Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sermon -- 30 March 2008

2 of Easter—30 March 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk — 10:00

Acts 3:2:14a,22-32 Ps 16 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands . . . I will not believe.”

“[The White Queen said to Alice,] Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’

“‘I ca’n’t believe that!’ said Alice.

“‘Ca’n’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’

“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”

(From Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll.)

The apostle Thomas is not good at believing impossible things. One of the impossible things he can’t believe is that dead people come back to life and visit their friends. (Yes, even in the first century they knew that was impossible!) So Thomas doubts. And at this point we can have a certain amount of sympathy with Thomas.

But there are other reasons why we doubt, besides skepticism about things we think are impossible, and some of them are probably more important in the basic issues of life. Maybe some of them were what was really behind Thomas’ doubting. Maybe some of them are what is behind our own doubting.

Sometimes we doubt out of fear. We doubt that “Proposition A” is true, because if “Proposition A” is true, then that has consequences that affect the way we live our lives; and we are afraid of those consequences and afraid of the effect they will have on our lives. So we deal with our fear of the consequence by doubting the antecedent.

Maybe sometimes it isn’t so much fear as stubbornness. We don’t want to change the way we live our lives, and so we refuse to face up to any claim that would involve changing. We close our eyes. We stop our ears. We try to drown it out by running our own mouths. We distract ourselves. We change the subject. We ridicule. We go into denial. We doubt.

And maybe sometimes it’s neither fear nor even just simple stubbornness. Sometimes maybe it’s conscious, willful, self-centered, self-satisfied pride. We just ain’t gonna believe because we just ain’t gonna let anything but ourselves be at the center of our little worlds. Nothing and nobody is gonna define my reality for me but me! Our doubting is an act of defiance. Here we’re getting into the realm of the sin against the Holy Spirit; it’s a good way to go to hell.

I don’t know where Thomas was in this picture. I think not in the last category, defiance, nor even in the second, stubbornness. Perhaps in the first, fear. I don’t know where you are; I’m not even sure where I am.

But they are all stages in faithlessness, and faithlessness is the issue which Jesus addresses when Thomas finally sees him. “Do not doubt, but believe. . . . Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (The English translations usually fumble this verse, which in Greek plays on the word that we translate “faith” or “belief.” “Do not be an unbeliever, but a believer,” reflects the play on words; “Do not be faithless, but faithful” is much more on target. Mé ginou apistos alla pistos, the text says.) (Don’t let it be said that the sermons in this church aren’t multi-cultural!)

“Faith” is not the willingness to believe six impossible things before breakfast. “Faith” has to do with trust, it has to do with being willing to be open to, being willing to accept, being willing to receive, the life-giving power of the Risen Christ. It has to do with being willing to let go of our fears, our stubbornness, our pride. It has to do with being willing to let our lives be changed. If we are not willing to let God raise our lives through Jesus Christ, I’m not sure it matters a whole lot whether we believe that God raised Jesus or not. If we are willing to receive the power of new life through Jesus Christ, then his resurrection is indubitable; we’ve experienced it ourselves.

In the Gospel today Jesus says to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and he gives them power over the brokenness of human life. And that’s really the text and the issue in the Gospel for today. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus gives us the power to live within the Reign of God; he gives us the power to proclaim God’s Reign to others; he gives us the power to enact the Reign of God in this world. Jesus not only gives us the power, he gives us the commission, the mandate, to do so. And that, I think, is where we really start doing our serious doubting.

This applies to each of us personally, individually, but it also applies to all of us corporately as the Church, and to you as a congregation—especially now as you reflect on your challenges and opportunities as a worshipping and ministering community. “Receive the Holy Spirit” for the work of the Reign of God in this place: that’s a promise, that’s a promise that’s already been delivered on. Will we accept it, will we receive it, will we believe it, will we let ourselves be transformed by it? Will we trust God? Or will we let our fears, our stubbornness, maybe even our damnable pride keep us among the doubters? You in this parish, and all of us throughout the church, we can be what God calls us to be; we can do what God calls us to do. We don’t need anything we haven’t already received. “Receive the Holy Spirit … Do not be faithless, but faithful.… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

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