Sermon Seeds: It’s True
Worship resources for the Second Sunday of Easter Year A are at Worship Ways
Additional reflection on Psalm 16 and all readings for this Sunday
by Kathryn Matthews
That same night, after Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen and talked with the risen Jesus, the frightened disciples are holed up in a room behind locked doors. No one can get in, not even those who are so nervous, so threatened, by the way the crowds loved Jesus, that they might come after his followers, too.
The disciples are bereft over the death of Jesus and perhaps over their own failure to stand with him to the end, but now this woman, Mary Magdalene, is making the most incredible claim that would undo, would overturn, their turmoil, their sense of failure and inadequacy, their loss of hope. All might be made right after all; all might be healed. Could it be? Could it actually be so?
Locking the doors and waiting
Gathered in fear and confusion, they lock the doors, and wait. And suddenly, he is there, in their midst. What are his first words? “Peace be with you.” No fear. No scolding. No turmoil. No doubt. Only peace. Those simple words Christians say to one another during our worship services, perhaps without thinking: “Peace be with you.” And then–since, in the Gospel of John, this is Pentecost–Jesus breathes the gift of the Holy Spirit into the disciples.
It is their commissioning to go out and be peace and love and justice for the world. Just as God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends them into the world that God loves so well. O. Wesley Allen hears in this breath the echo of Genesis and “God’s breathing life into creatures at the beginning of the world (Gen. 2:7).” On Easter, Allen says, God in effect recreates through resurrection not just a few followers long ago, but all of us as well (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
The gift of Resurrection
Jesus then talks about that thing that is more difficult to talk about in the church than sex or even money: forgiveness. Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jesus’ words provide a very different way of seeing the gift of forgiveness and grace: “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” (The Message).
For Allen, this text reminds us that both the Spirit and the Resurrection are gifts given to us so that we can share them with the world, and in so doing, be part of God’s transformation of that world (New Proclamation Year A 2008). It sounds as if a personal, private faith is not what Jesus intends for us; instead, he wants a Spirit-filled church to be his gift to the world.
They “saw and believed”
Once again this week we hear about “the vision thing”: the importance of “seeing” in John’s Gospel. We recall that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb last Sunday and saw that the stone had been removed; that Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there; they went in and “saw and believed.” Mary Magdalene saw two angels in white, and then she saw Jesus standing there (but didn’t recognize him), and he asked her, “Whom are you looking for?” When he said her name, she said, “Teacher!”–and she went and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
Now, in the evening of the same day, the disciples see Jesus, in his body, wounds and all. But Thomas, who arrives afterward and misses everything, very reasonably says he won’t believe until he sees for himself the mark of the nails on Jesus’ hands (he sounds almost modern, doesn’t he?); he even wants to put his own finger in the mark of the nails and to feel the reality of the Resurrection for himself. Barbara Brown Taylor describes Thomas as “a brave and literal-minded maverick who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only after he had convinced himself that it was the right thing” (Home by Another Way).
We church folks have been rather judgmental of “Doubting Thomas.” After all, the disciples have all seen Jesus and the marks on his hands and side. But once Thomas “sees” and even touches the wounds of Jesus, he believes, too: that Jesus is really risen, as the other discples are saying, but even more, as Arland Hultgren writes, “that he has encountered the presence of God in the risen Jesus.”
The story of Thomas, for the writer of the Gospel of John, speaks to all those in later generations (including us, today) who didn’t witness with their own eyes the things the Gospel describes, and yet have come to trust the testimony as true. Again, as Eugene Peterson translates it: “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing” (The Message). Hultgren calls Jesus’ words a “beatitude” that “puts all Christians of all times and places on the same level before God as the original disciples” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
To hear and believe
Indeed, for centuries, these stories have been passed down from generation to generation, coming alive for each one in its own time. We have them in Scripture, which Barbara Brown Taylor compares to a message rolled up in a bottle and sent out for us by our ancestors in faith long ago, so that we can share in their experience of Jesus, “if not in the flesh, then in the word.”
Just like Thomas listening to the excited and bewildered reports of his fellow disciples, and just like the second-generation Christians hearing these same stories in the Gospels (even before they were written down), we hear the story after the fact and decide whether we, too, believe. In any case, the experience of Thomas, according to Taylor, teaches us that “seeing is not superior to hearing” (Home by Another Way). And so, ironically, after all this talk in the Gospel of John about seeing and believing, our generation is asked to “hear and believe.”
Experiencing the wonder of the Resurrection today
And yet, an ever greater irony is that our eyes, in every generation, do see, in ways both marvelous and wonderful, the risen Jesus alive in this world. If it’s true that we are indeed recreated through Christ’s Resurrection, as O. Wesley Allen claims, then our beautiful, majestic, joyous Easter services in churches around the world are only an effort to give expression to the lived reality of encountering the presence of God in the risen Jesus not just this one morning but every morning of our lives, in every experience of death leading to new life, every experience of healing and grace, forgiveness and new hope.
Relationships repaired and renewed, churches brought back from the brink of closing to new and vibrant ministry, health restored after suffering and illness, delight in life after long grief…the experience of resurrection and new life, in moments and ways both large and small, all point to the One who gives us life and promises life eternal, the One who raised Jesus up on the third day. The wonderful writer, Anne Lamott, has shared her life story with honesty and deep spirituality, including her struggle with depression: “I am a broken and a resurrection person,” she says. So many of us would say the same.
Experiencing new life
In many dramatic ways in the life of the church, we see resurrection and experience new life, see and hear and touch the Risen Jesus, the Body of Christ alive and in love with this beautiful world. We see, and we believe. Resurrection isn’t something that only happened a long time ago, something that we simply commemorate each Easter. In our day-to-day lives as the church in ministry, we put our hands on the wounds of this broken world, but we also witness to the hope that sustains us in knowing that we are going to rise again, that everything is going to be all right in the end. (The great 14th-century mystic, Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”)
William Sloane Coffin, a great prophet of the United Church of Christ, who passed away, fittingly, during Holy Week eleven years ago, 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” (A Passion for the Possible: A Message to the U.S. Churches; note: this is a great book.)
What makes us hide from the world?
Those disciples cowered in fear behind locked doors when good news was waiting for them outside. Good news came to them anyway, even in their fear, and made their minds “limber.” They were seeking safety, and the truth came instead. Is it fear that makes us hide from the suffering of the world? Perhaps that’s a mystery of the heart, so easily turned to stone, so easily turned away from the pain of others.
Coffin once warned that we run the risk of washing our hands, like Pilate, because power is hard-hearted. And yet, he said, we belong to one another, according to the vision of the religious community, the saving vision, the ancient prophetic vision of human unity, all of God’s children on this earth. As Allen said, we can’t keep the gift to ourselves: the Spirit was given to us because we are connected to, and responsible for, one another (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Love the world the way God loves it
When Jesus commissions the disciples (and us), he gives them a “mission.” We hear much talk in the church today (and even in business and other settings) about “mission” and “mission statements.” Perhaps it’s only human to seek clarity about what one is “about.” What is the mission of your church? What is the mission of the wider church? Parker Palmer has provided a measure of clarity for us on this point, writing that “the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its 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, also a great book).
How would that description match the mission statements of many of our churches? How have churches hurt people by having a misguided sense of mission? Richard Rohr, a contemporary theologian, has made an astute but painful comment on the state of the church in the hearts and minds of many, lamentably: “We clergy became angry guards instead of happy guides, low-level policemen instead of proclaimers of a Great Gift and Surprise both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed at the heart of all creation” (Beginning with Blessing).
“Unceasing witness to God’s love”
Being a community or perhaps an institution preoccupied with moralistic judgment has given Christians, alas, “a bad name” (can you imagine “Christian” as a “bad name”?), at least in the eyes of those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Gail R. O’Day offers a simple mission statement for the church that might counter that effect: “to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus” (John, The New Interpreter’s Bible). How would that work as a mission statement for a contemporary congregation?
The popularity of the new Pope, Francis, may be a response to his obvious and heartfelt desire to bear unceasing witness to God’s love in Jesus, rather than being harshly preoccupied with the sins of others, especially the controversial, personal issues that divide us. (Granted, he has been courageous about speaking out about the really controversial sins of what we are doing with the gifts of God: our materialism, militarism, and disregard for creation).
Preoccupied with personal sins rather than communal ones?
What do you think would happen if churches clarified their sense of mission? Do you think most of them understand their mission principally as judging between right and wrong, especially in personal, private matters–not in the examination of “big,” shared sins that mis-shape our society into violent and greedy, fear-filled “communities”? What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus? If we see Jesus as the focus of the text, his care for Thomas and all who will follow Thomas, does that change the “feel” of the text for you?
Sometimes it feels like there’s a gap in the prophetic witness of our time. Where is this generation’s William Sloane Coffin or Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa or Oscar Romero? Again, this new pope may be the closest we have come to such a voice in many years, although Archbishop Desmond Tutu has certainly offered a powerful witness as well.
Each of us, commissioned and sent
And yet, in today’s passage from the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” reassure us that God has given us, each one of us in every age, the Holy Spirit, and has commissioned us, empowered us, to be, like Coffin and King, Romero and Mother Teresa, a holy and brilliant flame, each in our own way, breathing love and peace and justice in the midst of fear and pain and hopelessness. To William Sloane Coffin, spirituality meant “living the ordinary life extraordinarily well,” like Mother Teresa’s encouragement not to strive to do great things, but instead to do small things with great love.
Whenever we’re afraid and hiding out, all locked up, 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 limber, and our hearts soft and willing to love. As God sent Jesus, so God sends us, this day. Amen.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Photo of Easter table by the Rev. Tricia Gilbert, member of Amistad Chapel United Church of Christ.
For further reflection:
Paul Tillich, 20th century
“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
“It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It’s the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.”
Brennan Manning, 21st century
“For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.”
Jon Meacham, 21st century
“One of the earliest resurrection scenes in the Bible is that of Thomas demanding evidence–he wanted to see, to touch, to prove. Those who question and probe and debate are heirs of the apostles just as much as the most fervent of believers.”
Jan Karon, 21st century
“Easter is never deserved.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”
Additional commentary on Psalm 16 and all readings:
by Kathryn Matthews
Sometimes the lectionary readings seem to fit together like puzzle pieces that form a beautiful picture, and this Sunday is one of those times. We have entered a new time, the time of Easter; this is not the First Sunday “after” Easter, but the Second Sunday “of” Easter. We have been in the desert and the wilderness, in the place of dry bones, spending time in introspective, penitential reflection. We have journeyed to Jerusalem, witnessed healings and controversies, stood with the crowd, and waited in the garden, struggling with sleep.
Then there was the cross, with death and confusion and despair. But that was not all: there was the most unexpected: resurrection, new life, death conquered and hope reborn. Were we not listening, or watching? Did we not notice that the dry bones took on flesh and walked and breathed again? Did we not notice that Lazarus came forth from the tomb, and lived? Did we not hear, and trust, the promises?
Through the lens of hope reborn
The joy and assurance of Psalm 16 are viewed by Peter in his Pentecost sermon through the lens of this hope reborn, this new life, this Resurrection of Jesus Christ: God raising Jesus and showing God’s astonishing power even over death. Though the meaning of the text, for the people of Israel, centered on David, Peter hears the promise of triumph over death in reference to the Messiah, to Jesus Christ, and he claims to be himself a witness to that truth.
Death could not hold Jesus Christ, and we too are heirs to the promise of life in its fullness, for physical death is not the only issue here: as Easter people, we are filled with what Walter Brueggemann calls “confidence that the God who became vulnerable in Jesus Christ and who also demonstrated unique power over those things which threaten all human health and happiness…is actively at work in human life today, on both individual and society levels. Because of the Easter story, all of life is fundamentally transformed” (Texts for Preaching Year A). And that is why we are a hope-filled people.
A heritage of joy
This assurance of God’s presence and power in our lives produces joy, and that joy is our heritage, passed down through the many generations of faithful people who continue to tell the story. We hear the joy of the psalmist but Peter’s as well in his Spirit-filled sermon at Pentecost, excerpted here in the Acts reading, and we hear it in the First Letter of Peter, which describes the inheritance of “new life” and “living hope” through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The “aliens” or “exiles” who heard this reading, like us (because, in many ways, we too are “aliens” and “exiles”), did not see Jesus Christ or even the apostles in the flesh, in their lifetime. But they heard and believed and trusted the Good News. This reading, then, also fits well with the reading from the Gospel of John, with the familiar story of Thomas, who doubted what he had not seen with his own eyes.
Assurance of God’s power and presence
The first part of John’s passage is his own Pentecost, and Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his followers, sending them out into the world on a mission. The Holy Spirit, and God’s mission, and the assurance of God’s power and presence with us always: such a heritage of joy!
The “sin” of which Jesus speaks is the failure to believe. The new little community, the church, is the new family or community that is created to support us in our trials and our temptations, and Jesus gives the people the power to heal and forgive one another’s weakness and doubt. (The trials themselves, according to First Peter, refine our faith like gold.)
Trusting in what is really real
Then, the story of Thomas reminds us that faith is not a matter of believing the unbelievable, but seeing what is truly real and trusting in the goodness of God. Thomas would fit in well with our post-Enlightenment skepticism and need to see empirical evidence for all claims of truth. His doubt is very ancient, yet modern, too.
The early Christians who heard John’s Gospel were already struggling after the deaths of the apostles and the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection, and this Gospel passage reassures them that they are blessed if they “have not seen but have come to believe.” The Stillspeaking God tells us stories that are both ancient and new, and doubts that are human in every age are eased by God’s unceasing love and care.
Meeting Thomas at the deepest level of his need
Who are the “aliens and exiles” who hear and trust the good news that you preach and embody, that your congregation strives to embody? In what ways do they teach you about faith, and how does God still speak today, through them, to you? The forgiveness of sins may be understood as a power and responsibility of the church’s leadership, or perhaps the whole community shares in that responsibility. If so, how does that work?
How do the members of your congregation nurture one another’s faith? Thomas can be seen as representing one stage of our journey of faith, and many of us may find ourselves stuck there. But maybe this passage is less about Thomas than it is about Jesus’ care for Thomas, meeting him at the level of his deepest need. Do we recognize Jesus when we, too, are stuck in doubt?
Being the church, not just coming to church
How well does your congregation hear its call to be the church, rather than just to “come to church” on Sunday? Does it know itself as called, and sent? In what ways, and in what moments, do you feel the presence of the Spirit in your midst? When has your church seen itself as inheriting “a goodly heritage,” with “boundary lines” falling in “pleasant places”?
The people of ancient Israel thought a lot about the land and their security. How do we see our security, and what are our greatest needs as a people? Do you and your congregation believe, and trust, that death cannot hold us? How do the Resurrection of Jesus, the tradition we have been given and shall pass on ourselves, and the mission of God all come together for us, here, in the early days of Easter time? How will you put all of this joy in one sermon?
For further reflection:
Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century (when asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?”)
“I believe in God with all my doubts.”
Robert Browning, 19th century
“I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists.”
Stuart Chase, 20th century
“For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”
Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
“Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.”
Paul Gauguin, 19th century
“I shut my eyes in order to see.”
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know–this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
Protect me, O God,
for in you I take refuge.
I say to God, “You are my God;
I have no good apart from you.”
As for the holy ones in the land,
they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.
Those who choose another god
multiply their sorrows;
their drink-offerings of blood
I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.
God is my chosen portion
and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me
in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
I bless God
who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart
I keep God always before me;
because God is at my right hand,
I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad,
and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up
or let your faithful one
see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence
there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures
1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith–being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
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.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!