the eternal presence of God right here today.
And this is the good news that we share with the world today. But nowhere in this great good news is the reason to believe that Christian believers are any better or more loved by God than anyone else. In our Epistle reading we heard, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Mercy is God’s to give, not ours to restrict. God’s relationship with other people is God’s business, not ours. I don’t’ know about you, but it is with great relief that I say, it is not our job to be God! God is free to act in whatever way God chooses to act, and one of these ways was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.
Our task is not then to beat other people up with the gospel, or feeling superior to them because we have it and they don’t, we’re in and they’re out. Our task rather is to love others as God in Christ loves them. But that’s hard to do. The Jesus way is not easy. In fact, Eugene Peterson calls “the Jesus way” “the most frequently evaded metaphor” in contemporary Christian culture because it goes against everything our American culture thinks of as good and successful. We give it lip service, but we don’t like to give up control; we are not satisfied in being in on God’s action and participating in what God is doing. We’d rather assume we are in charge and that God is participating in what we’re doing. But Peterson warns, we cannot insist on our own way, for when we don’t do it God’s way, we mess up the truth, and we miss out on the life.
I love the way Fred Craddock describes someone who is doing the Jesus truth in the Jesus way and is thereby living the Jesus life. He says, “I am sure all of you have known a person . . . who, when you are in his or her presence, makes you think better thoughts, live a better life, reflect on God, become more devotional, more spiritual.” . . .someone who, when you see them, by the way they are and what they do and how they relate to people, makes you think “God.”
We are called to be this kind of person. It will take work, persistence, willingness to sacrifice, forgiveness when we falter, courage to try again. And as we focus on what it means to live the Jesus way, speak his truth, and offer his life, perhaps someday, someone will see us being who we are and will say or think, “he (or she) is the best!” not meaning that we’ve won some kind of world-wide contest, but simply that by seeing us being us, they have caught a glimpse of God. May it be so for you and for me as well.
[i] Carl Gregg, “Lectionary Commentary: A Progressive Christian Reading of John 14:6,” Patheos, May 13, 2011.
[iii] Gail O’Day, Gospel of John, New Interpreters’ Bible, Vol. IX, 1995, 743.
[iv] Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 2007, 37-38.
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 27, 2014
Today is called “low Sunday” by some traditionalists in the church. Low because so many people who were here last week are absent this week, so our attendance is lower than it was. Low because we have come down from our celebratory Easter high, full of alleluias, and Christ is risen, and even the Hallelujah Chorus, which I was delighted to see was sung not only by the choir, but by the congregation as well. And finally low because we are back to normal again, although for this church determining what is normal right now is a bit difficult to pin down!
Normal is the everyday, back to usual and customary, back to what happens after the party is over, the guests have gone home, and it’s time to think about what to do next, where do we go from here. John’s story is appropriate in this context because he tells about the aftermath of the resurrection high. If you recall what happened in the 18 verses immediately preceding today’s reading, you will remember that Mary Magdalene had come to the garden early in the morning while it was still dark and had seen the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. She ran to tell the disciples, and Peter and John ran back to the tomb and found it empty with just the grave cloths remaining. In John’s gospel there are no angelic messengers with the good news, “He is not here; he is risen.” And the disciples don’t quite understand yet what they’ve seen. John says “as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.” There seems to be nothing left to do at the tomb, and so they go home. Mary Magdalene, however, stays in the garden weeping because she thinks Jesus’ body has been stolen. And that’s when she has her encounter with Jesus, mistaking him first for the gardener, but realizing who he is when he calls her by name. She then goes to the disciples and announces to them, “I have seen the Lord,” and tells them about her amazing experience.
Well, obviously it didn’t make much of an impression because when we see them next, it is the evening of that very same day – it is Easter evening — and they have locked themselves into a little room because they are afraid; they are huddled behind closed doors, lying low, getting their alibis straight, trying to figure out how to stay alive and what to do next because people are out to get them. It is not a very pretty picture. Despite the fact that in their last hours together Jesus had done his best to prepare them for life without his physical presence, it seems that they’ve forgotten everything he told them. He had encouraged them to live with confidence, devoted to God and to one another. He had urged them to be a bold presence in the world, doing deeds even greater than his own, and he’d prayed that God would unite them in one spirit.
But that is not what we see here. They are disheartened, defensive, cowering in fear, their sense of bold mission having been overwhelmed by their anxious and timid spirits. And this is John’s picture of the very earliest church on the night of resurrection. A whole bunch of nothing – not a leader among them – not a bright spot – not a hopeful word – not an inspired plan; just paralyzing fear.[i]
And then suddenly Jesus is there, standing right in the middle of them. In the midst of the void created by his absence, Jesus comes to fill the space. The first thing he says is “Peace be with you.” And then he shows them his wounds, which let them know for sure who he was. He was not that sweet, benign, every-hair-in-place, untouched-by-human-pain, floating-above-the- fray Jesus of some of our favorite artistic renderings of him; but he is “the resurrected Christ, . . . wounded, scarred, identifying with all the other wounded and scarred people on earth.” That’s how the disciples knew . . . that’s how we know . . . who he is.[ii]
The things Jesus says and does seem random perhaps, but on closer look, we can see that they each have a purpose; they each represent various aspects of the life of the church – there is blessing, and the word of peace; there is the Lord’s supper recalled in the offering of his wounds; there is baptism, with the breathing of the Holy Spirit; there is mission, sending them into the world; and there is fellowship, commending to them acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.[iii] Jesus is calling them back to their best selves; calling the church to be its best self.
This is, I think, the ongoing challenge to every church – to be our best selves because there are times when it is easy to become like those frightened disciples behind locked doors. We’ve heard that he is risen, but we don’t trust that good news enough to live into it. It is then that the risen Christ comes and says “Peace be with you,” And tells us that he is sending us out into the world to be his hands and feet, wounded and yet holy instruments of the living God. He gives us the Holy Spirit, and gives the power to forgive one another of our sins.
Without the spirit of the risen Christ at the center of what a church does, it will eventually become like this pitiful little group of discouraged disciples – defensive, anxious, empty of meaning and purpose, engaging in various activities to fill in or ignore the void created by the absence of the holy. Worship can easily become entertainment; mission can simply become social work. With Christ at the center there is humble trust, joyful praise, brave and creative mission, and a reconciled and forgiven community excited and awed by the opportunity to participate in what God is doing for the transformation of the world.
Christ-centeredness doesn’t mean that life is easy. It means that life has purpose. It doesn’t mean that everything will go our way. It means that God will help us to find a way. We know whether or not Easter has happened to us by whether or not the resurrection has made any difference in our lives. What counts is not in the end the gladness and Joy of last Sunday, but how we go about living our lives now that things are back to normal. The coming weeks and months will tell whether or not we welcomed the Risen Christ last week. If we can see the spirit of Jesus at work here as we do our work, then we will have welcomed him. If people within this place and beyond are being touched and transformed, then Christ was welcomed last week and remains with us.
But you know, one of the disciples wasn’t there the night that Jesus came and said those blessed words, “Peace be with you.” We don’t know why Thomas was absent – maybe he wanted to be alone with his sorrow; maybe he was out scouting around to see what was happening in Jerusalem. Thomas was a brave person, contrary to some depictions of him. When the disciples tell him what happened, he isn’t quick to believe. He gave them the same response that perhaps they had given Mary Magdalene when she came back with her own good news. Whatever the reason, he’s not buying it. “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself,” he says.
We often call Thomas the doubter and I have preached on this text many times before to point out that doubt can be a healthy part of the growth of our faith because it leads us to important questions which can then lead to important answers
But this morning I want us to consider another side of Thomas’s response. There is something kind of selfish – all about me-ish – in his response. Like he’s saying that nothing can be true unless he has verified it by his own experience. Nothing is true unless he believes it to be true.[iv] So he discounts their story; he rejects their testimony; he says what he feels and thinks is more real to him than the combined experience of the entire group. That’s a real slap in the face to these people with whom he has been so closely connected for the past three years. They’ve been through all kinds of incredible experiences together; they’ve known each other at their best and at their worst; they’ve bonded through their love of Jesus, and their trust in him and his message.
Here they thought they were all in it together, but now he’s denying that reality by giving more value to his singular doubt than their combined witness. And we’ve all been there at one time or another – I know I have — not ready to receive the contribution that someone else might want to make to our lives because it just doesn’t fit with what we want, with how we’d do it, with where we are at that moment.
The good news is, of course, that the disciples don’t get angry with him and kick him out of the fellowship! They may be disappointed, but they don’t give up on him. And then eight days later Jesus shows up to give Thomas what he needs. And he’s in the right place at the right time to receive it. Jesus greets Thomas with the word of peace, and then invites him to see for himself, to do exactly what he needs to do in order to believe.
Christ can come to us undeterred by our doubts, to give us a mission and purpose in life and to equip us for the job. “He comes to show us that [always] the world is greater than we think and that we are capable of more than we dreamed as we go on together.”[v] We are called to be the body of Christ together; called to be the church, and Christ will give us what we need—Spirit, Mission, and Forgiveness– in order to accomplish what he has called us to. Christ gives us everything. Church isn’t my hard work or your hard work or our long-range planning. Church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us. Do you believe that to be true? That’s why John told us this story, you know, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” May it be so for each one of us. Amen.
[i] Tom Long, “The Church with Nothing, “Whispering the Lyrics, 1995, 90.
[ii] H. Laron Hall, “I’ll Believe It When I See It,” No Darkness at All, 1994, 132.
[iii] Long, 92.
[iv] Hall, 134.
[v] Hall, 136.