Hide and Seek, Sermon on John 20:19-31

A young boy was out walking with his mother and out of the blue asked, “Mom, how big is God?” The mother thought a moment and noticed a plane flying overhead high in the sky. She pointed to it and asked her son, “How big does that plane look, Ryan?” He said, “It looks really small.” “Remember that when we go out to the store later today,” was the mother’s reply.

I’ve been thinking this week about a question Pastor Mebane asked in her Easter sermon last week. The text for last week’s sermon told how two of the disciples run to the empty tomb and find only Jesus’ grave clothes there. John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Mebane’s question was about how long it took between when the disciple “saw” and when he “believed.”

It wasn’t a total transformation at the grave because just a few verses later we are told “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” They are playing hide and seek with the wrong guy. Even locked doors can’t stop Jesus from finding them.

And Jesus’ command to the disciples and to us is that it’s our turn. Believing in the resurrected Christ is just step one. We need to be sent, to shed our grave clothes and go be the church in the world that is dying for Good News.
That does not diminish the fact that our fears are real. Doubting Thomas usually gets most of the attention in this story. I like Thomas. I identify with his honest doubt. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in pants of faith.” Honest doubt keeps us alive and growing.

There is no faith without doubt; they are two sides of same coin. Beucnher goes on to say that is not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church – but the absence, the seeking of true peace in the midst of our broken world.

We don’t know where Thomas was. John just tells us he wasn’t there the first time Jesus appears to the other 10 disciples. Maybe Thomas was the most scared. The disciples are hiding – but Thomas is even afraid to hide in the same place with them. That’s ironic because Thomas earlier in the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead is the disciple who says, “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus!” What happened? Maybe Thomas realized it’s easier to die with Jesus than to live with or for him? After all, the Jews or other oppressors can only kill the body. Jesus wants our souls too.

But see what happens when we give into fear and hide from God? God breaks down the barriers anyway – even thru locked doors. And when Thomas is not there Jesus doesn’t give up on him; he comes back a week later specifically to address Thomas’ doubt and fear. Faith is not a one-time deal like a polio vaccine. It’s a lifelong journey. One of my favorite biblical characters is the man in Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son of an evil spirit. When Jesus inquires of the man’s faith his honest response is, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Both Thomas and this father remind us that faith and doubt dwell in creative tension in all of us.

But I don’t want to focus on Thomas today. Instead I want us to look carefully at what Jesus says and does in these first post-resurrection encounters with his disciples.

John says the doors are locked in that upper room and Jesus comes right into the room anyway. How he did that is an interesting question we could explore, but that’s not really the point. Jesus coming into that locked room means that God breaks through whatever barriers we try to put up – whatever excuses we offer: I’m too old, too young, too poor, too busy, not good enough, too scared. “Sorry,” Jesus says, “it’s your turn now.”

One of the best Easter sermons I ever heard was by Bishop Dwight Loder, and the phrase I remember from that sermon is this. Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. He was not resurrected for the church. He was resurrected AS the church.” We are the body of Christ, and as such God sends us in mission and service to the least and the lost. We are transformed by the salvation of Christ, but the story doesn’t end there. We are transformed so we can go out and change the world into the Kingdom of God.

How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Do you want peace in your life? Don’t we all? We long for real peace that only God can give, the peace that passes all human understanding. And the secret to finding that peace is right here in John 20. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t send them out looking for peace on E-bay or Craig’s list; he imparts it into their hearts and then sends them out. We don’t find or create that kind of peace; it finds us, in the midst of our doubts, not after all our doubts are resolved.

How does that work? Notice what happens right after Jesus says “As God has sent me, so I send you.” “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” He breathed life into them just as God breathed life into humankind in the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit empowers before it sends us out to serve.

But here’s the catch – that powerful spirit only comes in surrender. True peace only happens when we are vulnerable enough to get up close and personal with God. You have to get very close to let someone breathe on you. The question is do we want Jesus getting that close? Invading our personal space, meddling with our priorities? That’s scary. But, if we let down our barriers and allow Christ into our hearts we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to humbly and obediently do justice and act mercifully – outside our comfort zones in the world God sends us into. To say with all the saints that have gone before us, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”

Now I want to circle back to young Ryan’s question about how big God is. That afternoon Ryan’s mom took him with her to go grocery shopping, but on the way she took a slight detour to drive by the city’s airport. She parked near a fence where the planes on the tarmac were visible and said to Ryan, “Do you remember how small that plane looked when we saw it today way up in the sky? Ryan nodded. “And how big do these planes on the ground look?” “They’re really big!” her son replied. And Ryan’s mom said, “That’s how God is. The closer we are to God, the bigger God is.”

Peace comes only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. I’m not sure I want Jesus or anyone to get that close. We have to really trust someone to let them invade our personal space. If we let Jesus get that close we might have a have heartwarming experience like John Wesley. We might get called out of our comfort zone to put our faith into action!

I don’t know what Jesus is calling you to do. That’s between you and God, but I do know that we will only find the peace and power to fulfill our calling if we let the risen Christ get close enough to breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into us.

Benediction – God is big enough to help our unbelief if we allow God to get close enough. Jesus finds us when we foolishly try to play hide and seek, and he says, “You’re it. I send you out, but only after I breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into your hearts.” Go in Peace. Amen

LIVING RESURRECTION: EASTERTIDE WEEK 3

As I continue to ponder what it is that keeps me from living into the power of resurrection, fear and doubt keep bubbling to the top of my list. And the Gospel post-resurrection stories speak directly to both of those experiences. John 20:18-31 is perhaps the best example of how fear and doubt can be transformed into faith and belief.

Fear and doubt are like the proverbial chicken and egg question; it’s hard to decide which comes first, but the two certainly seem to usually come in tandem. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples are hiding in a locked room on the night of Jesus’ resurrection because they are afraid. Earlier in Chapter 20 Peter and John have seen the empty tomb, but we get conflicting reports about what that experience meant to them: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.” (20:8-10). Verse 8 says they believed, 9 says they didn’t understand; and 10 says they were so unmoved they simply go back home.

But Mary Magdalene, who was the first one at the tomb remains behind and personally encounters the risen Christ (vs. 11-17), and in verse 18 she goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” They must not have believed Mary’s tall tale. Women are still often ignored as being overly emotional in such situations. So that evening all the fearful disciples (except Thomas), even though they heard the amazing news of the resurrection, are still locked away in a self-imposed prison of doubt and fear. Jesus comes to them, brings them the peace of the Holy Spirit, shows them the proof of his scarred hands and side, and they see, believe and rejoice.

My friend and colleague, Mebane McMahon, pointed out in last Sunday’s sermon that even though “Doubting Thomas” gets a bad rap for his lack of faith, at least he was out somewhere in Jerusalem while the other ten were in hiding. There’s some evidence of Thomas’ bravery earlier in John (11:16) when Jesus puts his own life in even more danger from his powerful enemies by raising Lazarus from the dead. It is Thomas who says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

But courage is not the same as faith. When told by his friends later that they have seen and touched the risen Christ, Thomas says, “Sorry guys, unless I see this with my own eyes I cannot believe this impossible story.” His rational doubt is stronger than his hope, bolder than his experience of seeing Lazarus resurrected. He, like us, wants evidence, tangible take-to-the bank proof.

Don’t we all? In life’s darkest moments don’t we want certainty? When I was a very naïve college student a co-worker of mine learned of my decision to finally accept my call to ministry. Thinking that one small step gave me insider theological information, she asked me a tough question one day at lunch. Her husband of many years had died suddenly several years before, and even though she seemed to be getting along well as a widow, she was still troubled by something that her pastor had said to her when her husband died. She had asked the pastor an honest doubting question, namely would she see her husband again in heaven. Like all of us, no matter how strong our faith, she wanted some assurance about what happens when we die. The pastor gave her an equally honest answer which was, “I don’t know.” I’m sure he said some other words to comfort her, words of hope and faith in what he believed the answer to her question was, but what she heard and remembered was the doubt.

Of course, unless one has had a near-death experience, “I don’t know” is the only honest answer to that question, and I admire that pastor for his honesty. I do, however, have serious questions about whether he picked the most teachable or pastoral moment to demythologize my friend’s concept of heaven. But the point of the story is that knowledge cannot be the solution to theological doubt. Knowledge about God is important, but living into the power of resurrection requires more than facts to empower a leap of faith.

I am still learning that lesson. I remember walking into my first intro theology class in seminary many years ago thinking, “Finally, I am going to know the answers to all my nagging questions about God!” Remember I said I was even more naïve back then. I had been educated in a system where there was always a 1:1 ratio between questions and answers, not in the mysterious realm of theology where ambiguity is the normal state of being. I wanted concrete answers and instead was taught to seek a faith in things unseen. I felt like Einstein’s teacher the day she asked him “what letter comes after ‘A?’“ His reply was not the “correct” answer she expected. He said, “They all do.”

Like that teacher we want one correct answer to our faith questions. We want faith to eliminate our doubt, but in this life we must learn to be content and trust God when we barely “see in a mirror dimly.” (I Cor. 13:12). Part of our humanity is living with the paradox expressed by the man whose son was healed by Jesus and proclaims, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross, Peter’s doubt sinks him when he tries to walk on the water; the women at the end of Mark’s Gospel are scared into silence about the resurrection. So how do we live in the power of resurrection, even when doubt threatens to overwhelm us in fearful situations? Is the answer information and education and knowledge, or is it faith and belief? Is it a matter for the head or the heart?

It is, of course, both/and. From the perspective of 68 years of life experience, I am now much more afraid of dogmatic certainty than honest ambiguity. Dogmatic religious certainty in any form results in the kind of bloody conflicts we see all around us today between Sunnis and Shiites, Jews and Palestinians, and yes, the ideological wars between different factions within Christianity. Dogmatism declares exclusion for those with different perspectives and experiences of God, and that exclusion threatens the security and survival of the human race. Paul O’Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush, described that danger by comparing philosophy with ideology. The former he said is open to dialogue, change and growth, but ideology is impenetrable by new ideas or facts. Questions of faith belong in the realm of philosophy, but we too often turn them into matters of ideology.

Frederick Buechner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith,” it is what keeps us alive and growing. Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. As good as certainty may appear as a cure for doubt, the reality is that it also kills faith. As Buechner also says, it is not the presence of God in our lives that keeps us coming back to church each week but the absence, the need for assurance to balance our doubt.

But here’s the good news. When it appears that doubt and fear have the upper hand, resurrection comes to the rescue. God breaks through whatever barriers we have created, appearing in a locked room, not once but twice. The second time is a full week later but notice Thomas is still there – his doubt has not driven him away, nor has it excluded him from the Christian community. And Jesus comes right to Thomas and offers him the same peace and power he gave to the 10 a week before.

Does our search for information, for knowledge about resurrection keep us from experiencing it? One of my personal problems with spending much of my adult life in academic settings is that intellectual pursuits can become doors that lock God’s mystery and ambiguity out. Heavy doses of education can make one suspicious of simple childlike faith. When we sing the great old hymn, “In the Garden,” it’s comforting to walk and talk with Jesus, but then it says, “He tells me I am His own,” and my degreed self cries out, “No, I don’t want to belong to anyone, I am my own person. I can think and reason things out for myself.”

I value my education highly, but I also know the limitations of the human intellect. Jesus doesn’t send Thomas off to seminary or grad school to resolve his doubt, but neither does he send him to an extremely dogmatic faith community on the emotional end of the religious spectrum. Jesus knows Thomas. He accepts him and his inquiring mind that is not afraid to ask hard questions. He has experienced Thomas’ doubts before. In the famous “farewell discourse” in John 14, after Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, and you know the way,” it is honest Thomas who raises his hand and says, “Wait a minute, Jesus. We don’t know the way.” And Jesus, to paraphrase, perhaps showing a little frustration says, “How long have I been with you? How many parables have I taught you? How many signs and miracles have I given you? But you do know the way Thomas because you know me, and I am the way.”

Jesus doesn’t want or need disciples who just know about him; he needs followers who know him so personally that we are willing to be like him, resurrected people who embrace fear and doubt and are not crippled by them. Academics would say faith is not simply about epistemology (knowledge) but about ontology (Being). God’s response to fear and doubt is not an on-line course in theology. God doesn’t text us the answers to life’s hard questions. God inserts God’s self into the very midst of our doubting, fearful world to transform our whole being—body, mind and spirit, to resurrect the church, the body of Christ, and through us to transform the world.

God’s peace in Christ finds us, not vice versa, in the midst of our doubt and fear, not after all doubts are resolved. That peace finds us behind locked doors, in classrooms, factories, offices, in churches and seminaries, and even sometimes in the halls of Congress.

But here’s the catch – God’s peace comes only in surrender and relationship with God, to the power of Being itself. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Vs. 21-22). Peace and faith come only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. That’s really close. But we don’t like anyone invading our personal space, not even and maybe especially Jesus. I sometimes wonder if the disciples were hiding not just from the Jews that day but also from Jesus.

If Jesus gets close to us, really close, there’s a good chance we will never be the same again. They say that a child dies from poverty and hunger somewhere in the world every 3 seconds. 700-800 children have died in the time it takes to read these few pages. If Jesus gets too close to me I might have to actually do something about that, about those 20 that died in the last minute!

If Jesus gets close enough to breathe on us we might have to get out of our heads and into our hearts and out into the world. Faith is a very personal issue, not an intellectual one. It is not what we know but who we know and who knows us. It is who we allow to know us, doubts and all. And if we let Jesus get close enough to get into our hearts, faith trumps doubt and even we who have not seen but still believe can proclaim as Thomas does, “My Lord and My God!”