United Church of Christ

Love Is a Response to Grace

Sunday, April 8, 2018
Second Sunday of Easter Year B

Focus Theme:
Love Is a Response to Grace

Focus Prayer:
Light of the world, shine upon us and disperse the clouds of our selfishness, that we may reflect the power of the resurrection in our life together. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 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." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written 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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Focus Questions:

1. How do you think the disciples spent the week between these two post-resurrection appearances?

2. Do you believe heaven is a time of remembering, or of forgetting?

3. What is overwhelming you right now, in your life? How do you respond?

4. How do you think the church went from this moment to a time when many people perceive it as "judgmental" rather than loving?

5. What do you believe we are sent to do and be in the world?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

Along with Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, and Mary (the mother of Jesus), Thomas is one of my favorite characters in the gospel story. Unfortunately, with Thomas and all of those women, we've too easily accepted what may be a misunderstanding of their motivations, actions, and attitudes: a mis-reading, perhaps, of their story, of who they are.

Thomas is familiar even in secular culture as "Doubting Thomas," and today that skepticism is vaguely associated with a "rational" mindset, or perhaps with a pessimism that questions what seems too good to be true. Fortunately, scholars help us fill out that traditional picture of Thomas, a disciple with whom we have so much in common.

Feeling overwhelmed

Church leader Craig Dykstra once described the feeling of being overwhelmed "by the sheer hugeness or complexity of something. We can't get our arms around it. We can't get it figured out. We are unable to organize it or to bring it under control. We are overwhelmed in a way that makes us feel small, weak and inadequate."

"Overwhelmed," then, is a good way to describe the disciples after Jesus died, huddled together in their fear and confusion, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher who had held them together all those long months was dead and buried, executed like a common criminal, and lying in a tomb (or so they thought). What a disappointing turn of events! With Jesus into that tomb went their hope, their vision, their sense of direction and purpose in life. They were left only with an overwhelming sense of failure, loss, and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need.

Disappointed and disillusioned

Were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves, or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high? It would be hard to "get your arms around" that kind of disappointment, to "organize" the feeling of that kind of loss, to "bring under control" that depth of shame. They must have indeed felt "small, weak and inadequate."

Then, one of the women, Mary Magdalene, was saying things that didn't make sense: that she had actually seen Jesus and had talked with him, that Jesus was alive, that he had risen from the dead just as he had promised. They didn't believe Mary's words, of course, because she was only a woman, and women, after all, aren't "rational thinkers," right?

What will happen next?

So the men didn't open up the doors and rush back to the tomb. Except for Peter and John, they stayed put and waited to see what would happen next. (Even Peter and John, after visiting the tomb, "returned to their homes.") We might find it ironic that Jesus, who had been sealed in a tomb, is free, and the disciples, who ran for their lives, are in lockdown, barricaded behind closed doors. Suddenly, astonishingly, quietly, there he was, right there, in their midst, before their very eyes. Jesus was alive.

Isn't it reasonable to assume that the disciples might have been just a little bit afraid that this was not all good news? That Jesus might be understandably angry with them for abandoning him, in Peter's case for even denying Jesus three times as he warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard, while his Lord and Savior was questioned by the religious authorities? It's frightening enough to see someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he had every reason to say, "Where were you when I needed you? What kind of faithful disciples are you, anyway? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?"

No anger, no recriminations

But that's not what happened. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment, not even an understandable expression, or "venting," of disappointment and hurt. Instead, the first words Jesus offered were both greeting and gift: "Peace be with you." He knew what was in their hearts and why they had barred the door. He saw right through them and knew that they weren't re-grouping, getting it together and deciding on their next move, that is, how they were going to carry on Jesus' legacy or spread his teaching. They were scared and hiding out.

Yet, suddenly, in the midst of their fear and confusion, there he was, not with angels, trumpets, or legions, but quietly. He brought only peace, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and a commission. In fact, he breathed the Spirit into them. This is John's "Pentecost," although the Spirit comes here not with wind and flame but with Jesus' own breath, the very life-force of the one raised from the dead who tells them to go out and be peace and forgiveness and love for the world.

Creation again

At creation, God breathed life into us humans, a tender, intimate, up-close and personal moment, and here we are again, with Jesus not holding his disciples at arm's length but re-creating this sorry crew of weak disciples, giving them the gift of new life, the gift of grace, and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world. However, he does not give them the gift of a personal, "private" faith, a just-you-and-me-Jesus faith that has nothing to do with the world that God loves so well. Instead, these weak and overwhelmed disciples, now Spirit-gifted, are Jesus' gift to the world. If they respond to the gift of grace with love, that love will be the gift they take out into the world.

In this season of Easter, we might explore the meaning of this "peace" brought by the Holy Spirit, breathed into the disciples by Jesus. When I was growing up in a household of eleven, we would often ask my mother what she wanted for her birthday (or Christmas, or Mother's Day). We wanted to go to the store and buy her a gift we could wrap and present to her. Our intentions were good, but she frustrated us every time by saying that one thing, and one thing only, was all she wanted: peace. We knew what that meant: we'd have to be nice to one another and stop bickering or whatever we were doing at that stage of growing up. A gift from the store would have been much easier. Also, more fun. We didn't want to do the work of making peace, even with our siblings.

What is peace?

Indeed, peace is a challenge in every setting of life, in families, communities, the world, and in the church itself. Ironically, we even argue about what it is, and how to achieve it. While my mother undoubtedly longed for some "peace and quiet," the "peace" brought by Jesus not only here, in the locked room of the cowering disciples but throughout his risky and controversial time in ministry, is a challenge as well as a gift. It can come with a price.

Sure, Rome bragged about a "Pax Romana," but that wasn't really peace--it was the silencing and immobilizing of those crushed beneath the heel of their legions' boots so that business could go on as usual, the business of empire, that is. That's not peace as Jesus brought peace, as God desires peace for us. God's peace is nothing less than transformative, and in that transforming, it will upset those in power, those with much to hold on to, and much to gain.

What does peace look like?

Kristin Johnston Largen describes the gift Jesus brings to the frightened disciples and to all of us today, the peace "that brings back into the fold the outcast and the marginalized, and turns upside down the societal conventions of first and last, blessed and cursed, rich and poor. Jesus' peace invites the lion to see the lamb as neighbor and friend, the Jew to speak with the Samaritan and the prostitute to dine with the Pharisee." Largen cautions, however, that the Christian ideals of inclusion, love and justice are, ironically, met in every age with "rejection and harassment." A threat to the powers that be in one age is a threat to them in every age.

I confess that my heart is troubled when I think of the image many of my friends have of the church, and "church people," that is, Christians: they think of us as judgmental, harsh, hypocritical and at best, irrelevant (if not a problem and maybe even a threat). My friends "outside the church," even or especially if they were once "in" the church, seem surprised when I say that I find in the church a place of acceptance and challenge, not judgment, and not just warm, sentimental comfort. That's not the way they imagine, or remember it.

Are we about the healing of the world?

Just last week, I surprised a high school classmate (as we prepare for our fifty-year reunion from our church-related school) by saying that the United Church of Christ values science and its insights and understandings. He looked at me quizzically, as if I were saying a whole new thing. He long ago left the church we were both raised in, and religion altogether, and doesn't see religious institutions as contributing to the healing of the world (he would probably say "the fixing of our problems").

That's why my heart is heavy, and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the challenge of living as a person of faith when so many of our religious communities are consumed by divisiveness and fueled by harsh rhetoric, and good people like my classmate, like my own family members, my neighbors and friends, want to avoid us. What if the way we witnessed and worked and lived actually sought to embody the kind of peace Jesus brought to those frightened, overwhelmed disciples?

How do we in the church need to be transformed in our way of living the gospel Jesus himself embodied, the good news of God's healing, forgiving love? Indeed, forgiveness is exactly what Jesus then talks about, the subject that more difficult to talk about in the church than sex or even money: forgiveness, which gives us some sense of what's uppermost in his mind.

Thomas returns from his errands

But then the story shifts to Thomas, out running his errands. Michael E. Williams sees Thomas as "the only one among the disciples who was not so filled with fear that he was unwilling to leave the disciples' hiding place." When he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, Thomas of course wanted to have the same experience himself, with the same assurance the other disciples had received. He was no more a "doubter" than they were, before they saw the risen Jesus.

On this Second Sunday of Easter, we might have our perspective on Thomas adjusted by Paul Simpson Duke, who reminds us that we are not "above" Thomas but "beside" him. We have much in common with him. However, we also remind ourselves that Thomas is not some kind of modern scientific thinker who doubts the possibility of resurrection as a miracle; E. Elizabeth Johnson notes that Thomas is focused on the "who," not the "if," of the Resurrection: "The question is not so much 'Has Jesus been RAISED?' but 'Has JESUS been raised?'"

Recognizing Jesus in his scars

And how will Thomas (and we) recognize Jesus? In the scars of his suffering, and "an actual probing of torn flesh," Duke says; in his anguish, Thomas understands that "[t]he world's evil is monstrous, and if the Christ whom it killed is not scarred by it and bearing it in newness, nothing matters." Perhaps Thomas seeks a kind of reassurance in those scars: "The wounds bear witness to the worst that the world can do," writes Duke, "and disclose the truth that the worst is overcome....What remains to be feared? What will prevail but peace?"

That is why we sing jubilant Easter hymns and call ourselves Easter people: not because suffering didn't or doesn't exist, but because God in Jesus overcomes suffering and death, and transforms our lives and all of creation.

Why are the doors locked now?

Gail O'Day makes an excellent observation for believers today, about the faith of those disciples who went right back behind those locked doors even after Jesus visited them, even after Jesus gave them peace, even after they were filled with the Holy Spirit. She contrasts that seemingly fear-filled (doubt-filled?) reaction with the response of Thomas to his first encounter with the risen Jesus, when "the Doubting Apostle" knew and believed enough to recognize him as "My Lord and my God!" The rest of the disciples, O'Day writes, even after seeing Jesus risen, "still do not live as an Easter people."

Thomas wanted to experience the Resurrection for himself, to put his finger and his hand on the marks of Jesus' suffering and feel for himself that this incredible news was indeed not "too good to be true." His faith was no less, no weaker than the others' faith; he was just that one little sheep that the good shepherd sure enough would come back for, to tie up this one loose end. Martha Spong highlights the "kindness" and "patience" of Jesus in meeting the needs of Thomas; in effect, Jesus is saying, "'Better to be one who doesn't feel the limits. But Thomas, if you need to, put your hand here.'" It is a tender reading of a text that is often read with judgment.

In this need of Thomas, fulfilled, to touch the wounds of Jesus and to understand, scholars like Susan Grove Eastman see parallels with many other Gospel figures, like Mary, the brother of Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, and even Peter, who will have his moment in the following chapter. In each of these stories, Jesus comes to meet the grieving disciple at their point of need, and they come to understand better who he is.

Believing what we have heard

The story of Thomas is a message for the people in John's community a generation or two later when the Gospel was being written down. Their faith was based not on what they had seen with their own eyes but on what they heard. Jesus is really talking to them (and to us) when he says to Thomas the words that Eugene Peterson renders in The Message as, "Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."

Even better blessings. That is the promise to the church one week after our beautiful Easter services, back to life as usual. Back to our lives with their own "overwhelmings": wars and uprisings, counter-offensives and coups that drag on for months and years, with hundreds and thousands dead and maimed; an environmental crisis that looms ominously over us and our grandchildren (wildfires and floods, the poisoning of our water systems, the melting of glaciers and flooding of coastlines, superstorms and natural disasters); nagging economic injustice with huge gaps in wealth in spite of the "recovery," and political divisions poisoned by ugly rhetoric and intransigence on all sides.

Overwhelmed and afraid

And then there are our own private griefs and burdens: health problems, kid problems, too much work, too much worry, too much coming at us, so much to run away from, so much to fear. What's an overwhelmed person of faith to do? Even one week after the music of the trumpets and the splendor of the lilies have faded, how are we to live "as Easter people"?

The great preacher William Sloane Coffin once said, "As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straightÖ.You can't think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart's a stone, you can't have decent thoughts--either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind." When our hearts fill with a fear we can't organize or get our arms around, a fear that makes us feel weak and small and inadequate, all of us disciples receive that same gift of grace, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit, a gift that limbers up our minds and our hearts, turning them from hearts of stone to hearts full of love.

Consolation for the world beyond our locked doors

Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God's children. Isn't that the mission of your church: to love the world, as Parker Palmer says, "not to enlarge [your] membership, not to bring outsiders to accept [your] terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way--to love the world as God did and does"? Why, then, do so many people perceive the church as judgmental rather than loving?

We may feel overwhelmed on the Second Sunday of Easter, like those disciples one week later, even though we have experienced the risen Jesus. We may feel like locking our doors and hiding out. Indeed, it's a great temptation in the life of the church to huddle behind massive, beautiful doors, to hide out from a world in pain and great need, and to make our faith a personal, private thing that has nothing to do with that pain or that need.

The key to reading this text

Here, Gail O'Day writes, is the key to reading this text, for Jesus did not give up on these disciples, who may not deserve Jesus' peace or his faithfulness. In the same way, she writes, if we long to see Jesus, he offers us the same gift of himself, not just once, but over and over. It is, however, so hard to persist in faith, because "it does not take long for the vocabulary of death to creep back in and to push Easter outÖ.The Easter gospel turns the world upside down, but congregations live out their days in right-side-up realities."

Still, she writes, we remember this day and every day that "Easter is real" not just for those disciples long ago but for all of us, "tempted by fear and despair," and in need of "parables of grace." We need to hear, to remind one another, of that promise, that Jesus will come back and find us, where we are, at the point of our greatest need, and lead us to new life.

In heaven we will remember

It seems to me that I rarely hear the subject of heaven mentioned in sermons, any more than I hear the resurrection of the dead (not just Jesus) preached, even during the Easter season. Thus, I appreciated the writing of Kristin Johnston Largen, who reflects further on those scars on the body of the Risen Jesus, and on our woundedness and scars as well, as she reminds us that we too will be raised someday. I know my own mother, a faithful disciple until the day she died, looked toward that resurrection in hope, even as she endured loss and suffering in her life.

The importance of our experience, our suffering, as part of who we are and how we have lived, isn't wiped away by resurrection, Largen writes, for "heaven is not a place of forgetfulness, but of remembrance" of all that we have gone through. Indeed, "God is capable of taking even the worst of human experiences into God's own arms in such a way that they are transformed, and we are healed and made whole--not only each of us individually but the whole human family, indeed, the whole creation." This is the meaning and full experience of "reconciliation," and of the forgiveness and wholeness and shalom that we yearn for, that gift that God has promised, the gift of grace that Jesus brings. Will we respond with love?

Seeing with the heart

Frederick Buechner has written an exquisitely beautiful sermon, "The Seeing Heart," on this text. We've all heard Thomas called "the Doubter," but Buechner focuses on his other name, "the Twin." He confesses that he himself is "the other twin," and reflects on the gift of believing more than what our eyes take in: "Our eyes tell us that the small country church down the road needs a new coat of paint and that the stout lady who plays the organ looks a little like W.C. Fields and that the pews are rarely more than a quarter filled on any given Sunday."

Our eyes see "facts" while our hearts see "truth," for example, the true "holiness" of that little church, despite outward appearances. (We might also say the vitality of that church, for many of our smallest churches are full of life.) Buechner also suggests that, for Thomas, perhaps it was the first time that he saw not just "the fact of Jesus," but "the truth of Jesus and the truth of who Jesus was for him."

Feeling the presence of Jesus in silence

Perhaps we've had a similar experience of "seeing" Jesus, of being quiet long enough to feel his presence "in the silence of waiting and listening." What a challenge for a church that is often more grounded in words than in the Word! Here Buechner eloquently ties the experience of seeing Jesus "with our hearts" to the commission that we, along with the disciples that morning long ago, have received from Jesus, every time he comes to us, when we accept his invitation to a whole new way of living, "the only life worth living....To see him with the heart is to take heart, to grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last." (I recommend the collection of his sermons, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).

Whatever overwhelms us, God comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, "Peace be with you." Whatever doubts churn in our minds, whatever sins trouble our consciences, whatever pain and worry bind us up, whatever walls we have put up or doors we have locked securely, God comes to us and says, "Peace be with you." Whatever hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, God calls us to the table, feeds us well, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, salt and light, hope for the world. We can do it, if we keep our eyes open, our minds, as William Sloane Coffin would say, "limber," and our hearts soft and willing to love. As God sent Jesus, God sends us, too, into the world that God loves.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

David Housholder, The Blackberry Bush, 21st century
"If anyone or anything tries to curse or kill the Goodness at the Center of all things, it will just keep coming back to life. Forever Easter."

Paul Tillich, 20th century
"Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith."

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

Elbert Hubbard, 20th century
"God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas but for scars."

J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird, 20th century
"The reason birds can fly and we can't is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings."

Khalil Gibran, 20th century
"Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother."

Cyril of Alexandria, 5th century
"When Christ greeted his holy disciples with the words, 'Peace be with you,' by peace he meant himself, for Christ's presence always brings tranquility of soul. This is the grace Saint Paul desired for believers when he wrote, 'The peace of Christ which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds.' The peace of Christ which passes all understanding is in fact the Spirit of Christ, who fills those who share in him with every blessing."

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