Sunday, May 29, 2011

That None May Be Lost

Going to the furthest reaches of time and space — "to infinity and beyond"— with the Gospel! A sermon for Easter 6a.

SJF • Easter 6a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGWhile God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness...

Some of you may remember the old Bible quizzes that contained questions such as, “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” The answer, at least as far as the King James version has it, is — how many know? — “Jesus wept.” — You all score! Very good. That is surely the shortest Bible verse, but not the one best known. For there is a verse of Scripture so popular that it is known by its number: John 3:16. But how many who know the number really know or understand the verse?

They may be like the man who was sentenced to jail and on his first night in the lockup was confused when one of the other inmates yelled out “37” and all the other prisoners laughed. Another prisoner whispered, “248” and that brought a round of chuckles. Yet another then said, “22” and raucous belly-laughs echoed down the corridor. Finally the prisoner asked his cellmate what was going on, and he explained that the prisoners had told the same jokes for so long and over and over that they had assigned them numbers to save time. The next night the new prisoner thought he’d give it a try and in the midst of the amusement he yelled out “147” —— only instead of laughter there was dead silence. His cellmate leaned over the edge of the bunk and said, “You just don’t know how to tell a joke.”

Well, I wonder how well people who hold up those John 3:16 reference on posters at football games, really know how to tell the Gospel. Do they understand the message they blazon, or do they think the passage will get through to the throngs of people who may have no idea what that famous verse says, and may not have a Bible at hand or in their home to look it up —— if they even know it is a Bible verse? Such is the state of things in a world that has grown as ignorant of God’s word and God’s message as were the Athenians to whom Paul made his exposition of the faith in front of the Areopagus.

You, of course, know the verse very likely by heart, and probably from the King James Version: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The next verse, number 17, is perhaps a bit less well known, which is a pity, as it completes the thought: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” And, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, where the English says “world” the original language speaks of the cosmos. The point is that God did not love just the planet earth, or just the people living on it, or even just the Jews, or just the Christians, but the whole universe, and intends salvation, as Paul told the Athenians, for everybody everywhere. This is a message of cosmic hope and the possibility of literally universal salvation. For God wants nothing to be lost.

In our reading from Acts —— Paul’s address to the people of Athens —— and in the passage from the 1st Letter of Peter, we see the extent to which God will go to see that no one misses out on the message of salvation, that none is lost due to failure to hear the word of hope and salvation. God has a work in mind —— to combat human ignorance.

Now, ignorance is a word likely to be misunderstood. People will sometimes use it for someone who is foolish or stupid, but ignorance is not the same as these(though it always accompanies them.)Ignorance is the state of not knowing something. Even the smartest person on earth is ignorant to some extent —— for no one knows everything. The opposite of ignorant is not smart but informed.

Paul informs the Athenians that God has overlooked their former ignorance, the fact that they did not now God in Christ —— after all, how could they know about Jesus Christ until someone came and told them about him, filled them in, informed them? He even gives them credit for having an altar in honor of “an unknown god.” Until they were informed, they could not know the unknown God, the one who made heaven and earth and everything in them, the one who formed the entire cosmos, the who is the great King of the universe in whom all things live and move and have their being —— and they certainly could not know that God had just paid a visit to this particular planet, incarnate in human flesh that was put to death in the provincial outpost of Judea across the Mediterranean Sea, and most importantly by the hand and power of God raised from the dead. But once Paul tells them, the Athenians are no longer ignorant of these things —— they are hereby informed.

Our reading today stops short of recording their reaction. But the text goes on to say that on hearing of the resurrection of Jesus, some of them just say, “Whoa!” and others, perhaps intrigued, say, “Let’s hear more about this at another time,” and a very few are moved to join the Christian community. But many or few, convinced or intrigued or perplexed or even amused, they can no longer claim ignorance: they have heard the preaching of the Gospel of the resurrection, and they have been given a chance to accept it. No one is too far away not to be given the chance to hear God’s word of salvation.

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Nor is anyone too far away in time, at least according to Peter. Just as Paul traveled all over the Mediterranean spreading the Gospel, Peter says that Jesus, in the Spirit, even went to proclaim the Gospel to the generations who in former times did not obey. This has traditionally been understood as a reference to what Jesus was up to between his death and resurrection, and that is one possible understanding of what was incorporated in the Apostles’ Creed as “he descended into hell.”

But that is not likely what Peter actually means. Peter says that Jesus did this proclamation when he was “made alive in the spirit” — which is exactly what happened at his resurrection, not before it. So this preaching to the prisoners likely refers to a time after Jesus was raised from the dead, made alive in the Spirit. During that time you may recall he spends very little time with the disciples —— dropping in on them through barred and locked doors —— and similarly he may well have been making other rounds to other even more secure prisons —— such as hell itself, where the disobedient of the former generations had been so long imprisoned. They too are given a chance.

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The point of this is that salvation brought about by Jesus is cosmic —— as John 3:16-17 says. It is not bound by time or space. It reaches not only to the ends of the earth, but ripples out in time. This is partly the work of evangelists such as Peter and Paul —— who began spreading the word of salvation from Jerusalem through Greece and to Rome and beyond. It was also the work of the other apostles and evangelists: Thomas is said to have brought the gospel to India; Phillip, the Scripture records, passed the word along to an Ethiopian who no doubt brought the word back to the first Christian church in Africa; The later evangelists sent and brought that word to Europe —— Gregory the Great and Augustine sent from Rome to set up shop in Canterbury; Boniface who went to Germany and Anskar to Scandinavia; Cyril and Methodius who spread the word in Eastern Europe. And let us not forget those who in more modern times brought the gospel to China and Japan, and the South Pacific; and the evangelists who ventured to Africa and the Americas. Truly the word has gone forth around the globe —— not always well received, in fact sometimes not all that well presented: for the Bible sometimes came along with the sword and the rifle; some people just don’t know how to tell the Gospel!

And yet the Gospel, the Good News, was and is told —— the message gets through even though the messengers are sometimes not all they could or should be. And this is in the end a likely evidence that the message has a power and a truth of its own, for even when badly delivered, even through the static or the mispronunciation, even in spite of the cruelty or injustice that sometimes wrongfully accompanied it, the Word of God, the message of God through the Spirit of truth, is proclaimed. God so loved the world that he sent his son to save it, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That is the Gospel preached to the folks in Athens and to the ends of the earth, in the prison of hell where the departed spirits huddled in darkness, and to the end of time, and beyond. It is a message that we are called, each and every one of us, to preach to the ignorant of our present world, and to do so by more than merely holding up a sign with a Bible verse reference on it. Rather let us, as Jesus said, keep his commandment to love one another as he loved us, and then the world will see and know that our love is a gift which they too can share, as the Spirit of God abides with us, until Christ comes again in glory. It is that love we share, my friends, that shows the gospel most clearly. May we, in the power of God’s Spirit, proclaim with lips and lives the Father and the Son, who lives and reigns now and for ever.+


Sunday, May 22, 2011

We Will Be Satisfied

How much can our tastes change when we "taste and see that the Lord is good." -- A sermon for Easter 5a 2011

SJF • Easter 5a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To you then who believe he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected...” and “a stone that makes them stumble.”

We are presented today with one of the great strangenesses of human experience: that a thing which can be delightful and wonderful to one person can be horrible or disgusting to another. Much in life seems to be a matter of taste: when it comes to food or music or art, or even religion — what one person finds delicious or pleasing or inspiring, another finds nasty, ugly or repulsive. This could be a matter of nature — something with you from birth — or of nurture — learning to enjoy something you found distasteful as a child, like broccoli — or to find displeasing something you really quite enjoyed as a child, like making mud pies.

Some of it clearly relates to the person him or herself: some people are by nature capable of hearing sounds or tasting tastes — either pleasant or irritating — that others cannot, and this has a real impact on their enjoyment of or distaste for certain kinds of music or food. In fact, there is a chemical — phenylthiocarbamide, in case you’re interested — that people with a particular genetic makeup taste as strongly bitter, while others cannot taste it at all. We all know that some people cannot abide broccoli or asparagus, and this is in part because they are genetically more sensitive to naturally occurring bitter chemicals in those vegetables. A taste which many tolerate or even enjoy due to the inability to taste it in its fullness, such people find intolerably unpleasant.

My point is that the vegetables, and the chemicals in them, are just what they are: the difference lies, as is said of beauty, “in the eye of the beholder” — or in this case, the tongue!

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In our reading from the First Letter of Peter, he describes Jesus as a chosen and precious and living stone. He is the cornerstone of the spiritual temple which will be the church of God — for those who believe. But for those who do not find him to their taste, to the builders who reject the cornerstone, he becomes a source of scandal and stumbling and fall. The one and the same stone can be — for those who accept and believe in him — a precious protection from shame; but for those who deny or reject him, he will bring subjection to that very shame and stumbling. The point is that the joy or anguish is not in the stone itself, or I should rather say, himself — for it is Jesus of whom we speak here — the joy or the anguish is in that proverbial “eye of the beholder.” Whether the stone will be your rock of ages, cleft for you to find refuge; or a stumbling-block that makes you trip and fall depends on you, and how you treat it: with respect and acceptance, or with rejection and hatred.

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We see the two sides of this reaction in our first reading, and can side by side set the personalities of Stephen and Saul. For Stephen the deacon, Christ is Savior and Lord, worth dying for — and he sees the heavens opened to receive him as he dies. For Saul, this crazy new teaching is heresy of the worst sort, and Christ, the founder of this pestilent sect, is a mischief-maker rightly rejected by the authorities. One and the same Christ can lead a man to lay down his life in witness to him, and drive another to the extreme of murder — though, of course, we also know that once Saul came to know Jesus better, on that road to Damascus, he too saw the light — literally, and it blinded him for a time — and he developed finally a taste for Jesus, and even beyond that a bold willingness, like Stephen, to suffer and die for him. As I said, not all things are determined by genetics, and we can be nurtured in directions we might never imagine. Who would have thought that Saul the vicious persecutor of the church would become one of its greatest champions? More than his name changed when he became Paul!

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And that is ultimately the good news in all of this: our tastes can change. We are not always newborns who can only tolerate milk. As we grow older we can learn that a little bitterness — offensive to a child’s tongue, a sensibility that only wants sweets or pleasant things — that little bitterness or sourness actually makes certain foods taste sweeter. We come to understand that a little piquance actually brings out the sweetness of certain foods, or that a dash of Scotch Bonnet pepper — which to a young child can be a truly nasty experience — brings for the adult who has learned to enjoy it, just the right savor and relish to a dish, without which it would be dull, stale, flat, boring and intolerable. We can learn to appreciate certain kinds of music or art by studying them, and realizing that our first impressions may have been based on our own ignorance, not on some quality inherent in the art or music itself.

And when it comes to God — and Christ Jesus his Son — well, God is God, after all; and he assures us that he is in fact the Way; as he said last week, “the gate”; and if we enter, as we are invited so to do, he will invite us to “Taste and see.” He invites us to his supper.

In the old legends of the Holy Grail — the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper — it was said that the Knights of the Grail, those who dwelt in the Grail Castle and served there, lived on nothing but the Holy Communion. But the legend also says that each and every one of them experienced the bread and wine they received as if it were his favorite dish, whatever food they liked best. Though always and only bread and wine, though of course also the Body and Blood of Christ, one of the knights would experience its taste as roast pheasant, another as beef, still another as the finest venison. To each one it brought complete satisfaction and joy, though it was only and always what it was, and their only food.

Jesus similarly promises that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places — and no doubt each of those blessed to follow in his way, abide in his truth, and live with his life will find the dwelling place uniquely suited and furnished to each one’s taste and desire.

And what of those who take another way, or reject his truth, or devalue that life and the lives of those who accept and follow him? It is not for us to judge. Who knows? If such a murderous and hateful one as Saul can be brought round in the end, who are we to set limits on the grace and the power of God? And more than that, ought we not examine ourselves in the meantime and see if something in our own behavior as Christians might be keeping others away?

When I was growing up, we lived next door to a man who had a large garden, and he always gave my mother vegetables. Among the vegetables there would always be one or two eggplants, which we never ate because my mother didn’t like eggplant, and always said, “You wouldn’t like it,” when I asked why she didn’t prepare it. And so we never had it. It was only years later when I was grown up and living away from home that I gave eggplant a try — and it turned out I loved it! (I told my mother the next time I saw her after that, and she just grimaced — she couldn’t believe it, — clearly she was more sensitive to whatever it is in eggplant that gives it that bitter taste; she had never learned to enjoy it, that bitterness that is part of “the eggplant experience.”)

But I had learned. You can learn. You can change. Saul changed...

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But it is not for us to judge the tastes or fates of others. God the Father has prepared a house with many dwelling places in it — and some of those places may have been prepared for some of the most unlikely people! As the old joke says, they may be the ones surprised to see us there! These may be people who had never imagined themselves as Christians; they may be people who have taken offense at something they’ve seen an individual Christian or a Christian church do; they may even be among those who have at first rejected the very cornerstone of faith. It is not for us to judge, however; it is our task to celebrate as much as possible, to show our joy in the Lord in such varied and persuasive ways, that even those who may have been at first put off or reluctant to do so, might venture to taste and see that the Lord is good. They may find that, after all, the thing they rejected in the past is now just what they most desire, and come and join us at the feast where there is room for all, and all are welcome, and all — all — all who come to the banquet shall be satisfied.+


Sunday, May 15, 2011

At Your Service

SJF• Easter 4a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.”

It has long been a tradition to take up the account of the early church in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles during worship in Easter Season. As I noted last week, this can be a bit confusing as it gets events into a disordered sequence — we won’t celebrate Pentecost for a few weeks yet, and most of what we are hearing from Acts takes place after the original descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, seven weeks — a week of weeks — after the first Easter. I noted last week that during this time we are a bit like Doctor Who, bouncing back and forth in time, as the story is told out of order.

But that being said, isn’t it a wonderful story! In today’s short reading we hear of the short period of peace the early church enjoyed before persecution from without and dissension from within began to trouble it. The preaching of the gospel has been such a success, and the church has grown so much! People are in awe, and the members of the church devote themselves to prayer, fellowship and praising God. Is it any wonder that people are beginning to seek to be added to that number? It is almost as if the church is running on auto-pilot, without any need for earthly leadership — just one big happy and growing family! Of course, they are happy in this way because at that early point they have put their whole trust in the one whom they know to be their true leader, the one who suffered for them, bearing their sins upon the cross, and healing them by his wounds. They have put their whole trust in the one who, when they were going astray like sheep, gathered them together as the shepherd and guardian of their souls.

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This Sunday is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The theme is referred to in our opening Collect, and in the selection of the 23rd Psalm. And it is true that later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But we miss Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel if we anticipate those verses.

In today’s gospel Jesus does not call himself the shepherd, but — twice no less — the “gate for the sheep.” Perhaps we are inclined to let our minds slip over this image because it is less evocative than that of a young shepherd carrying a lost sheep home on his shoulder, as in the hymn based on David’s most famous Psalm, which we’ll be singing later: “and on his shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.” But let us stick with Jesus’ image of the gate, looking at what the text actually says, and listening to Jesus as he teaches us — lest we too fall into the same trap of misunderstanding as his original hearers, who, as it says in today’s gospel, “did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Very well, then. Let’s try to do better. Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep”; and “I am the gate.” This means that he is the one through whom the sheep enter and leave, through whom they pass in to safety and out to pasture. As he also says (and we’ll hear this next week), I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. We are saved through him. He is the way; he is the gate. So if Jesus is the gate, who then, in this imagery, is the shepherd?

Let us again “look at the text” as my New Testament professor always used to say. What is written there? The shepherd is the one for whom the gate is opened, for the shepherd passes in and out with the sheep. The shepherd is not like the thief or bandit who doesn’t go through the gate (that is, through Jesus) but climbs in by another way. And the shepherd leads the sheep and calls them by name, and the sheep hear the shepherd, and, knowing and recognizing that voice, they follow the shepherd in and out of the gate, that is Jesus.

What Jesus is doing in this passage is showing that he chooses to share the work of the church — which is salvation — with other workers: with these shepherds. Jesus delegates part of his work to the apostles and they to their successors, the bishops, who also pass along the work to the priests and deacons who serve in the parishes, and who — in case you haven’t noticed my doing this — also seek to engage all of the members of the church — that’s you! — in taking up their share of the work. These are the shepherds for whom Jesus the gate is opened, who call the sheep by name, and who lead the sheep alternately to safety and to pasture, in and out, through the gate, which is Christ himself, whose body is the church.

As to the thieves and bandits, well, next week we will see Stephen — among the first of the deacons — dealing with some of the leaders who instead of bringing their people to salvation are getting in the way of the message, impeding the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus too dealt with such leaders, to whom he said, Woe to you, who not entering yourselves have hindered others from entering!(Lk 11:52) And surely over the last two decades we’ve heard the sad and shocking tales of priestly misconduct, of those who abuse the little ones committed to their charge, and of bishops who as senior pastors fail to keep watch, and instead simply shuffle the crooked deck in a kind of ecclesiastical Three Card Monte. All I can say is, there will be a reckoning for those who take up the role of shepherd only to molest or harm the sheep.

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But let us, dear sisters and brothers, look on the bright side of Jesus’ challenge to us, the tremendous honor that our Lord does us by asking for our help, by opening himself up to us to pass in and out, by allowing us entry by the gate, to take up these tasks of ministry, to allow us to go out through the gate, out into the world to serve the needs of the world, and committing to us all of these tasks of leadership and care. It isn’t just the clergy, the bishops, priests and deacons. The church has its lay members too, working in so many ways, who take up each their own tasks of teaching the young, taking roles in worship, visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, those who maintain the physical facility of this building and other buildings, and those who undertake the work of hospitality in the heat of the kitchen — and that’s hard work, believe me. And also, and perhaps most importantly, all of you, as you go out into the world, a challenging world that is hungry not just for earthly bread, but for the word of God. All of these tasks are important, all of them require time and talent and treasure. And the church needs all of them, as they are delegated to each one by the power of the Holy Spirit working in each one to build up the church.

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There is an old story told of a steamboat helmsman and an engineer who got into an argument as to who was more important: the one who steered the boat or the one who kept the engine running so the boat could go. So they decided to trade places to see just how hard the other worked, and how important the other job was. After a couple of hours of running along fine, the ship came to stop, and the engineer, now up on the bridge, got on the horn to the helmsman, down in the boiler room. “The ship has stopped! Are you giving us full steam?” The helmsman responded from below, “The engines overheated and stopped running! I’m coming up.”

The engineer on the bridge smiled to himself, figuring he’d won the debate as to who was most important. But as the helmsman came to the bridge and looked out at the river, he smiled ruefully and said to the engineer, “Well, I guess I know now why the boat has stopped. You’ve run us aground on a sand-bar!”

The church is too important, my friends, to run aground over arguments about whose ministry is more important. The church is too important to allow a few bad priests to destroy people’s confidence in the rest who are good. The church is too important to be injured by bishops more interested in the church’s reputation than in the good of the flock. But the church itself — Christ’s body — is not too important for God in Christ to have committed its care into our less than perfect hands — all of us. He has chosen us to go in and out through him. Mark and Catherine our bishops, I as your priest, Tony and Eliza as our former deacons, and Mark Collins and Sahra Harding as seminarians here (and now priests themselves serving in other parishes) and each and all of you as readers and teachers and ushers and cooks and cleaners and welcomers and visitors and hosts and musicians and altar serves, and most importantly of all as members of this church going out into the world and spreading the news — each of us has been given a job and a ministry by God, by our Lord, the gate for the sheep, and all of us have been empowered to carry it out by the Holy Spirit. Maybe we can — through the power and grace of God, help move the church into something resembling those early days when they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Wouldn’t that be awesome! The church being the church — coming and going through the gate and all working ship-shape and in Bristol fashion.

So let us not lose heart, let us not lose faith. When the job seems daunting or beyond our capacity, let us always remember that the Lord who is Way, the Truth and Life will provide other servants through the gate, who will join in the work of building up God’s kingdom, day by day adding to the number being saved, being brought through the gate of salvation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Sunday, May 08, 2011

By All Accounts

SJF • Easter 3a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom our God calls to him.+
 One of the more interesting characters in television history is the inimitable Doctor Who. I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember the low-budget Doctor of the 70s, you may perhaps be more familiar with the up-to-the-minute CGI and high-tech spectacle of the new Doctor. I mention this sci-fi TV series for two reasons. First, one of the unique qualities of this series is the way in which they’ve been able to explain having many different actors — three alone in the recently revived series alone — portraying the same character. The explanation is that the Doctor, while not precisely immortal, is very hard to kill; and when he is seriously injured, instead of dying, he “regenerates” in a new body, which may be quite different from the old body. It’s a very handy way to deal with actors who tire of playing the role and want to move on. So more than a dozen actors have come and gone, but the Doctor remains.
My second reason for mentioning Doctor Who is that the show is all about time-travel. The Doctor, you see, is a Time Lord, able to travel from the beginning of time to its end in his trusty blue box, the TARDIS, which because of a malfunction in its camouflage circuit is stuck looking like a 1960s London Police Box. Actors portraying the Doctor may come and go, but the TARDIS is always a blue Police Box — though in the last season I’m happy to note it regained its St John Ambulance First Aid sticker on the door, a detail for which I, as an officer of the Order of St John, am very grateful! The sticker is a fitting tribute to the Doctor, and that’s why it’s there, for he spends most of his time saving planets across the universe — including the earth — in one way or another, and so the TARDIS is a kind of cosmic emergency rescue vehicle.
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Now, you are probably beginning to wonder why I am talking about Doctor Who. Well, the reason I do so is related to the two things I noted about the series. Let me — as a demonstration of the point I hope to make — take the second first: time travel.
Our Scripture readings today present us with a very tangled time-line. Things are out of chronological order. Two of the accounts come from Saint Peter — and in both of them he is himself a time traveler, out of the normal sequence of things. The first reading shows him standing boldly and proclaiming the Gospel truth to the people of Jerusalem. Now, those of you who know your Scriptures will recognize that this is an event from just after the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit — the event that gave Peter the courage and the words to speak out. But our Pentecost celebration won’t come for five more weeks; and our Gospel reading also casts us back to Easter, two weeks ago in our time. It is set, as it says, “that same day” as two of the disciples are heading out of Jerusalem to the suburban village of Emmaus. In the verse just before this passage, we are told that Simon Peter has been to the tomb and seen that it was empty. But by the end of the Emmaus story Luke informs us that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter. (And, as a side note, isn’t it interesting that Luke’s account does not recount the actual encounter between the risen Lord and Peter? It happens somewhere offstage — while Luke shifts his focus to these other disciples headed out to the suburbs and Jesus who walks with them. That appearance of the Lord to Peter is not in Luke’s text.)
But however it happened, the encounter of Jesus and Peter was not on its own enough to transform Peter into a powerful evangelist, ready to go out and address the people of Jerusalem and proclaim the Gospel. The beginning of Acts records him taking some leadership among the eleven, and praying, and proposing the selection of someone to fill the empty seat of Judas the traitor — but more has yet to happen to Peter to transform him into the dynamic leader who would proclaim the Gospel openly and fearlessly. That would take the coming of the Holy Spirit. We’ll hear more about that on our Pentecost Sunday. That is still a few weeks away, as we time-travel by what it seems is the only way we can — day by day and week by week!
But as we open the Scripture accounts before us, Peter seems able to move from time to time as easily as Doctor Who and his companions in the TARDIS. And in the second reading, from much later in Peter’s ministry, one of his letters, we can see him share his cosmic experience of the depths of time: not his personal experience, but his testimony to Christ, who is the true Time Lord (and Space Lord if it comes to it) — the one who saves not just a planet here and there, but the whole universe all at once — and who needs no blue TARDIS to do so. Peter affirms that Jesus is the one destined before the foundation of the world — and as the original text says cosmos that means more than just the earth — he is the one who at the end of the ages is revealed, and who was also there at the very beginning. It is through him that those who follow him have been born anew — regenerated — as Peter says, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
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Which brings me to that other point: the continuity of the character of Doctor Who in spite of the dozen-plus actors who have played the part. It is worth noting that the account of the road to Emmaus is a bit like one of the episodes in which Doctor Who regenerates, but in which it takes even his companions a while to realize “Who” he is. But more than that, as Peter reminds us, in both the account of his Pentecost proclamation in Jerusalem, and in that first epistle written later in his ministry, we too are regenerated in the baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit — given new life, being born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, by the living word of God.
So it is by all accounts — Peter’s two testimonies and the story of Emmaus, we are given the opportunity, through these proclamations, to set aside the foolishness of the past and allow our hearts to be set on fire by the power of God’s word, working in us, and to know him in the breaking of the bread.
We shall soon be sharing that bread as we have this morning been sharing the word — and isn’t it just another reminder of the way the timeline can be woven into braids to recall how Jesus quoted Deuteronomy, to say, that “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God?” We have received that word this morning, in our hearing and meditation and reflection, and soon the bread will follow — not simply earthly bread any more than the word was simply an earthly or a human word — but as it was the word of God, so too this bread will be the bread of heaven, the Body of Christ, accompanied by his blood shed for us, the precious blood of Christ, the broken bread and the precious blood that saved the cosmos from destruction.
We have traveled in time this morning, sisters and brothers, from before the foundation of the universe to the end of the ages — in which we are blessed to live — accompanied by the One Who Is, by all accounts, the savior and redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Monday, May 02, 2011

WIthout a Doubt

How to certify a birth in the kingdom of heaven? Faith and doubt are sisters... A Sermon for Easter 2

SJF • Easter 2a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Any of you here with young children or younger siblings are no doubt familiar with the phenomenon of triangular conversation. This is what happens when you are trying to have a conversation with a person of your own age in the presence of those much younger than you are. It is a skill somewhat more difficult than the more primitive spelling-out of words that you don’t want the child to hear; which always risks the embarrassment of a wise child saying, “Mommy, I know how to S-P-E-L-L!” But for those who have mastered the art of triangular conversation, it can save many a headache, and a good deal of time. Once you have the system down, you may appear to be speaking to the child, but your message, what you want your spouse or friend to understand, gets across. When successful, the child feels included in the conversation but doesn’t understand the significance of what you are saying to the mature person.

The Gospel according to Saint John is in large part just such a triangular conversation. Although it is written as a series of encounters between Jesus and his disciples, much of it — if not most of it — is written for the benefit of those who will read it — including us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is often speaking to us over the heads of the disciples.

This is perhaps nowhere so clear as in those closing verses of our Gospel reading today. The ones who “are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” aren’t the disciples, but are the members of the church who hear this gospel proclaimed to them — and that includes us at a remove of nearly 2000 years. Jesus may appear to be speaking to Thomas and the other disciples, but the message is for the church at large — for the many generations of believers who have come to believe not because of what they had seen but through what they have heard: the proclamation of this very gospel. As the last verse proclaims, this Gospel had a purpose, and is “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.”

The whole incident preceding John’s conclusion leads up to it with a kind of inexorable logic. Remember that this is Jesus’s first appearance to the gathering of the disciples — prior to this he has only appeared to Mary Magdalene, and though she has told the disciples about it, they are still cowering in fear behind locked doors. Suddenly — and as I said last week, magically — Jesus appears in the locked room and reveals himself to the disciples minus one. Thomas the twin isn’t there. Why? The Gospel doesn’t say. But it would be fair to note that Thomas may not have been quite so fearful as the rest of them — perhaps the only one courageous enough to be out and about in a city grown threatening, truly now a stranger in a strange land indeed.

For whatever reason, Thomas misses out on the resurrection appearance, and expresses his doubt in no uncertain terms. Or perhaps it would be better to say, in uncertain terms. He expresses his uncertainty, his doubt, not denial. He does not affirm something that he knows, but something that he does not know. He confesses he does not know that Christ is risen — but he doesn’t declare that Christ is not risen. That would not be doubt, but denial. He does not say, “He is not risen,” but rather, “Show me the proof and then I will believe.” And once the proof is given, so he does.

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People sometimes wrongly say that doubt is the enemy of faith; but that is not really true. Doubt and faith are sisters; and whether you say “I don’t believe it” or “I do believe it” you are speaking primarily about your own state of mind and not about the ultimate reality or unreality of some objective fact. Facts, after all, are just facts. People don’t believe facts, they know facts. So knowledge is not the same thing as faith, nor is ignorance the same thing as denial. No one would say, “I believe that one plus one is two.” You would say, “I know that one plus one is two” — or, as I said before, “I know how to S-P-E-L-L.” Nor does my saying, “I don’t know how to do differential calculus or speak Chinese” mean that differential calculus or the Chinese language don’t exist. Ultimately, one does not need to have faith in, or belief in, something which you know to exist. Faith only is needed where doubt is possible.

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When Christ appeared to the other disciples they did not gain faith in him — in fact they had been just as faithless as Thomas. They had not believed the testimony of Mary, who had seen Jesus. What they gained when Christ appeared to them was not faith but knowledge. And Thomas seeks the same thing: he says he will not believe, but he demands knowledge — he literally demands hands-on experience — but faith is belief in the absence of hands-on experience , in the absence of certain knowledge.

And this is precisely why Jesus, and John as author of this Gospel, speak to us over the heads of the disciples including Thomas, in saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We do not have direct knowledge of the living Christ, in the same way the disciples in that room did. But we do have their testimony. And as Peter also affirms — writing to a congregation long ago but who just as well might be writing to this congregation gathered here today, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

None of us has seen the risen Lord with the eyes of the flesh, or heard his voice with our earthly ears — but we have seen him with the eyes of our heart and heard him speaking to us through the Spirit. He speaks to us through the Scripture over the heads of the doubting world. But more than that, we see him through the acts of sacrifice and service, to the wounded, the captive, the hungry, and the sick. We believe, and believing, have life in his name.

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Doubt and faith are sisters. Doubt will not harm you unless it hardens into denial, unless it demands physical proof, and incontestable evidence.

In his first novel, A Separate Peace, John Knowles portrays two privileged young men at a posh New Hampshire private boarding school in the midst of World War II. The two boys have engineered a fantasy in which they have come to deny the reality of the war itself — like some modern day conspiracy theorists, they think the war is just an elaborate hoax. They have made, as the title of the novel suggests, a separate peace; and it ends in tragedy. Denial catches up with them in the end.

And you might well say, how foolish not to know what is going on around you, not to believe the evidence of one’s senses, even after the seeing the newsreels and press reports. Or, in a more recent context, how foolish not to believe even when the much-demanded long-form birth certificate has been produced. Yes, there are still some who will continue to live in denial!

But is our disbelieving world any better for not seeing the signs of the presence of God in the hearts and hands of faithful people everywhere? That is our task, my friends. Not just to believe for ourselves, but to put our belief into action so that others may see what we have seen — not the risen Christ himself, or his wounded hands or side, but the hands and arms and shoulders of fellow Christians reaching out to lift and carry the weak, to comfort and heal the sick, to feed the hungry and console the orphan and widow. These are a certification of a birth far more important than a merely earthly one. They are the signs of the birth of the spirit in our hearts, and they certify our citizenship in the kingdom of God.

It is not for us to hear words from the lips of Jesus himself like those gathered on the mountainside, but to hear that message carried forth as testimony by many messengers — and to become messengers ourselves — apostles each and every one of us — sent to the far corners of the earth to bring the message of salvation and new birth, shouting out the Gospel over the heads of a disbelieving and unbelieving world, which, like a wise child, may realize there is more to the conversation than they know — so that all people everywhere might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing they might have life in his name.+