Sermon: April 22, 2012
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The Gospel of John was written around 100 of the Common Era – 70 years after Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection. By that time, the Christian church had grown enough that it was being noticed – and seen as a problem – by the Roman Empire. Loyalty to Jesus challenged the loyalty demanded by the Emperor.
So a little bit before this Gospel was written – and it was the last of the four – the Roman Empire started persecuting the Christian Church.
Not everywhere, to be sure; and not in such a way that it was impossible to be a Christian and continue living. But the harassment and persecution were enough that it really put the question to people in a clear and direct way:
“Do you really want to affirm your commitment to Jesus Christ by joining the church when serious trouble is a possible outcome?” In other words – “how sure are you of your faith?”
To respond to that concern, the author of the Gospel of John told this story we call Doubting Thomas. Whatever the possible true-life background of the story is – whatever kernel of historical fact it may be based on – the story as it now stands is John’s creation.
People who joined his church community needed to have some re-assurance about their faith. So John created or re-wrote or adapted something to come up with this:
Thomas doesn’t see the Risen Christ when he appears to all the other disciples; and Thomas declares that he won’t believe until he has touched the marks made by the nails in Christ’s hands, until his own hands have touched the wound in Christ’s side. His faith – his commitment – is weak or non-existent.
When Jesus comes the next week, Thomas sees him, touches his wounds, and believes. And Jesus says: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
John created or adapted or re-wrote this story so he could have Jesus say that final line: Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.
People of John’s time needed some re-assurance that their faith was true. After all, it was a long time since anyone had seen the Risen Christ. John was trying to give them that assurance.
What is interesting to me is the connection John assumes between Jesus’ earthly life and then death by Crucifixion on the one hand, and then on the other his Resurrection to new life. Jesus’ life which led to Crucifixion is the same life which continues in Resurrection and new life.
This perception is not new with John. Paul had it 45 years earlier. And Paul also applied it to Jesus’ followers:
All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We have been buried with him by Baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life. If we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a Resurrection like his.
I love that image: baptized with Christ unto death, then raised with Christ to newness of life. It gathers together all the pains and struggles and uncertainties and terrors of life: baptized with Christ unto death; and all the hopes and joys and loves and possibilities: United with Christ in a Resurrection like his.
Pain, struggle, uncertainty, terror, and death.
Hope, joy, love, possibility, new and eternal life.
For me, that is the journey, the movement, the passage and progress symbolized by our liturgical art piece in the sanctuary.
This is my personal interpretation – it may not be yours.
For me, the piece begins in the back in darkness. As it moves, it comes down close enough that we could touch it – reach up for it, as Thomas reached out to touch the wounds – and be gathered into its journey upward toward the blazing beauty of brightness and light.
Baptized with him in a death like his; raised with him unto Resurrection and new life.
I would like us to think about that bottom-most point: the lowest place where the journey down just might become a journey upward. The point where Thomas touches the wounds of Jesus and sees the truth – knows the glory of the Risen Christ.
Here is a modern story about someone whom I envision as being at that bottom-most point. The ad on Craigslist actually did appear, but my conjectures about the woman come solely from my own imagination.
It was a “For Sale” ad: Wedding dress. Size 18. Runs small. Never worn. Still has tags. Asking $50.
A wedding dress in a sale ad. That raises questions, doesn’t it? Size 18. She’s a large woman, possibly uncomfortably so? Runs small. She doesn’t want to admit that is her size. There is denial in her pain. Never worn. The marriage didn’t happen. Still has tags. She bought the dress but never even got close enough to the wedding to put it on and make it her own. Asking $50. Asking. But she would take anything to have it out of her sight, out of her memory, out of her life.
The bottom of the journey, the pit of perdition. The story I am envisioning about the woman selling the wedding dress has her at that place in her life.
At that point, a low point in life, what could lead a person – any person – to a change, a turning? As one touches the visible wounds, how does one let oneself be taken up into the life of Christ?
In Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserbles, Jean Valjean has been released from prison after 19 years. He is walking alone, hungry, homeless, with no place even to get in out of the rain.
He goes to the home of Father Bienvenu, hoping for the least little bit of something. Father Bienvenu invites him in, gives him a sumptuous meal with real silver and china, and a bed for the night made up with fine linen. Jean Valjean repays him by stealing the silver and china, and creeps away during the night.
But the police apprehend him, see that the stolen goods belong to the priest, and take him to Father Bienvenu’s house.
Jean Valjean expects to be immediately sent back to jail; but Pere Bienvenu says to the police: He did not steal these things; I gave them to him. And I gave him the silver candlesticks also, which he did not take for some reason. Here, my son, put these in your bag, also. May these all help you on your journey and bring you what you need.
When the police let him go and themselves leave, Jean Valjean stares at Father Bienvenu, who says: Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I take it away from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition; and I give it to God. Now go in peace.
The incredible gesture by Father Bienvenu changes Jean Valjean’s life. He is on the way to becoming a good man.
An act of empathy and unexpected compassion changed him.The journey ever deeper into the pit of perdition became, instead, a journey toward light, and wholeness, and peace.
An act of empathy and unexpected compassion. A journey changes direction.
People in our Prison Ministry Program could tell you many stories of journeys into the pit of perdition, and some stories about a journey changing direction.
I could tell you about a man who changed his life dramatically, in order to have a relationship with his oldest son; and I could tell you about a woman in a Methadone treatment program who is struggling right now to change hers.
There is often empathy and unexpected compassion at the point where the journey makes that turning, that change of direction.
Consider people who drive all night to help clean up after a flood, or volunteer in a food pantry, or sit with the abused child next door, or donate an organ so an anonymous stranger may live.
There is empathy and compassion. And sometimes, they are so unexpected that the lives of the recipients of those actions are changed.
I don’t know whether I want to ask you to visualize where you are on your own journey of faith right now, or to ask you to consider how you can help someone else who may be struggling in theirs.
Maybe it’s both.
Are you wondering where to go at this point in your life? Or what the next step for you is, on your journey with Christ?
Are you looking for a way to make a positive difference in someone else’s life?
Are you at a low point and need someone to make a difference in yours?
Where are you on the journey of the human soul?
Wherever we are on that journey, we give thanks to God that Christ is always with us.
May the Spirit of the Risen Christ touch our hearts and our lives with hope. And through us, may the Spirit of Christ touch another person with hope and grace. Amen.