Sunday, April 19, 2009

Two Easter
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book…

John tells us that “many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” There was no way for one man to record the whole life and ministry of Jesus. There was no way for the disciples to write down everything Jesus did for us to read. By their words, however, we know that we’ve been given just a glimmer of His life. They were blessed to live with Him, to work with Him, to learn under His teaching. Those first disciples did not keep journals. They didn’t write down the stories as they went along. We don’t have a moment by moment record of Jesus’ work and ministry. What we have is the memories of those who loved Him, lived with Him and carried on the work He began. We are called to carry on the story, to be a part of it, to join in the work they were called to do.

It just didn’t make sense for them. They put so much hope in Jesus. He was the Messiah, the Savior, the King who would restore Israel and transform their world. They were disappointed when Jesus died. And they were afraid. They were in hiding because they faced the reality of following a failed rebellion.

Despite the times Jesus told His disciples that He had to die so that He could be raised again, and despite the fact that Mary (in John’s version of the story) told them what she had seen and heard at the tomb, the disciples were frightened when Jesus appeared. It was not normal for a dead man to walk again. They thought He was a ghost, but it never occurred to them that He might be alive.

In an article on Times Online (UK), Tom Wright, bishop of Durham, writes, “But ‘resurrection’ to 1st-century Jews wasn’t about ‘going to Heaven’: it was about the physically dead being physically alive again. Some Jews (not all) believed that God would do this for all people in the end. Nobody, including Jesus’s followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history. The stories of the Resurrection are certainly not ‘wish-fulfilments’ or the result of what dodgy social science calls ‘cognitive dissonance’. First-century Jews who followed would-be messiahs knew that if your leader got killed by the authorities, it meant you had backed the wrong man. You then had a choice: give up the revolution or get yourself a new leader. Going around saying that he’d been raised from the dead wasn’t an option.”

Jesus showed them His hands and feet—the physical proof of the reality not only of His body but also of His crucifixion and resurrection. He was not an apparition. He was real and everything they experienced in the days, weeks and years was real. The cross was very real. Jesus' death was very real. The resurrection was very real. They saw Him, heard Him, and touched Him. Jesus also ate some fish. He was not a spirit.

There was another answer to the question of what they were seeing that day in the upper room that first night: Jesus was alive. But it didn’t make sense to them right away. They were afraid because what they were seeing could not be real. Jesus answered their fear and gave them the proof they needed to know that what they were seeing was true. He was alive! Unfortunately, Thomas was not with them when Jesus appeared. He was missing that day, separated from the body of Christ. He missed the appearance; he missed the giving of the Spirit. He missed the words of peace given to overcome the fear and grief. He was apart from the body and he could not believe until he had an encounter with the living Christ. Thomas could not believe until he received the same proof as the other disciples.

Thomas did not believe when he heard from the other disciples that Jesus had appeared bodily before them. He needed to see the risen Christ for himself. From that moment, Thomas was pinned with the name “Doubting Thomas” because he doubted what they saw. Perhaps he should have believed, after all there were plenty of reasons given to the disciples before that moment when Jesus came to them in the upper room. Jesus’ own words should have given them peace in the aftermath of the crucifixion. It took them time to fully grasp the reality of their experience with Jesus. As a matter of fact, even after appearing to them in the flesh, Jesus stayed among them for forty days to continue to teach them all they needed to know to go into the world and do the work He was calling them to do. The faithful and faith-filled life does not happen overnight. It is an ongoing life of growing and maturing.

And while “Doubting Thomas” was not willing to believe until he had physical proof, he is also “Confessing Thomas” because as soon as he saw Jesus he cried, “My Lord and my God.” He not only believed that Jesus was alive, but he also believed that Jesus was who and what He said He was. Jesus was not only their friend and teacher. He was not simply a man who lived and died like all other men. He was Lord and God. Man and God. Human and Divine. This is an important confession of faith and the foundation of all we believe as Christians.

Peter gave a similar confession when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus replied that this was not something that Peter could know on his own. It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that he could confess this faith. Thomas has been long been characterized by his doubt, but rarely remembered for his confession. I suppose that it is Jesus’ reply to Thomas’ doubt that makes us think that way. After all, when Jesus saw Thomas during that second appearance, He said, “Be not faithless, but believing.” But, then Jesus showed Thomas His hands and side. Jesus understands our doubts and He reaches out to us so that we might see the truth. Thomas did see the truth and said so.

That confession is the foundation of our faith. On top of it is built the entire understanding of Christianity. We have the record of Jesus’ life and ministry. We have the apostolic witness. Since then we’ve had the Church which has passed on the knowledge and experience of Christ in the world. We have the scriptures and the tradition of the Church. We have the lives of the Saints who’ve been set aside for great acts of faithfulness and the ordinary saints who have taught us all we know about Jesus. We have our own experiences when God touches our lives with His grace. We have all this to help us know that Jesus is real and that His grace is transforming our lives and the world.

See, John’s community faced a difficult situation. There were some that believed that Jesus was not actually human. They thought that He appeared as a man, but was not really flesh and blood. This meant that Jesus never really died and that He was never really raised. It also means that the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ was spiritual, not physical. John's Gospel tends to be more spiritual, especially compared to the synoptic Gospels. He relies on symbolism when telling the story of Jesus and the miracles were signs of the character and purpose of Jesus. The Gnostic point of view, which says that faith is spiritual not physical, has embraced John’s Gospel. Some of the believers in John’s community had rejected the flesh and everything about it. The irony is that John most clearly establishes Jesus as human as well as divine.

This Gnostic point of view lets the believer think that the flesh does not matter and that faith is only an individual thing. They think that ‘church’ is not necessary, that they can worship God anywhere and they do not need others. While we can, and should, worship God always in the privacy of our homes and in ever aspect of our life, we also need to be in the fellowship of other believers. God created the church for a purpose—so that His people will live in love, encourage one another and be accountable to each other. We help one another walk the right path. When we are alone, when we think we can do it alone, we grow cold. Our faith is fed by the fellowship we have with one another.

In today's epistle, John addresses the issue of Jesus’ humanity. He writes, “That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full.” The reality of Jesus’ resurrection is found in the relationship we have with other Christians. Through Christ we are one with the Father and we are one with Christ together with the rest of the Church. We are a family, with God as our Father and Christ as our brother. Our fellow believers are also our siblings, joined together by the Spirit which Jesus first gave to the disciples in that upper room.

Families are different now than they had been in Jesus’ day, at least most families are different. We don’t have communal family homes any more, where generation after generation stays together supporting one another and pooling resources. As a matter of fact, many families do not even stay in the same town. My own family is scattered all over the United States. We have our own homes, our own responsibilities. It made it more difficult for us when our parents were ill, but we managed to find a way to work together. In the days of the early church, families stayed close. A husband moved into the home of his wife’s family. Children grew up under the care of parents and grandparents. Brothers and sisters worked the same fields, shared in the same meals and cousins grew up like siblings. They shared everything.

That’s why it was so hard for those who became Christian. When they chose to follow ‘the Way’ they were cast out of their proudly Jewish families. They had no place to live, no one with whom they could pool their resources. They were alone and unable to support themselves. So, the Church became their family. The very few who had material possessions sold them to help those who had nothing. They pooled their resources so that everyone could survive this incredible change in their lives. The story from Acts is not a model of a lifestyle we are expected to live, but an example of how those early Christians dealt with the consequences of their decision to follow “the Way.” We have to learn from their example and live in the world as it is for us today in a way that will glorify God. It is hard, but we can help by being the witnesses God has called to share His grace with those who need more than words. In our lives, in our actions, in our faith, they will see that He lives.

We are called to be generous, but it is up to us to learn how to do that in our circumstances. Should we be selling our homes and moving into some compound to share all our resources with other Christians? I do not think that’s what God is calling us to do. The story following our text is about Ananias and Sapphira who sold their belongings and gave a portion to the disciples to distribute but claimed they gave the whole amount. They were punished, not for keeping some of the profits, but for lying about giving it all away. Peter says, “Wasn’t it yours to begin with? Why would you lie about it?” We are to give as we are able, not with boasting and self-piety or lies, but with our hearts.

We have what Church that came before us was able to pass down to us. We don’t have a physical Jesus who can come into our homes or walk with us on our path. It is no wonder, then, if there are those in our world today who doubt. Jesus says, “don’t be without faith, believe.” Those first disciples were given the opportunity to touch Him, to feel His wounds, to share in the reality of the resurrection. We are not blessed in that way, but Jesus tells us that we are blessed even more than those who saw and believed. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” We walk in faith, continuing the work Jesus began and shared with those first disciples who touched Him on that Resurrection Day.

I love the image we find in today’s Psalm. It is a message of unity, but it is even more than that. It is a message that as we live together in faith, we are anointed with the grace of Christ. It covers us, flowing down. It is refreshing and pleasant. This is the way it should be when we are gathered with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should feel so comfortable that no matter what our agreements or disagreements, we can sit together and listen to the sounds of God. The psalmist describes it as the feeling of ointment running down the face: soothing, calming, pleasant. That’s what unity is all about.

God is not calling us to sacrifice what we know or love. He is not calling us to give up our heritage or worship style; He is calling us to share in the Spirit of God. The common bond that ties us together is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The divisions that exist have been around since the beginning. Misunderstandings about what faith is and what it means were addressed by those first Christians. As time has passed, we have built fences between our brothers and sisters that has blocked the Spirit of the Living God from displaying His power to the world.

God doesn’t need us, yet He wants us to be part of the continuing work of Christ in this world. He wants us to enjoy the blessing that comes from unity of spirit. Christ’s Church is made up of unique and interesting individuals who together form a beautiful picture of life in Christ. There are so many who need to hear the story. They need to experience the living Christ. They need to see through our faith the wounds of His grace and they need to hear the words of peace Christ gave to those frightened disciples on that first night after the resurrection. He has called us to be part of the neverending story. May we always remember the things that bring us together—faith, hope and God’s Spirit—and work together to serve God in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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