Sunday, May 01, 2011

Channeling God's Love

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Preached by Ken Lyon, 5/1/2011, at Grace Church, Cincinnati.

The Gospel: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But 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."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "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!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

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.

The Sermon

My wife and I took our kids, then ages five and seven, on a sightseeing vacation to Mexico City in 1975. We decided to take the train, the Aztec Eagle, from the US/Mexico border to Mexico City, stay there a couple of weeks, and then take the train back.

But we also wanted to see some of the countryside. We looked at the train schedule, and instead of going straight to Mexico City, we got tickets to a stop about 100 miles before Mexico City near a town called Queretaro. We planned to stay there a few days and then take a bus in to the big city.

The train trip was wonderful. We were the only English-speakers, and we knew only about ten words of Spanish, but no matter; our blonde-blue-eyed kids were great hits with the other passengers. During the day, we saw all kinds of interesting sights as we crossed the high desert. At night, out the window of our comfortable berth, we saw millions of stars in the clear air, all the way down to the horizon.

On the second day, when we heard the conductor calling our stop, we grabbed our bags. We were ushered off the train onto the gravel beside the track, and the train quickly pulled away.

Wait a minute! Did I say gravel!?!? Where was the platform? Where was the train terminal? Where was the city? Where were the busses, the taxis, the restaurants, the people? We’ve been dropped in the middle of nowhere--Mexican nowhere--thousands of miles from home.

My wife and kids are looking at me: what now, dad? Indeed! What have we gotten ourselves into? This is nothing at all like what I had expected! What will happen to us now? Where will we stay? How will we ever get out of this fix? Nothing is making any sense! I’m petrified. On top of that, I’m feeling guilty about getting my family into this fix.

By virtue of the fact that you see me standing before you now, you know that we survived, and in fact, it’s given us a great story about an adventure that I’m glad we had. But I still remember that moment--the sense of utter dislocation—crazy discombobulation—as my sunny, optimistic, naive expectations were turned upside down. Have you ever felt that way? Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

As for what happened to us: Down the tracks there was a little building that turned out to be the train station. There were a couple of men inside. “How do we get to Queretaro?” I asked. A barrage of Spanish came back. “Where’s the bus to Queretaro?” More Spanish. I rack my brain for some Spanish words. “Donde esta el bus a Queretaro?” Somehow, patiently, the man got me to understand that we should get on that old school bus parked out in the lot; that it would not take us to Queretaro, but it would take us to a place where we could get a bus to Queretaro. We got on the bus, and with the help of the bus driver, who refused my offer of money, he found us that bus to Queretaro. There, we found a hotel, slept well that night, and had a wonderful, memorable, trip.

I said you should remember that feeling of utter dislocation, terror and immobilization that comes when our lives are turned upside down, because that’s where the disciples were on the Sunday night after Jesus’ execution.

The disciples—minus two—are together.

Judas isn’t there. Depending on who you believe, he either hanged himself out of shame for having turned Jesus over to the authorities, or he met the end he deserved when he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.

Thomas, the hero of today’s Gospel, isn’t there either.

These ten have locked themselves up in a room out of fear that what happened to Jesus might happen to them. Their leader, the man they counted on, the man who had given purpose to their lives for the past three years—was suddenly taken away and executed! Their world has been turned upside down. Now, two disciples report that Jesus’ body has disappeared. And Mary claims she has seen and talked with him. None of this makes any sense! Worse yet, they are feeling guilt—shame—because they know that they deserted their friend when he needed them most.

So they’re feeling disoriented and guilty, but—being men—they’re not talking about how they feel. Instead, I suspect that they are engaged in a blame game, laying their feelings off on Judas. “It’s all Judas’ fault! If he hadn’t turned Jesus in, none of this would have happened!” (And they continued to blame Judas. From that time on, it’s as though Judas’ name becomes “Judas Who Betrayed Jesus”—that’s what he’s called every time he’s mentioned anywhere in the New Testament.)

So the room is filled with “ain’t it awful” talk.” But suddenly they’re aware that someone else is there with them! They’re not sure who it is at first, but when he shows them his wounds, they know it’s Jesus. His presence makes them even more aware of their shame at having deserted him. What will he say to them? What will he do to them? They think of what happened to Judas, and they know they deserve the worst.

But Jesus simply says. “Shalom. Peace be with you!” It’s like nothing has changed between them. They’re off the hook, and they’re overjoyed.

Then Jesus tells them that they are to be his successors. He breathes life into them as God breathed life into humankind at the creation. And he makes them God’s agents of forgiveness in the world—forgiving as they have just been forgiven.

And then, he disappears as mysteriously as he appeared.

These are astounding events. Yes, they’ve seen Jesus—sort of—but what’s it all mean? They’re more confused than ever. They plan to meet again the next Sunday and they go back home.

Now, what about Thomas? At an earlier time when Jesus was about to walk into a dangerous situation, it was Thomas who said to the rest of the disciples: “Let’s go with him, so we can die with him.” Unlike the others, Thomas understood where following Jesus would lead. Now, he’s feeling worse than the rest, because he had known in advance what was required of him and still he’d failed.

Thomas doesn’t feel like being with anyone right now, he just wants to be alone in his grief and shame.

But now the disciples seek him out and use the same words with him that Mary Magdalene used with them: “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas doesn’t believe them any more than they believed Mary. He thinks, “You might have seen something or somebody, but it certainly can’t have been Jesus. No way Jesus wants any part of us after how we’ve failed him.” So Thomas demands proof that the person that appeared to them really was Jesus.

So the next Sunday, Thomas joins the disciples in that locked room, and Jesus again comes into their midst, again saying, “Shalom—peace be with you.” And he shows Thomas his wounds, daring him to touch them. Thomas, seeing that it really is Jesus who has passed the peace to him, understands that Jesus’ love for him hasn’t changed one bit. Through Jesus, he experiences the almost incomprehensible forgiveness and acceptance that is only God’s to give.

In that moment, he blurts out the most powerful statement of Jesus’ identity in all of the Gospels—“My Lord and my God.”

In that moment, Thomas sees what no other person in any of the Gospels has seen. “My Lord and my God”: This statement is the climax of John’s Gospel, the statement that John’s entire Gospel leads to.

Suddenly, things makes sense to Thomas. He has one of those great “aha” moments. When Thomas calls Jesus “God,” it’s because he sees that Jesus is channeling God’s unconditional love--love for him, and for the others; for all people.

He understands: This is what Jesus’ life was all about: About channeling God’s love that has always been there from the moment he created the world and everything and everybody in it--a fact that, through the ages, people so often lose sight of.

And, in that moment, Thomas’ own confused life makes sense. If Jesus is channeling God’s love to him, then his life’s work is to channel that love to others. The meaning of his own life becomes clear—and he’s no longer paralyzed.

It’s at this point that the real Easter miracle occurs: a group of formerly confused, demoralized, leaderless, guilt-ridden disciples goes out in a dangerous world to spread the Good News about God’s love. In only 300 years, Christian believers are the majority in the whole Roman Empire.

And what about us? When we, as individuals, experience God’s unconditional love for us, our lives change. Our life’s work becomes clear to us. We worry less about our mistakes--whether they are mistakes we’ve made, or the mistakes we’re afraid might make--and our energies are released to channel God’s love to the world around us. As we have experienced God’s unconditional love for us through Jesus, we channel that love to others.

In each Sunday’s liturgy, when we come to the rail for communion or for healing, we re-enact this transmission of God’s love. Let these acts be for us a reminder that we are to channel this love to the world, and let us pray with St Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


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