Sunday, May 29, 2011

Through Water

1st Peter 3: 13-22, page 234
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
The author of 1st Peter addressed a fledgling group of Christians who lived among a society that didn’t understand why those Christians believed what they believed. The author’s advice: Be eager to do what is good, for when you do good, if people persecute you for doing what is good they will be the ones put to shame; still though, you may suffer, but remember that if you suffer for what you believe, if you suffer because of your faith then you become like Christ in your suffering. He was righteous, so be righteous as he was and become like him in your suffering, the righteous for the unrighteous.
There’s nothing in there about giving up – the author’s advice is all about how to go on believing even when it isn’t easy to believe.
We know about that. It’s sort of like stubbornness, and it’s that sort of strongly felt belief that has been fueling the debate at Duran Schultz’ Barber Shop by Kroger this past week over which fence post lasts the longest, cedar or locust. Tired of the constant arguing, everyone absolutely sure that they are right and not willing to budge on the issue, Duran, as the owner of the shop, got tired of it and hoped to end the argument with a decree: “It’s locust and that’s final.”
Someone getting his hair cut, we may hope he wasn’t sitting in Duran’s chair as Duran might have taken off his ear: “But how much longer does it last?”
“Maybe five minutes” Duran responded.
Men in barbershops know about stubbornness, but it’s not exactly stubbornness that the author of 1st Peter is writing about. The author is writing about holding tight to your belief in Christ, and if we can go on holding tight to our convictions over which tree makes the longer-lasting fence post how much tighter must we hold onto our convictions of the Spiritual Nature, convictions that matter beyond a difference of five minutes?
We see such faithful stubbornness in Harold Camping who still thinks he knows when the world is going to end, though his first two predictions have come and gone without rapture. My friend Brennan Breed, soon to be Columbia Theological Seminary’s newest Old Testament professor, wrote on facebook this past week: “The true mark of fundamentalism; when your assumptions don’t match up to reality, double down your assumptions.”
That’s what he’s done, he hasn’t recanted, he hasn’t stopped believing; instead he rescheduled his end of the world date again, now it’s October 21st.
He really does look foolish for holding so tight to this belief of his, and I’ve been enjoying making jokes about him as much as anybody, but I’m reminded why I shouldn’t when I feel what it’s like when someone tries to make me look foolish for believing what I do.
Last week Stephen Hawking, the famous British physicist was interviewed by The Guardian newspaper. When the greatest mind of our generation, one who’s capacity to understand the universe is known and respected by all, was asked about the existence of heaven he said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.”
A few months ago I preached a sermon and quoted a preacher who doubted the existence of hell, but that’s different for me, I love to hear hell’s existence doubted. I don’t want to believe in hell. Heaven is entirely different – and I don’t like this belief that I care for deeply to be doubted by someone I know is a genius, and it’s this discomfort that opens the door to what the author of 1st Peter is really talking about. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
But how?
Hawking does have plenty of detractors. There is a young man named Colton who disagrees with this great physicist; he’s written a book called Heaven is for Real. We could hold a debate between the two but Colton’s only four years old.
Another option is to discredit Hawking himself making his argument less credible by making Hawking himself less credible. It’s not too hard really. I heard a theoretical physicist say that people in his field are a lot like hot air balloon pilots – they depend on their own hot air so that they can enjoy their favorite past-time: looking down on people.
Making fun of the source doesn’t take away the strength of his words however, nor does making fun of the source honor the words of 1st Peter: “Do not fear what they fear,” the author says, “and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”
Those words honor the difference between stubbornness and faith, I think. When someone disagrees with us, whether it’s over fencepost or eternity, what we truly fear is being wrong, and I do fear being wrong about heaven. But faith isn’t about me and my capacity to be right or wrong.
Faith is about hope and trust, putting our hope in what we can’t or don’t understand ourselves – faith, then, is an appeal to God.
It’s important that the author of 1st Peter reminds us of Noah because Noah is the very definition of such an appeal, building himself a boat on mainland, miles from the ocean. Such an undertaking wasn’t rational, wasn’t self-imposed, but was the definition of trust in one who understood and knew more than Noah or anyone else.
I am sure there were some who called Noah stubborn, but Noah wasn’t building this ark because he believed he should. He didn’t go on building it to prove to everyone that he was right and they were wrong. This boat was based in trust because Noah’s ark wasn’t his idea – his ark was an appeal to God and by that ark he and seven others were saved.
Our baptism is no different. It isn’t about washing ourselves of our sins, our mistakes, so that we can start over, still depending on our own ability to save ourselves. It is an appeal to God, an appeal to the only one who can save us.
That’s pretty much what Grandpa thought. In Cold Sassy Tree Granny just died and Will asked his Grandpa if he would ever see her again.
“I think so son. If there is a heaven, she’s up there, I know that,” he said softly. Then he laughed and slapped his hand on Satan’s rump. “Ain’t but one way to find out if she is or isn’t though. And I’m not that curious.” He sighed, spat, and said, “Having faith means it’s all right either way, son. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ means I trust him. Whatever happens in this life or the next, even if there isn’t a life after this one, God planned it. So why wouldn’t it be all right?”
Maybe physicists can fathom more than anyone else, but for those of you who can fathom the limits of your ability to know, understand, and control, appeal to the one who is beyond what you know and trust that this God who put the earth in motion, called forth the light of the solar system, and spoke all of creation into existence, this God in Christ laid down his very life for you. The righteous for the unrighteous, and he has gone into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, where all angels, authorities, and powers are subject to him.
No, do not fear what they fear. “Having faith means it’s all right either way. Whatever happens in this life or the next, even if there isn’t a life after this one, God planned it. So why wouldn’t it be all right?”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Now you are God's people

1st Peter 2: 2-10, page 233
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”
“A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
The Civil War is on a lot of minds this year, Time magazine recently issued a cover with President Lincoln’s profile, a solitary tear trickling down his cheek; the issue concerned itself with questions of why there continues to be resentment, why this war still matters.
This year the 150th Anniversary arrives, and it’s appropriate that our minds will also be on President Polk’s war, the Mexican American War, thanks to Tom Price and others at the Polk House, but the Civil War will get more attention, especially here in the South.
I think that’s because, in so many ways, the Civil War destroyed what the South was. The Civil War literally burnt down homes and up in smoke went the old way of doing things – up went the privilege, livelihood, and power of some and from the ashes came freedom for others.
The South came back of course; being from Atlanta I know well the Phoenix that rose from the ashes, but I know that while some vestiges of the Old South deserved to be burned to the ground, 150 years later, still there is resentment – a worthy cautionary that I wish could better inform our foreign policy.
At least Southern resentment does inspire high brow humor – in a skit on Hee Haw Grandpa announces that he’ll be moving up North. The family asks why, and grandpa replies, “I’m getting up in years and I figure it’s better to lose one of them than to lose one of us.”
I suppose this resentment is natural, as when your home is destroyed it can feel like everything is gone.
Though the earth has quit shaking, without a home you can’t imagine what to do next.
During the Haitian earthquakes many Haitians believed Haiti itself were dying, and when you consider the death-toll you have to wonder if they were right.
Something did rise up from the ashes here in the South however – a new house was built on the wreckage of the old, but often not all of what comes up out of the ashes is better than what was there before.
Our scripture lesson from 1st Peter calls Christ the cornerstone for the people of God, but to use a new cornerstone you have to start your structure over from nothing. Everything in a building is based around the cornerstone – it comes first and it must be perfectly square or the integrity of everything is threatened. So not all that is new is guaranteed to be better than the old. Built around a cornerstone that isn’t Christ – just using a different cornerstone than before doesn’t make things better necessarily, just different, or just bad in a new way.
Not long after our nation’s war for independence, the nation of Haiti fought and gained independence herself. This independence gained was largely thanks to the organization of slaves on the massive plantations there – the slave owning upper class of Haiti who managed Haitian affairs spewed into the United States, and while they appreciated the hospitality, what they brought their slave owning hosts was the idea that the same thing could happen in the slave owning South where slaves outnumbered their owners, sometimes more than 10 to 1.
President Washington worried over the possibility of such a slave revolt, and being a slave owner himself may have ensured that the new nation of Haiti did fail as a warning to any American slaves thinking along the same lines of their compatriots in Haiti. Many such conspiracy theories float around today, but just as likely is that without the slave owning bourgeois, there was no culture left to unify the country – there was a constitution, but no one could read it as not only were most Haitian kept illiterate, the new constitution was written in French, a language few slaves who came from regions throughout the continent of Africa, could even understand.
Those slaves then, able to organize enough to topple a slave owning minority, lacked the cohesion to organize a nation. They tore down the old but they couldn’t build up anything new. Slaves of various cultures brought from vast regions of Africa had no unifying culture to bring them together once their common enemy was gone.
And here we are today – the new South – made up of new inhabitants, not only auto-workers from up north but Spanish speaking immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America; our new south is made up of brothers and sisters from around the country and around the globe who speak different languages and eat different foods – and what will bring us together – what will make us one so that we can build up a new house together?
We can strive for a common language – and we follow common laws. Furthermore, there are restaurants here that are familiar to anyone from anywhere – Cracker Barrel has expanded so far west that someone coming to Columbia from Kansas may feel at home behind a Cracker Barrel menu.
I love that about it. When I’m traveling I can go in there and get good food that tastes familiar – but it just isn’t ours the way Stan’s is.
Your waitress doesn’t know who’s in that old photo on the wall because it isn’t of anyone who she has ever met – that thing probably came from a nick-knack warehouse in Taiwan.
And they don’t know who you are either… besides that you’re a customer.
That’s what you lose when the old house is torn down. If Kathy’s is replaced by a McDonalds some things might get better, but I wouldn’t trade anything for Kathy who calls me by name every time I go in.
Change is a part of life – change and constant change.
The old is torn down and up comes the new.
Up from the cane breaks came this city.
Up from the ashes of the Old South came the New.
And up from what was once farmland comes enough subdivisions to change the face of Maury County.
New homes are being built around new cornerstones – new restaurants have come as the old are torn down – and they may be cleaner, more convenient, and faster, but will anyone there call you by name?
In the newness of the New South this house will always be different.
As here you are more than the money in your pocket.
Here you are more than the job that you hold.
Here you are more than a body filling a pew.
As the cornerstone of this house is Jesus Christ, and to Christ you are something more – but not just more – to Christ you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
Not every house in this city, even those that have replaced the old, can say the same.
You know that many in our community and our world don’t know the truth of who they are, especially who they are to God. They see their value and their worth according to the standards of this present evil age – go believing that they are only as good as the brand names on their back and the cars that they drive because television has told them so. So many feel lost and alone, dying for community, dying for someone to call them by name, but they don’t know where to find it so they settle for cheap substitutes on the internet. And some are hungry, not just for real, home cooked food, but for something with substance, food that can fill the emptiness they feel in the pit of their soul.
So remember that you have been called out of darkness into his marvelous light, “in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you.”
Because he called you by name, go out and call the lost by name.
Because he made you a people, make the stranger your brother, your sister.
Because you received mercy, go and give mercy to those who have given up on themselves and have forgotten their worth in the eyes of the God who values them enough to give his very life that they might live. Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What happened on the road

Luke 24: 13-35, page 90
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along.”
They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
He asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.
But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Chapter 17 of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain is the scene of Tom, Joe, and Huck’s funeral. It’s an iconic scene, and while in the book Tom, Joe, and Huck walk into the church near the end of their own funeral, I remember a TV version where the three boys fall through the ceiling into the church full of mourners while the preacher is preaching their eulogy.
It’s not common for anyone to see how their families and friends react to their passing. In the case of Tom, Joe, and Huck, the three boys find that they are beloved and valued by the entire town. Christ on the other hand, raised from the dead but appearing to these two men while hiding his identity from them, finds that his death has so disillusioned his followers that they no longer believe he is who he said he was.
On the road, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and on that road a stranger asks them what they are talking about as they walk along.
Like the congregation at the St. Petersburg church who doesn’t know that the boys they mourn are standing just outside the door, these two don’t know who it is they are walking alongside.
He was a “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” they say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
The stranger is frustrated by their lack of faith, and while they still don’t know that this stranger they are talking with is in fact Jesus he responds, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
He seems to think that his death is the obvious sign that he is in fact the Christ, but here I wonder if because he has conquered death himself he has forgotten how deeply death effects the rest of us, as though, even for Christ, the way your death will affect the ones you love is not something you can predict.
Some who think that “they’ll all be happy when I’m gone” find that they were so very wrong; others who think that “they’ll all be sorry when I’m not here anymore” find instead that everyone is too devastated to be sorry; and Christ, who assumes that his faithful will continue on being faithful even after the death that he warned them all was inevitable are so shocked by his crucifixion that his disciples lock themselves behind a closed door while these two leave Jerusalem disillusioned, seemingly giving up on the whole thing completely.
I don’t know what Osama Bin Laden thought would happen after he was gone, I do know that some hoped they would find closure in his death. And I pray that they have found it, but I am sure his death is not the end of terrorism because the meaning of death, anyone’s death, seems to never be what we hope or think it will be.
Here it seems clear that Jesus had hoped that his followers would have figured it out, but they didn’t. Death has a way of speaking so loudly it filters out all logic, all knowledge, all rational thought - everything – silencing hope, preventing loved ones from moving on, not giving disciples a deeper faith, and not ensuring that the living will have a greater thirst for life.
In our first scripture lesson for today we heard the stories of Simeon and Anna, a man and a woman who had spent their whole lives waiting to see the Messiah. Simeon went into the temple where Mary and Joseph had brought the baby Jesus and took him in his arms and praised God saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.”
That’s who they thought he was, they thought he was salvation. Simeon had been waiting his whole life to see him and when Christ died before salvation came we can be thankful that he wasn’t there to see it. His death comes as a complete surprise and to the tomb also go all their hopes for who he was and who he would be to them, sealed and buried, after being hung up on that cross, broken as his body was broken.
Two of them saw it happen – they thought they had found salvation – and instead they found death and the meaning of this death was not assurance that he was in fact the Christ but complete and utter disappointment.
So they left, towards Emmaus and back to life as it was before, though they knew that life would be just a little less sweet because they had hoped for something and seen that hope crucified.
That’s just what death does – it takes the sweetness out of things – and though we go on with our lives, things can’t be the same again because death crashed in and made everything different.
Life wouldn’t be the same for those two, and they knew it, but they had to go somewhere. So they started back towards Emmaus knowing that it wouldn’t ever be the same again, knowing that things would always be a little bit worse having hoped for something that didn’t come true.
That’s life, after all. You have to go on. Graduation still has to happen even though it can’t be quite as happy as it’s supposed to be because one who should be crossing the stage with everyone else will be painfully absent and no pomp and circumstance can replace her.
Death changes things. And maybe Christ realized how much it changed the faith of his believers as he walked on ahead of them as if he were going on, but for some reason they urged him strongly saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
It’s nothing really, just an invitation.
“Stay with us,” they said, but in those words was the beginning of something - a new faith, a stronger faith, the kind of faith that rises up out of the hopelessness of death.
The reality of things is that death, disappointment, failure, loss, are the inevitable hardships of life. As you high school seniors already know, even days as joyous as the last days of high school can be made somber; and as you already know, though you parents wish you didn’t, this isn’t the end of hardship either because living life means enduring loss from time to time.
But here is the truth – if you give up on things getting better, if you fail without picking yourself back up, if you lose hope so completely that your eyes are closed shut to the future and the chance that life does go on – then he will walk on because you will not have the words to stop him.
“Stay with us,” they said, and while he was at a table, not so different from this one, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
We all walk the road to Emmaus, away from how we had hoped life would be and towards accepting it as it is, but on the way there he stopped them and opened their eyes – and they began to hope for something again.
Come to this table now, as like the kitchen counter where your mother has told you that everything is going to be alright more times than you care to remember. At this table you will gain the strength to endure all that life throws at you and still go on believing that we have a reason to believe that our future is full of hope.
The Lord has risen indeed.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

But Thomas

John 20: 19-31, page 115
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were 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 side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.””
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
There’s a new book out, though I hesitate to call it new because there’s not much new in it, but it’s newly published and is causing a lot of controversy among good Bible-believing Christians all over the country. There was a big article on it in Time magazine, I’m grateful to Jim Ross who sent it to me because I tried to go to the store to buy it but it was too late.
The cover reads: “What if there’s no Hell?” A popular pastor’s best-selling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation and judgment.
Rob Bell is the author of the book. He’s a pastor in his 40’s, and he’s the kind that has mastered the internet the way Martin Luther mastered the printing press. I’ve listened to his sermons several times on my iPod – they can be podcast just like ours can – but he preaches for a long time unlike your preacher – I’m talking 45 minutes compared to my 12, but he’s good, he’s very good. He talks more than he preaches, and people listen – his church’s attendance on any given Sunday can be over 7,000.
He’s doing something important, I think, in that he knows that he’s not saying anything new. While the sanctuary is modern, his preaching style is conversational, and the music his church offers is more guitar than organ, he’s presenting real, authentic, and time-tested theology, making him more St. Augustine than Billy Graham. He doubts hell’s existence, not because he just thought of it or because of our post-modern society, but because theologians have been wondering how hell can exist as a place where some are stuck for an eternity of damnation in the face of our God who is ever more ready to forgive than we are to confess.
He wrote this new book that’s become so controversial wondering about the existence of hell not long after an art exhibit at his church where an artist had included a quote from Gandhi and a visitor to the exhibit stuck a note next to the Gandhi quotation that said, “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
“Really?” Bell thought to himself. “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”
I think I'm with Bell here, as while I’m happy to leave Gandhi’s eternal resting place up to God, should I run into Gandhi in heaven I won’t be surprised or disappointed to see him – some people apparently will however.
I mentioned that you can podcast our sermons – if you go on our church’s website you can listen to any of the sermons from the past year, you can read many sermons older than that, and last Thursday I was just looking around and started reading one of Bill Williamson’s old sermons where he talks about how folks come out on one side of this debate or the other – some find the idea of hell incompatible with the love of God, but others claim that there is so a hell, and you’d better shape up or you’re going there. There are folks in our world who are enthusiastically in favor of hell and are eager to name a few folks who are on their way there. A poll of Americans a few years ago found that 80% believe they themselves will go to heaven, but that only 60% of their friends will be going there. What’s more, the poll found that one in four friends are definitely on their way to hell (Memphis, Commercial Appeal, December 10, 1986).
I think it’s important to be thinking about, either way – those who are convinced of God’s love shouldn’t be too quick to forget about God’s judgment, and those who are convinced of God’s judgment shouldn’t be too quick to go forgetting about God’s readiness to accept humanity’s repentance.
Some are convinced that no one really ever repentents, that people never really change, but Christians have to believe that they do, because we did. God has a way of both changing them and forgiving them, and not only should we be excited about that possibility, we should all be wondering if we are more interested in people being stuck in hell without hope of redemption than God is.
If that’s the case, we all need to be wondering why that is.
In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus enters a locked room – everyone is too afraid to venture out besides Thomas who isn’t there, and Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
What Jesus says here reminded me of Jonah in our first lesson. This story of Jonah is important because he is the most effective prophet in the whole Bible – out of all the prophets who warn people, “You must repent,” Jonah is the only one who actually convinces the people to repent.
You would think he would be proud. You would think he would rejoice when the Ninevites – the residents of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, “whose brutality was renowned and was responsible for the annihilation of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE” – actually repent. But he’s not – he resents them and he resents God because he didn’t really want Nineveh to change and be spared, he actually wanted it to be too late for them and for God to exercise fierce judgment on these people who for all Jonah’s life have been his sworn enemies. And when what he expected to happen didn’t happen, rather than embrace this change in destiny, coming to terms with God’s change of heart, he decides to stay put outside the city where he doesn’t have to embrace the idea that even Assyrians can change.
Jonah doesn’t want to go into the city and face the reality that it’s never too late for people to change. He’d rather “retain” their sin while God and every Ninevite have washed themselves of it whether it makes him miserable or not.
Thomas on the other hand is a different kind of person than Jonah. I think he may have more in common with the Ninevites. While he demands proof in order to believe that what he thought was going happen didn’t happen, that Christ was not dead but alive, he comes to terms with this new reality and is able to go from a place of profound doubt to profound faith making one of the strongest confessions of faith known to scripture, “My Lord and my God.” We readers on the other hand get caught up on his first reaction to the Good News that Christ has risen – his initial doubt – Christians for generations have labeled this man, not “strongest confession of faith known to scripture Thomas,” but Doubting Thomas.
Maybe it’s because we’re uncomfortable with doubt ourselves, so when others doubt, too, it stirs up uncomfortable questions. We need other people to believe so we can believe ourselves, but some people, particularly brave children with a mind of their own are too used to giving voice to their doubts and in the middle of Sunday School class say things like, “So he rose from the dead? That’s impossible!” These kinds of questions terrify grandmothers who don’t want their grandchildren to miss out on the faith that they hold dear. But like Thomas, these brave children can’t help it.
My best friend growing up, Matt, was one of those brave children. We started out in Confirmation Class together but Matt decided that he didn’t want to join the church so he dropped out. His mother was horrified, and when she asked him why he wouldn’t be joining the church he told her that the “visitor” parking spaces were much closer to the church than all the others and if he joined the church he wouldn’t be able to use them anymore. Not that he could drive or anything; I guess he was thinking ahead.
It matters to most parents that their children do the things they are supposed to do at the time they are supposed to do them – baptized as infants, confirmed in middle school, married by 25 with kids by 30 – But Jesus isn’t nearly so concerned with when conversion happens because Jesus doesn’t believe in “it’s too late” – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed, he says, not the first ones, but the ones who come to it later.
Order matters to us though, and some brag about their conversion as though it had anything to do with them – as though their salvation were some kind of personal accomplishment and not the merciful act of God – as though evading hell made you better than the one in four friends who is probably not going to heaven – as though being one of the 11 who was there the first time he came is more faithful than being the one who wasn’t – as though parking in a “members” parking spot made you more holy than parking in a “visitors” spot – yes, some people care – and have settled into smug self-satisfaction that it’s too late for some. Jonah certainly was doing that as he sat under that vine reminiscing of the days when he knew he was more holy than the Ninevites, regretting the day they all converted and became as forgiven as him – yes some people care about this kind of thing, but God doesn’t.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
That was the hope of the author of this Gospel of John, as it is the hope of all you believers who truly know that faith is not a first come first served issue, that when it comes to receiving forgiveness, now is just as good a time as any, and whether you met Jesus when you were 5, 12, or 94, it doesn’t matter – because it’s never too late – but people must be convinced of this so you must help others who are afraid it’s too late for them to see that it’s not – whether they’re here today, in prison, or standing at the gates of hell – it’s never too late.
You see, plenty in our world can relate to Thomas, feeling like Jesus came, but they missed the boat and now it’s too late.
Maybe it’s even you.
Maybe you’re that one friend in four and everyone’s pretty sure you’re headed in the wrong direction but no one’s doing anything about it because everyone has settled into the idea that for you it’s too late.
Maybe you don’t know your books of the Bible and it feels like everyone around you does, and coming to church is intimidating because you feel like you’re behind – that everyone else has already seen him and you’re hesitant to ask to see him too. If that’s you I want you to know that you’re not alone – I couldn’t find Jonah in this Bible last service and I was standing up here in front of everybody – I’ve been to school for this, I should know, but I don’t and it’s OK if you don’t too.
What I want you to know is that it’s not too late, even if the world feels like Jonah to you – sitting under a dead vine hoping you still might fail.
Jonah might be smug that way, plenty others might be too, but not Jesus.
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are you, who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.
Blessed, Jesus said, are you.