For the past three weeks, we have read nearly the end of three different gospels: Mark, John, and now Luke. We heard the likely original endings of Mark and John: each of them have a few verses that seem to have been added later to tie things up a bit more neatly. Luke also has a few more verses after today's reading ends, but it's the story of Jesus' ascension, which we should hear just a few weeks down the road.
Each of these gospels uses Jesus' appearances after Easter to restate their themes. For Mark, where the disciples run away from the empty tomb in terror and amazement, that means emphasizing the mystery and dislocation that Jesus' entry into the world brings. In John, it's doubt, belief, obedience and peace. Luke emphasizes how Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises made in Hebrew scripture, how he sponsors a new kind of community, and how that community is meant to be shared with the world.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the gospel lesson for this Sunday is supposed to be much shorter. I added the first two paragraphs in order to expand the story a bit, and so you can see the themes a little better.
For example, when Jesus joins the disciples, they are discussing what happened on Easter. They have two models for understanding Jesus, both of which are drawn from the Old Testament: he was a prophet, they say, a wonder-worker like Moses or Elijah or Elisha. Or, they hoped, he was a messiah like David, come to set the people of Israel free. But they haven't quite been able to make the imaginative leap that would allow them to understand how Jesus fulfills the scripture in a new and surprising way. That's what he explains to them, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets." Later, he'll repeat this lesson with all the disciples in Jerusalem: "Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."
As he begins his lesson, Jesus has a few harsh words for the two disciples he meets on the road to Emmaus: "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!" I think it's probably best to understand this as followers of Jesus speaking to themselves: can you believe we were such idiots that we didn't get this?
Jesus teaches the disciples just like any rabbi would. But his lesson plan wouldn't work with just any old teacher. It is his presence with them that opens up their minds and their hearts to true understanding. Cleopas and his friend get it when Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to them. Once they are fed with his body, they can see world rightly. When he appears in Jerusalem, it's the other way around: first he shows them his hands and his feet, then he eats a little fish, then he begins to open the scripture to them.
Having Jesus' body there with them is enough to make the disciples into full believers. Up until this point, they have been "foolish" and "slow of heart." Now their education is complete, and they are almost ready to become the church we know from the book of Acts.
Soon Jesus' body will depart and be replaced by the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. Despite that transition, however, I think there is a lesson for us here. I am not one to complain about social media. It's lovely stuff and quite distracting, in fact. But for all the Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and so on and so forth, there is simply no replacement for being present to one another in our bodies.
I use a much-abbreviated version of the first two paragraphs of this lesson to introduce the communion service when I go out to see our homebound members. I want them to hear the good news that Jesus has not forgotten about them. He will continue to draw near to them as they walk along, and so will we. I encourage you to go see our friends who cannot be with us on a Sunday morning. I know they appreciate the visits, because they tell me so. They like to be reminded that there is still a community out there pulling for them, even when they are not able to be physically present to it.
It takes courage to go out to see people at home or in the hospital or at a nursing home, to be honest. You don't know what to say, or how long to stay, or how to bear the pain that people sometimes share with you. I'm not complaining about my job, mind you. It just comes with its own set of challenges. Knowing how hard it is for me to visit sometimes is a good reminder of how difficult it would be for you all to do the same thing.
It helps me to remind myself of what I am supposed to be doing on these visits: not so much to speak as to listen, or at the very least to engage in conversation, rather than a one-way monologue, to adjust to what the other person needs, to let them be themselves, to affirm our relationship, to name and accept the struggles they're going through. I can do that, and so can you. You don't need to know what to say. You only have to be willing to listen for what God is trying to say. It's usually "I love you all."
Still, visiting our friends isn't always easy. It requires us to come out of ourselves, to do things outside of our comfort zone. But as challenging as it is, it reflects the nature of God himself, who time and again announces his intention to draw near to us, to be present to us, to live with and among us.
"Us" is the right word here. Jesus "came near" the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then to the community of disciples in Jerusalem. In fact, the only time Jesus ever appears to an individual after his resurrection is in the gospel of John, where he speaks to Mary Magdalene. Even then, Peter and John are in the tomb, just steps away. The promises that God makes about being present are made to communities, not this believer or that one. When we refuse to let illness or physical separation tear down the community that we have built up, we testify to our God, who saves us in, through, and for community.
That community is of a special kind, as I say. There are all sorts of communities out there, or things that pass for community. But only Christian communities are built on the ongoing presence of Christ and the hope for the future he provides. We acknowledge as reality that "We who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread," as it says in the communion liturgy. We are gathered together because Jesus, the man of Nazareth, has fulfilled all the promises of God. In doing so, he has called us together into loving community based on those same practices that we use in visitation: listening, adjusting, letting people be themselves, affirming one another and the mutual relationship, accepting the inevitable struggles, sharing power as equals. I won't do it, but we could get a pretty good sermon series on how all of these things turn up in the book of Acts.
Friends, we're pretty good at these things. You have heard me say before that churches like ours were formed to serve the needs of small communities. Mission accomplished, as far as I'm concerned. You all know how to love and support one another. God is at work in you to continue and extend that mission, and you go, girl.
You have heard me say it before, but it bears repeating: God will provide the resources you need for the mission of this community. We so often talk about church as though we needed a building, a pastor, and people with the ability to pay for them in order to do anything of any worth. But the earliest Christians—the people who knew Jesus and watched him eat a piece of fish when he was supposed to be dead—they didn't have any of those things. What they had was all they needed, which is one another, and the presence of the risen Christ saying Peace be with you, Peace be with you. We've got both of those. They are our hopes and our dreams fulfilled in the present day, the beginnings of heaven popping up all around them. Why shouldn't we have some fun with them? Amen.
Fifteen, sixteen years ago, when I was but a scared young preacher climbing into the pulpit for the first time, blessing the doubts of the congregation seemed more important than it does today. My first congregation was old, even older than Bethany. Most of the people there would be 80 or more now, and the oldest of them would be nearing 120, were she still around to chomp on bananas and sticky buns. Regardless of their age, however, they shared a common upbringing: shut up, do as you're told, don't ask questions.
Their Christian development, meanwhile, was what's sometimes called the "Sunday School faith": be a nice person and believe in God, and everything will be okay.
Except it wasn't. They were stuck between their very natural fears, doubts and questions and their sense of what they should do: shut up, don't complain, don't ask why. Especially at the end of their lives, when they suffered or when they watched a loved one suffer, they couldn't bring themselves to wonder if God really did have a plan, or if that plan made any sense. It would have felt disobedient to them.
It was difficult to watch them go through these things without being able to lift their pain and anxiety up to God, without the sense of God's compassionate presence in their time of need. But they seemed to take comfort in the idea that they were fulfilling their duty. It wasn't a spirituality most of us would embrace, but they seemed dedicated to it.
You all seem to have more of the understanding that doubt and faith are not enemies. Perhaps you grew up being taught in Sunday School the same lessons as my first congregation, but not many of you have told stories about being raised in the same rigid, authoritarian way. Maybe that's something you'd rather block out. These days, younger people wouldn't know what to do if they weren't allowed to doubt or ask questions. Where society once valued the discipline of accepting the answers given by people who knew better, it now puts an emphasis on the adventure of finding those answers for yourself, especially in matters of religion or spirituality.
This is most likely one of the reasons young people increasingly don't affiliate with any particular religion. It's not that they're hostile or opposed to faith, generally. They simply haven't found satisfactory answers, and don't want to join any particular group until they're sure of what they believe. Another reason, of course, is that churches generally do a lousy job of teaching young seekers that none of us have the answers. We're here to seek the truth, not because we've found it. The company's good while we seek, that counts for a lot.
So: welcome, seekers. We don't have all the answers. You are pilgrims on the same journey as everyone else. If you have questions, sit down with us after worship. We indeed do not have all the answers, but the treats are always good. I am not convinced the same is true of the coffee, but then I am a dreadful snob when it comes to such things.
Thomas was also unconvinced, at least for a while. No, not about the coffee. About what happened after Easter. John doesn't tell us why Thomas wasn't with the other disciples when Jesus appeared in the locked room. Nor does he say why Thomas had such a hard time trusting his friends' accounts of seeing Jesus. Perhaps it just seemed too laughable to be believed. So when Jesus shows up a week later and invites Thomas to put his hands in his wounds, his words to Thomas are literally, "Do not remain unconvinced, but have faith," or "trust."
There's no indication that Jesus is angry or upset with Thomas for doubting. On its face, it seems more like Jesus is simply providing the evidence that Thomas asked for. You wanted to see the holes in my hands and side? We can do that.
In fact, John hints that this story isn't about Thomas at all. Jesus says to him,
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
John's audience, the people for whom he wrote his gospel, are thought to have faced some form of persecution. We don't know how bad it was, or what form it took. There seems to have been some pressure for this community to give up their belief in Jesus as Messiah and return to more traditional Jewish beliefs. This is why John often seems so harsh about "the Jews": those were his opponents, who apparently succeeded in convincing at least some members of the community to fall away and return to the synagogues. All throughout the gospel, we hear the language of doubt and belief, which have less with what goes on in Christians' heads than with what they do. Those who stick by Jesus and the Christian community believe the signs they have been given. Those who doubt the signs give up and fall away. John writes so that those who did not have the luxury of meeting Jesus in person—that is, those who didn't see Jesus' signs firsthand—can be as convinced as Thomas was when presented with Christ's wounds, and so remain steadfast in the face of persecution.
It is easy to get so caught up in Thomas' individual story that we miss that this story is a blessing for the community of believers. John wants his people to come to believe, or "continue to believe," as some versions of his gospel say, that Jesus is the Messiah so that they might have life. The purpose of this story, in other words, is not to scold you for having questions, but to give the entire church what it needs to have life.
That being said, have we not seen signs that ought to lead us to believe, whether as individuals or a community? Sarai Rice, a consultant to congregations talks about some of the emotions that she sees in congregations that are struggling. They feel:
- shame that they can’t make their church work anymore
- guilt that they’re letting down the generations that came before them—in some cases their literal ancestors who started the church
- fear that the congregation is going to close, leaving them with no more font at which their children were baptized, no more pew to sit where they’ve always sat, no more group of friends to cross the aisle and hug on Sunday morning, no more kitchen in which to arrange plates of cookies after a funeral
- anger that the current minister’s sermons aren’t interesting enough, or he doesn’t visit enough, or she isn’t around enough to bring the church back to what it used to be when the balcony and offering plates were full
Do any of these emotions seem familiar to you? Every last one of them has been expressed in my presence. These are our moments of being Thomas, of expressing doubt, uncertainty, a need for reassurance. They are perfectly natural and perfectly acceptable feelings to have. They show that you are invested in your community and its strength, which is the feeling of tight connection and generous support you feel from one another. If I am not mistaken, you sense that that interconnectedness is a gift from God, perhaps God's major gift to this community, and if you doubt, it is doubt that you will be able to pass your gift on to a new generation.
The people who write advice for pastors and congregations often respond to these moments of doubt by telling them what they can do better so that they don't have to feel the doubt in the first place. It's intended to be something like a parent telling a kid who's nervous about his soccer team's ability to win games that they'll have to work hard on passing and controlling the ball. Which is sometimes helpful.
More often than not, however, the practical effect is to encourage struggling Christians to be better disciples. If only you believed in these six weird tricks that can grow any congregation, you would be just fine. That leaves churches feeling doubtful and inadequate.
Sometimes nervous children need to be taught new skills to improve their situation. Sometimes they need to hear "It's okay. I am here for you." Sarai Rice says that along with shame, guilt, fear and anger, the church people she meets also hold "memories of singular, personal encounters with the transcendent that have changed their lives." Such as:
- a moment of deep, abiding peace
- a fleeting sense of the fundamental oneness of everything in the universe
- times of deep pain seemingly responded to by a stranger or an pet or a star in the sky
- a sense of being filled with overflowing, all-encompassing love
- the experience of unflinching forgiveness
These are the types of signs that we are given in order that we might believe. You will notice that none of them remove all doubt. We still must choose to believe that they are evidence that God loves us and wants us to live. But if we accept them they are gifts from God, testaments to the resurrection that has begun in Jesus and is promised to us in the future. As gifts, they are also strengths that we can build on, rather than weaknesses that must be repaired, leaving us feeling ever more overwhelmed and incapable.
I am speaking this morning about church life, but the same thing could be said for our personal lives as well. Americans in particular spend an inordinate amount of time on self-improvement, which has a way of leaving people feeling only more helpless than they started. It's better to zero in on those moments of connection, of responsiveness, of peace, and let them lift us up. Being open to those moments is a much better way to go through life than doubting your own adequacy.
The purpose of this reading is not to shame Thomas. Nor is it to tell us not to be like him. It's this: "Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.'" Jesus does not appear to judge Thomas. He comes, as he does to all of us, to bring his peace to those who lack it, and to give life in his name. So may he do for all of you, whether you doubt or whether you believe. Amen.
The folks who came to the Maundy Thursday service—and if you didn't, you missed some awesome soup and bread—might remember that I referenced this morning's reading from Isaiah in my remarks. This is Isaiah's vision of the heavenly banquet, that is, the blissful meal to be served in heaven when the kingdom of God becomes a complete reality.
As we learned on Thursday, Isaiah's language of rich food and good wine probably reflects the terms of temple sacrifice: rich food and good wine is what you would put on the Temple altar as an offering to God. So in heaven, God will feed his people with the same kinds of food they have offered to him over the years. That means the very best, hopefully. It also means, as we talked about with the Last Supper, that we will no longer need the Temple. Because God will be everywhere with us, we will be able to share the rich food and good wine as though we were in the Temple, no matter where we are. The connection to Easter, of course, is that in his resurrection body, Jesus replaces the Temple. Wherever he is, we will be in the presence of God—and we will share in the heavenly banquet.
Those of you who know my feelings on food will know that I consider this a true Easter joy.
The invitation to the heavenly banquet is open not just to Jews, but to Gentiles as well. Isaiah tells us that God
will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.
That's a reference to the curtain that hung in the Temple to separate "the Holy of Holies" from the rest of the sanctuary, the idea being that if you stood face-to-face with God, you would surely die. No more. Now God will be available to all of us—again, whether Jew or Gentile—and we will all live and be able to sit down with him at the banquet table.
It's surprising to find this mention of universal salvation in Isaiah. When he originally wrote, it was as a promise to the Jews in exile in Babylon of what awaited them when they returned to Jerusalem. You would expect that the promise would be to only the Jews, not the Gentiles in whose land they were forced to live. But apparently not. The salvation of Israel is somehow tied up in the salvation of the peoples around them. The same is true for Christians: we will not be saved alone, but alongside people who don't share our faith.
We will be saved with them, we will live with them. God will lift the funeral shroud that lays over all people, and "swallow up death," Isaiah tells us. That's a reversal of what people would have expected to hear in his time. In those days, the mythology was that death swallowed up everything in its path. But here, God takes care of death itself. He will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the God on whom we have waited will finally make good on his promise to save us from sin and death.
I wanted to include this scripture in this morning's service to close out our Lenten theme of hospitality. When we ask what Heaven will look like, Isaiah answers us: it will look like a fine dinner party thrown by God on Mt. Zion. There will be good food and good wine: God literally feeds his children. God himself will be the host, and all people—all people—will be invited. You can't beat that kind of invitation, especially if they have cookies for dessert.
You can't beat that kind of invitation, and yet Jesus does just that. Those of you who have heard me speak about hospitality know that one of my favorite images for the practice is the empty room. When we welcome someone into our homes, we prepare for them an empty room that they can make their own, even if just for a night or two. When we welcome them into our hearts, we prepare within ourselves space in which they can find themselves, become their truest selves without our crowding or interference.
This, in a sense, is exactly what Jesus does when he is raised from the dead. He offers us the emptiest of rooms: the tomb in which he lay for three days.
Now, I am a bit hesitant to spin out this image, to be honest. Jesus never says, "Here, have the tomb, I'm not using it!" And as far as I know, there's no tradition of preachers taking Easter morning as an example of God's hospitality toward us. If anything, Jesus has been the guest, with the young man dressed in white his designated caretaker while God hosts him among the dead.
But follow the image out with me. As Henri Nouwen tells us, hospitality is not simply a matter of showing kindness to people who are already our friends. We make room in our homes and in our hearts for a person who is a stranger or an enemy and allow them to become our friend, without force or compulsion or overeagerness. A friendly emptiness, Nouwen calls it. Isn't that exactly what Jesus provides at the tomb? We are at best alienated from God—strangers to him—because we are determined to walk our own way and so fall into sin. We imagine that we have no need of God or of other people, we come to believe that we can do it all for ourselves, and we pay the price. When God comes to offer us a better, more humble way, we don't even recognize him to accept the offer.
At worst, we are enemies with God. I don't mean the atheists in our society. As hostile as they can be, they're no more than strangers to God. No, God's enemies are God's children, the ones who hear the gospel calling to live a life of peace, of hope, of love, and who choose instead to live war and despair and taking advantage of others, using them for our own ends. Every game of violence, domination, or oppression that we play or allow to be played in our names, every covenant that we break with God, as individuals or as a society, sets us against him. God wants to create a world marked by life, reconciliation, and healing, and we just want to set it on fire. It only leads to ashes, and we're left to wonder why.
I think this is why the disciples leave the tomb in "terror and amazement." They realize that surely God is at work here, and if God is at work, all their sins and shortcomings will be revealed, and sooner rather than later.
There is no greater symbol of our hostility toward God than the grave, for it is in the grave (or so the Israelites thought) that we are finally, fully, separated from God. We are so stubborn, so fully set against God, the Jews of Jesus' day believed, that we would rather rot in the ground for all eternity than change our ways and find new and everlasting life. We are so busy chasing life on earth by getting one over on other people that we fail to notice where it leads us, which is straight into death.
Jesus offers us a different way. He takes the symbol of our sin, death, and alienation, and he makes it into a welcoming space. The tomb, the place where before we were cut off from God, is now the room that God makes for us in his heart, where we can go from strangers and enemies to guests to friends to children.
The price we pay for entry into that room is death. Not even Easter can roll that stone away. But if we die, and if in our deaths we trust humbly, we discover the truth of Easter. What we must trust is less that Jesus is God, or that God has overcome death by a show of power, than that Jesus as God has walked the valley of the shadow of death before us and made it safe for our passage. We discover that God loves us and will not let us go, even in the grave. We are not left alone in the end. We are invited to a party.
That, I think, ought to change how we think about what we do as a community of God's people, who we are. When it really gets down to it, the point of church is to live in this life and in the next. You and I and all the other people in churches around the world are here because we are tired of being strangers and enemies. We have been invited to the party, and we would like very much to go. So we gather here, where the party begins, rather awkwardly, and we look forward to the day when the banquet begins in earnest and we see our God and savior face to face. Amen.
My sister-in-law tells me that Thanksgiving is not complete without my grandmother's butterhorn recipe, and Easter is not complete without a loaf or two of this lemony Easter bread. The recipe comes from Mrs. Florence Clementi Blazek via the Memories of Greenbush cookbook, Greenbush being the old Italian neighborhood around the intersection of Park and Regent Streets in Madison, Wisconsin. They tore that place down years ago, but not before I managed to snag the cookbook. I think I bought it at the old Fraboni's, if that rings any bells.
Anyway, you can get it below, or in .pdf form.
Florence Clementi Blazek's Easter Bread
¼ c. sugar
1 package instant lemon pudding
¼ c. butter
½ t. salt
¾ c. warm milk
1 T. / 1 package instant yeast
¼ c. warm water
3 beaten eggs
1 t. anise
1 t. vanilla
1 t. lemon rind / lemon extract
4-5 cups flour
Mix together sugar, pudding, butter and salt. Add milk and set aside.
Mix yeast in warm water and let bubble for a few minutes. (The original recipe says 10 minutes, but it really isn't necessary. As long as it shows some sign of life, it's okay.)
Add eggs and yeast to sugar mixture and stir until mixed. Add flour a cup at a time until you have a firm dough. It will probably still be a bit sticky. Take the dough out of the mixing bowl and let sit for 10 minutes, or for as long as it takes you to clean and grease the bowl.
Lightly flour a work surface. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until it snaps back quickly when you push down gently with two fingers. Put back in bowl and let it rise in a warm place until double.
Punch the dough down and knead again for a few minutes. Let rise again.
Punch the dough down and knead again. Form into loaves and let rise a third time, for about an hour.
Bake at 350° for 35 minutes. When the bread is cool, glaze it and decorate with colored sprinkles.
Another one of my Twitter sermons, this one on grace and Maundy Thursday.