Sermon for Easter 5C

Acts 11:1-18

In the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (the first one, not the sequel that just came out), there is a culture clash. Toula, a daughter of a Greek family who is expected to marry a Greek man and raise lots of nice Greek children, strikes out on her own. She goes to college to learn computers and she works in the family’s travel agency, and she meets a nice man that she falls in love with. When this man, Ian, asks Toula to marry him, she says yes. The only problem is, he’s not Greek. And this is a huge problem for her family. But Ian loves Toula so much that he does what is necessary to be accepted by her family. And some of these scenes are priceless: from Ian being baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church, to Ian’s parents trying to explain to Toula’s mother what a Bundt cake is, to Toula’s family getting Ian’s mother’s name wrong on the wedding invitations, and many more such comic scenes, this is a culture clash that is both humorous and very real. In case you’re wondering, my family has experienced similar culture clashes in the time leading up to my brother marrying a woman from a Greek family even until now. We laugh a lot at this movie now, because we have experienced this and we understand.

I imagine the culture clash going on in our lesson from Acts today to be on a similar scale to the culture clash in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Now, if this story sounds familiar to you, Congratulations! That means you were at our first midweek Lenten service this year where Elsie told us a portion of the story in chapter 10. Today’s lesson is both a summary of what happened between Peter and Cornelius and an account of the reaction of the church community when they found out what had happened. So, for just a moment, I want to take you back to chapter 10 and fill in a few details that Luke left out in his summary today. This will serve as a review for those of you who were here in Lent, and for those of you who weren’t, this is some necessary information.

The first thing that is important to say is that Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism called the Way. Jesus was Jewish and his disciples were Jewish. They observed Jewish laws, and even though Jesus often critiqued how Jewish laws were followed, he was still an observant Jewish person. We often forget this because Christianity has, in the last 2000 years, turned largely into a non-Jewish religion, so it is important that we remind ourselves that the birth of our belief system took place within first-century Judaism. Peter was an observant Jewish person, and as such, he followed the dietary laws laid down in Leviticus. Pigs were not okay to eat, for example, because God had declared them unclean in the Law. This was not simply a dietary lifestyle, it was a matter of Peter’s basic Jewish identity. Gentiles, those who were not Jewish, ate food that was not clean because they didn’t have the law ordained by God. By extension, then, Gentile people were considered unclean. Observant Jewish people simply did not eat with Gentiles.

On the other hand, there was Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman centurion, part of the force that was occupying Judea. But, Cornelius was also what was called a God-fearer. God-fearers were those Gentiles who admired the Jewish faith, but who could not or would not convert. Usually for the males, this was because conversion meant being circumcised, which, besides being painful, would result in censure from their superiors. And yes, they would have been found out one way or another. Cornelius is described as being a “devout man who feared God” and who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God”. So, while he may have been a good man, he was still considered to be an unclean Gentile and something separate from the Jewish people.

So you can see that we have a setup for a pretty big culture clash. And the only thing that can overcome that culture clash and bring these two very different people together? Enter the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit first sends a vision to Cornelius, where an angel tells him to send for Peter. Then the Holy Spirit sends a vision to Peter, and this is the vision that gets remembered: a large sheet full of animals, both clean and unclean, and a voice telling him to get up, kill, and eat. When Peter protests that he has never eaten anything unclean, the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And just to make sure Peter gets the point, this happens three times. When the vision leaves him, there are the messengers from Cornelius, asking Peter to come to him.

The thing is, when Peter comes to Cornelius, he’s still not certain about this whole thing. But when Cornelius tells him that he, too, has had a vision, Peter starts preaching. And then the Holy Spirit shows up again—interrupting what Peter is saying—and falls upon these “unclean” Gentiles. And Peter finally gets it, and says, “OK, God, you win. I can’t withhold baptism from these folks. Let’s get them baptized and let’s have a party.”

Now the interesting thing is this: the people back in Jerusalem don’t seem to be objecting to the fact that the Gentiles were baptized. The people back in Jerusalem are objecting to the fact that Peter and the people with him ate with the Gentiles. Now remember, this is a huge identity issue for them. If they start eating like Gentiles do, not only are they breaking God’s law, they are denying that they are God’s chosen people, their identity will become blurred, and they will fade into a people that once existed but exist no longer. The only way that this can become acceptable for them is for Peter to tell them what happened, so that they agree that this was indeed God’s action and they cannot stand against it. Now, this is not to say that through Peter’s encounter with Cornelius all of the issues surrounding the inclusion of Gentiles into the Way will be solved; we see more issues come up in chapter 15. But this story marks a significant change in the identity of the people belonging to this movement: God is bringing Gentiles as well as Jews to “the repentance that leads to life”. This is going to result in huge changes, not only for the Gentiles who are becoming followers of Jesus, but also for the Jews, who will be struggling to accept people who have customs that they have been told all their lives are very wrong.

So, why do we read this story today when we are largely beyond the whole Jewish-Gentile issue? Well, it is because there are always outsiders to any group that we belong to, and that should not be the case. Luke, both in his Gospel and in Acts, talks about this a lot in who we welcome to eat with us. When we eat food with someone, it means even today that we consider them our equal. So, most of the time we ask ourselves who we are not inviting to our table here at Hope, and how we can become better about doing that. But actually, in today’s story, we see the opposite dynamic at work. Peter does not invite Cornelius to eat with him. Cornelius is the one who invites Peter to stay with him for several days, and Peter eats with Cornelius. I would have liked to have been at that table. Did Peter and those who were with him eat food that was unclean? Or, as a God-fearer, would Cornelius have known something about Jewish dietary requirements and made an effort to have food that Peter and the rest could eat? In either case, the meals shared would have been strange and awkward for both parties. But the point is, they shared meals together.

So, today I’d like us to think about both of these questions: Who are we not inviting to our table, and whose table are we being invited to and we are refusing the invitation? And I’d like to share a story and an observation with you. Many of you who have been here for a while remember Pastor Holly, the previous pastor at Union Presbyterian Church. Pastor Holly came from Texas. In Texas, it is customary for people from the congregation to invite one another out to lunch after worship on Sundays. And I remember this from the time that I lived in Texas as well: rare was the Sunday when I didn’t have an invitation for a post-worship meal from someone in my congregation. That’s not the custom here in Wyoming, and that’s okay: there’s no right or wrong about that. However, something that Pastor Holly pointed out and I have since observed here in Powell is this: the people who are transplants to Wyoming and the people who have lived all of their lives in Wyoming tend to run in different circles. Now I’m not saying that this is true in every case. But generally speaking, the people who have lived in Wyoming the longest don’t cross that boundary to break bread with people who originally come from somewhere else.

There are bigger walls in the wider church that need to be broken down, yes. The walls between straight people and LGBTQ, the walls between black and white, white and Hispanic, white and Native American, the walls between Christian and Muslim, and so on and so forth. Sometimes, though, in this peaceful little town with not much diversity, those walls are harder for us to see. So I’d like us to start by thinking about our social circles, and about what those walls are that we can break down. If you find that my observation about natives and transplants holds true for you, think about who you can invite to your home or out for a meal this week who belongs to the other group. Sit down with that person today in fellowship—I think it’s time that we mix up who sits at which tables, anyway!—and get to know someone better who you usually don’t speak to. Let’s start with these walls that may be existing among us first before we think about where God might be calling us to break down walls on a grander scale.

When we break down walls by eating with someone who we hadn’t thought of eating with before, we will change. As I mentioned earlier, simply eating with a different person may not resolve all the issues that we might have with one another, but it is a start. And God will work a mighty change through us as we get to know one another better. I know, I said the word change, didn’t I? Change can be scary, but oh, you never know what good God is going to do through that change! Today, I’d like to leave the last word for us to think about from Gus, the very Greek father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

In the end, we’re all fruit—fruit that God loves and God wants to bring together, despite our differences. So let’s spread that love and let the Holy Spirit work through us to bring down those walls. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 4C

John 10:22-30

I had a shepherding experience this week. It was not leading sheep, however. It was leading my dog. Those of you who know Otis know he’s a pretty laid-back dog most of the time. I wouldn’t bring him to church with me during the week if he wasn’t. But one of the things that I have found that scares this dog to death is the sound of a smoke detector with a dead battery. One instance of that high-pitched beep is enough to turn my big 68-pound dog into a quivering pile of goo. Well, the people that lived two doors down from me moved out at the end of March, and that apartment was vacant. However, with the warm weather, the front window got left open. As Otis and I were walking past one day to go for our usual walk, through this open window came the dreaded sound: beep. The smoke detector in this vacant apartment had a bad battery. Otis started shaking and pulling very hard on his leash to get away from the sound. And when we came back from our walk and walked by the apartment again, the sound came again: beep. That was it. For the past several days, Otis has been afraid to even go outside of the house, even though the landlord has since come by and taken care of the problem. And I am faced with a shepherding problem: how do I get this animal to trust in me to the point that he will forget his fear and remember how good it really is to go outside and run, walk, and play in the fresh air rather than spend all day curled up in a ball on my bed? Now I think I understand a little bit of what Jesus goes through when he calls us to listen to his voice and trust in him, and instead we listen to our fears and stay huddled where we are instead of following him.

Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” I have long said that when Jesus calls us sheep, he’s not paying us a compliment. In some ways, sheep are incredibly stupid. Like sheep, we human beings often have a herd mentality. If our leader goes over a cliff, many of us will follow without questioning why. But I’ve also heard from those who have raised sheep who say that sheep are not as stupid as their reputation suggests. And one way in which I think sheep are actually incredibly intelligent is that they know the voice of their shepherd, and they will not come if anyone else calls them. I know I showed this video last year, but I loved it so much, I wanted to show it again this year as we think about how we are like sheep. So, let’s take a look.

So, if we Christians are part of Jesus’ sheepfold, are we hearing Jesus’ voice? Are we running to him when he calls us? Are we following him when he leads us to green pastures? Or are we listening to other people’s voices? And how do we know whether it is Jesus’ voice that we are hearing or someone else’s?

Well, I hope the confirmation kids don’t mind, but I’m going to use them as an example today. Last Wednesday, we talked about the Gospel of John. Now, when we only have an hour, we can only go so far into this Gospel, but I think we got a good overview of John’s perspective on Jesus. John opens up his Gospel by saying that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now, that’s confusing for all of us, not just confirmation kids. But I asked them to think about Jesus as God’s Word to us, God’s message to us. And I asked them, “If Jesus is God’s message to us, what is God trying to tell us?” And the kids had some good answers, mostly along the lines of God showing us, through Jesus, how to live a good life. And so I asked them, “Is that all?” And the kids looked at me blankly, and so I said, “How about, ‘God loves you’?” For John also tells us that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but should have eternal life.

Because if all we hear is God wants us to do this and God wants us to do that, we are not truly hearing God’s voice through Jesus. That is all Law, and there is no good news in that. If the only thing we think Jesus is saying to us is do this, and do that, then how will we know when we’ve ever done enough? No, to hear the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd is to hear the voice which speaks to us of God’s love, and that God’s love is enough to sustain us, and that the only work which God truly asks of us is to believe in the one whom he has sent: Jesus. All that other stuff that we do flows out of our faith, and keeps us busy until Jesus returns.

The problem is that it’s hard to hear the voice of Jesus if, as I told the kids this morning, our headphones are plugged in to another voice. The voice of our consumer culture, for instance, which says, “Do you feel like you’re not beautiful enough? Buy this skin product, go on this diet, get a membership at the gym and work out, and you will be so beautiful that people will be falling all over themselves to be with you.” But what happens when we do that, and the promises these products made don’t come true? Well, the voices then say, “Buy this self-help book, get this big-screen TV, decorate your room like this, and people will want to be with you.” But when we run after those next things, those don’t always work out either. And the world keeps giving us more options, more things to buy, and we always come up empty, not fully knowing what it is we’re missing.

Jesus tells us, in John’s Gospel, that what we’re missing is his voice, telling us that God loves us and telling us that when we believe in him, no one will take us away from him. Jesus offers us what the world cannot give us: true safety and security. Jesus gives us eternal life, and that life doesn’t just start when we die. No, that eternal life starts now, from the moment that we first believe that Jesus is the Son of God who came into the world to save us. When we know that we have that security; when we know that we have eternal life, then we listen to the voice of the shepherd and all of the other voices that we hear in life fall away. We know that we are loved for who we are, and that we don’t need all of those self-help books, diets, and gym memberships to be loved. And when we rest secure in that knowledge, our priorities change. We want others to know that peace and we want others to know that they are loved, and so we invite them in to the sheep fold, so that they can also become part of Jesus’ flock.

The question then is, how do we hear Jesus’ voice? How do we hear his voice cutting through the din of the voices of our culture and the damaging messages it sends us? Well, here I would like to return to the example of the sheep. As I was reading up on how sheep behave this week, I found an account of how sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. When a new sheep is brought into the fold and hears the voice of a new shepherd, it doesn’t automatically respond to that new shepherd. The sheep actually is in distress at first because it doesn’t hear the voice that it is used to hearing, and it has a temporary nervous breakdown. The new sheep “runs around and around banging its head against the rough stone walls of the sheepfold emitting a stream of pitiful, heartbreaking cries. It needs a few days of ‘therapy’ to retrain its ear to recognize the voice of the new shepherd” (Bailey, 215). I’ll admit that when I first read this, I almost broke down in tears at the thought of the poor new sheep listening for a voice it wasn’t going to hear. But then I began to think how we poor human beings are like this.

First, we who are Christians need to regularly have our ears retrained to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd. We are not immune to the voices of our culture which make us question who we are and whether or not we are loved. We need to regularly come to worship and hear again and again how much Jesus loves us for who we are, and how he forgives us and welcomes us back into the fold when we stray. Second, when we welcome new sheep into the fold, we need to help them retrain their ears to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. This means encouraging them to come to worship and to Bible study; not putting up any barriers to their full participation and removing any barriers that they may encounter, and in other ways helping them to become fully a part of the sheepfold, so that they can clearly hear the voice of their Good Shepherd.

With a Good Shepherd who loves us for who we are, we have nothing to be afraid of in this world. We can trust that he will lead us, guide us, and protect us through everything this world can throw at us. And when we have this confident trust in Jesus, when we trust that no one will snatch us out of his hand, we are eager to hear his voice and we are bold to follow where he leads us, no matter how frightening it might be. So when he calls us, let’s not huddle up in a little ball and tremble in fear. Instead, let us joyfully run to him and go where he takes us, trusting that he will indeed lead us into green pastures, and no one, no thing, will snatch us out of his hand. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 3C

Acts 9:1-20

Change. That word that is so dreaded in Lutheran circles, and I’m sure in other denominations as well. We get into our routines and into our habits, and they become so comfortable to us that we forget what we’re actually doing until someone else questions us. And it’s not just human beings, either. Anyone who owns a dog or even a cat will tell you that these beloved pets will get into a routine as well. My cat gets upset if I get into bed at night and don’t lie on my back to read for a while, because he likes to snuggle up on my chest and have me pet him while I read, before I go to sleep. I don’t even remember when or why the cat started doing that, but heaven forbid that I’m so tired I just go right to sleep, because he won’t know what to do. And anyone with a dog will tell you that animals don’t understand when we switch back and forth between Daylight Savings Time: their internal clocks know when it’s time to be fed and time to be walked, and it doesn’t matter what time our clocks say it is. So, when our routines get disrupted, and when what we believe gets called into question, we very often get defensive of the routine and the habits that we have gotten into. This is one reason why diets often don’t work in the long run: after we’ve gone on the special plans and lost all the weight, we think we’re home free and go back to our old ways of eating and put all the weight back on. It’s changing those habits and changing our way of thinking that’s the trick, and that is uncomfortable for us and can even be rather frightening, as we contemplate an unknown future that might not be as safe as we thought it would.

But sometimes, change is good, even when God needs to take a holy 2 x 4 and whack us over the head to get us to change. This is the story we get from the book of Acts today about the man named Saul. Author Flannery O’Connor once said of him, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Well, the actual story says nothing about Saul riding a horse, but that’s a picture that I think many of us out here could probably identify with. And the other thing that’s interesting about this story was that Saul’s change was not complete with that bright light, the fall to the ground, and being blinded. Saul’s change was only complete when a member of the church named Ananias came to him, healed him, and baptized him. Today I’d like to focus a little bit more on Ananias, because with all the drama surrounding Saul, Ananias gets lost in the shuffle, and I think that we can learn just as much from Ananias as we can from Saul. Because, you see, this story isn’t just about the conversion of Saul and what great things Saul went on to do when he became known as the apostle Paul. This story is also about the conversion of Ananias, and through him, the conversion of the church.

Now, let’s picture this for a moment: here is Ananias, going about his daily routine and his usual habits, when suddenly he has a vision. And the Lord says to him, “You know that guy from Tarsus named Saul? Well, guess what? He’s been praying, and in his prayers I have told him that you’re the guy who’s going to go over and lay hands on him and heal him.” Here’s the first thing to note about Ananias: he doesn’t just blindly obey. Like many other characters in the Bible, he’s not afraid to question God. His response goes something like this: “Wait a minute, Lord. You’re talking about Saul of Tarsus? Are you sure about that? You do know this is the dude who’s been imprisoning your people and killing them, right? They say he was even there at Stephen’s murder, giving his approval to that! Surely you don’t mean that Saul, do you?” And here I picture Jesus just laughing and saying, “Yep, I mean that Saul. Oh, Ananias, you have no idea the good he’s going to do for my name. It’s going to be incredible. But it can’t start until you get over there and bring my healing to him. So, get a move on.”

And then, after this questioning of God and hearing God clearly tell him to go, Ananias goes. When he arrives, here’s the thing: he doesn’t just address this feared man as “Saul”. No, Ananias addresses him as “Brother Saul.” Ananias has just fully welcomed Saul, who once persecuted the Christians, into the Christian fold as one of their own. Saul’s eyes are opened, literally and metaphorically. Here’s a man who should have been afraid of him, welcoming him fully as a fellow disciple of Jesus. I think that Saul had to have been affected by Ananias’ welcome just as much as he was affected by the fact that the vision he’d had, had indeed come true.

So what can we take away from this extraordinary conversion story? Well, first, conversion is never something that’s just between you and God. There’s an upcoming movie on Hank Williams coming out soon, and I saw a portion of an interview between Stephen Colbert and Tom Hiddleston, who plays Hank Williams, about this movie. Stephen Colbert got Hiddleston to sing part of Hank Williams’ song, “I Saw the Light”. It’s a catchy tune, and now that I’ve mentioned it, I’m probably going to have it going through my head all day long. But as I looked at the lyrics more closely, I saw that the song was all about “I”. I saw the light. I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in. Then Jesus came and I saw the light. Now, no offense to Hank Williams or anyone who really likes this song, but that’s not really how conversion goes. In today’s story, yes, Saul saw the light—literally!—but his conversion wasn’t complete until a member of the church, Ananias, came and spoke Jesus’ words of grace and healing to him. So, too, when we are converted and brought to repentance by the Holy Spirit, that is not complete until the community of believers comes around us, welcomes us back in, and speaks God’s words of grace to us. It doesn’t matter how strong a believer we are, because even the strongest of believers will falter at times. We need a community full of people like Ananias to surround us, to support us, and to speak the words of Jesus’ forgiveness to us.

The second thing I want us to note is how quickly Ananias welcomed Saul, this murderer of God’s people, with the word “brother”. That was a huge risk that Ananias was taking, and even though he had the Lord’s word that it was going to be all right, I’m sure that he still had doubts as he walked over to Straight Street in Damascus. And yet, Ananias says, “Brother Saul.” Last summer, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of people took the risk of inviting a stranger in to their Bible study and calling him “Brother Dylann”. And they were killed. But because of who they were in Christ, they could not have not taken that risk. As Christians, we are called to take the risk of inviting strangers in to hear the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ, because we simply don’t know how the Lord is working in that person. Perhaps that person will become a giant of the faith like Paul, or perhaps that person will be another Ananias to another Paul. And, unfortunately, sometimes that person will hurt us. Nevertheless, we are called to take that risk of welcome and of hospitality so that we might become a community of Jesus here on earth.

The third and final thing that I want us to note about Ananias is that he was changed by his encounter with Saul. Ananias started out in the story thinking that Saul was a murderer, and doubted God’s word that he should go to Saul and heal him. In the end, he saw Saul converted, healed, and baptized. Although Luke doesn’t tell us this, I’m certain that Ananias was amazed and in awe over how the Lord can work in people, and it opened his mind to the new possibilities that the Lord had in store for his church. I imagine that years later, as Paul was making his missionary journeys and advocating for Gentiles (that is, non-Jewish people) to be included in this new movement known as The Way, that Ananias heard this news and praised God for the mysterious ways in which God worked. And I think that is God’s call to us, too: we who think we are right in our religious beliefs may not always be aware that God is working on the margins of those religious beliefs, calling people into the fold that we would never have expected, or even that we might outright reject because of our beliefs. God calls us, then, to examine what we believe, to discern if that is truly what the heart of God is, and when it is not, to repent and to be converted to God’s will. For conversion is never a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a daily, or even hourly, experience of returning to God.

Today after worship we are marking and celebrating the 65 years that Hope Lutheran Church has been in existence. There are some who are still here today who were there when Hope was chartered, and there are many of us who have just come to this congregation recently. Much has changed during those 65 years, some of it for the better, and some things that we might miss. Change happens, and it is true that we are not always comfortable with it. But through those 65 years and into the next 65 years, God is calling us to the same things: to be a community of love and support for one another, to take risks in welcoming the stranger into our midst, and always to repent and be converted back to God when we are in the wrong. May we always be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 2C

John 20:19-31

This week was our annual post-Easter pastoral conference at Chico Hot Springs in Montana. The conference went from Tuesday to Friday. However, as I looked at the weather forecast Monday morning, I decided that I would go up a day early to avoid the snowstorm. So I made a reservation at a hotel in Livingston, packed things up in a suitcase, dropped Otis off with Pastor Larry and Judy, and was on my way. The next day, checkout at the hotel was at 11:00 whereas registration at Chico didn’t start until 3 p.m., so I had a few hours to kill. I found a coffee shop in Livingston, brought my Bible and some commentaries on John, ordered lunch, and began to study. Things were going well until an older gentleman at the next table decided to ask me what I was studying so intently. Not really wanting to speak with him, I figured he would leave me alone if I was honest and so I said, “The Gospel of John.” Unfortunately, that didn’t put him off at all, and he continued the conversation. When he asked me why and I told him that I was a pastor preparing for today’s sermon, he told me that he was atheist. And he had various reasons for being an atheist, but one thing he said is that he wanted proof that God exists and no one has been able to prove to him that God exists. And I said, “You’re absolutely right. There is no proof; belief in God comes by faith.” Well, the conversation continued on for a little while, touching on various things, but his comment about needing proof turned out to be a great illustration for today’s story about Jesus’ disciple Thomas.

If you were here last week, and you can remember back that far, you will remember that I mentioned that we give poor Thomas a hard time because supposedly he doubted Jesus’ resurrection. So, he has been known for a long time as “Doubting Thomas”. But, there are two things I want to point out about this. First, Thomas didn’t doubt. This is an unfortunate English translation of what Jesus tells Thomas when he appears to him. What Jesus really says in the Greek would be better translated into English as, “Stop disbelieving and instead, believe.” The concept of doubt in English is this: “Well, maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. I’m not sure and I need some further convincing.” The concept of what Jesus tells Thomas is more like this: Thomas, you have flat out refused to believe the word of the others who have seen me. So, here I am, face to face. Touch me—I’m real. Stop being a stubborn fool and believe that I have risen from the dead.

The second thing I want to point out is this: Thomas was not the only one who stubbornly refused to believe at first. Again, if you remember from last week, Luke tells us that the men dismissed the women’s report of the empty tomb and angels telling them that Jesus had risen as “an idle tale,” or “nonsense”. In John’s version of the Easter story, Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus is the gardener at first. In Mark’s Gospel, the women flee from the tomb and are so afraid that they don’t say anything to anyone. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus appears to them, he says that they all doubted—even with Jesus standing right in front of them! So, let’s stop giving Thomas a hard time for disbelieving. Our human experience with death is that dead is dead and there’s no coming back from being dead—if we had been among the first disciples, we would have been doubting and disbelieving at first, too.

So, what moves Thomas in particular from unbelief to belief? Is it simply coming face to face with Jesus and seeing him in the flesh that prompts his confession, “My Lord and my God?” Or is it something more than that? To begin to answer this question, I think we first need to go back in John’s story and see where else Thomas shows up. The first place that John mentions Thomas is when Jesus decides to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus. The disciples’ response is, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” When Jesus says that he is going, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Presumably, Thomas is a witness, with the other disciples, of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but John does not mention Thomas by name again until Jesus’ farewell discourse, after he has washed the disciples’ feet. When Jesus tells the disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus answers, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Even though these are the only two other times that John mentions Thomas, we can see something important here: Thomas has a relationship with Jesus. He wants to go with Jesus to Judea, to die with him (even though when it came time for Jesus’ actual death, Thomas is nowhere to be found) and Thomas is comfortable enough with Jesus to want to ask him questions when he does not understand. And so, when Thomas misses out on Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples, he is merely demanding of Jesus the same thing that the other disciples have received from him: a renewal of Jesus’ relationship with him. And that’s the point of resurrection. Resurrection is about relationship with Jesus. Jesus comes to Thomas and gives Thomas what he needs to believe: Jesus renews that relationship with Thomas that he had before his death, and Thomas’ faith in Jesus is restored.

It’s not popular in mainline Protestant circles to speak about a personal relationship with Jesus. It smacks of revivals and altar calls and making a decision for Christ, and Lutherans in particular don’t like those things. We emphasize what Jesus has done for us, and that Jesus is always there for us regardless of how we feel on any particular day of the week. But, on the other hand, there is something to that idea of a personal relationship with Jesus. So, I’m going to ask you today, how is your relationship with Jesus? How do you experience the resurrected and living Jesus on a daily basis in your life? What do you turn to in order to sustain your spiritual life, especially on those days when you don’t feel like Jesus is present? I don’t expect you to answer this right now, but I would like you to think about it as you go into this week.

But, being Lutheran, I’m not going to stop with asking how your personal relationship is with Jesus Christ. I’m also going to ask how we as a community are doing. Because the first part of today’s Gospel lesson speaks about Jesus coming to the community of disciples, breathing on all of them, and commissioning all of them together to receive the Holy Spirit and to forgive and retain sins. How are we as a community of Jesus’ disciples in the 21st century in Powell, Wyoming, doing in our relationship with Jesus? How are we experiencing Jesus in our life together? What sustains us? I hope that, as you think about it, one of your answers is that we experience Jesus together around Word and Sacrament during worship on Sunday mornings. If that is not one of your answers, then we need to talk. But I would like to give an example of why these answers about our relationship with Jesus are so important.

At Chico this week, we had both the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, speaking with us. Both of these presiding bishops are wonderful, down-to-earth people and on fire with the love of Jesus and the possibilities of both of our churches. I think that God has blessed both of our church bodies with the leaders we need for these times. In one of her talks, Bishop Eaton asked us to consider the question, “Why do we want young adults and young families to come to our congregations?” Most of the time when that question gets asked, congregations will answer, “Well, because we’re getting older and we can’t do everything anymore. We want them to take up our jobs and keep the congregation going.” Bishop Eaton said, “Young adults know when we only want them as replacement parts, and they will stay away.” What we need to do, she said, and this goes not only for young adults but for everyone outside of the church, is to be able to tell them about our relationship with Jesus and how that has changed our lives, and how we experience that in our congregation, and how much we want the same experience for the people we are talking to. Only then, when we can convey our excitement in a loving and winsome way, will people sense Jesus alive, resurrected, and at work in and through us.

So, let’s stop just saying that Jesus is alive and not acting like it. Let’s take our experience of the risen Christ that we have here in worship out into our daily lives, and share it with everyone we meet. Because, whether people know it or not, we were created by God to be in relationship with God and with one another, and even when we don’t know it, we yearn for that relationship. I pray that the avowed atheist I met in Livingston may have seen a little bit of that relationship with a loving God in me, and I pray that the risen Jesus will come into his life in such a way that he experiences what it means to be truly loved for who he is, and for whom God created him to be. And I have faith that Jesus will give him, and us, what we all need in order to kindle that faith anew, to strengthen, and to sustain it, so that we might continue to share it with others, just as he did for Thomas so long ago. It’s interesting to note that church tradition says that Thomas sailed to India in 52 AD and established a church there. If there’s any truth to that, Jesus’ relationship with Thomas enabled him to do great things. Just imagine what a relationship with Jesus could enable us to do. Amen.