what if god was one of us?

There is a great old country and western song by Montgomery Gentry that tells the story of a Vietnam Vet and a hot yuppie lawyer – two people as different from one another as night is from day – he’s got a gold tooth and ratty old Levi’s while she wears Gucci shoes and a tattoo on her derrière. But the only place they can find peace and acceptance in their busy but empty lives is… a bar. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e44zTRl22A

He works way too much for way too little
He drinks way too early till way too late
He hasn't had a raise since New Year’s Day in eighty-eight gets trampled on by everyone 'cept when he comes in here
All my adult life that reality has struck me as fundamentally upside down and backwards – not the drinking or carrying on – but the fact that so often a sleazy old run down bar is a better example of Christ’s hospitality than his living body on earth we call the church. Yes, bars are filled with self-destructive and dissolute behavior, yes they often deepen a person’s wound rather than heal it, and yes, yes, yes bars can be unsafe, uncouth and unhealthy. But here’s a stone cold fact that the contemporary church of Jesus Christ has yet to learn: a good bar never judges you before it gets to know you. Remember the theme song from “Cheers?”

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same:
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

So Jesus stood among his terrified, broken, confused and troubled disciples a week after his resurrection and whispered, “Peace be with you.” One writer in Sojourner’s Magazine wrote:

Whenever I am in a worship gathering, but especially in street churches, before we share the peace I say: “When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were hiding upstairs in a locked room – the friends’ who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who pretended they didn’t know him – who had run away when he was dying and hid when he was arrested and where frightened and ashamed. To these friends Jesus appeared and greeted them. He didn’t say, “What the hell happened? Where were you? You screwed up and hurt me!” No, he greeted them saying, “Peace.” So no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or think you’ve done, whoever you have betrayed or let down, no matter how far you have gone from God, from Jesus, Jesus doesn’t say to you: where were you? You screwed up? Jesus greets you saying: peace. You are not accused in, you are invited.

Her reflection concludes: whatever it is that churches are saying to people today, what poor and marginalized folk hear from us is: you are not good enough, you are not welcome, the food bank is down the street or around back in the basement. But Jesus says: Peace be with you – you are not accused, you are invited – and accepted no matter where you are on life’s journey.

I want to talk with you about Christ’s peace today and what it might mean for us as we try to deepen our walk with the Lord in this place and time. You see, there was a time when the community of faith was not only an alternative to the sick culture all around it, but it was an attractive refuge of healing, too. That’s what the first reading from Acts is trying to tell us: preaching on Pentecost, Peter told the crowds that the inspiration of the disciples was not from wine or booze – it was not alcoholic spirits that gave life to the community of faith – it was the living Spirit and presence of Jesus within and among them that set true life into motion:

Listen carefully and get this story straight, Peter told them. These people aren't drunk as some of you suspect. They haven't had time to get drunk—it's only nine o'clock in the morning – what is going on here is what the prophet Joel announced would happen: "In the Last Days," God says "I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy also your daughters; your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I'll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they'll prophesy. I'll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below… Eventually the crowd cried: Cut to the quick… what do we do?" Peter said, "Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites…. Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!" And that day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

It is Jesus – the Word of God made flesh for our time – that attracts, heals and transforms: not the sanctuary, not the organ, not our guitars, nor our music, not the preacher nor the teacher, not the children or the building – it is Jesus and Jesus only. Do you know that great Bible story from Matthew 17 we call the transfiguration?

Jesus needs time for prayer and discernment so he gets Peter and James to go with him up Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi. It is over 9,000 feet high – and what do elevated places suggest in the Bible? Something holy and sacred is going to take place, right. And what happens? Jesus has a mystical encounter with Moses and Elijah – the essence of the Law and the Prophets – meet him on Mt. Hermon to strengthen and encourage him. Which is a pretty cool thing to have happen – I would love it if one day in my prayers I was surrounded by God’s blinding light and given the chance to talk things over with Moses and Elijah – but that isn’t the whole point of the story. No, because what happens next? Peter and James get caught up in the moment and want to stay on the mountain top; it is totally human and they just want to keep having this magical mystery tour when out of nowhere comes the voice of God saying: THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED… LISTEN TO HIM. And when they looked up… they saw no one except Jesus alone.

They saw no one except Jesus alone – so let’s be clear about this from the get go – it is Jesus and Jesus only – his living spirit within and among us – that is going to attract others into the community of faith. So, based on this truth, what really fascinates me is trying to figure out how we make Jesus real and visible and alive for our time. How do we – in 2008 – show Christ’s living spirit to Pittsfield?

It is not coincidental that the gospel reading always assigned to the first Sunday after Easter is the one we’ve read today – and I think there are some important clues in it for us – so let’s look at it carefully. First, there are Christ’s words, “Peace be to you.” Most of the time we treat these words as a personal blessing for inner tranquility, but scholars are clear that the peace Jesus offers – eireneuo— refers to the social relations between the people of his community. When this word, peace, is used in Romans 12: 18 it has to do with cooperation among different types of people: Do not repay anyone evil for evil; but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. And if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves… do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Same is true in II Corinthians 13: Sisters and brothers, Paul says, put things in order, listen to my appeal and learn to agree with one another and live in peace… greet one another with a holy grace and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ… will be with you always.

So Christ’s peace has to do with social cooperation and acceptance of diversity; it also has to do with love: this is the love gospel we’re talking about where St. John gives us these clear words from the Lord: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. For by this love everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35) And you know this love Jesus is talking about isn’t a sweet feeling of abstract, universal peace or Rodney King “why can’t we all get along” fuzziness, right? Not at all – listen to how old St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 13:

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

And we can’t forget that Christ’s peace also has to do with shalom – right and just relationships between people – for that is at the heart of Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God: I have come to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind and the start of the year of the Lord’s favor so that debts are forgiven, dignity restored and hope blossoms throughout creation. Walter Brueggemann likes to say that shalom means finding out what belongs to another and giving it back.

Acceptance, diversity and welcome – disciplined and tender love – and social justice – radical hospitality, compassion and shalom – that’s what Jesus was sharing when he breathed and spoke words of peace upon his disciples. And I am convinced this is the right reading of the text for our day, too, by the way the majority treats Thomas – so let’s spend a little time with the so-called doubting disciple. John Sanford, one of the leading Jungian Christian theologians of our generation, suggests that Thomas is probably a person like most others – a sensate who is “strongly oriented to outer, physical reality and facts… in contrast to intuitive types who perceive what is real through an inner process.” (Mystical Christianity, p. 323)

Most people – in fact, the majority – are sensate types who, like Jack Webb on Dragnet, “just want the facts, ma’am.” Research has shown that clearly 70+ per cent of all people fall into this category, while 90+ percent of all clergy and spiritual leaders… are the opposite! We’re intuitives talking about inner things to Thomas who wants to see the wounds and feel the brokenness with his own hands. No wonder clergy and laity so often misunderstand one another! Now here’s what is even more important: it is likely that the other disciples – certainly John and probably others – don’t get Thomas. Every day since Christ’s death and resurrection, the early church has been meeting for prayer and encouragement – and every day Thomas demands proof! “We have seen the Lord” they tell him to which he can only reply: “Show me – I don’t believe you.”

And he didn’t just doubt the words on a page, he called into question the spiritual experiences of his dearest friends. Now think about this: how do you keep harmony in the community – how do you give space for vastly different realities in a family – when one doesn’t trust the other? That’s the challenge the Bible presents to us – how do we practice and embody radical hospitality, compassion and shalom – how do we share the living presence of Christ in our flesh with those who do not trust us?

Well, we aren’t given a road map but it is clearly suggested that whatever else the other disciples did to Thomas it did not include kicking him out, making him feel unwanted or diminished in any way, shape or form. In time, Thomas had his own encounter with Jesus and faith began to make sense to him – but it could have been harmed without the love, trust and safety the community created in the very spirit of Jesus, right? Did you know that there is no word in the Bible for doubt: it is either pistos or apistos – trust or the absence of trust.

Which tells me that one of the most important ways we can show those who don’t trust us that the spirit of Jesus is alive and well within and among us is by what we welcome and include in our worship on Sunday mornings: if real, live untrusting Thomas’ come into this Sanctuary and only hear sounds that seem to them elite, undecipherable or filled with judgment… what do you think will happen? Will they come back? Will trust grow? Will they sense that Christ’s spirit – not that of a sick culture – rules our hearts? Probably not… so it is vital – for me and all of us – to make certain that when people come through our doors on Sunday morning not only are they greeted and given space to be themselves, but that they hear sounds that makes sense to their lives – and in 2008 that includes rock and country and pop as well as all the standards of the faith we have come know and love.

I’m not kidding about this: when only 1% of Americans say they like and listen to organ music while 40% of a community at any point in time is curious about spiritual matters but afraid of the church… well let’s just say that it isn’t any wonder why bars seem more welcoming than the body of Christ.

Please don’t misunderstand or misinterpret: I am not speaking value here – one style of music or worship in NOT better than another – I am simply speaking about trust and hospitality. Faith cannot grow and mature without trust, beloved. Christian educator, John Westerhoff, puts it like this: there is a faith that is received – as young children it is passed on and experienced by imitating our loved ones; later it has to do with sharing in the group. After adolescence, if faith is to mature it then moves into a time of questioning and searching – so we must be certain to leave space for all types of doubt and fear. Because it is only after lots of searching and questions and mistrust that an adult can affirm her or his true faith and say like Thomas: My Lord and my God.

The community of faith – the living body of Christ at First Church – has been charged with welcoming and nourishing the questions and faith of Thomas and all his sisters and brothers. May we be bold enough, compassionate, creative and hospitable enough to make trust palpable in this place by the love of Jesus. For only when Christ becomes flesh in our time can his spirit be shared. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.


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