Thursday, April 28, 2016
Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29
Our three lessons this morning differ so much in tone and style and literary effect.
The first lesson, from Acts, reads like journalism, like some travel writing in a magazine.
The second lesson, from the Revelation, is a fantastic vision, in a graphic and cosmic genre that no one writes in today except artificially.
And then the gospel lesson is intensely conversational, but with John's unique tone that is simultaneously intimate and distant, at once appealing and evasive, both comforting and confusing. "How can we find ourselves in what you are telling us? Is there any room in what you say for me?"
One of the things I love about the Bible is the variety of voices within the various genres of its literature. Compared to other scriptures of the world, the Bible feels complex and messy and even contradictory.
The Holy Qur‘an is an extended unitary recitation in a single voice. This generates an Islam that is unitary and efficient, even in its schisms. This expresses its vision of a unitary God, singular, absolutely absolute, the exaltation of oneness. And in that unitary singleness is their peace.
But the Bible generates a religion which is messy and complex, not unitary but a field, a room, and it plays across the boundaries of logic and essence. This expresses our vision of God, who is a unity but also an eternal interplay of persons in relationship, and in that interplay is love. That love makes space, and God moves into that space that God's love creates, and in that space is our peace.
The Bible claims that God loves to come and dwell in us, not merely in the world, but inside us, inside us human creatures. That is something no Muslim would ever want to say. God would never dwell in such a mess. In their view, God does not play like that. God does not play at being God.
We Christians treasure this interplay. And this morning we have the interplay of these three divergent lessons. When you try to bind them together they don't compact, they push against each other, they make a space between them, a room, and in that space you find the flowing of faith and love, two energies also in interplay. What I feel in these three lessons is the dynamic relationship of faith and love, both of which you want, and what you want to be able to do well. That's one reason you came here today, to practice your faith and your love, and to find yourself within this room.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus says that if you love him, himself, Jesus, then God comes into you and dwells in you, and not just part of God, but, strangely, the whole of God, as Father and Son and Holy Spirit. We thought God was supposed to dwell in heaven, but Jesus says that God's dwelling is inside human beings, any human being, and in many human beings at once.
How much is this metaphor? How much is this real? Or is it both reality and metaphor? This all could say so much as to end up meaningless, which is why the Christian church developed the careful doctrine of the Holy Trinity, in order to not say foolish things. So we would say that God still does dwell in heaven, but yet also in you, by means of God's Spirit. And what our Gospel lesson says is that how God moves into you is through the hallway of your love for Jesus.
The lesson from the Revelation says it differently. The angel shows John the city of God coming down into the world, so that the dwelling of God will be among the peoples of the earth. Not inside us but among us, at the center, uniting the nations all together. So the terms are different.
The vision speaks to the landscape of the earth, of streets and a river and a tree, and of the glory and honor of the nations, which means our cultures and societies, our musics and arts and histories and languages and economies. Of course the vision is a metaphor, but how else shall you speak of a new reality? The vision expands into all the world. The earth will be full of the glory of God.
But, again, the gospel's conversation is about the inner space of the human soul. That's personal and smaller. But just how small? Rather, how vast is the inner landscape of your human soul. Your human brain (Marilynne Robinson) is the most complex organism that we know of in the universe. Your complex brain supports your expansive inner life. There is plenty of room inside you for God.
As God dwells in you, God inhabits your musings and your memories and the tunes you hum and all your remembered conversations with your friends and relatives. To love Jesus is to welcome God in, and you love Jesus somewhat with your feelings, yes, but I think mostly in your mind.
And now, from the Acts, again the terms are different. God is moving in to dwell in the house of Lydia. We read that God opened her heart to listen eagerly to the message of Paul, and then she opened her home, which was also her place of business, to be the house of God within the city of Philippi.
That was a big deal, because Philippi was a colonia, a Roman military city, specially dedicated to the Roman gods of Mars and Julius Caesar, and therefore intolerant of any other gods within the walls. That's why the women had to pray to the God of Israel outside of town.
That's why it wasn't a given that Paul could absolutely trust in Lydia to be faithful. Her business was selling purple garments to the upper class men of Philippi, who wore the purple as a sign of their power and prestige. But when she got baptized into the sovereignty of Jesus she put herself in tension with the loyalties of her clients to the sovereignty of Caesar.
Could she keep faithful? Did Paul believe that she knew what she was doing when she got baptized? Could he trust her? Could he have faith in her? She believed that she could be faithful to herself. Blessed Lydia, who was faithful to herself and called on Paul to honor that. And so his faith in her-faith-in-Jesus was the hallway through which the reign of God was entering into her household and God was dwelling in Philippi.
Faith. Faithful. Trust. Trustworthy. Fidelity. These words all relate to love. The feeling of love, yes, but more the practice of love. As Jesus says in the gospel, "Those who love me will keep my words." He's talking about your fidelity as the expression of your love.
Your love and your faith are how you cross the gaps between us as individuals, your love and your faith are how you maintain your relationships across the spaces between us, your love and your faith are how we hold together across the differences that would force us apart. Your faith in me allows me to love you back. Your love to me calls me to be faithful to you. I believe in you, and you believe in me.
That's how we keep crossing the space between us. We want some room between us, we don't want to collapse into each other, we don't want to become unitary, we value the wonderful dancing of our differences, and so our unity is of community, just as the One God is a Trinity. There is room in here for you.
Jesus said these things, on the night before he died, to his friends whom he knew would desert him. How could he say to them, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." How could he be at peace? If not in his feelings, at least in his mind—that he had to trust in the long-term faithfulness of God his Father, that God would keep those resurrection promises, and he had to believe that God would love him to the end, and through the end and past the end to the new beginning.
I am inviting you today into this same peace, which you can believe in, and which will get you through your nights of trial and suffering. I am inviting you to love Jesus with your mind, to believe in him as the faithful medium of God's promises, for precisely in and through your believing God makes a spacious home in you, and you become a dwelling place of the love of God for all the world.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
Our Gospel lesson takes place the night before Jesus died, in the Upper Room. When Judas Iscariot scuttles off-stage, the spotlight is on this intimate conversation between Jesus and the eleven disciples. This is the calm and quiet scene before the drama gets all tragic and ugly.
Jesus says this little speech that is contradictory—that in his death he will be glorified, and then it is circular—that in his being glorified he will glorify God, and God will glorify Godself in him, and God will glorify him. And then he calls them into love. This language is too rich for them, and they cannot understand it, not yet, not till after the resurrection, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit, and even then it will take a few years, at least, for the Apostles to work it out.
The Apostle Peter is a case in point. Here is a man who has to learn the love of God, who has to convert his love. Earlier in the gospels you can see how much Peter loved Jesus, and how he swore to lay down his life for him, and when Jesus was arrested it was his love for his Lord that led him into that dark place that he could not handle when he ended up denying him. After the resurrection, at that breakfast on the beach, the Lord challenged him to keep on loving, but to convert his love.
In our lesson from Acts, Peter gives an account of what you could call a conversion of his love. He is having to defend himself before a special council of the Apostles and the brethren. He had done a controversial thing without their prior consent. He had welcomed and affirmed some Roman soldiers. Who were not circumcised. Without requiring them to get circumcised. He just quick baptized them and broke the bread with them—which means Holy Communion. He had welcomed them into the full communion of the church, against the rules.
What rules? The rules in the Bible, the only Bible the early church had as yet, the same Bible as the synagogue, the Torah and the prophets. And the Torah was very clear, that no one could share the sacred meal who was not circumcised. So if the soldiers were uncircumcised they were unclean, they were unkosher, just as unkosher as all the Gentile food they ate. Pork. Reptiles. Shellfish. Calamari. Disgusting, enough to make one wretch. And with unwashed hands. Did Jesus die for this?
Peter defends himself by saying that hadn’t been his own idea, that it was God’s idea, and God set it up, and there was no getting around it. The Holy Spirit had come down upon these Roman soldiers just as it had come down on them. This was the doing of the Lord Jesus. Whom the Lord Jesus considers clean, we should not call unclean. Whomever the Lord Jesus has welcomed and affirmed, we should welcome and affirm.
Welcome is one thing, but affirm is another. When I say affirm, I’m saying that Peter did not ask those soldiers to change. He not only did not ask them to get circumcised, he did not ask them to stop being Roman soldiers, and to stop participating in the heavy occupation of the Jewish homeland. These weren’t just any Gentiles, they were the oppressors of his people. They were the ones who took at will their produce and fish, who made them carry their baggage, who could flog them and beat them as needed, and who could take their daughters for their pleasure with impunity. Even if these soldiers were all good guys, it can’t have been easy to have baptized them.
So it’s not only these soldiers who are converted—Simon Peter had to be converted in his love. And no doubt in his feelings and his very body. Consider his vision of unkosher food. If you’ve been conditioned your whole life against certain foods, you find those foods literally “dis-gusting”. Emotionally, physically, even when it’s other people you see eating them.
Consider what it was like for Simon Peter, in his body, being surrounded in a room by Roman soldiers. Not where any Galilean Jew would ever like to be. A place of physical risk and vulnerability. And then, to baptize them, he’s got to touch them, and I’ll bet he’d never dared touch a Roman soldier before. And then he had to sit among them, and after blessing and breaking the bread he will be offered food he’s been conditioned his whole life to avoid. Oysters! “Uh, no thanks, I’ll pass.”
I’m talking about the conversion of your love. Love begins in your childhood as a feeling, that’s natural, and even the most exalted and selfless love, I think, must have has some feeling in it. But while the love of Christ embraces human feeling, it is not grounded in your feelings and can even be counter to your feelings. Especially your feelings of dislike, and often your feelings of disgust, and most of all your feelings of fear.
You cannot do this with a natural human love that just tries harder, you have to convert your natural love into resurrection love, that love that comes from God, the love that God has within God’s self, among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and now pours out into you in power of the Spirit. If God so loved those Roman soldiers as to inhabit them, how can Simon Peter refuse to love them too? And so Peter has to convert his feelings into the love of God.
So does the church. At that special council the other Apostles and brethren had to get converted too. And it takes a long time for the church to convert. Consider the implications of what Peter had done. If you do away with circumcision, then there is no longer any sacramental distinction between men and women. I don’t know if anyone in that special council could foresee it, but what Peter had done implicitly gave women equal status in the church to men. It has taken two thousand years for the church to begin to work this out, and much of the church still resists it.
And if you do away with circumcision, you are removing the sign and seal of sacred genealogy, you are removing the symbol that fathering children is your sacred mission. If you work that out, it’s a threat to traditional marriage, because traditional marriage has always been an agreement between two men in order to keep legitimate the offspring of their sons. If anyone in that special council could have foreseen it, they would have opposed Peter with a “Defense of Marriage Act.”
Do you find my interpretations tendentious? Do you think I’m leading the witness? When the lesson from the Revelation says, “See, I am making all things new,” how inclusive is “all things”? How much is up, how much is open, how much is free? How deep into the world does the Holy City come, and how far into the fullness of human experience? We are not done yet, we are still working out the implications, we are still exploring the wideness and the power of the love of God.
These lessons today are both for challenge and for encouragement. We are challenged to love because it’s only within the dynamic of uncomfortable relationships that your love gets converted. And let me encourage you in your love, because God is ahead of us, the Holy Spirit is ahead of us.
If God is calling you to cross the boundary of discomfort, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be there ahead of you. If God is calling you to relationships beyond your boundary of fear, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be in that relationship already. You may be comforted that the love that the Lord is commanding you to love with, is the love of God that is already there, and what you are doing is stepping into the spotlight of the love of God.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, April 15, 2016
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday. The metaphor of the shepherd is one the Lord Jesus applies to himself, and we can assume that the Lord Jesus intended all of its associations and implications.
There is the implication of his divinity, for example. If you refer to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” meaning the Lord God of Israel, and if Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd” and claims that “he and the Father are one,” then he’s implying his own divinity, which, of course, was unthinkable to his audience, even to his disciples, until after the resurrection.
The associations of the Good Shepherd metaphor are of safety and security, and the metaphor speaks to children. Some years ago, at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, a chaplain observed his young patients continually returning to this metaphor.
So the chaplain built a worship pattern around the metaphor. That developed into the curriculum called Young Children in Worship, which we have been doing here at Old First for a good twenty years. My wife Melody has been leading it and training practitioners in it for thirty years, in the US, Canada, and even Hungary.
I was trained in it myself, over four straight days, in Holland, Michigan, and it was very intense. On the second day, I think it was, we were learning the parable of the Good Shepherd, and I had to put my little cut-out sheep behind a cut-out of a big, dark rock, as if I were hidden. Then the Good Shepherd came out to find his sheep. And I had a sudden emotional reaction, opposite to safety and security. I was afraid of the Good Shepherd. I was afraid he would be mad at me. I was afraid he would be mad at me when he found me. Here I was, a grown-up, a preacher, in my forties, and I was crying. The story opened up my childhood fears, and touched my deep anxieties.
I can remember my father, a preacher, in a state of anxiety when he would fear that he was not saved. Not me. I have never been anxious of my salvation. I’ve never been afraid of hell. My parents always emphasized a loving God, and I don’t remember them ever speaking of hell, as if it were a threat. From an early age I stopped believing that there even was a hell, or that the Bible actually taught it. (Indeed, the whole hell thing is a magnificent mistake of the Christian tradition.)
And yet I did have great anxiety of soul, even in my childhood. What gave me great anxiety was the thought of eternal life. It used to keep me awake at night—eternal life, oh no!
I shared a bedroom with my brother Hank. My mother would come in and say our bedtime prayers with us, and talk to us. I have this memory of her telling us about eternal life—that after we died, we would live forever. And I can remember being terrified.
I didn’t tell my mother, because I must have assumed it was wrong to be terrified about such a good thing. But I used lie awake at night afraid of it, and get stomach aches from it: the thought of living forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, endlessly existing, endlessly existing, never ever coming to an end. I can remember praying this repeatedly: “Dear God, that’s all right, Hanky can live forever, just not me please. Please just let me die when I die. Please, please.”
It scares me still. Even in recent years I have lain awake, sweating, my pulse racing and my heart pounding. You’d think I’d just walk away from the Christian faith, but I could never get myself to not believe. And I never wanted to, because there’s so much else about the Christian faith that I love. Or you’d think I might join up with some liberal, modern Christianity evolved beyond such ancient myths as resurrection. But, as a scholar, I know that the whole New Testament collapses if you try to remove the resurrection. And once you have resurrection, then, as day follows night, you have “the life everlasting, the life of the world to come.” That’s the historic Christian faith, and it is not for me to change the historic Christian faith to suit my own personal anxieties. It’s not about me.
You can imagine that over the years I’ve expended a lot of mental energy trying to conceptualize an eternal life of less anxiety. How about if we will have no experience of time—that eternal life will seem like one, single eternal moment, without before and after, without the feeling of endless extension. Well, maybe—some theologians actually teach that.
But then I read in one of my favorite theologians (Hendrikus Berkhof) that time is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and that time makes possible bodily life, and if the life of the world to come is both a new heaven and a new earth, that means not the cancellation of time but the renewal of time. He convinced me, so my anxiety remains.
How about if we will be like the elves in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t mean to be funny, and I don’t mean the horrible movies, and I don’t mean pointy ears and stringy hair, and I don’t mean fantasy and sword and sorcery, but The Lord of the Rings as a piece of serious literature.
Tolkien intended his elves as humanity unfallen, what humans might be like if Adam and Eve had not sinned. So his elves are immortal, undying, and not in heaven, but on earth, enjoying the earth as one great garden, even when that garden has cities within it. Well, fine, but that is no help, because I’ve still got the same problem at the end, never-ending consciousness, never any final rest.
Maybe that’s my problem: my unrelenting consciousness, my excessive self-awareness, my own mind always turning in upon itself. Maybe in eternal life we will not be self-aware, we will not be self-conscious, maybe we will be like the birds. But that won’t do. Self-awareness is another gift of God to us, it’s basic to being human, it’s implied by how Adam names the animals in Genesis. So self-awareness will be included in eternal life. And my anxiety remains.
I could go on with my other attempts at solutions. But I will tell you where I’ve come to, and that only recently. As for me, I accept eternal life as a matter of obedience. “O God, even if I do not want it, you have given it to us, and I know how good you are, O Lord, so I will accept it. I will have to trust you, O God, with this fearful gift of eternal life, and I will follow you into it.”
It’s a case of the sheep following the shepherd. It’s a case of the sheep hearing the sound of the shepherd’s voice and following the shepherd out of the safe and familiar sheepfold and out into the unknown pasture, out into the space of my anxiety. I will follow you into this eternal life, O Lord, and it’s only because I’m following you that I dare go there.
“When I tread the verge of Jordan, you bid my anxious fears subside. Death of death and hell’s destruction, you land me safe on Canaan’s side.” Safe, safe from myself, safe from my own mind, safe from my anxieties. I want to be able to give you “songs of praises, songs of praises.” I will do that singing even now, as an earnest, as an act of trust and humble obedience. “I will follow you into this, O Lord.”
So in a real sense, it’s not about me. It’s not about me figuring out a notion of eternal life that is fully attractive. It’s not about me, it’s about my Lord, and trusting in him. But at the same time, it is about me, because he calls me by my name, that name that was given to me at my baptism.
It’s about Alexandra Jane Pope, whose name we gave her last Sunday. It’s about Dorcas, Tabitha, and Simon the Tanner, and it’s about you. Because this eternal life of the Good Shepherd is not the Hindu version of ultimate self-negation, as when a drop of water loses its identity forever in the ocean, no, it is about you, your name is precious to God, your unique identity, and God will never let you perish.
That’s the promise. It’s not for you to solve, but it is for you to accept and enjoy, even if it’s only by obedience, and the reason it is about you is because it’s grounded in God loving you. That might be what I can’t imagine now, existing in such boundless love, I don’t think any of us can rightly imagine it now, but that’s the promise that I depend on and that I pass along to you, the promise that I offer you, the promise of the boundless and bottomless and endless love of God for you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 09, 2016
Acts 9::1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
This is the story of the rehabilitation of Simon Peter. It’s two weeks after the resurrection, but how the disciples should respond to this great, new amazing fact they do not know.
So Peter goes back to what he does know. Except he can’t catch any fish. Then, when Peter recognizes Jesus, he acts all guilty and confused. He covers his nakedness, and he jumps into the water with his clothes on, and then he brings the fish in all by himself, which is over-compensation. Peter, stop trying so hard.
That breakfast on the beach will have been lovely for the six other disciples, but for Peter it will have been very uncomfortable. That charcoal fire, and the smell of it, the same smell as seventeen days ago, the night before Jesus died, when Peter stood at the charcoal fire outside the palace of the high priest, and there three times denied his Lord.
Peter hadn’t intended to deny him; at first he was just trying to be a secret agent man, hiding his own identity. Give this to him, at least he was there, while the other disciples didn’t even dare follow Jesus. But then when his cover wasn’t working, he got scared, and his further denials stemmed from fear. And then the rooster crowed and judged him.
Why is Jesus so hard on Simon Peter? Why does he make him smell the charcoal fire of his guilt and shame? Why doesn’t he discuss the denial with Peter at a rational level, why does he go through his nose and under his brain? Is it because of the nature of his guilt, that it’s emotional? Peter is not guilty any more in terms of God, because Jesus has forgiven him. But even though it’s all forgiven it’s like Jesus wants to push him back into it. It’s not for forgiveness, it’s for rehabilitation. It’s for reconstruction. And for that to happen you have to face your failure and go right through it.
“Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” It would have been nicer if Jesus had just asked it once, and let Peter answer once, and have been satisfied. But Jesus drives it in, three times, until it hurts. I’ve told you before, just because Jesus loves you that doesn’t mean he won’t hurt your feelings!
Repeatedly Peter has to answer.
Yes, in my misery I love you.
Yes, in my shame I love you.
I wanted to love you in my success, but I love you in my failure.
I wanted to love you in my loyalty, but I love you in my denial.
Peter is feeling the depths of his own miserable love. It’s painful but Jesus is doing him a favor, he’s opening up his capacity for love, a capacity he did not know he had. You yourself have this capacity, but you cannot expand your love into your full capacity except by entering it through your suffering and even your misery.
Then Jesus adds insult to injury by telling Peter how he will grow old and weak, and how he will die. What a strange ending for the Gospel of John, with the prediction that Peter must die. Jesus predicts this powerful disciple will end his life in weakness, and that this natural leader will be led around, on a leash, like an animal. Now Peter’s got nothing left, not even his pride.
Do you see what Jesus is up to? It’s not only Peter’s shame that has been troubling him, it’s also his pride. I don’t know which is worse, which is harder to deal with, maybe they’re two sides of the same coin, but for Peter to be free of his shame he also has to be free of his pride. Jesus is hard on him, and Peter begins to die his death already here. But it’s a gift that Jesus gives him, for the dying-away of the old self has to happen for the new self to come-to-life. That’s true repentance, that’s true conversion, that’s rehabilitation.
As Peter fully feels his denial, as he fully feels his failure, as he enters again his guilt and shame, Jesus is already bringing him out of it. “I entrust you with my sheep. I give you charge of my lambs. I put my flock in your care. I trust you. I have work for you to do. I want you to take over for me in my absence. As far as I’m concerned, we are reconciled. Follow me.”
“I know you followed me, after my arrest, seventeen days ago, you followed me to the palace of the high priest, but that was in your strength and pride, and so you followed me in secret. But now you have nothing left to lose. So you can follow me openly. And you do not have to try so hard. You don’t have to prove anything, you don’t have to defend anything, you don’t have to conquer anything, you don’t have to win anything. You don’t have to win the world for Christ. I have already won the world. Just start working out of the love that I have given you.
“Do you love me?” How difficult loving is. That part in your life where you love is where you experience the most frustration and failure and hurt. Love is what you want the most and what you are least successful at. Jesus did not ask, “Peter, do you believe in me?” Belief is not the goal, it is the means, loving is the goal. Loving is the hardest, it’s where you are most wounded, and where you’re most at fault. It’s where our pride and shame do us most damage, and get most in the way.
And yet you certainly you do have the capacity for God’s love. You, right now, already you have the capacity, even in your weakness and your failures and your unbelief. Your capacity is distinct and individual, as will be the way that you express God’s love, but you do have the capacity. Let me encourage you, this promise is more trustworthy than your internal doubts and whisperings.
But yet you are called, as a Christian, not just to love, but to convert your love. That’s my first take-home. You are called to not just love but to convert your love. Everybody loves, everybody wants to love, but you can love with converting love, love that has scars on it and holes in it and wounds on it, love passes through your misery and suffering. God converts your love by various means. But all of them involve some suffering. Not the suffering of punishment, but the pain of your own self and the persistent odor of your shame and guilt. God is not afraid to hurt your feelings. But if you keep believing in that suffering, God uses it to convert your love.
My second take-home is simply the reminder that you must love yourself, as God loves you. And I mean not just your good self or your best self but your shameful self, your guilty self. You love yourself with that love of God for you. And in loving yourself with God’s love, you practice loving other people too and you can suffer even them. For you to be rehabilitated as a human being is to be your own vessel of God’s love and your own peculiar instrument of the love of God.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 02, 2016
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
Thomas was the last to believe that Christ arose from the dead and the first to believe that Christ was Lord and God. Why Thomas? Why was he the first to see it all?
Why wasn’t it Simon Peter who jumped to the daring conclusion, Simon on whom the Lord would build his church? Why wasn’t it the disciple John, the beloved one of Jesus, to intuit what no one had dared yet think, or even James, the third one of the inner circle, but Thomas, a disciple of the second rank, Thomas of whom we know so little, and who has come up only twice before in the story. It is none of these others, who first makes the audacious claim that Jesus is not just the Messiah, but Lord and God. Why Thomas?
As my wife Melody said to me yesterday, the gospels are short, but not simple. They never lose their capacity to surprise us. Here is a character we might have overlooked, and suddenly we see him in a new light. He comes out of the shadows and for the first time takes center stage and says his lines and then he steps aside and the Bible does not speak of him again. As pieces of literature, the gospels are short, and economical, but not simple, and always challenging our expectations.
Why Thomas? It’s not because he was a doubter. It’s too bad that the tradition has given him that title: “Doubting Thomas.” He is not called that by the Bible, and in this story it is a poor translation of the Greek to use that word. The Lord Jesus did not say to him what your English translation says he said to him.
What Jesus said to him, in the Greek, was something like this: “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.” Or, “Don’t exist unfaithful but faithful.” What Jesus says to him is terse and almost philosophical, with some wordplay in it, it’s epigrammatic, it’s meant for all of humanity, and it’s not a choice between doubt and belief but between unfaith and faith, infidelity and fidelity, unbelief and belief. It has little to do with doubt, you can doubt and still believe. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. One person has written that “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”
What little we know about Thomas is that he was a realist, at least according to John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, when Jesus and the disciples were staying over the Jordan River, outside of Judea, to keep from getting arrested, but then when Jesus decided to go back into Judea because of the death of his friend Lazarus, it was Thomas, the Realist, who drily said, “Let’s all go along, and let’s all die too.” And then, on the night before Jesus died, in the Upper Room, when Jesus was making his final speech to the disciples, and he told them, “You know the way where I am going,” it was Thomas, the Realist, who said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Just sayin’. To which the Lord Jesus gave one of his great answers: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s like Thomas is the set-up guy, the hand-off guy, in the Gospel of John.
Thomas the Realist. And then in this morning’s lesson it was that very realism that allowed him to see what the other disciples had not yet seen, and to make the leap in his belief beyond where the other disciples had yet believed. What the other disciples saw was that their Messiah was alive again. What Thomas saw was that their Messiah was their Lord and God. He suddenly saw the full reality of Jesus. Or I should say, he suddenly saw the full reality of God. He suddenly saw the full reality of everything that had just taken place. “Oh my God!” Yes, exactly. This was the real deal.
I haven’t figured out this story completely. I haven’t figured out the full combination of what it was about Jesus that he finally saw, what it was about the sight of his scars and his wounds or what it was in the sound of his invitation to Thomas that triggered that very first human recognition that this Jesus was somehow God, that this man descended from Abraham was impossibly the God of Abraham, that this particular Jew from Nazareth was the Lord God of Israel, and even more impossibly, the Creator of the world. Maybe it’s not for us to figure out how he suddenly saw it.
But I suspect it was connected with the gift that Jesus gave him, and in the stance in which Jesus addressed him. The stance of peace, of absolute forgiveness. I don’t mean peace as the absence of conflict, but peace as the positive reconstruction of the world, I mean peace as the active energy of welcome and embrace, I mean peace as active hospitality, peace as active invitation. And absolute forgiveness. So absolute as not even having to say it. Assuming it, not counting it, not holding some things as forgiven and some things as not, not holding against Thomas what he had said, not judging his attitude of realism but actually meeting him there, even welcoming it, “Yes, Thomas, I accept your conditions, try me.”
Within that gift and stance of Jesus. Thomas must have recognized himself, and saw himself as both judged and graciously justified, indeed, as seen, as fully seen, so that this one who had so fully seen him and yet welcomed him must be his Lord and his God.
I mean that’s how you come to God, right? And why. You want to be both rightly judged by God but also graciously justified. You want to be seen by God and welcomed by God. You want to be forgiven, and be at peace, but it’s more than that, you want to be understood by God. You want the understanding that comes with love. That’s a God you can believe in. Even when you cannot see. So this Thomas is for all of you. This is what your belief is like, constantly dealing with your unbelief, your constant choosing to believe again instead of giving up to unbelief.
What might help you and encourage you in this is that your belief is not the opposite of realism. As if by being a believer you are less realistic about the world. As if you are less realistic about the difficulty of peace, or less realistic about the very great risk you take in forgiving sins. You know these as realistically as any unbelievers do. But you are no less realistic about the alternatives. Belief is the next step up in realism, belief is how you see the full reality of the human soul, the full reality of evil in the world, the full reality of loss and grief, of scars in the hands and feet, and of gaping, unhealed wounds in peoples’ chests, yes, these are all true, and even these we must embrace in the courage of peace and with all the force of love.
This is the stance in which God addresses us and this is the gift which Jesus gave to Thomas and the gift which he breathed upon his disciples, this gift which has been breathed down mouth to mouth across the centuries and body to body to us right here to keep on giving to the world. This is the breath of life, a breathing uninterrupted in the church from that day until now, and from now into the future, and this is the life that you believe is real, because this is the life that smells of peace and has the fragrance of God’s love.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.