WHICH Jesus...

NOTE:  Here are this week's worship notes for the first Sunday after Easter:  May 1, 2011. I have been very touched by the challenge outlined in Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, that celebrates the radical dimensions of grace in a host of theological and pastoral contexts. I am going to use it to sublement the Lectionary readings during Eastertide.

Today I want to think and talk with you about Jesus: both the man from Nazareth – whom we know as a mystical rabbi from 1st century Palestine – as well as Jesus the Christ – our crucified and risen Lord. Because, you see, we live in a time when competing commitments to Christ take on dramatically challenging consequences.
• There are some believers, you know, who sense that Jesus has given them permission to assassinate abortion providers at the same time there are others who are living as hard core pacifists.

• Some members of the Christian family are so certain that they have a monopoly on the truth that they refuse to even break bread together with other baptized believers; just as there are those who are so confused about the unique importance of Jesus Christ that they bring no light into the darkness.

• There are Christians whose only concern is getting into heaven and have no interest in environmental or justice issues; there are people of faith who are so aggressive about peace that they become part of the problem rather than the solution; and there are a whole bunch of us who are so heavenly minded that we’re really no earthly good at all.

No wonder the gospel lesson for the Sunday after Easter is ALWAYS the story of Thomas and his doubts! In it, we are being asked to clarify and confirm which Jesus we are going to follow, trust and obey – because not every Jesus rings true to the God revealed in scripture and experience.

In his new book, Love Wins, Pastor Rob Bell puts it like this – and I warn you in advance this brother doesn’t pull his punches: “I believe that it is true that faithful people are called to respond to Jesus, but that raises an important question: which Jesus? Renee Altson begins her book, Stumbling Toward Faith, with these words:

I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual – and when I say spiritual, I don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-Wiccan, hippie parents… I mean that my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns.
That Jesus? He continues:

When one woman in our church invited her friend to come to one of our services, he asked her if it was a Christian church. And when she said yes, it was, he told her about Christians in his village in Eastern Europe who rounded up the Muslims in town and herded them into a building, where they opened fire on them with their machine guns and killed them all. He explained to her that he was a Muslim and had no interest in going to here Christian church. That Jesus?

Or think about the many who know about Christians only from what they’ve seen on television and so assume that Jesus is antiscience, antigay, standing out on the sidewalk with his bullhorn, telling people they’re going to burn forever? Those Jesuses? There are some Jesuses… that should be rejected.
Are you still with me? Do you see what I’m trying to get at here? How we answer the question, “Which Jesus?” really matters. 

It makes me think of a story I told some of you earlier, but probably bears repeating for the whole church. About a month ago, the Lichtenstein Art Centre sponsored a GLBTQ art show that showcased the creativity of some of the young gay artists in the area. It was a beautiful and powerful installation.
One young woman displayed photographs of what her experience in Pittsfield meant to her – and in one of them was the front of our church. Her picture was of our banner – the one about GPS and helping you find your way if you are lost – which was supposed to be welcoming. In this case, however, it didn’t work because the young woman said, “Then there are the churches… this one used to have a banner that said, ‘Questions welcomed here” but we know that they don’t mean it… they never mean it when it comes to OUR kind of questions.” 

Then she added, “Later this same church had a banner about GPS and helping people find their way – but we’re not lost – so what are they talking about?”

Now two things struck me in this young artist’s words:

• First, her experience with the church of Jesus Christ has not been welcoming, helpful or compassionate; it has been judgmental and condemning. So even though she has never joined us for worship, I don’t blame her for lumping us in with the rest of the family. Obviously, the Jesus she had met was NOT a Jesus we would celebrate.

• And second, her words underscore the importance of our mission to share a loving, powerful, healing and compassionate Jesus with the world. One who brings the clarity of the resurrection into everyday life and empowers us to live into thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is already being done in heaven.

Listen to how St. Peter put it in his letter to the early church just 30 years after Jesus had been raised from the dead:

What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we've been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and that future starts now! You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don't see him, yet you trust him—with laughter and singing. Because you kept on believing, you'll get what you're looking forward to: total salvation.

With laughter and singing – did anyone else catch that – we show others the deepest nature of Christ by living in the world as Jesus once did: with laughter and singing – with joy and celebration, with hope and feasting – and sharing the bounty of God’s grace with others. For the future starts now, said the apostle, the resurrection and our deepest hopes start now. 

• And that brings me back to asking which Jesus we honor and share with world, ok?

• And this is where today’s gospel story of Thomas and all of his questions and doubts might be helpful.
First of all, the very fact that the official Bible story for today is all about a disciple who asked hard and challenging questions of his faith community should remind us that our questions and doubts are important, too. Doubt isn’t sinful – nor is it the opposite of faith – fear is the opposite of faith, but never doubt. In fact, the entirety of John’s gospel is written in such a way that doubt and clarity, fear and faith, light and darkness, life and death are always coupled together. Do you recall how John’s gospel begins? I like the old, old poetic words for this passage: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And that light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

So let’s set the record straight – at least for this community of faith and this faith tradition: questions ARE welcomed here! All questions. Hard questions. Rough questions – heretical questions – questions and doubts that will take a life time – or more – to resolve: ALL questions. How does our mission statement put it?

• In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion.

• To reflect is not passive – sometimes it isn’t easy either – for to reflect means to carefully review and consider and discuss and question what is at the core of following Jesus.

That is part of what our 4000 year old tradition born in Judaism teaches – a tradition that Jesus honored and revered – as one scholar puts it:
Discussion about hard things is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations and Jesus responds to almost every question he’s asked with… another question. “What do you think? How do you read it?” he asks again and again. (Bell, x)

There is even the wisdom from our Hebraic cousin in faith that says just as there are black letters on the page to tell part of the story, there is also all that white space, too, that “is waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and debates and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights. We read the words and then enter into the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years across cultures and contents. (Bell)

• Thomas is a model for us – he gives us permission to ask all the hard questions we have – and do so from within the community of faith.

• "Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won't believe it."

Now pay careful attention to this second point because it is just as important as our divine encouragement to raise hard questions: Thomas never talks about doubting; rather he speaks of not believing. Perhaps a better way to render his point would be to say that unless there is an encounter with the essence of Jesus who was raised from the dead – something that is real rather than imagined – I won’t trust it. Do you get the distinction?

• Literally Thomas says I will remain unbelieving – apistos – I will be without faith. And here is why: in John’s theology, belief – trust – or faith is NOT an intellectual construct, but rather an encounter or experience with God’s grace.

• Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus speaks of abiding – God abides in me and I abide in your – that is my essence rests within and among you and you experience it. Not sign off on a creed – you experience the peace of God from the inside out – and in this you abide in me.

And that is what the dilemma of Thomas is all about: he has not yet experienced the peace of Christ after the Cross. He has known and trusted Jesus when he walked the earth as a man. He has learned and grown as a disciple, too. But now he says that he won’t believe – or abide – in Christ until he experiences him.

I suspect that is true for a LOT of people – especially those who have been wounded by the ugly and mean-spirited things people say and do in the church – don’t you think? Take the classic description of salvation and see if you can find peace in it: “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely given, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond in the right way; then God will torture in hell forever!” (Bell)

• Not only is that offensive to the Lord our God made flesh in Jesus as Christ, it is untrue – and unbiblical.

• If THAT is what faith in Jesus is all about, then I’m like St. Thomas – or many who call themselves atheists today – no way! That is NOT a God I can abide in.

So what does Jesus do when confronted by Thomas’ questions and lack of faith? Condemn him to hell? Challenge him or shame him into submission? What? He comes and offers him peace: “come unto me, my man, and I shall give you rest. I know you are tired and worn out.”
“So take my peace – don’t be unbelieving – abide in me – rest in me – experience my grace.”

• And what happens next? The story says that when Thomas was embraced by Christ’s peace he worshipped him as Lord and Savior.

• We’re going to need to talk about Lord and Savior next week – and about some notions of heaven and hell, too – but for now let’s just say that when Thomas was embraced by Jesus, he could rest in his grace.

And THAT Jesus is calling to us today – to trust him – to rest in him – to abide in him – and serve him. That Jesus truly is a Savior – and that is the good news for those who have ears to hear today.

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