Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Breathing in the Spirit

Breathing in the Spirit (4/30/17)
Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas 

Two weeks ago, I told you to get out! I told you to get outside of these walls and listen and share Christ’s love with everyone you meet. I also told you to get out there and witness to the resurrected Christ. It occurs to me that that particular instruction, to witness to the resurrected Christ, might be pretty difficult. What does that even mean?
Acts 2:14a, 36-41,15:20-21; John 20:19-31

          Good morning. Two weeks ago, I told you to get out! I told you to get outside of these walls and listen and share Christ’s love with everyone you meet. I also told you to get out there and witness to the resurrected Christ. It occurs to me that that particular instruction, to witness to the resurrected Christ, might be pretty difficult. What does that even mean? How do we explain the resurrection in the midst of contemporary science and technology? And what do we mean when we say the resurrection is a real and present event in our lives? I want to explore those questions over the next several weeks. Before I get into today’s Gospel text, I want to tell you a story that highlights the difficulties of sharing the message of the risen Christ in today’s world.
          Last summer I participated in vacation bible school at FUPC, Houston. I had never volunteered to do VBS before, not at any church where I’d been a member. But as the pastor, even as an interim pastor, when I was asked to participate in VBS, I couldn’t say no—even though I knew it could be uncomfortable. I’m always afraid that someone will give me a question I can’t answer. At least with grownups, I know how to dodge a difficult question. I can always say, “I hadn’t thought about that before; let me do some research.” But it’s different with kids. You can’t leave them hanging and they know when you’re making stuff up.
          So there I was, talking to kids in grades three and four, I think. I was telling them the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. One of the girls in the class asked me, “Why didn’t Jesus get a gun and shoot his enemies?” What an astonishing question!
          On one level, maybe it was a little bit funny that she didn’t know guns weren’t invented for another fifteen hundred years or so. And honestly, that was my first response, but it’s not really the right answer. The correct answer is that Jesus voluntarily gave himself up to those who persecuted him. This young girl was not a member of the congregation. I assume that she had a friend in the congregation, who brought her to VBS. And I’m glad that she was there. It seemed like she wasn’t familiar with the Easter story or with Jesus. Yet she was quite familiar with our culture: so many of our stories show heroes that use violence to defeat their enemies. I can only imagine how strange Jesus’ message of self-sacrifice must sound to someone who was raised outside the church, in a culture that glorifies violence.
          The world outside of the church is filled with people who have never really heard the Gospel story, and even more folks who have heard it, but who have turned away from organized worship. Some people believe that they can do it on their own—whatever that means. Others work more than one job or have kids who are really active in youth sports. I met a woman who stopped going to church in the years after she graduated from high school. She was raised in a Presbyterian church and she said that when she went to worship, all she met were a bunch of hypocrites who didn’t seem to live by the Gospel, so she didn’t want to be around those folks. She left the church forty or fifty years ago. I have another friend who was raised Catholic but who now identifies as an atheist. Of the time he spent in church, he remembers a lot of rules, but not a lot of love.
          Yet we are charged to be the salt of the Earth and the light of the world; we’re charged to spread the Gospel and share the love of God in and through Jesus Christ—to everyone; to those who are here in church every Sunday, to those who used to be here, and to those who have never heard the story. Today’s lesson from the Gospel of John offers some insight as to how we might do that.
          This story is often referred to as the story of “doubting Thomas.” This is a poor name. It distorts the story into a conflict between faith and doubt, and in the process, it reduces faith to an intellectual activity. In the Gospel of John, faith is not an intellectual activity, it is a category of relationship. To believe in Jesus is to be in a relationship with Jesus. So let’s not give Thomas a bad rap by saying that he doesn’t have enough faith.
          This morning’s Gospel lesson contains not one, but two stories. First, the risen Christ appears to all of the disciples, except Thomas. The story begins: “When it was evening on that day,” the Gospel Writer doesn’t want us to miss that detail. It’s important. He tells us up front; it’s night, it’s dark outside. This is always a big deal in the Gospel of John.
The disciples are in darkness, having yet to believe or understand the events of the last three days. Jesus’ appearance is not only his physical presence but yet another instance of the light shining in the darkness.[1]
The darkness is sin. Remember, in the Gospel of John, sin is not a collection of bad deeds. For John, sin is a category of relationship. Those who are in the dark are not fully in relationship with Christ; they do not know the light of Christ’s love.
          When the risen Jesus visits the disciples, they’re afraid. They thought that they were cut off from Jesus, that their relationship had ended with the crucifixion. They were afraid that the religious authorities might come after them. Fear and isolation formed the darkness for the disciples. Fear interrupts faith.
          So, Jesus greets them by saying, “Peace be with you.” Peace.
          The peace of Christ be with you. Peace!
          Jesus speaks to the disciples’ fears. This is immediate, yet it also recalls an earlier episode in this Gospel, in which Jesus gives final instructions to the disciples before his arrest. Jesus tells the disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). How does Jesus actually give his peace to the disciples? Through the Holy Spirit! According to this morning’s lesson:
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.” (John 20:21-22)
The disciples were relieved to see the wounded body of the resurrected Christ, but they received lasting peace through the Holy Spirit; the Spirit “is present to give comfort during the most intense periods of distress in the lives of the disciples.”[2]
          Maybe some of you are wondering: Why do we have a second story? Why does the risen Christ have to have a separate appearance to Thomas? This could just be an accident of history; maybe Thomas just wasn’t there. But I think it’s more likely that the Gospel Writer is trying to make a larger point.
          This whole story—the first appearance of Jesus to the disciples, without Thomas, and then the second appearance of Jesus to all of the disciples, including Thomas—shows that it is essential to have one’s own experience of the risen Christ.[3] Thomas needs to have the same experience that the other disciples had. Thomas needs to know that he is still in relationship with the incarnated God, the Word made flesh: “Thomas gets to say what we all want to say, the truth of what we do not want to admit, how difficult it is to believe in Jesus whom we have never encountered for ourselves.”[4] Thomas is where we enter this story.
          Beloved, we all need to have this experience of a relationship with Christ. None of us were alive when the human Jesus walked the Earth. We can only experience this relationship with the risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, we’re not very good at talking about the Spirit in the Presbyterian Church. I could give you a seminary explanation, but I think I can do this better by telling you a story.
          A couple weeks ago I went to a party in Pittsburgh. The guest of honor was a former pastor of mine, the Rev. Dr. Mary Louise McCullough. I first met Mary Louise about ten years ago, when I began attending, and later joined, Sixth Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. In fact, Mary Louise is truly the last person who I thought of as my pastor. She left Sixth about five years ago to become the senior pastor of a big church in Nashville.
          Some amazing things happened in the life of that congregation while Mary Louise was the pastor. Four people in that congregation either began or finished seminary. The congregation began a mission partnership with a coffee farm in Nicaragua. And some wonderful relationships were built among members of the congregation—many of which were made stronger on those trips to Nicaragua.
          Of course, I had no idea any of that would happen when I walked in the door of the church in 2007. I came at the recommendation of a former pastor. I heard a great sermon, so I decided to come back the next Sunday. And the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that. Mary Louise is a gifted preacher. I began to hear the scriptures with a clarity that I’d never heard before.
          As I got to know Mary Louise better, I’d ask her questions about her sermons. I’d send her emails. And she gave me great responses. Perhaps she saw seminary in my future before I did. She certainly gave me lots of encouragement when I began to explore my sense of call. Many others in the congregation did, too. I wasn’t the only one in the congregation who heard her sermons so clearly. There were some Sundays where it just felt like everyone in the congregation was truly getting it. But Mary Louise isn’t the hero of this story.
          This is a story about encountering the Holy Spirit. Those Sundays—when I heard the sermons with such clarity and it seemed like others heard the same thing—that was the Holy Spirit moving among us. It wasn’t a blinding flash or light or a Road-to-Damascus experience. It was the still, small voice, growing clearer and louder. And it probably didn’t happen for everyone in the congregation, but it sure felt like it, because I was finally in a place to feel and understand the presence of the Spirit in ways that I never had before.
          I felt a combination of intellectual and emotional engagement that I had never felt before. I felt it during worship. I felt it in choir practice. I certainly felt it on that coffee farm in Nicaragua, and I felt it when I described my experiences to others. I know that other people felt this way, too.
          The Gospel of John is all about relationships, particularly, what it means to be in a relationship with the human Jesus. The disciples understand Jesus through human encounters: Mary Magdalene realizes she’s in the presence of the risen Christ when he calls her by name; the disciples realize they’re in the presence of the risen Christ when they see his wounds. They have direct experience of the relationship.
          That party for Mary Louise was amazing. There were so many people there who had experienced those kinds of relationships. We knew each other more deeply and intensely. What we had at Sixth lasted for a couple years—at least for those of us at the party. That gathering allowed us to have a taste of what we’d had before; it was a tangible reminder of the presence of the Spirit.
          Beloved, when we meet people outside of these walls—people who have left the church or people who were never in the church—we cannot offer them a bunch of reasons why they should worship with us. There’s no logical argument that will persuade anyone to sit in these pews if they aren’t here already. It is only through relationships that we can reach others with the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
          So that means we have to cultivate those things within this church that allow us to feel the movement of the Holy Spirit. I think we might start by learning some new hymns. I would also invite everyone to join the adult Sunday school class. I think we have fun there, but don’t take my word for it, ask one of the members. We need to prepare the way for the Lord, so that we can better feel the movement of the Spirit, and then we have to communicate our experience of Christ’s love with the world outside of our walls. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 244.
[2] Lewis, p. 245.
[3] Lewis, p. 248.
[4] Lewis, p. 248.

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