Sunday, April 11, 2010

Second Easter
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Thou art my God, and I will give thanks unto thee: Thou art my God, I will exalt thee.

Victoria is taking a class in theatre history and she’s learned some interesting information. The other day she explained the origin of the phrase “in the limelight.” The limelight was literally a special light that was created by burning a lime with hydrogen and oxygen. This created a light much brighter than any other lights available in the nineteenth century, leaving the person “in the limelight” in a light much brighter than the other actors on stage. The modern understanding of the phrase does not necessarily have anything to do with light or even the theatre. If you are in the limelight, it now means you are at the center of the attention.

On Easter Sunday, and through the Sundays of the Easter season, Jesus Christ is in the limelight. Though He is the focus of our attention whenever we gather for worship, it seems like He is more in the limelight these next few weeks. In these weeks of Easter, we gather around Him to get our final instructions before He ascends into heaven. He appears repeatedly, first to a few and then to many, confirming the reports of His resurrection. In a few weeks we’ll look back on the question, “Are you the Messiah?” and wonder how it could have been missed and how it continues to be missed by those who do not believe.

We are reminded in today’s Gospel lesson, however, that human beings sometimes need tangible evidence to believe. For many it simply isn’t enough to hear some good news; we want the same experience of discovery. Peter and John had seen the empty tomb and Mary spoke to Jesus. Did the disciples believe Mary Magdalene when she reporter what she’d heard from Jesus in the garden? We don’t really know. In John’s telling of the Gospel, the disciples were locked in the Upper Room, fearfully waiting for the religious leaders to deal with them as they had dealt with Jesus.

It was into this atmosphere that Jesus appeared and spoke to them. His first words were “Peace be with you.” In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus was responding to the fear of what they were seeing. They thought He was a ghost. They hadn’t believed the women and still doubted the men who saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus. But in John, He was responding to their fear of what was to come. They didn’t know what had become of Jesus and they didn’t know what would become of them.

We don’t see any reaction from the disciples until Jesus shows them His hands and His sides. In John’s Gospel they are given the proof of His reality even before they ask. Mary recognized Jesus’ voice in the garden and the disciples recognized Jesus from the wounds on His body. When they saw Him, when they recognized Him, they rejoiced. They received their proof without asking and believed because Jesus gave them what they needed.

Unfortunately, Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared and he refused to believe the reports of the others. He needed the same experience of discovery, to hear Jesus’ voice and see His wounds. Now, we often look at Thomas as the doubter since he responds with their reports with unbelief. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Yet, how many live in today’s world demanding the same thing from God? Oh, I doubt many people are expecting to see the resurrected Jesus on the street these days, but they demand proof from God that it is all real. They want answers to their prayers that match their expectations. They want Christians to be perfect. They want the Church to meet their every need. They continue to doubt when God does not satisfy their demands. We call them “Doubting Thomas” because they refuse to believe our witness. Yet, we forget that all the disciples needed proof. They all needed to see the Lord. It was necessary for them to do the work they were being called to do.

Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With the Holy Spirit anointing them, they had the authority to go into the world to continue the work Jesus began – forgiveness. How could they be credible witnesses if they were merely spreading second hand stories? His appearance to the disciples was vital to the credibility of the growing Church.

Jesus came to show Thomas His wounds not only because Thomas doubted the word of his brothers, but also because it was necessary for Thomas to experience Jesus in the same way as the other disciples. Without receiving the Spirit, Thomas could not be an apostle.

So, how do continue to witness to that which we have not seen? Jesus answered that question in His response to Thomas, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” We are blessed; we believe because God has given us the Spirit of faith, the Holy Spirit, and by His Spirit we believe. Thomas did not have that advantage. But when Jesus returned, He did what was necessary: gave Thomas the Spirit and the commission to be a witness to God’s forgiveness in the world.

I like the story of Thomas, not only because in it we see that God does answer our prayers, sometimes miraculously, but also because Thomas is not only a doubter; he is a believer. When Jesus appeared to him on the eighth day, Jesus offered His hands and side for Thomas to touch. Thomas did not need to physically feel the wounds. When He saw them, He worshipped Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” When the disciples saw the wounds, they rejoiced. Thomas responded with a confession of faith that went beyond the joy of the other disciples. He put Jesus in the limelight.

We are called to do the same, to put Jesus at the center of our attention by confessing our faith that He is truly our Lord and our God. He is the answer to our prayers. He is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus is the Messiah, the Alpha and Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

The book of Revelation also puts Jesus in the limelight; He is the center of attention throughout the writing. In today’s passage, John writes an introduction of why the book has been written: to reveal that Jesus Christ is the Almighty and He wishes us to live in His grace and His peace. In this introduction, John tells us that Jesus is many things: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth. He also tells us what Jesus does: loves us, freed us and made us a kingdom. In the Day of the Lord, He will truly be in the limelight, not just in our lives but in the sight of the whole world. He will come on the clouds, and His appearance will have a similar affect as that on the first day He appeared to His disciples: fear.

While the rest of the book of Revelation gives us some horrifying images and expectations that are not pleasant, we can remember Jesus’ answer to Thomas’ doubt and recognize that there might just be many who will finally believe because they have seen. We might just be surprised at those who exclaim “My Lord and my God” even though they have doubted for so long.

Now, it seems to me that burning a lime with hydrogen and oxygen must not have been a very safe way of casting light on an actor. In the nineteenth century, buildings were made of wood and thatch, the people didn’t have fire retardant clothing and there was no such thing as silicon gloves. I wonder how many playhouses burnt down or light crews died when the flames went out of control.

Putting Jesus in the limelight is dangerous, too. There are those who do not wish to hear about the saving work of God in Christ Jesus. They do not believe they need to be saved or they think they are capable of doing it on their own. They see the biblical stories as fairy tales, ancient stories with no real purpose for today. Those stories talk about a world that was much different than our own. The parables don’t make sense. The miracles are impossible. The resurrection was just a hoax. And so, we are seen as foolish and weak, using faith as a crutch to deal with the reality of life.

It was certainly dangerous for those first disciples. In the passage from Acts, Peter and the apostles were taken before the religious council because they had refused the orders to cease talking about Jesus. Could you imagine going before the most powerful authorities in our day and saying, “We must obey God rather than any human authority”? If we were to do that today, we’d be counted as insane. “She talks to God? And God talks back?” And though we might just wear our faith on our sleeves, we generally do not go out into the world proclaiming Jesus as Savior to the crowds. We would certainly not accuse those leaders of killing Jesus. And yet, we might just find ourselves in the position when we have to say that we can not obey human authority over that of God. Will we have the courage to keep Christ in the limelight, even when it seems dangerous?

In the Gospel, Jesus promised them peace, but they were in the midst of the most difficult turmoil they had ever known. So, when Jesus appeared to them, He reminded them of His promise. Peace would not be found in giving up, in running, or even in hiding. Peace is found in Jesus.

The psalmist writes, "Jehovah is God, and he hath given us light: Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar." The horns of the altar were a place of sanctuary. They were located on the four corners of the altar of sacrifice. Blood was touched on the horns as a sin offering. If someone was in trouble, they could go to the altar and hold on to the horns. No one could do them harm while they held the horns. Jesus is now our sanctuary. He was the Lamb of God, the final and acceptable sacrifice. By His blood we are saved. He is our salvation and our peace. We are sent in His name to take that sanctuary to the world.

We can do so by remembering that Jesus is as He has been described in the Psalm: my strength and my might, my salvation. He is the right hand of God, the chief cornerstone. As we keep Him in the limelight, at the center of our attention, His strength and might will keep us through the trials we will face. Christ is our sanctuary; He offers us the horns of the altar as a place of peace.

The horns were located on the four corners of the altar of sacrifice. The priest put blood on the horns as a sin offering. If someone was in trouble, they could go to the altar and hold on to the horns. No one could do them harm while they held the horns. Christ is the final and perfect offering. His blood is where we find our sanctuary. It is there we will experience Christ’s peace even when the world around us seems out of control.

We are sent as Christ’s witnesses. We have not seen Jesus as the apostles or Thomas, but we have been blessed and have believed. He has given us the authority to be His witnesses by giving us the Holy Spirit. He testifies through our lives. Those who have ears will hear. Those who have been blessed will believe.

It is a tough job to be a witness. There are many like Thomas who need more than words to make a confession of faith. There are those like the Sanhedrin who will try to halt the work of God. There are those who think that any name will do, any path is right. There are many, too many, who believe that they do not need a Savior at all. But we are called to keep Christ in the limelight, anyway, because God has assured us that He will bless the work we do in His name.

And so, let us go forth with praise and thanksgiving on our hearts and on our lips. Let us not be afraid to share the Gospel message with the world. Let us all be witnesses to the amazing things God has done through Christ Jesus our Lord. The world needs His grace and love and peace. The world needs us to be obedient to God so that they, too, will experience the risen Christ and believe.

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