Sheepscott Community Church April 19, 2009
1 John 1: 1-2:2
John 20: 19-31
In His Presence
There is a happy confluence of influences this week that made for almost infinite possibilities for the message. It is the Second Sunday of Easter, with its charged gospel about Jesus’s appearing in the midst of the disciples, including Thomas. Earth Day happens on Wednesday, and a day to honor Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was set aside by Robert Ellsberg in his book All Saints. Ellsberg takes the liberty of making saints of some whom others might not, but he’ll get no argument from me on de Chardin...
...who was a geologist and paleontologist, and a member of the group who discovered Peking Man, at one time thought to be our earliest ancestor. De Chardin was also a Jesuit priest who was as much a visionary as he was a rock-solid scientist. His ideas converge in a prayer, which I find relevant to today’s readings and for today’s world.
You’d guess he was from Maine, when you hear it, if you didn’t know he grew up among the volcanic hills that surrounded his family home in an area of the Auvergne region of France
The prayer: “Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you would force us to work if we would eat... Blessed be you, mortal matter! Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain ignorant of ourselves and of God.”
De Chardin was an incarnational thinker and believer. He understood the spirit of God and the principle of matter definitively joined in Jesus as the Christ. He perceived the divine in all of creation and was thrilled with the idea that through working in the world human beings were participating in the ongoing extension and consecration of God’s creation.
What a perfect gospel we have this morning to illustrate de Chardin’s understanding of the perfect union of matter and spirit in Christ. In the second part of the gospel, Jesus stands in the midst of the disciples, as he had the previous week, but this time Thomas, who had doubted, was present. How chagrined must Thomas have felt when Jesus used Thomas’ own words of the previous week––”Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it”––Jesus used those words to call Thomas to belief. I don’t doubt that as soon as Thomas saw Jesus, he had no need to place his finger in the nail marks nor his hand in the side, but Jesus was not going to miss this opportunity to teach, when he said to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” That quotation can be read with an edge of frustration. I suspect Thomas never doubted again, at least in mattrs related to Jesus.
To return to de Chardin’s incarnational view, Jesus was present in the flesh as they had known him in his lifetime. In Luke’s gospel account of this event, Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a host does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” Not only that, but also in Luke’s gospel, he asks, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” He who had been dead was alive and they had all seen him, including now, Thomas.
Also, in the second reading, this from the letter 1 John, the writer says, “That which was,” or “what’ was, from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked at and which our hands have touched––all of that indicating substance. They had heard a voice with their ears, had looked at and touched something, someone substantial, something apprehensible by the senses. In other words, real. Matter. And then the writer says, “This we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” Word capitalized, indicating Jesus, the spoken Word the writer of John alludes to in the first chapter of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made...In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome, overwhelm or understand it––different translations of that same word.
1 John echoes much of this, as we heard read this morning. “The life appeared”––Jesus––”we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” Jesus never approached from “on high,” and this is consistent with how he appears to the disciples in today’s gospel. He was always in the midst, in the midst of the people, in the midst of real life and the questions real life asks.
It hardly matters how the body of Jesus came to be missing. We try to reduce resurrection to poetry––the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth. I myself have used that metaphor, but as valuable and as useful as that and other metaphors are in speaking about resurrection, resurrection cannot ultimately reduce to metaphor. In the scripture it simply states a fact: Christ is risen!
Some of us believe he was raised up by the power of God, that love could not do anything but that. Some believe resurrection had to happen that way that way in order to fulfill the scriptures about Jesus. Others may believe what no doubt some believed at that time, that Jesus’s body was taken away by his followers and reburied somewhere else. There are as many ways to think about the resurrection as there are people who do the thinking: I subscribe to the bodily resurrection of Jesus and what that promises for all of us, but y’ know? In the last analysis what I said earlier––that it hardly matters how the body of Jesus came to be missing, still holds. As Frederick Buechner points out in a meditation on the resurrection, what convinced people he had risen from the dead was not the absence of his corpse but his living presence, as we have heard in this morning’s gospel. And so has it been ever since.
How does that living presence happen? How does it come to be? In the gospel, we read and hear that Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” There are two things going on there: Jesus does breathe out his Spirit, his Holy Spirit in this gospel––we can read that as a first installment on the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, 50 days after resurrection. The other thing that impresses me is that Jesus gives over to the disciples the business of forgiving sins––or not. I don’t read this as a gift to those particular men at that particular time to be passed down to other particular men for other times. I read it as a responsibility for all people in their communities through time––to forgive one another.
Jesus does not arrogate the business of forgiveness to God, but breathes his Spirit on these disciples, and so on us as well, as we seek it and believe it, to be the actors in the business of forgiveness. It sounds like Jesus is giving the Spirit to enable community at that time. “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” We may bring problems and questions before God in prayer, and then let them go, trusting that our decisions following that kind of even partial surrender, will be our best decisions we can make at any given time, and that includes the forgiveness of individuals.
There are three pictures of community we have in this morning’s readings, beginning with the psalm: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers––and sisters––live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head.” It is what happens when the community comes together, to study the Book of Job, to share an Easter meal together, to worship together, to serve a meal to others together. In Acts, we read, “All the believers were one in heart and mind... they shared everything they had.” What made that possible? We know how hard it is sometimes even being under one roof with members of our families, never mind having community with groups of people who may have until only recently been strangers to us.
I think it’s possible if we look at the third picture of community, the disciples huddled together behind a locked door for fear of the Jews. There comes Jesus into their midst, breathes the Spirit on them, and they receive that Spirit and undertake to deepen their bonds, with forgiveness––or not––being a primary work in the formation of the community.
If we have the breath of the Spirit breathed on us, we also are among those of whom Jesus said to Thomas and the others, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That’s us. So, we have the Spirit breathed on us and we have the blessing of Jesus for the formation of a believing community. How can we miss? If you’re squirming, I would exhort you as Jesus did to Thomas, Stop doubting and believe. Stop holding back on forgiveness; stop holding back on hoping that this time it might be different. Stop holding back on love out of fear of being hurt. A life lived that way is pinched and stingy, and we ourselves are the ones who suffer as a result. Sure, if we open ourselves to life, we are opening ourselves to all that goes with it, including being hurt in any number of ways. We’re dealing with human beings, after all. But is a life lived otherwise worth living?
What comes to mind is the scripture about the talents given by the master to his servants before he goes off on a trip. The first doubles his money, as does the second. The third, poor devil, buries his in the ground because he doesn’t want to lose it, fearful as he is of his master, who is a demanding and hard taskmaster. We know the outcome of that story. The master denounces the servant’s cautious approach and takes away what he has, giving it to the one who already has the most.
We are offered life, and I remind you again that the writer of 1 John speaks of “life” appearing; we have seen it,” he wrote, “and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” He is talking about Jesus, and that is the same Jesus that I am proclaiming to you this morning, the same one I am inviting you to take a chance on giving in to, privately in your own way, surrendering the mountain of what seems unsolvable to the air, the pneuma, the breath of the Spirit that blows where it will.
A couple of other things I’d like to mention are first, the time element in today’s gospel, and second, that I see the breath of the Spirit of Jesus extending the already existing community that this church has been. First, the time element. Jesus came into the midst of the disciples behind locked doors when it was time for him to come. It was not predicted; he just appeared. One week later, when Thomas was present, he appeared again. He was not operating according to someone else’s clock, or idea of what he should be doing, but apparently according to what worked best for the furtherance of his kingdom and the glory of God. I think of Jesus on the cross and those below tormenting him verbally: “Let this Christ, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” God is not moved according to men’s demands on his time, but acts sovereignly.
I also note the growth in our community of faith. It is as if God is lifting the pegs of the tent and placing them at a greater distance from each other in order to expand the area, the ground that the tent covers, to build up the body that worships together with Christ /as the head/ and the church/as it has been in this community for almost 200 years, as the heart. That’s the way it seems to me.
No less than Jesus appeared in the midst of the disciples following his resurrection and about which we heard today, no less than that is the Spirit of Jesus moving among us, breathing his Spirit out on us, that we may forgive one another and grow into the community God envisions for us. Our community is growing. The generosity of that community continues as we share within Sheepscott and beyond through our service, through our donations to the maintenance of our church, to the food pantry at Second Congregational, where we also serve at the Wednesday supper.
In our own lives before God, we also know how we are growing individually in prayer and service in our households and beyond. That is a result of Jesus guiding our hand to open the locked door of our inner room, where we hide out no less than the disciples hid out in the Upper Room in fear for their lives. Jesus appeared in their midst. He was in the room with them. He is in our room with us, and when the moment is perfectly balanced,the timing perfectly right, he will enable us to fully open that door to the world beyond our own lives, our own ways of thinking about things. He will enable a generosity of spirit we have not known before.
I read in this morning’s gospel, “These signs are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” Amen.