Sunday, April 28, 2019

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

We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.

We pick on poor Thomas for his attitude in today’s Gospel lesson. He said, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Why wouldn’t he believe based on the word of his friends? Shouldn’t he have accepted what they had to say, based on their reports? After all, the disciples were not the first to proclaim this good news; even Jesus told them it would happen before He was crucified. The women reported the missing body; Mary said that she had seen the Lord. How many witnesses would it take for Thomas to believe?

We shouldn’t be so hard on poor Thomas! None of the others believed until they saw Jesus for themselves. They didn’t believe the women; they thought they were mumbling nonsense. Even when Jesus appeared, they were glad only after they had seen the physical evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion, knowing that indeed the one who appeared before them was their Lord. Jesus is speaking to all of us when He addressed Thomas’s faith after having seen the evidence because we all think we need some proof of God’s mercy and grace to believe. We are reminded, though, that we believe not because we have seen and not because we, by our own power, can believe. We believe because we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit and by that power we can believe. Thomas was not present when Jesus breathed on the disciples; he did not have the faith that comes from God, the faith on which our assurance is built.

None of the disciples believed without the help of God. For Thomas and the other disciples, the help came in the appearance of Jesus before them and from the breath of the Spirit He breathed upon them. He appeared from outside the locked door, almost like a ghost. Yet, He was not a ghost, He was a living being. He let them touch Him, to see His wounds. They reported His presence with joy to Thomas, who did not believe them. He’s not alone. Many people in the world still do not believe in the Living Lord, the resurrection of Jesus. They will not have the opportunity to see Him in the flesh like Peter and the others or Thomas. It is no wonder that they do not believe.

Yet, many people do believe. We believe not because we have any sort of proof, but because we have been breathed upon by God and anointed with the Holy Spirit. We believe not based on the physical presence of Jesus, but on the word of the witnesses. We believe by the mercy of God, for it is only by His grace can we have faith. We have the Word, given to us in the scriptures, to speak the testimony of the witnesses into our lives. As John wrote, “Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” We are the blessed ones, because we believe by God’s power, not because we are eyewitnesses or have been given any sort of proof.

I read a lot of historical fiction, particularly from the Middle ages in Europe. It was a violent and bloody time, when men fought with swords for their life, their women and their land. Victory came not only by defeating the enemy, but by destroying them. Many of the wars are described as bloody massacres, with fields filled with hacked flesh and mud made with the blood of the injured and dead. Our impression of these ancient wars is that the battles were between millions of people. The reality is that there were likely only thousands on those battlefields, including the women who followed their men. But hand to hand combat is deadly; swords against swords leave the fields bloody and covered with bodies.

The way to win was not necessarily to get the upper hand in the actual fighting, but to have power over the mind and the courage of the enemy. Courage is vital when coming face to face with someone determined to kill you, and it is the warrior’s job to make the enemy afraid of what will happen. The armies will shout insults and obscenities, bang on their shields with their swords to make thunderous noise and put on displays of strength and power so that the enemy will know what they are up against.

One of the most disgusting things that they did was to put the severed heads of dead enemies on poles above the gates to their fortresses. This was a display of dishonor, because it means the body was not properly disposed according to the traditions of his people. If the head was separated from the body, then the warrior could not go into the afterlife with honor. The person would be humiliated as the head was picked clean by the birds, leaving only the skull and some hair flowing in the wind. The equivalent of this dishonor in Jesus’ day was to ‘hang someone on a tree.’ When someone was put to death for a crime, they were hung on a tree and left for the birds. They were not only punished for their crime, but they were dishonored as well.

Peter, in his speech to defend himself before the Sanhedrin, acknowledged that they not only killed Jesus, but they dishonored Him by hanging Him on a tree. He told them they did this not simply to a man who wanted to be king, but to they did it to the One whom God Himself had lifted to be Savior. Jesus the One they dishonored and killed was the One who came to redeem Israel. They, the disciples, were witnesses to these things and they could not do anything but preach the Word that God had given to them. Though Jesus had been dishonored, which was done to bring fear into the hearts of His followers, the disciples were not afraid so they continued to preach and teach all that He had given them. They knew their strength was not in human power and authority, but in God's grace and they could do nothing but obey.

What must it have been like for Jesus’ disciples in the hours following His arrest? They were frightened and uncertain. What would happen to them? Would they be arrested also? Would they suffer from the beatings of the Romans and be led to their own crosses? Would they be outcast from the Jewish community, having followed a leader that was such a disappointment? How could Jesus die? He was the Messiah, the appointed King of Israel. Jesus died with nothing, but the disciples were left with even less, because they chose to leave everything to follow this Lord and now even He was gone. They disappeared, hid behind closed doors. Peter tried to keep track of what was happening during the trial, but he denied that he even knew Jesus when he was confronted by the others in the courtyard.

Things never really got easier, even after Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection. The stories of the earliest missionary journeys and church planting missions are filled with frightful examples of hard times. Persecution, false accusations, rejection, imprisonment, beatings, hunger and all sorts of other dangers were part of their daily existence. Following Jesus did not guarantee safety from natural disasters, as Paul discovered on his voyage to Rome. They had only the assurance that God was with them through their hard times and that He would get them through, even through death as a martyr that most of them would face. The biggest difference between the disciples during the hours after the resurrection and the time after they were sent into the world is that they had the Holy Spirit.

It took some time, but they realized that life in Christ, even in the midst of suffering, is a life of joy and peace. In mathematics, multiplying -1 by any number will make it a negative. The same is true of our emotions. It is easy for us to let the negative emotions take over our life. When we are facing difficult times, one bad moment can lead to more. This happens when we turn from God, when we keep our eyes on our problems instead of Him. We are called to trust that God has given us all we need to get through each day, and that even if we end up being martyred for our faith that He has an even greater promise waiting for us.

It is hard to find joy when things don’t seem to be going our way. Very few people have the eyes that see the light in the midst of trouble. They can’t see the sun shining behind the clouds. Yet, there are times when God grants us a vision of what heaven will look like. Sometimes it appears in a dream, but often He simply uses the beauty of His created world to give us a foretaste of the world to come. I’ve seen heaven in the laugh of a baby; from the top of a mountain overlooking a hidden valley; in a meadow filled with flowers; in a rainbow after a storm. I can’t see these things and ignore the majesty of my Creator.

When we were living in England I saw the most incredible sight in the sky as I was standing at the sink washing the dishes. In an otherwise cloudless sky, there was a large, dark mushroom shaped cloud. The waning sun was behind this cloud and the rays shown from behind, creating a halo around the cloud. It was as if God was behind a curtain, and His light was trying to break through to the world. As I continued with my work, the bottom of the cloud began to split, like the curtains on a great stage. The sun’s rays broke through, and the stage behind was breathtakingly beautiful. This foretaste made me long for the day when I will stand in His presence and worship Him at His throne.

I saw a much different vision of heaven on another occasion. I saw a hummingbird during a time of terrible weather. It was one of the first of the season. He took a moment at our feeders, but the wind was bitter and the rain was cold, so he took refuge under the bush that was near my window. He sat there for a long time, and though he seemed to be shivering, he was also safe and dry. I could almost see God’s hands surrounding him, protecting him from the cold.

God reveals Himself in His creation so that we will have a vision in our hearts and our minds of the heavenly realms. He gives us a glimmer, to draw us ever closer to Him and to keep us on His path. We just have to take the time to see Him, to witness the beauty of His creation and His constant presence in His world. That glimmer is not necessarily going to be something as grand as the sun bursting forth from beneath a cloud. It might just be someone in need, someone who needs to know God’s loving presence in their life. How will He reveal Himself to you today? Perhaps it will be the kind words of a friend or the awesome power of lightning in a thunderstorm. Perhaps it will be someone who needs to get out of the cold. Go about with your work today, but be ever mindful of His presence. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of heaven.

Life will not always be beautiful, and many of the things we witness will seem much too far from heaven. Though war is different today, we still struggle with conflict with enemies. There have been shocking and horrifying events in the past few weeks that remind us that life as a Christian is dangerous. We don’t really experience that fear in the United States, but we stand with those who have been captured, tortured and killed all over the world. We need to be aware that the day may come for any Christian anywhere when they will be harmed by someone who seeks to end Christianity in this world. Satan is real and Satan is still actively trying to destroy faith in God. We need to beware that the ways of Satan are not always blatant, that the worst we could do in this day is be like Peter, denying our Lord to protect our own lives.

We have a choice of two Psalms this week. Both are songs of joy and thankfulness to God. The disciples faced incredible difficulties as they mourned the loss of Christ, and then in the work they did after they knew He rose from the dead. Life in Christ never meant that we would not suffer. However, in Christ we have the grace to keep our eyes and our hearts on God, so we can get through anything with Him. So, we are called to live in praise and thanksgiving, to joyfully take God into any and every circumstance, knowing that He will be with us through it all.

This coming Sunday, the first Sunday following Easter, has been historically known as “Low Sunday.” Though the meaning of this is uncertain, to our modern ears it makes perfect sense. The Sunday following Easter is often very poorly attended. Perhaps that day seems unimportant compared to the significance of the Holy Week and Easter worship. Perhaps it is a letdown after the celebrations of the week before. Perhaps everyone is exhausted; pastors, lay people who were actively involved in the worship, even those who simply attended so many services take a break for a week. It is a day when many pastors choose to take vacation, to rest and recover from the draining experience of Holy Week. Unfortunately, many parishioners take the same Sundays off when the pastor is away.

It doesn’t help that we hear the same story every year on the Second Sunday of Easter. We hear over and over again the story of Doubting Thomas. It is an uncomfortable story to hear because we think so negatively about doubt, and yet we all experience some level of doubt when it comes to the stories about Jesus Christ. It seems as though during Lent each year we face some story that makes us question the foundation of our faith. Tombs are located, historical writings surface, books are popular that cast a shadow on the things we learned in Sunday school and have experienced in worship. If there is an ossuary, a bone box, that held Jesus’ bones, then how could He have risen from the dead? There would not have been time in the three days He was dead for the box to be made and the body to decompose to be placed in the box. Though they reject the truth of the scriptures, these reports cause us to doubt.

However, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Indifference or apathy is the opposite of faith. Doubt makes us question, makes us seek, makes us study to know and understand. Doubt makes us grow, and it often makes our faith deeper and more real than it was before we had those questions. Thomas doubted. He refused to believe the disciples when they said, “We have seen the Lord.” He needed to see Jesus for himself. Don’t we all? Perhaps we can hear the stories of Jesus and believe them to be true, but we also doubt. We need a very real experience of God’s revelation to us for us to truly believe. That revelation comes at Baptism, when the Holy Spirit comes upon us and grants us the faith by which we will live. We can’t do it on our own. Without God’s help, we would not doubt, we would be indifferent because we would not have the faith to believe. Doubt leads us to faith because it makes us seek to know and understand that which God has given to us.

Another name for this Sunday is Quasimodo Sunday. I know you are asking, “Why would we name the first Sunday after Easter after a character from the Victor Hugo story?” In reality, the character was named Quasimodo because he was left on the church steps on the Sunday after Easter. The words “quasi modo” in Latin mean “in the manner of new born babes.” Quasimodo was the main character in the story “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” who fights to protect the beautiful Esmeralda. His faith is innocent; his hope is child-like. His name is appropriate, “in the manner of new born babes.”

Jesus told Thomas, and the other disciples, that those who believe without seeing are blessed. Blessed are those who have a child-like, innocent faith. That faith is true; it is real because it is not based on human effort but on the work of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, we all grow up. We all lose our innocence. We face difficulties. We face persecution. We face the attempts by Satan and the world to break our faith and cause us doubt. Doubt is, unfortunately, a part of maturity, because we are forced to give answers to the questions about the grace that which we have been given. We are forced to seek out for ourselves the meaning of our faith when it is questioned by the world. Our doubt, and overcoming our doubt, becomes a witness to the world, just like Thomas’s confession of faith has become a witness to us. He doubted, but he continued to seek the Lord and in the end he made the greatest confession of all, “My Lord and my God.”

Witnessing, as is seen in the story from Acts and Revelation, are the work of both God and the one whom God uses. Together, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the faithful will speak the Word into the lives of those who will hear. In this way, God’s story has been shared with every generation since the resurrection of Jesus and will continue until the day He comes again, trusting that God has given us all we need to get through each day, and that even if we end up being martyred for our faith that He has an even greater promise waiting for us.

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