Sunday, April 23, 2006

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

Yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.

There is some irony in today's Gospel lesson, in that Thomas was not there on that first Easter Day to meet the risen Christ. The irony is found in the fact that most Christians were probably in church somewhere last week, just as they are on every Christmas and Easter. The week after Easter, then, tends to be lighter attendance. There are several reasons for this. Often the pastor will take a vacation day the next week after having prepared so many services for Holy Week. Some members will consider that a valid excuse to take a break from Sunday morning attendance. Others will want a break because they attended all those activities during Holy Week.

We don't know where Thomas was hiding. We only know that he was not there with the disciples that first Easter morning. He didn't see Jesus and he did not believe the testimony of the witnesses. He wanted proof, physical proof, of Jesus' resurrection. Because of his demands, Thomas has been made out to be a bad guy, unfaithful, someone who did not believe in Jesus. Yet, in the end Thomas makes the most complete affirmation of faith. He calls Jesus "my Lord and my God." In these five words, Thomas defines fully the dual nature of Jesus, both man and God. It is on this point that the community of Christians of which John was a leader found division.

Some Christians did not believe that Jesus was 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. Even today there are many Christians who see John's Gospel as having a deeper spiritually than the others. They claim that those who understand the symbolism are on a deeper spiritual plane.

This must have been a problem in the early church because in today's epistle we see John addressing 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."

If Jesus was merely spirit, or just an apparition, then perhaps He may have been heard, even seen. But John says that He was touched and felt with human hands. He was not only God, He was also man. Certainly God as God could have brought about salvation in whatever form or way that He thought appropriate. He chose to do so through His Son, sent in flesh and blood. The cross was very real. Jesus' death was very real. The resurrection was very real. It was experienced by the disciples with their entire beings. They saw Him, heard Him, and touched Him. And Jesus ate some fish. In doing so, Jesus established without a doubt that He was raised in body. It was not just a spiritual thing.

So, in the Gospel lesson we see the disciples hiding behind locked doors, afraid. John writes, "Jesus came and stood among them and said, ' Peace be with you.'" When we are in the midst of fear and grief, the words "Peace be with you" from someone we know and love are often just what we need to hear. Yet, when these words are said to us by strangers, they rarely have the intended affect. How can a stranger know what we need? How can they offer us any sort of peace?

The disciples recognized Jesus but they thought He was a ghost – a spiritual being. A word of peace from a ghost would do nothing to bring me peace. It would probably bring me even more fear and grief. But then 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. They were to be at peace because there was no need for their fear or grief.

After He offered them His hands and feet, He said, "Peace be with you" again. The first time He said it, He was offering them peace in that moment, in the midst of their fear and grief. The second time, He was offering them more. He was offering Himself, His presence, His power and His Spirit. He breathed on them, gave them the Holy Spirit and sent them out into the world. Their purpose would be His purpose – to take forgiveness into the entire world.

One of the disciples 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 in the midst 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. Notice that Jesus does not seek out Thomas wherever he is hiding. Jesus waited until Thomas was once again in the company of his fellow disciples. While it is true that we can have very real, personal encounters with the Jesus, in this story we see how important it is for us to be part of the body of Christ.

I've received the following story in my email several times over the past few years. "The story is told of a man who had once been faithful to attend his church regularly, but had grown lackadaisical recently. The Pastor knew that he hadn't seen the gentleman in a while, so he went for a visit. John greeted the Pastor and welcomed him in, directing him to the chair beside the fireplace. He asked the Pastor what brought him to visit, but the Pastor didn't say a word. He simply grabbed the fireplace tongs, picked up a hot coal from the fire, and set it away from the fire, out on the hearth. Both men then watched the coal. While the fire roared on, the coal which had been red hot began to lose its heat. It gradually lost its red color, and then cooled off so that it became cool to the touch. The Pastor picked up the coal, and handed it to John for a moment. Neither man said a word. Then the Pastor reached out and took the coal back from John, and returned it to the roaring fire. In just a few short moments, the coal once again glowed red hot, as the pile of flaming coals caused it to heat up again. The Pastor then got to his feet, put his hat on, and shook John's hand. At that point, John looked at the Pastor with tears in his eyes, and told him 'Thank you for coming, Pastor, and I'll be in church this coming Sunday!'"

One of the difficulties with the belief that Jesus was not human is that the believer thinks 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, 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.

John writes, "…but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin." Faith in Christ makes us part of a larger body, and we need to be part of that body to survive and to do the work God calls us to do. The psalmist writes, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" The message for this day is about being unified in Christ.

The passage from Acts shows us a picture of unity in the early Church. Of course, this picture was unusual, even among the first Christians. The churches in Corinth, Ephesis, Philippi and other places certainly did not share all their worldly goods. But in Jerusalem the fellowship was so close that they even sold property to share with the poor among them. In the verses following the first lesson, we see two examples of this commitment to give. One is a good example and the other is an example of what we should not do.

First of all we hear the story of Barnabas who sold some land and laid it at the apostles' feet. Now, the scripture does not tell us he sold off everything he owns, but that he willingly sold a field for the sake of others. The second story is of Ananias and Sapphira. They were members of the congregation in Jerusalem who boasted of selling property and giving the entire sum to the apostles. It was quickly learned by the power of the Holy Spirit that dwelt among them that they only gave a part. Their sin was not withholding some of the money, but rather for lying about their giving. They boasted, but their lie was discovered. No one asked them for the money; no one even expected it. But the fact that Ananias and Sapphira claimed to have given so generously was a sin against God. They perished.

When Christ breathed the Holy Spirit into the lives of the disciples, He was answering the promise for an advocate to be with them forever. He would not abandon them, even if it appeared He was not there. Thomas was blessed with a physical, real encounter with the living Christ, but Jesus told him that many would believe in a better way. He said, "Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." In every generation since that first, we have had to believe not based on a physical encounter with Christ, but by the testimony of those who have come before. We have to receive the word from the body of Christ found in the fellowship of the saints. We can't believe without them, either our first glimmer of faith or the faith we have as we spiritually grow and mature.

The other problem with the community to which John was writing is that they felt that since salvation was spiritual and not physical, then they could not sin. The works of their flesh no longer mattered because the flesh did not matter. John writes, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Barnabas gave the procedes from his sale out of love and concern for the poor of their community. Ananias and Sapphira thought that their generous gift would give them prestige. But their gift was based on a lie, there was no integrity.

Integrity matters. Truth matters. It would have been considered a generous gift if they had given just a part of the sale, but standing next to the gift of Barnabas it seemed insignificant. So they lied to make it appear better. They were not living in the light. They did not live and act as if the Spirit of God were dwelling amidst the community. They paid the price of that lack of faith.

It is our nature to interpret the scriptures in a way that would make it appealing to our human nature and to fulfill the desires of our flesh. I mean, wouldn't it be wonderful if salvation were strictly spiritual so we could live any way we wanted without risk? But, it would not really be a good thing, because the law of God was created with good reason – it protects relationships, people and the world in which we live. There are consequences to our sins, and sometimes the consequences affect others.

There are also consequences for living outside the body of Christ. We are gathered together into one body to love one another. We love in more than just words – we love in thought and action. When we see Christ in something less than Thomas' confession – "My Lord and my God" – we think we can be faithful as an island. I have known people who considered their faith to be something better than others – deeper, more spiritual. They left the church because they found it impossible to live in the midst of 'all those sinners' thinking themselves above sin. Outside the body of Christ, they followed a different Gospel and believed in a different Jesus. The salvation they had was in spirit, but not in flesh. The cross and the tomb did not matter because they were not really necessary.

But our passages today make it clear that Jesus lived, died and rose again not only in Spirit but in flesh. He was a man and He was God. We now, thanks to the body of believers who have come before us, can also say with faith, "My Lord and my God" because Jesus is here in the midst of our fellowship. Outside that fellowship is nothing but darkness. But together we know that even when we sin, we will know the forgiveness of Christ. Thanks be to God.

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