Sermon Seeds: Marks of Faith
Second Sunday of Easter Year B
1 John 1:1-2:2
Marks of Faith
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
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” 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. 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. 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.”) 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?”
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.
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.
Jesus first talks about that thing that’s more difficult to talk about in the church than sex or even money: forgiveness, which gives us some sense of what’s uppermost in Jesus’ mind. 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” (The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, Vol. 10). When he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, he 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. Gail O’Day makes an excellent observation: “Indeed, what is most noteworthy for contemporary congregations is not that Thomas insists on his own firsthand experience, but that one week after the disciples have been visited by the risen Jesus and received Jesus’ peace and the Holy Spirit, they have once again locked themselves away behind closed doors.” An interesting contrast might be drawn between the reaction of the disciples to their first encounter with the risen Jesus, and Thomas’ reaction to his first encounter, when he recognized Jesus 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” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
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. 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 translates as, “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing” (The Message).
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 (California is about to run out of water, we are told); nagging economic problems in spite of the recovery, and political divisions poisoned by ugly rhetoric and intransigence on all sides. 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”?
William Sloane Coffin once said, “As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight….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.
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” (In the Company of Strangers)? 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. Here, Gail O’Day writes, is the key to preaching this text, for “Jesus comes again and again to these scared and confused 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 out….The Easter gospel turns the world upside down, but congregations live out their days in right-side-up realities.” Still, she writes, it’s the task of the preacher not just on Easter Sunday but on every Sunday to “show the congregation that Easter is real…as it unfolds in the lives and stories of disciples who are regularly tempted by fear and despair,” and to offer them “parables of grace” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). It’s the task of the preacher to lift up that promise, that Jesus will come back and find us, where we are, and lead us to new life.
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.” Perhaps we’ve had a similar experience of “seeing” Jesus, “every once in a while even in our own churches, especially when there is a pause in our endless babbling about him and for a moment or two he is present 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: “To see him with the heart is to know that in the long run his kind of life is the only life worth living….To see him with the heart is to take heart, to grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last” (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.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as 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 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.”
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there God ordained the blessing,
the blessing of life forevermore.
1 John 1:1-2:2
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
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.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.
There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.