Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Live in Unity

Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Genesis 45:1-15

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

* * *

Joseph was born into the blue blood family of the Old Testament—they were direct descendants of Abraham. They were the first family of God's hope for the salvation of the world. Joseph's father was Jacob and Joseph's mother was Rachel. Joseph had 11 brothers. Have you ever known a large family that had a favorite child? Such was the source of the conflict in Joseph's family. Joseph was his father's favorite son. That fact became painfully obvious to his brothers after their father gave Joseph a beatiful technicolor coat. That coat set Joseph's brothers against him. The brother's envy of Joseph only increased after he told them about a dream he had in which they all bowed down to him as if he was some kind of royalty. Envy is the motivation which led to the brother's crime of first throwing Joseph into a pit and then selling him into slavery and finally telling their father that a wild animal had killed him.

In Genesis chapter 45 we learn that Joseph has grown up to become the virtual ruler of all Egypt, having survived threats to his life and well-being that are familiar to everyone who learned this story in church school. There was a murderous plot by his brothers who then sold Joseph into slavery. There was an attempted seduction by the wife of a powerful Egyptian. There was the royal cupbearer who swore to help Joseph get out of jail but forgot to keep his word.

The story takes place against the backdrop of a famine that has ravaged Egypt and also desolated Palestine, so that Joseph's brothers, in their efforts to find food, have come face-to-face with the brother whom they earlier had sold into slavery. Now Joseph, with one wave of his hand, may now avenge the terrible wrong done to him so long ago by snuffing out the life or the liberty of these trembling sons of Jacob.

But that is not Joseph's way, because that is not God's way, and Joseph is—first, last, and always—God's man (notice v. 8). Joseph's virtual collapse in the presence of his brothers reveals his awareness of God's role in his life as much as it reveals his humanity. Only the Egyptians are meant to be excluded from this catharsis, lest they misinterpret Joseph's tears for weakness.

The emotional energy displayed by Joseph is countered by the awestruck dumbness of the eleven. Are they unable to speak simply because they find this revelation hard to believe, or is it out of terror over what might soon happen to them at the hands of their long-lost but now powerful brother? Probably both, but it is their terror-for-their-lives that Joseph addresses by attempting to calm them (v. 5).

The reason for comfort that Joseph extends has nothing directly to do with his own emotions, although his concern for his father (v. 3) would doubtless have ruled out any violence against his brothers, even if Joseph had been so inclined. His brothers are to be at peace because "God sent me before you to preserve life" (v. 5). Notice that the phrase "God sent me" (or its equivalent) is repeated 3 times (Gen. 45:5, 7, 8). Here we have the whole point of the narrative: behind all the events of Joseph's life, God was at work to bring good out of evil.

As the blood still races with excitement over Joseph's startling self-disclosure, but Joseph pushes forward to other things. After urging the inclusion of their father in this new life, Joseph outlines to the eleven what kind of life it will be. In spite of the five years the famine has still to run, theirs will be a time of peace and plenty under Joseph's personal protection.

Their families, including children and grandchildren, will be secure, even their flocks and herds. Only then, after Joseph has hugged and kissed them all, are the brothers' tongues unlocked and they begin to talk to him (v. 15).

It is as difficult for us as it was for Joseph and his brothers to believe that God is at work even in the dark and destructive moments of life. One of the great struggles of faith is that, no matter how hard one tries, it simply is not possible to identify grace or redemption in so many human experiences. Sometimes it seems that God is not there in the midst of our suffering and defeat. But the Joseph stories lead us to a different conclusion, which is that, in spite of the awful tragedies from which God seems absent, the divine economy is managed by a caring friend and will ultimately have a friend's way.

So, in the Joseph stories, Joseph is an example of what the grace of God can do in human life: transform a curse into a blessing. But Joseph is also more—he is a metaphor for God: the One who has every reason to reject a wayward human family, but who instead loves them even to the point of participating in their suffering.

This story could have been written a dozen ways. What it shows us is an honest picture of how hard it is to mend what is broken—something we all know from much experience. We know what betrayal feels like: the alcoholic parent who disappoints the family time and time again; spouses who find that love cannot withstand the pressures of life; siblings (like these) or dear friends who abandon a beloved or a friend when the need is greatest. We have been betrayed and we have betrayed others.
That is the human reality.

This story could seem almost naïve. We could be tempted to dismiss it as a fairy tale, except for the fact that it is God's story. I said that Genesis is the book of beginnings. You may remember that in the beginning, there was a family—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. The first story of this family is that Cain murders Abel. It is no accident, I think, that Genesis ends with a story of attempted murder and miraculous reconciliation. The text does not say so explicitly, but I think it is clear: this is God's work. Yes, God planned to save Israel from famine. But God also planned to save the family, to mend what was broken.

Jesus stated flatly, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to me" (John 12:32). What that means is that, if you allow that magnet of the cross to draw you toward it, you are going to find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder with some people you had not anticipated having to stand that close to.

If you let this centripetal force work on you, you are also going to discover how much more joy there is in unity than there is in disunity, how much more encouragement and support there is in fellowship than there is in isolation, how much more security there is in cooperation than there is in conflict. You are going to understand what the writer of Psalm 133 meant when he exclaimed:

How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God's people to live together in harmony!

- - -

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on May 29, 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Friendship with God

Sermon Text: Psalm 23

Among Christians, Psalm 23 is perhaps the best known and most beloved of the entire Hebrew Bible. It has been recited at funerals countless times and particularly in the King James Version with its antiquated usage of "maketh" and "leadeth" and "preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." That image of sitting down at table with our enemies reminds me of Jesus' admonition to "love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you."

Sitting down at the dinner table to eat has become more problematic to my family in the past week. We have changed out diet to explore whether my daughter Jennifer and I have Celiac's Disease. This is a condition in which one's body has an auto-immune reaction against gluten which is a protein found in wheat products. Since much of what we eat contains some sort of wheat we are required to read the ingredients label on every food product. If a product contains wheat we must just say no or otherwise deal with uncomfortable and damaging symptoms. So we are going gluten free in our diet and will see if that makes a difference in our quality of life.

We have a similar challenge in the Christian life and that is to ingest healthy spiritual food. As the scripture says, "Whatsoever things are true, pure, and good, if there be any honor, let your mind dwell on these things." I'm afraid if we followed that advice that would cut out most of the media we ingest from the TV to YouTube. Perhaps in our spiritual lives we should try a fruit only diet and only take into our spiritual bodies the fruit of spirit: Peace, love, joy, gentleness, kindness and self control. That would bring healing to our spiritual bodies.

The key to our spiritual health is found in the first verse of Psalm 23 which says: "The LORD is my shepherd." The key to our spiritual health is our friendship with the LORD, our shepherd. As the Psalmist says, "The Lord God is our sun and shield, He gives strength and glory. No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly." We need a spiritual guide and protector because as another secular song puts it: "It ain't easy to get to heaven when you're going down."

When you walk through a grocery store looking at the food items from the perspective of a person with Celiac's Disease, it's like walking through a minefield. There are so many opportunities to hurt yourself. One wrong purchase, even a seemingly healthy food like yogurt may contain wheat as a filler, and you lose the battle for your physical health.

We face a similar struggle in our spiritual lives. As we navigate the minefield of choices in our daily lives there are plenteous opportunities for disaster. We may get burned out from triangulated relationships or we may get programmed by the media we consume. As Christians we are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It takes a lot of energy to maintain our spiritual lives. Our trouble arises when we neglect our friendship with the LORD, our good shepherd. As long as we are growing in our friendship with God we will find there is nothing we lack and there is nothing we need.

Friendship with the LORD, whom Psalm 23 calls our Shepherd, develops until following God's leadership becomes second nature. We luxuriate in the abundance of spiritual sustenance God's provides. We freely eat the bread of heaven and drink the cup of eternal salvation. We can relax and be ourselves, secure in our friendship with God. Even our peculiarities and blemishes do not know diminish the love of our Divine Shepherd. We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. We are spiritually well fed, watered, and satisfied.

We sleep well at night and awaken refreshed and ready for further service. When our spiritual energy feels depleted, we know how to tap into God's power through prayer, study, and silence. Difficult choices demand our attention but we intuitively know what to do and how and when. The Spirit nudges us to contact someone we haven't seen in months and we find their dog just died and they needed some loving support at that moment. A relational knot that has been tied for years seems to dissolve and unravel before our very eyes. Miracles really do happen when we are following the Good Shepherd along the right path. We move in the flow of the Spirit and God gets all the glory.

Everything is fine and dandy until we enter the dark valley. We see the shadow of death on the canyon walls and our knees feel weak. We stand beside another hospital bed and pray with a fearful family facing late stage cancer. Or perhaps we are the one laying in the hospital bed, learning for the first time the feeling of vulnerability and lack of control that comes with the term "hospital patient." Or perhaps we are staring into the pit of financial ruin or the destruction of a long term relationship. Even in such desperate circumstances, we fear no evil. As Martin Luther wrote of the evil one, "One little word shall fell him." (Hymn: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God")

Fear is the opposite of love. Our friendship with God is not based on fear. In fact, many of us must overcome fear of God as we begin our friendship with God. When we overcome our fear of God and enter into friendship with God, no other fear may conquer us. We become fearless with God at our side. We trust God. We have experienced God's discipline and support. We know God will defend us from all evil. The Good Shepherd imparts courage and comfort in times of need.

God sets a table before us as our enemies gaze and glisten. We feast without worry knowing our friend , the Good Shepherd, has our back. That rod and staff is God's big stick and God knows how to use it in our defense. From this place of friendship with God, we are able to defend the friendless, welcome the stranger, and minister to the sick and dying. Safe in God's loving embrace, we offer a supportive shoulder for others to cry on. Having been anointed with God's Holy Spirit, we have plenty of Spirit to share with others. The life force inside us overflows the boundaries of our energetic field and embraces all whom we encounter.

When wolves and robber barons discover God has our back they lose interest in pursuing us and seek out easier targets. We are then pursued by goodness, mercy, and love. As the Apostle Paul put it: "If God be for us, who can stand against us?" Our ultimate security is good for this life and the life to come. Again, Paul says, "Who shall separate us from the love of God? For whether we live or whether we die we belong to the LORD." Our friendship with Christ, the Good Shepherd, provides the foundation for spiritual health, abundance, sustenance, and help, in this life and in the life to come.

The Episcopal spiritual director Margaret Guenther counsels, "When in doubt, I always assume God is at work." That is good counsel. When you are struggling or doubting or at the end of your rope or wondering "Lord, I'm doing all I can here, where on earth are you!" it is a good bet to trust that God indeed is at work. In ways you may not yet perceive or understand. But in ways you can count on are gracious to save and love you.

Life is hard, but God is good. We are going to have bumps and disappointments and even years of barrenness. Certainly death awaits us all. But if Jesus conquered death, then surely he can conquer everything else. He became like us so we could become like him—close to God, innocent, forgiving, compassionate, loving, and living.

Live with faith into that truth. Hang tough while being tender. Trust God to see you through it all. Trust God to be your Good Shepherd whose love shall not fail.

This week I came across a story that reflects this hope in the midst of pain and suffering and indeed includes images of the shadow of death. Here, death is an adversary, but finally there is a table set before them in the face of this enemy. The image of death as an enemy is so well described in A Small Good Thing by Raymond Carver. In this story, Ann orders a birthday cake from a baker for her son Scotty. Before the birthday arrives, Scotty is struck by a car as he rides his bicycle. At first it appears to be nothing, but suddenly he slips into a coma and is in the hospital. Ann and the father Howard await their son's fate as they keep vigil with other parents. Ann and Howard take turns going home to shower, rest, and eat. When they do, they receive several messages on the answering machine from a strange man saying such things as "Have you forgotten Scotty?" It is the baker, who assumes that they are yet another customer who has not picked up a cake and treated him unfairly. He does not identify himself, and the couple wonders, who could be so cruel? Scotty dies and the parents must return home in sorrow and pain. There is another message, but this time Ann recognizes who it is.

At four in the morning they go to the bakery to confront him. Violence hangs in the air. They bang on the door and he lets them in but as he accesses the situation he picks up a rolling pin to protect himself. Only when Ann says, "My son is dead" does the baker realize what he has done. He is left humble and repentant, confessing that he is bitter from watching other happy families celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, taking them for granted, while he and his wife could not have children. He begs forgiveness on that early morning with the smell of warm bread and coffee hanging in the air. He asks them to sit at the table and he serves them warm cinnamon rolls and coffee. "You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said. He served them and they shared their stories. Carver concludes with these words: "Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They listened to him… They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving." (Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, The Library of America, New York, NY, 2009, 424 -425.) Here, in the early morning hours, this former enemy, the baker, set a table before them in the face of a foe with which we must all eventually struggle, namely, the shadow of death. Warm cinnamon rolls and coffee, bread and wine, a table of grace.

As Psalm 23 in the King James Version phrases it: "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, my cup overfloweth. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever." We are invited to feast with our Divine Friend even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

No wonder Jesus dined with his disciples every day. They broke bread and drank wine. They did this because they were human. They did this because they were friends. Friendship with God is our incredible invitation. We have been summoned to the feast of life where we may dine with our Divine host and our friend, the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Are you hungry? Let's eat.

Monday, May 09, 2011

True Colors

Text: 1 Peter 1:17-23

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

- - -

What a week this was in the marketplace! Gold was down 7% in 3 days and a silver ETF called ZSL was down 50% in just 5 days. It is amazing how material objects such as gold and silver coins that you get see with your eyes and hold with hands and feel against your skin, can lose half their value in one week. This is a current example of what our text refers to as "perishable things like silver or gold." When it comes to real life, the really important things in life, what matters is our soul's ultimate destiny and how well we love those people who are riding shot-gun with us on this unpredictable journey called life.

The Bible says we were not ransomed from our futile ways with perishable things like silver or gold. Instead, we are ransomed through the sacrifice of Christ. That is an important point. Yet there are many churches that focus almost exclusively on personal salvation through faith in Christ. The call to repentance rings loud and clear each Sunday from the pulpit. The preacher seems unaware that 98% of the listeners are already there, already eternally secure through faith in Christ. So what? What is next? What comes after our assurance of salvation through Christ? Our reading answers that question by saying the next step, after salvation, is to "love another deeply from the heart."

We speak of love so often in the church and I sometimes wonder if we know what we mean. Our English word "love" carries so many meanings from friendship to lust. Our Epistle today speaks of love as deep and genuine. The literal Greek translation of deep and genuine would be "not hypocritical" and "not feigned." The Buddhists differentiate between love and compassion. Perhaps they may help us here. Buddhists describe love as wanting others to be happy. Love is characterized by unselfish interest in others welfare.

Similar, but distinct, from love is the Buddhist concept of compassion. Compassion is wanting others to be free from suffering. Compassion is not sentimentality. The opposite of compassion is cruelty. Imagine a person being tortured and you will see the opposite of compassion. The Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, has a special word for love. It is called chesed, which means loving kindness. Chesed is sort of a conjunction between the Buddhist words love and compassion. Chesed is an active verb that implies we will do something for one another beyond thinking good thoughts. We will take action on behalf of one another. I know you have that kind of love for one another because I have seen it in action. I have seen you take care of one another physically, emotionally, financially, mentally, and spiritually. I see it in the funeral luncheons that we provide for families who have just walked out of this sanctuary still in shock from sitting through a memorial service in memory of their mother or another loved one. The family of Lee Shoemake will have that experience this Tuesday at 11:30 am in this sanctuary. After the service they will walk across the courtyard into McPhail Hall for a reception featuring some finger foods and punch, some hugs and smiles and yes, even some laughter.

Jesus said the greatest commandment from the Hebrew Bible is that we are to love God with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. I have witnessed you loving one another and having compassion for one another with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength. We are living out this text in the life of this congregation.

We need that kind of support from one another especially in times of sorrow. We need to be there for one another because according to our text we holy resident aliens. This journey by faith motif has deep Biblical roots all the way back to Father Abraham who journeyed by faith from his home in Ur, modern day Iraq, to Egypt. Along the way he became the father of Isaac, father of the Hebrew people, the people of Israel. He also became the father of Ismael, the father of the Arabic peoples who eventually would follow the Prophet Mohammed. The image of the wandering pilgrim goes all the way back into the deep roots of our faith history, as Abraham says, "My father was a wandering Aramean …" We are pilgrims in this land. I've always loved that old classic book called The Pilgrim's Progress. It presents the Christian life as a journey through rough terrain with challenge after challenge and grace upon grace. As the old gospel song puts it, we are poor, wayfaring strangers, traveling through this world of woe.

That image of holy resident aliens may have felt more right to the initial readers of 1 Peter in the generation after Jesus and Paul. They faced trials and tribulations that included physical endangerment. If one of their Christian brothers or sisters were to betray them the dire consequences could include death. So their love for one another had to be real and their trust level had to be extraordinarily high. What Ben Franklin said to John Hancock under threat of persecution for signing the American Declaration of Independence, could also have been said about the first Christian readers of 1 Peter: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." I wonder if that is still true for us today and if so, how? After all, we live in a land of religious pluralism where churches such as ours proudly study other faith traditions. There seems to be no imminent threat to our health or livelihood due to our Christian faith. Even so, I still believe there is a place for what Augustine called a "single pilgrim band."

Augustine's City of God admonishes us to take delight in learning and to carry the burden of charity. Augustine would challenge us all to live as contemplatives who delight in learning and balance that with action by carrying the burden of charity. After all, balance is the key in this pilgrim journey. Balance is the vehicle that gets us from here to there. We must balance our physical and spiritual nature, our minds and our bodies, our hearts and our heads. The Christian life is all about balance. Sometimes we get out of balance when we live upright lives but are not willing to take the next step which is to return good for evil and blessing for slander. When we take the extra step the light really shines through and we may draw people to Christ by being Christ-like. God calls us to live faith filled lives as resident aliens of an unbelieving world. Even harder, God calls us to live as brothers and sisters to those in our congregation, in our faith community. Like Christ, we are to live holy lives in an unholy world.

Let's be holy as Christ, the lamb of God, is holy. Let's be courageous as Christ, the Lamb of God, was courageous. Let's be willing to sacrifice for others, as Christ, the Lamb of God, was willing to sacrifice himself for us. Let's demonstrate by our actions the love for others we profess with our mouths. Let be what we are. Confirmands, that is all we expect of you. Be what you are. People of God, that is all God expects of any of us. Be what you are. At times it seems impossible but we know that when we set our intention on being holy God will meet us more than halfway and take us the rest of the way. We are indeed pilgrims in this unholy land. We are merely passing through. Blessed are those who realize the transient nature of existence even in their youth, for they are on the holy road to wisdom. At times the way is rough and steep. Yet beauteous fields lie just before us. Where God's redeemed, their vigils keep. We're going there to see our mother, she said she'd meet us when we come. We're only going over Jordan. We're only going ... over home.

Cyndi Lauper sang a hit song in the 1980s called True Colors.

I see your true colors
Shining through
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful,
Like a rainbow

Silver is not our true color and neither is gold. Some of you saw our true colors when you gave blood in the Blood Drive this morning. Others of you are wearing our true color in the form of a carnation in honor of Mother's Day. Red is our true color. The blood of Christ, shed for you. As our text today puts it:

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. (1 Peter 1:17-23, selected verses)

Red is the color of the liquid of life in all God's creatures. When we dig deeper into the nature of reality we discovery red is our true color, the color of our salvation and the symbol of our love for one another. In these perilous times, let's stick together, or separately we will hang.

- - -

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on May 8, 2011.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Doubtful Peace

Sermon Text: John 20:19-31

The familiar story of Doubting Thomas takes on new meaning when viewed in light of the Docetic theology of First Century Christianity. Christian Docetics were Gnostics who believed Jesus was not human at all. He was 100% divine. That is why he was able to do the superhuman things and miracles. Death couldn't hurt him. The word "docetism" comes from the Greek δοκέω - dokeō, "to seem". This is the belief that Jesus was a pure spirit who only seemed or appeared to be human. Since Jesus did not have a physical body then of course he could not die. Therefore, Docetics view the crucifixion of Christ as symbolic and not actual.

The latest research says Docetic theology was probably more widespread in the early church than has been known. At one time it was probably the majority view. So let's examine today's text within the historical and theological framework of Docetism as represented by Thomas. (For a brief sketch of the history of Gnosticism see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Gnosticism)

Doubt is not the opposite of faith, certainty is. Because whatever you are certain about, you don't need faith, you don't need hope. Thus, Kahlil Gibran says, "Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother." Maybe that's why Thomas is also known as Jude Thomas or Judas Didymus Thomas (Thomas means twin in Aramaic, as does Didymus in Greek.) Some say Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus. That is true symbolically. Jesus represents faith and Thomas represents doubt. Thomas teaches us doubt is nothing to be ashamed about. Doubt is saying that you are not certain about something. If you are certain of something then you don't need faith for something that you already know.

With this background let's look at the story of Doubting Thomas as related in the 20th chapter of the Gospel According to John. It happened in the evening of the first day of the week. The doors where the disciples met were locked for fear that they may face the same fate as Jesus did. Then Jesus came and stood among them. Jesus is ever coming to where WE are. He does not wait for us to come to him. Here is how we phrase it on our reformed faith: "God takes the initiative in human salvation." God comes down to us. Jesus very name, Emmanuel - God with us, reminds that we did not ascend into heaven to reach God but God came down to where we are on planet earth. The Docetics would agree that God came to us in Jesus but they would disagree that Jesus came in physical form.

Notice the first thing the risen Christ says to his forlorn disciples: "Peace be with you." His disciples needed peace. They had none. They were worried to death. They feared for their lives. So no wonder then the disciples REJOICED when Jesus appeared to them! It was a happy reunion indeed. We may imagine many tears of joy were shed. Hugs were had. Everything was going to be okay. The disciples could now relax. The worst was over.

Yet, this would be no recess in the middle of a campaign. Jesus is quick to give the next assignment to the disciples: "As Father has sent me so I send you." What a daunting task. The disciples are to be sent into the world as the Father sent Jesus. So maybe they are NOT off the hook then. If they are to be sent as Jesus was sent they too may be like the foxes who have no place to lay their head at night. They also may face persecution and opposition as did Jesus. Soon the party spirit was replaced by a sobering awareness that they still had an incredibly daunting task before them.

Yet, once again, Jesus does not leave the disciples alone. He does not send them out unequipped. Rather, He breathed on them said: "Receive the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit will be to them the power of God to accomplish their work.

Jesus says: "If you receive the sins of anyone they are forgiven but if you retain the sins of anyone they are retained." So now they have been happily surprised, soberly challenged to go out and bear witness in the world, and empowered and equipped by the Holy Spirit. What an incredible come back! What an incredible response to the inadequacy and fear they had felt. The disciples could hardly believe the incredible way things suddenly turned around when Jesus appeared.

And just at this point of greatest excitement, we are brought right back down to earth. There is always someone there who is ready to rain on everyone's parade. In this case, that person's name was Thomas. You see, 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."

As a Docetic, Thomas did not doubt Jesus could be resurrected. He couldn't buy the idea that Jesus could have been killed. He doubted the crucifixion. That is why he would not believe unless he could see the mark of the nails in Jesus hands, and put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side. Thomas required proof that Jesus had been killed not that he was now alive. There is some level at which all of us are a little Docetic. We prefer the paintings of Jesus sitting on top of the world. We can relate to the Cosmic Christ who sits at the right hand of God in heaven. We are not entirely comfortable thinking of Jesus as a real human being who lived in a particular place at a particular time and who sweated and snored like the rest of us.

Back to the story of Doubting Thomas. A week later, the disciples and Thomas are in a house when Jesus came and stood among them and said the same thing he said the last time: "Peace be with you." Notice once again although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them. That kind of dramatic entrance may have grabbed Thomas's attention. Jesus did not shirk away from Thomas. He was not dumbfounded by the doubt. He approached Thomas directly and challenged him saying: "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!" His doubt was replaced by belief when he was confronted by the overwhelming physical evidence that Jesus had really and truly been crucified and died.

In addition to finding the Lord, Thomas also found a community to which he could belong. He belonged to that troubled band of disciples even though his faith at times wavered. And for that, he could thank Jesus. Some of us know the feeling. Whatever else this church called St. John's may mean to you I imagine it also means community. It means belonging to a group of people who know you as you really are rather than as you like to appear to be. The church is and should be a kind of "third place" - not home, not work, but a third place - where, like they put it in the title song of the sitcom Cheers, "Everyone knows your name." We make room for those who have different views than our own. That is an appealing feature of our faith community. Let us continue to be a church that accepts one another as people and Christians even when we do not agree on every social and religious issue.

We need the challenge and affirmation of our faith community for our spiritual development even more because we don't get the kind of evidence Thomas required. We do not get to reach out our hand and put it in the risen Christ's side. We don't get to put our finger there and see his hands. Our faith is based on a written document, an oral history, our teachers and mentors, our own personal experience, our worship and fellowship in the church. So Jesus says to us: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Our gospel reading ends with this interesting note: "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." Notice that these gospel stories are not written so that we may have certainty. They are written so that we may come to believe in Jesus and so have life.

We may grow in our experience of eternal life in this lifetime. Listen to the advice of Jesus as quoted in the Gospel of Thomas, saying three, where Jesus says:

...the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.

Thomas gives us permission to look inside ourselves and explore the contours of our inner life and admit what we find. Inside of ourselves we find fields of faith and domains of doubt. This gospel story suggests that is what God invites us to do. Rather than face condemnation, God welcomes our questions, our uncertainty, our doubt.

According to the gospels, Thomas, the Doubter, is the only person who was allowed to touch the risen Christ. This privilege was not even granted to Mary Magdelene when encountered the risen Christ in his former tomb. Jesus specifically told her not to touch him at that time. Yet, he invites the questioning touch of Thomas. Thomas, called by some the Twin Brother of Jesus, perhaps a Gnostic, a Docetic, a Doubter, you touched the risen Christ. Thank you for teaching us that God welcomes our questions – even the ones no one else asks. Give us some of your doubtful peace, brother Thomas, share with us some of the peace that Christ gave to you.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on May 1, 2011.