United Church of Christ

Trust and Rejoice

Sunday, April 19, 2020
Second Sunday of Easter Year A

Focus Theme:
Trust and Rejoice

Focus Prayer:
Blessed are you, O God of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we receive the legacy of a living hope, born again not only from his death but also from his resurrection. May we who have received forgiveness of sins through the Holy Spirit live to set others free, until, at length, we enter the inheritance that is imperishable and unfading, where Christ lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit. 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 the week:
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Focus Questions:

1. What makes us, as followers of Jesus, "hide out" today?

2. What would you have done, in Thomas' place?

3. Do you think that "seeing is better than hearing" for the life of faith?

4. Why do you think a woman was entrusted with the news of the Resurrection, if the men struggled to believe her?

5. Where do you see the risen Jesus alive, today?

Reflection:
by Kate 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 (back when we used to gather for services in one place), 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.

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 version (in The Message) 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?"

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. 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."

Thomas has arrived

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." I wonder if we might say that Thomas wants "empirical" evidence.

Judging Thomas

Perhaps we church folks have been too judgmental of "Doubting Thomas." After all, the disciples have all seen Jesus and the marks on his hands and side. But once Thomas also "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 renders it: "Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."

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."

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." And so, ironically, after all this talk in the Gospel of John about seeing and believing, our generation is asked to "hear and believe." And yet, an ever greater irony is that, in every generation, we do perceive, in ways both marvelous and wonderful, the risen Jesus alive in this world.

Experiencing the wonder of the Resurrection today

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 - throughout the centuries and around the world - have only been 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 and recreates us, day by 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 witness 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 proclaim and live 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.

(Or, as the great 14th-century mystic, Julian of Norwich said, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.")

Hearts limber and minds open

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," he continued, "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."

Truth more than safety

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.

An Easter like no other

In this Easter season unlike any we have known in our lifetime, after a long Lent unlike any we have ever observed before, perhaps we might relate to those cowering disciples, trying to stay safe behind locked doors, wondering if it would ever be safe to go outside again. They surely must have wondered - and perhaps discussed - how they could take up their lives again, after everything that had happened.

For those of us who are "locked behind doors" or out in the world by necessity, meeting the needs of others during this pandemic, this is an opportunity for reflection on our lives: with each passing week, I hear more people suggest that life will be different once we're freed from our places of isolation and "safety," from behind our own locked doors that we hope will protect us from a virus that understandably terrifies us.

Things need to change

What I hear people saying is that we will need to reconsider how we approach our shared lives, lives so much more fragile than we ever recognized, so much more inter-connected than we have acknowledged by our actions and systems and practices, no matter what "nice" things we have said and thought about our society, our intentions and our values, in the past.

For example, those of us who actually have doors to lock might consider the experience of those without any homes to shelter them from this storm. Those who wonder whether our cold and flu symptoms warrant a call to the doctor might consider the fear of those who have no insurance to cover the cost of such a call or the treatment that might follow. Do all of God's children have what they need?

Our need to lament

Because of technology and social media in particular, we're acutely aware that we share this fear, confusion, and bewilderment with people across the globe. We grieve with those who have lost loved ones and cannot mourn them in community except from afar. One of my good friends just lost her mother yesterday, after a stroke. She wasn't able to be with her mother but just to see her through a glass window, and now the funeral, we have come to understand, will have to wait. We who care are not able to gather around the family as they mourn.

And yet, there is beauty still, and a new and odd kind of community that rises up, even as the flowers push their way up from the warming earth and the trees turn that momentarily light shade of green: a lovely post by Lucy MacNeil, singing the beautiful hymn, "Lord of All Faithfulness" (set to the tune, Slane, the traditional Irish melody used in "Be Thou My Vision") served as a lament and a reminder of our need, like Mary Magdalene so long ago, to grieve and lament what we have lost and what we fear is still ahead.

We are not alone

Mary Magdalene went to the garden alone, and Thomas was out on his own (running errands? taking a long walk to think? checking in with his family?) but this week's story has the feel of community. The disciples were huddled together, not each in his or her own hiding place. When things happened, they ran to each other. They belonged to that community, already.

Again, in times of fear, we remember that William Sloane Coffin warned that we run the risk of washing our hands, like Pilate, because power is hard-hearted. But we will not be hard-hearted. As Coffin also 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 O. Wesley 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.

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."

Mis-guided missions

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." How might we all, not just clergy, become "happy guides" this Easter season, proclaiming good news in the midst of this pandemic?

"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." How would that work as a mission statement for a contemporary congregation?

The popularity of Pope Francis, like that of John XXIII sixty years ago, 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 also 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, and he has paid a price for that).

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 pope may be the closest we have come to such a voice in many years, although Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. William J. Barber II have 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.

God comes to us

Whenever we're afraid and hiding out, all locked up metaphorically and/or literally, 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.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles a sermon reflection on Matthew 21:1-11) 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:

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."

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."

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