15 April 2012

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter - To Be a Child of the Light

            You know this song – sing it with me:
                        I just wanna be a sheep – BAAAAAA.
                        I just wanna be a sheep – BAAAAAA.
                        I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
                        I just wanna be a sheep – BAAAAAAA.
            What if we wrote a verse about Thomas?  Would it go like this?
                        Don’t wanna be a doubting Thomas.
                        Don’t wanna be a doubting Thomas.
                        Don’t wanna be such a total wuss.
                        I just wanna be a sheep – BAAAAAA.
Not bad, I suppose.  Here’s the thing, though – every year, on the second Sunday of Easter, we preachers find ourselves in the midst of a dilemma:  Thomas is actually one of the more confident and assertive apostles.  Earlier in the gospel of John, when Jesus is preparing to go to Bethany and raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas is the disciple who says, “If he’s going, I’m going – even if it means I’m going to die with him.”  Thomas is an all-in sort of disciple.  We might even describe Thomas as a “tipping point” disciple. 
            Careful reading of our gospel text bears this out.  Ten of the eleven apostles were in the room hiding when Jesus appeared to them.  Judas was dead by his own hand at this point, so that leaves one: Thomas.  Where was Thomas?  All we know is that he’s not hiding with his friends, but given his willingness to die earlier in John’s gospel, perhaps he’s out in the city.  Perhaps his grief compels him to wander the streets at night, hoping to follow his Master and friend into death.  There’s nothing there to back this up – but there’s nothing there that says it didn’t happen, either.
            Whatever might have happened, we know this much is true:  Thomas is no more of a doubter than any of his fellow disciples.  Circumstance sets him apart, not a lack of faith.  Reading the whole of John 20 tells us that everyone was confused and uncertain about what was going on.  The disciples were hiding.  The women were frightened.  Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener, for heaven’s sake!  Not one person responds to the resurrection with absolute, unwavering faith.  But in the end, “doubting” Thomas is the one who gives the full confession of who Jesus is: “My Lord and my God!” 
            What if this story isn’t about human ability to believe in the midst of confusion and fear?  What if this story is about how God acts in the darkness of our confusion and fear?  Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of the gospel of John and read together, shall we?
                        In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
3 Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.  What came into being 4 through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
9 The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
10 The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.
11 The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him.
12 But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, 13 born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
From the very beginning of the gospel of John, three things are foremost in the mind of the writer:
1.     Jesus has come into the world as the living, incarnate Word of God;
2.     In the darkness of our world God’s people have struggled to behold Jesus in faith. 
3.     That darkness cannot extinguish the Light.
Here, at the end of the gospel of John, we see yet again that Jesus is the light invading the darkness.  With his friends in hiding, afraid, barring the door against everything threatening, Jesus invades their fear and infuses them with his Spirit.  He will not let them remain in their fear, hiding, locked away in darkness.  Not those who were there the first night, and not Thomas who comes into their darkness a week later.  Nor, it seems, can we keep Jesus away this night, either.
            We come with our own confusion and darkness to this gathering of disciples.  It is different than that of the first disciples, to be sure.  Your life is not threatened by the authorities.  We don’t gather behind locked doors.  In many ways, it could be argued that we have become the authorities, the church not just triumphant, but dominant.  But we still live in darkness:  doubt, fear, uncertainty, and the difficulty of living together as people still captive to sin.  Yet Jesus continues to invade our darkness and infuse us with his Holy Spirit.  He does so this night also.
If the earliest followers of Jesus, who lived and ate and slept and walked and listened and served and prayed with Jesus for three years, were assaulted by doubts and fears even after the resurrection, then we have to assume that we, too, will have doubts and fears as we follow Jesus.  We are the brothers and sisters of Thomas, of Peter, of the beloved disciple, of Mary and the women at the tomb:  uncertain, afraid, confused – and this is the state in which Jesus comes to us bearing God’s peace. 
My colleague Heidi said once, “You know, the Resurrection is just impossible to believe.  I can’t do it on my own.  I can’t get my head around how it happened.  There’s no way I can believe this without God doing it for me.”  Heidi is right:  we simply do not have the capacity within us to believe our way out of confusion.  We use the creeds to describe what it is we believe, but the creeds do not describe how we come to believe – and neither do our friends who have no room for doubt, with all their simple plans for salvation and their certainty about who’s in and who’s out.  We construct a dangerous façade when we insist that certainty and confidence are the hallmarks of a genuine Christian faith, particularly when we insist that OUR version of the faith is the only legitimate faith.  As Pastor Ken Carter wrote, “The gospel is not something that we can impose on others. People must discover it for themselves…”[1] 
I’ll say it again:  no one was certain what was happening that first week after the Resurrection.  Confusion reigned – and it was in the midst of confusion that Jesus came to his disciples.  Confusion about Jesus and the Resurrection are not the marks of a lack of faith:  confusion is the mark of a faith seeking deeper understanding.  What is more genuine:  to be so absolutely certain about Jesus’ resurrection that you never ponder its meaning, or to be so intrigued by Jesus’ resurrection that you continually question and search for understanding?  To admit confusion is to admit to a desire for growth, a desire for revelation, a hunger for truth that will not be sated by platitudes and cheap grace.  Thomas, Peter, the beloved disciple, Mary, the other women at the tomb:  they knew they weren’t seeing the whole picture, but their confusion was the avenue by which Jesus increased their faith.  Confusion can be the mark of great faith on the cusp of awareness, waiting for God to tip the chalice and pour out grace and understanding until our hearts are overflowing. 
Jesus wasn’t offended by these confused friends.  On the contrary, he welcomed them in the midst of their confusion, and thus so do we.  Jesus appeared in the upper room, in the midst of his frightened, confused followers and said, “Welcome.”  So the invitation has gone out through the centuries following:  we confused followers of Jesus are welcomed to Jesus’ table again and again, to receive God’s peace through Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit and be sent into the world to proclaim the good news.  Thomas was not rejected in his confusion.  Jesus didn’t cast his followers out when they didn’t understand everything about his resurrection right away.  So also to us, confused though we may be, Jesus says, “Come.”
How about a new song, one that’s honest about who we are and who Jesus is?  Do you want to live in the light of Jesus?  Then sing with me, and Thomas, and Peter, and all those who gather in the name of Christ, no matter how deep the darkness may be:  “I want to walk as a child of the light / I want to follow Jesus…In him there is no darkness at all / the night and the day are both alike / the Lamb is the light of the City of God / shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.” May the Holy Spirit fill you with faith.  May you know that darkness is not dark to God your Creator. May the light of Christ shine into your darkness this night, and may you know the joy of walking as a child of of the light.  Amen.

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