Monday, April 23, 2007

The Day Rome Fell

This mornings (second) scripture reading is John 20: 19-31 and can be found on page 769 in your pew Bibles.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your had and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God
As far as I know there were no billboards in ancient Rome. When we drive into cities along interstates we are greeted by smiling faces and shiny new products on giant billboards, but the Roman Empire got its message across by other ways. According to some people, as you walked into certain cities in the Roman Empire, especially those cities with insurgents attempting to expel the occupying Roman military, as was the case in Jerusalem, you were greeted by crosses. Murderers, vagrants, thieves, and revolutionaries, would be hanging there on the sides of the roads as a warning. Here is what will happen to you if you step out of line in this city, so you better act right. You better not steal; you better not revolt or claim to be the Son of God because Rome is the authority in this town!
History proves that it was a good way to preserve order. It is one of the reasons the Romans stayed in power so long; people were just too scared to mess with them. If you mess around with Rome you get crucified and that was not a pleasant way to die. But that’s how they did it; those who doubted the power of Rome were silenced by death. That’s why it was so hard for Thomas to believe that Jesus had risen.
The disciple Thomas, who we often call doubting Thomas because of this passage in John’s Gospel, knew all about Rome’s power and ability to silence any opposition, any force that sought to compromise the power of the Empire.
As a disciple Thomas believed that Jesus did indeed threaten Rome’s power, that this Jesus, this messiah had come to liberate the Jews from the power of Rome, that he had come to bring them freedom from Roman tyranny – but then Jesus was crucified and his voice was silenced just like any other.
The Roman soldiers still kept watch over his town, the Roman roads were still intact, and the Roman taxes were still due.
And today – nearly two thousand years later, the taxes are still due.
Just the word fills me with dread, makes me feel sick inside. All that paper work is very intimidating. Terry Gordon and Maynard have been trying to help me out, and their kindness does a lot to make me feel better, but I can’t help it – I have enough to deal with already, and then these taxes come. It sometimes feels like the straw that broke the camels back.
The service engine soon light keeps coming on in my car, the tiles in my bathroom floor are cracked, I just don’t have enough time, and I just don’t have enough money to mess with all this. So if Jesus is truly my Lord and my God than why won’t he just let me win the lottery so I will be free from all this worry? Then I’ll have plenty of money, I’ll have so much in fact that I won’t have to worry about taxes, I’ll pay even more than required, I’ll just give money away to whatever charity comes along. Once I win the lottery I’ll buy us two more new buses and I won’t make anyone dye their hair!
But it seems as though that’s just not how Jesus works.
Thomas looked out on the world and he hadn’t won the lottery. Nothing had changed for him in his life, so though his friends claimed that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead why should he believe?
The world he knew was still the same old world of before Jesus’ death. The same old stuff was still going on and he had the same old worries.
But then he saw the marks from the nails in his hands; he put is hand into his side where the spear had cut him open.
Then he stopped doubting and believed.
But we no longer have that opportunity.
And so the powers that marked dominance are still intact. The Empire and powers that marked Thomas’ world are real for us.
We struggle with the same doubts but we do not have the opportunity to touch Jesus’ side, so that we may so magically “see and believe.”
So the fears that filled Thomas afflict us, but what does Jesus do to set us free, to prove that he is indeed Lord and God – to prove that he is indeed our Lord and our God?
In a world fighting for oil, for land, for food – in a world where power and dominance are proven again and again to be more important than human life. In a world where there is not enough, and as for the rest of us, it feels like we do not have enough. We struggle to find happiness but it slips through our fingers. We struggle to believe but the world is preaching a different Gospel – the world is telling us that the reality is there is not enough for everyone, so the strong have to take what they can get- the world is telling us that you should fear for your lives because what guns and tanks and hunger can take away can not be restored.
The reality of Thomas is still with us, but Jesus is not here for us to put our hands in his side so that we may “Stop doubting and believe”.
It is significant that these marks remained on the risen Christ, just as the things that put them there remained on the earth. The soldiers who nailed him to the cross were still there, their spears that pierced his flesh were still there, and the cross that he hung on still marked the landscape.
The resurrected Christ did not come back to invite Thomas into a world free from such things. He did not invite Thomas to see a world where there was no more Rome, no more crucifixion, and no more taxes. Instead, Jesus invited Thomas to touch the marks that proved God’s supremacy over such things.
He breathed on the disciples, giving them an authority not from Rome but from the only power that is eternal. He came to the disciples when they were afraid and said, “Peace be with you,” though there was no peace to be seen in a land occupied by a foreign army.
In the risen Christ we do not see a God who has conquered the world and destroyed the idols of the Roman Empire, the idol of fear, the idol of worry, but we may know a God who frees us from their power; because what Rome tried to silence with a death sentence by crucifixion God raised from the dead. In the Resurrection we know that we are not a people of Rome, and likewise we are not a people of the temporal concerns of this world – for we know that such worries will pass away while the Risen God will not.
However our doubts remain – and for some of us, we need to put our hands in the wounds.
So what is there for us who do not have the opportunity to satisfy our hunger for proof so that we may stop doubting and believe?
We are called to face the reality of this present age. Called away from a world that is “safe for the whole family,” called away from a world that pretends everything is all right and into a world where everything is all wrong. We are called into a coast line that should have been rebuilt by a government that can afford it, we are called to feed the hungry in a country where there is more than enough to go around, and we are called to be in a world where the sound of bullets and the smell of gun powder are never far from our senses, because there, in the midst of death, where the wounds are still open, we will not only find death, but in the midst of such things we will find hope, we will find life.
In a world concurred by the risen Christ, where we see death, we see the marks of Christ still open – and when we place our hands in the wounds of the world, we are called to testify to the reality that Christ has risen.
There is a saying that I have often heard, that only two things are certain: death and taxes.
Believing in the Resurrected Christ, we know that only one thing is certain: Christ is risen.
And when we acknowledge this truth Rome looses its power.
Rome falls, because idols only have the power that we give them.
When Thomas saw, touched the marks left by the Roman Empire its control over him vanished. He could see the weakness of their legions of soldiers, the decomposition of their giant buildings, the end of their power in his city and in the world because what is Roman power compared to the power of God. Even most certain death lost its power.
It is the great power that we proclaim each time we remember his death and resurrection at the communion table. It is his claim over us that we celebrate at baptism. And each time we give money to the offering plate we see through the powers that seem to control our world today. Every time we don’t stick to our own concerns but look beyond ourselves into the heart of a broken world we put an end to the individualism of an I-pod culture.
Every time we give a dollar away we assault a consumer culture that lives off our greed.
Every time we give out of our pocket we set ourselves free from a selfishness that so obviously claims so many people. Every time we let go we affirm that it is not our bank accounts that we trust, and we begin to put our faith in Christ.
Every time we help someone without concern for ourselves we put an end to selfishness and a culture that only seeks to take care of me and mine.
Because wealth is not eternal. Rome is not eternal. And the only thing that is certain, not death, not taxes, but the truth is that Christ has risen.