Easter Sunday 2017 was a glorious day at Chatham Baptist Church. We enjoyed wonderful music, great attendance with many friends and family present, and the celebration of communion together. Here’s the sermon I preached from John 20:1-18, titled, “The Resurrection Changes Everything:”
Last week for the third Sunday of Lent, I preached on the story of the man born blind from John’s Gospel the 9th chapter. It’s an interesting story of bad theology, judgmental assumptions and an inexplicable miracle. And, it has an important lesson for us today. Here’s the podcast from that message:
On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon:
On Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, I preached an Easter message from the Gospel Reading for the day, John 20:1-18. Mary Magdalene’s testimony to the other disciples was, “I have seen the Lord.” In this message I explore the idea that it isn’t enough to have seen only Jesus the baby of Bethlehem, or Jesus the miracle worker, or even Jesus the crucified. We must also see Jesus the risen Lord as a reality in our own lives.
On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday:
Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. This is a great opportunity to help one another experience the uniqueness and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Triune work of God. I hope your Sunday will be wonderful!
What is the Trinity and Why Should We Care?
John 16:12-15 NIV
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Today is Trinity Sunday
Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year. Frankly, I’m not sure I have ever preached a sermon on the Trinity as a theological concept. And, there are several reasons for that.
First, the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. That is actually not that unusual because there are a number of theological concepts not found explicitly in the Bible that scholars and Church history and tradition have validated over the past 2,000 years. But the absence of direct teaching from the Bible on the Trinity makes it hard to find a passage of Scripture from which to launch out for a sermon. The passage we read today has hints of a trinitarian relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, but you have to look carefully for it.
The second reason I haven’t preached directly on the Trinity is because it is a topic, a concept, from the academic discipline called “systematic theology.” Systematic theology, briefly, is the attempt by Christian theologians to craft a coherent understanding of the work of God. Typically systematic theologies are crafted from Scripture, Church tradition, and the overarching philosophy of the particular theologian who is writing. So, the topics of systematic theology tend to be conceptual, and often difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t put a congregation to sleep quickly.
But, the primary reason I think I haven’t preached specifically on the Trinity is because it is one of those doctrines that Christians worldwide affirm, but have great difficulty explaining. The idea of One God in Three Persons — three-in-One — is a concept we have difficulty getting our heads around.
While in seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I served as associate pastor at a church in Irving. Next door to the church was a large apartment complex that for some reason tended to attract large numbers of international residents. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to several major universities such as SMU, TCU, and others, and perhaps that was the draw.
A couple of times young men from the Middle East, mostly Iranians, would come to the church office and ask to speak with a “holy man.” Apparently I was the closest thing we had to one, so I often got to talk with these young Muslim men. The primary thing they wanted to debate with me was the fact that Christianity had three gods. I would then try to explain the Trinity to them, but they, like me, had great difficulty in comprehending how One God could be constructed of Three Persons. I never convinced any of those young men that Christians worshipped One God, but that experience did remind me of how difficult the concept of the Trinity is to explain.
The Trinity in The Shack
Several years ago, an interesting book titled The Shack became a bestseller. The story was compelling, but one aspect of that book sparked discussion and disagreement among Christians. William Paul Young represented the Trinity in a very unique way.
For God the Father, Young portrayed God as a large black woman, who was outgoing, warm-hearted, and kind. For God the Holy Spirit, Young’s persona was that of an Asian woman dressed in bright colors who seemed to dart in and out of sight in a Tinkerbell-like fashion. For Jesus, the author pretty much stayed with the stereotype of Jesus as a workman, complete with jeans, flannel shirt, and toolbelt. Each of these personas of God exhibited unique characteristics, and each had a specific role to play in the fictional story.
But, as creative as that portrayal was, Young’s attempt to give the Trinity personality fell short of capturing the theology fully.
Early Heresies About the Trinity
This idea of the Triune God, the Trinity, is a difficult idea to grasp. And it has been difficult for Christians from the early church down to the present. Some attempts have failed miserably to capture the three-in-oneness of God completely. These imperfect attempts to define the Trinity became early Christian heresies. A heresy is a doctrine or teaching that is incompatible with the Church’s view of Scripture and the traditional understanding of the those who have gone before us.
The two primary heresies about the Trinity, although there are more than two, are modalism and subordinationism. First modalism: there were those who said that God was One God who just appeared in three different roles — or modalities — as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A good illustration of this is one I have heard used to describe the Trinity, but unfortunately it falls short.
The example is a easy one to grasp. I am Chuck Warnock, but I am husband to Debbie, father to Amy and Laurie, and pastor to this church. So, I am one person in three roles. But while this sort of gets at one aspect of the Trinity, it is actually a good example of the heresy of “modalism” — one god playing three different parts.
The other heresy is that God the Father is the supreme figure, while both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to him in some way. The details are not important, but trust me, this is not what the Bible teaches.
Early Creeds Address Misunderstandings About the Trinity
So, in order to correct the theological conversation, the early Church developed creedal statements that expressed what the Church believed. The first was the Apostles’ Creed, which we looked at in detail several years ago. The Apostles’ Creed simply affirms in three statements a belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
2. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
3. I believe in the Holy Spirit.
But The Apostles’ Creed left the door open for misunderstanding about the Trinity, so the Nicene Creed was developed from 325 AD, and took its final form in 381 AD.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Note the detailed explanation of the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These details were included to correct the notion that God the Father was superior to God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. The “essence” of all three persons of the Godhead was, in other words, the same.
Theory Gives Way to Reality
But it’s one thing to assert something about the Trinity, to say we believe in the Triune God, and to embrace a doctrine we cannot fully comprehend or explain. It is another thing entirely to base our understanding of God on what we see God doing.
So, let me make the most important statement about the Trinity that I can make this morning, and that is — Our understanding of the Trinity is based on what we see God has done and is doing in the world.
Let me give you some examples.
In the Old Testament, God is Creator of both the world, and of the nation of Israel through whom he will bless the world. Of course, God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is both prophesied and foreshadowed in various theophanies (appearances of God, such as the angel who wrestles with Jacob). But primary on the stage of the unfolding drama of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, Yahweh, El-Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, and all the other names by which God is called and worshipped.
In the New Testament Gospel accounts, the emphasis is upon Jesus — his birth, his baptism, his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection. But God the Father approves his Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon — anoints — Jesus for ministry.
In the New Testament Book of Acts and the epistles, the Holy Spirit is at the forefront, equipping, enabling, guiding, empowering the early church.
In the Book of Revelation, God the Father, Son, and Spirit are all present, each featured in a way that is both consistent with the Old Testament, witnesses to the New Testament, and brings fully into being the Kingdom of God in its closing chapters.
Why Should We Care?
Okay, that surveys the “What is the Trinity?” question, even though I am sure you probably have more questions now than when we began. But to keep this from being merely an academic exercise, we need to turn our attention to “Why do we care?”
This is what’s important and what we need to understand. Doctrine is important, but doctrine comes from the lived experiences of God’s people as they interpret the work of God in the real world.
First, the reason we should care about the Trinity, and be aware of the uniqueness of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One is this: Without a balanced view of all three persons of the Trinity, we can misinterpret the work of God in this world.
For instance, if we emphasize some aspects of God in the Old Testament, and subordinate Jesus and the Spirit, then we come away with a picture of a god of wrath and judgment, who has little compassion. One very well known Baptist preacher did just that after the tornadoes in Oklahoma last week, when he compared the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma with the story of Job who lost all of his children to a mighty wind that collapsed Job’s house.
If we emphasize the person of Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, we miss out on the fact that God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world…” The purpose of God is to redeem the world, not just the individuals in it. Salvation is the work of God, and that salvation extends not just to individuals but to God’s creation as well. Another famous and trendy preacher was quoted as saying that Jesus is coming back to burn up the world, so he can drive a huge SUV because he’s not worried about this physical earth. Not a good theological position, in my estimation.
Finally, if we emphasize the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic experiences and gifts of the Spirit, it it is easy to loose sight of God as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and the role that the Holy Spirit played and plays in both of those aspects of God’s work.
So, that’s the downside of why the Trinity is important to us. But what’s the upside, what are the positive reasons we need to care about developing our own understanding of the Trinity.
We Learn Two Important Lessons From The Trinity
First, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our model for community. As God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit relate to one another, demonstrate love for each other, and work in concert to accomplish the purpose of God in the world, we get the idea of community.
This idea of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been depicted by many Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word which means, literally, “dancing around.” I like the implications of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do.
In the passage we read today, we find some of these elements of mutuality. Jesus says that the Spirit will guide his disciples, glorify Jesus, take what belongs to Jesus and give it to the disciples. But, everything Jesus has comes from the Father, and that is why the Spirit can make it known to the disciples.
If that sounds like circular reasoning, it is. God the Father creates, God the Son redeems, God the Spirit illuminates and equips. In this divine dance of mutuality, each person of the Godhead complements and builds on the work of other members of the Trinity.
So, at the baptism of Jesus, Jesus demonstrates his obedience to the plan of God through baptism. God the Father announces his approval, and the Holy Spirit anoints Jesus for ministry.
In the early church, the Spirit empowers, equips, and emboldens the apostles to tell the good news of Jesus, who is God’s gift sent into the world to redeem it.
Secondly, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our mission. Jesus stated to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Just as God the Father sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends us into the world to do the Father’s work, equipped and accompanied by the Spirit of God.
God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to bring in his kingdom on this earth, so that God’s creation can know the shalom of God — the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be.
So, God sends Jesus to bring the shalom of God — also called salvation — to the nation of Israel and to all who will respond, whether Jew or not. Which is why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Father and Son then send the Spirit who equips, empowers, and emboldens the early apostles as well as us today.
And, salvation itself — the idea that we are right with God — proceeds from God, is incarnate in Jesus, and is made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Whatever work we have to do in this world, we do from the standpoint of the Triune God — Father, Son and Spirit — who created, redeemed, and enabled us to do so.
So, let me encourage you today to think about the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But we can’t stop at just thinking about a theological concept. As followers of Jesus, we are loved by the Father, and led by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of this church, and in the life of this world.
As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.
If you have ever been captivated by the stories of those who heard the voice of God, then today’s lectionary reading will appeal to you. This is the sermon I’m preaching on how those of us who aren’t mystics can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd today. I hope your congregation will hear the voice of Jesus as they gather for worship.
Hearing The Shepherd’s Voice
John 10:22-30 NIV
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
Farm Life As I Remember It
I think I’ve told you about the two weeks my mother sent me to south Georgia where her family lived so I could experience life on the farm. At least I think that’s why she and my dad sent me there, but I was about 10 at the time, so it could be they needed a break from my frequent misadventures.
In any event, I spent two weeks with my cousins, and of course my aunts and uncles, at about the time the tobacco was harvested. I’ve told you that story, but in addition to the tobacco harvest, life on the farm went on as usual. Part of farm life was calling the various animals primarily at feeding time.
Each animal grouping — pigs, cows, chickens, and horses — all had distinctive calls they responded to. Chickens were the easiest because all you had to do was show up in the chicken yard with the pale of feed and the chickens flocked around your feet. Which was a little scary for a boy from the city, primarily because I had been warned about the rooster who had a nasty disposition.
The cows responded to the pickup truck in the pasture, which usually had bales of hay on the back which we pitched out as the cows gathered around. My cousins also put out salt licks, but I stayed pretty much on the back of the pick up because cows were a lot bigger than chickens, and the bull apparently also had a bad attitude.
But I remember the pigs most. Now they didn’t have a lot of pigs, maybe six or seven, and they were all in the pig pen out back. The pig pen was not huge, but big enough for a half dozen really big pigs, and of course it was a muddy mess and the pigs were muddy, and the whole thing kind of reeked of, well, pigs. So, after each meal, we went out to slop the hogs. Now that term pretty much describes the whole event. Slop is not a word you use for anything that’s anywhere close to appealing, but that’s what we did.
One of my aunts had a lot of kids — two girls and four boys — plus I was there, and then there were some other cousins who came along to help with the tobacco harvest, so at mealtime there was a pretty big crowd.
After the meal, all the plates were scraped into the slop bucket. This produced a kind of slurry of mashed potatoes, lima beans, half eaten biscuits (although there weren’t many of those), soppin’ gravy, tomato peels, and so on. You get the picture. It was not a pretty sight.
Once the plates were scraped, and the kitchen scraps all dumped into the slop bucket, off my cousin and I set to slop the hogs.
For some reason, you had to call hogs to come get the slop. The hogs were usually lying on the sides, in the mud, up near the back part of the hog pen. So my cousin would have to holler, “Sooo-eee, sooo-eee.” Which seemed like a ridiculous way to call pigs, but since the pigs were going to become bacon sometime in the future, they didn’t have names, so I guess they had to be summoned to dinner with some call.
Sure enough, the hogs, because they were really to big to be called pigs, would rouse themselves, get up, and head toward the direction of the sooo-ee call to dinner.
The amazing thing was, I discovered during my two weeks on the farm, that each type of animal knew what the feed bucket, or the pickup truck, or the call of “sooo-ee” meant. And they responded to whatever it was that got their attention.
My cousins didn’t have any sheep, so I don’t know what calls sheep respond to, but Gene Logsdon, one of my favorite writers about rural farm life recalls this story from his childhood:
“I grew up— woke up many mornings— to the wail of my cousin, Ade, calling his sheep. His farm was next to ours and he took to practicing this primitive ritual at about four o’clock in the morning. Mom said he wanted us to know he was already up and about and anyone still in bed was a sinner. But his sheep call was music to my ears. Up the little creek valley that connected our farms would roll this long drawn-out wail of “shoooooooooooooopeeeeeee” that began on about high A over C on the musical scale and fell, quaveringly, a couple of notes on the second syllable. The call lasted as long as he could keep expelling air with enough force for the sound to carry a mile or two.” (Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, “Calling Home The Sheep”).
Logsdon continues by saying that he practiced his cousin’s sheep call until he got it down pretty well himself. He said later when he had sheep of his own on his own farm, all he had to do was start the call “shoooo…” and before he could get it all out, the sheep came trotting down the path to the new pasture he wanted them in.
But How Do The Sheep Know The Shepherd’s Voice?
Okay, that was a long introduction to the scripture for today, but if you haven’t figured it out by now, the verse I want us to focus on is verse 27 —
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus made this statement in response to the rather impatient insistence from some in Jerusalem, in the Temple during the Festival of Dedication, that he tell them plainly if he was the messiah or not.
Jesus reply was that he had already told them, but they did not believe him. Jesus told them that the works he did in his Father’s name was testimony that he was the messiah, but they didn’t get it because they aren’t his sheep.
It’s then that Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
So, the one question we have to answer today is, How do we hear the voice of Jesus today?
There Are More Sheep Than There Are Mystics
Of course, we might point to examples of extraordinary people who heard the voice of God in extraordinary ways. God calls Abraham out of the Ur of Chaldees and makes him the father of a great nation. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and speaks audibly to him about the assignment to lead the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt. God speaks to a discouraged Elijah with a still, quiet voice. And then there are the priests, and kings, and prophets of the Old Testament, many of whom God speaks to directly and unmistakably.
The history of Christianity is also filled with stories of people who had a special ability to hear the voice of God. From Paul’s Damascus road experience, to the revelation God gave to John on the Isle of Patmos that has become our Book of Revelation, we know that God speaks directly to certain people at certain times.
Amazingly, God’s voice does not go silent with the passing of the Apostles. The Desert Fathers — and there were Desert Mothers, too apparently — were mystics who lived lives of asceticism separated from the urban centers in order to seek to hear God more clearly and fully.
These monastics lived solitary lives at first, then later formed communities of monks and nuns who lived separated from the everyday distractions to spiritual devotion. Prayer, scripture, work, deprivation, vows of silence, poverty, and celibacy, and other acts of devotion marked their existence. And down through the centuries there were those who heard the voice of God and lef their mark on Christian spirituality.
But there are others who have heard the voice of God, too. Joan of Arc claimed to hear God’s voice calling her to save her people. Some thought her mad, others thought her a mystic. In any event, she died a martyr’s death for her witness.
We could spend more time than we have this morning naming the outstanding mystics of the Christian faith who heard the voice of God. But for most of us, their experiences, while interesting, are the stuff of inspiration, not our experience. Most of us are not mystics. So how do we hear the voice of Jesus calling us today?
Sheep Congregate in Flocks Just Like We Gather For Worship
When Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he gave us some clues as to what this means for us today.
First, for sheep to listen to the shepherd, he or she has to say something. The first thing we need ot realize is that Jesus still speaks to us today. Of course he speaks through Scripture, which is how most of us know anything that Jesus has said.
But Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice…” For sheep to listen, the shepherd has to be speaking. Now this may seem obvious, but we often gather for worship, go through the order of worship, sing our songs, give our offerings, listen for more or less 20 minutes to people like me, and then go home. And we can do all of that without being aware of the Shepherd’s voice at all.
The first expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us.
The second expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us all — as a group, or flock, if you will. Because Jesus imagery was not accidentally chosen. Jesus knew that sheep congregated in flocks, and he referred to himself as the Good Shepherd.
So when he says, “My sheep hear my voice…” he means the flock, the whole bunch of them, as a group — or in Israel’s case, as a nation.
Most of us aren’t mystics, but we are members of this congregation. And it is gathered here that we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us. It is the congregation gathered for worship that should have the expectation that Jesus is going to speak to us, and speak clearly. About who we should be. About what we should do. About the mission to which he has called us.
Each week when we gather here, we should ask ourselves, “What will Jesus say to us today?” and then we should listen for the way in which he might say it. Because I’m pretty sure that most of the time, the voice of Jesus is not going to be my voice. Of course, I hope I speak the words of Jesus faithfully, but most of the time I think Jesus is going to speak to us in some other way that we have to pay attention to.
Like when our children touch our hearts with their sweet sincerity and honesty. Like when a concern moves us to pray, as I understand you prayed for me when I was so sick. Like when we rejoice at a new birth, either physical or spiritual, and are reminded that the kingdom of God continues in the lives of those just coming into it. Like when a song resonates with us all and together we sing or listen in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So, the question for us in not, Does Jesus still speak to people today? But the question for us is, “What is Jesus saying to us this morning?”
What is Jesus saying to us about the violence in our nation? About the bombing in Boston? About the violent crimes tried in the courthouse across the street from this sanctuary? Does Jesus have anything for us to do to be his peace, his shalom, in this world? in our community?
What is Jesus saying to us today about the poverty in our county? About those who live in substandard housing, or who go to bed hungry, or who are victims of domestic abuse? What is he saying to us about how we can be salt and light in this community?
What is Jesus saying to us today about those who have no church family? Who, when sickness or difficulty come into their lives, have no one to gather and pray for them, as we gather each week and pray for one another.
Of course, I may be wrong today. Jesus may not be saying anything to us about any of those issues. But he is saying something. What are we listening for today?
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Here’s the sermon I’m preaching for the second Sunday of Eastertide. I trust your Sunday will be a wonderful day filled with hope that the resurrection brings, just as it brought hope and possibility to the first disciples.
The Implications of Being Sent By Jesus
John 20:19-31 NIV
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Going for the Big Finish
Our granddaughters, Vivian and Maggie, are like other 12 and 9 year old girls. They are involved in a number of extra-curricular activities. Vivian took dance for several years, and the highlight of the dance year was the annual recital. But this wasn’t just any recital. The dance studio has dozens of students, which means lots of moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and so on who will want to see their daughter, or granddaughter, or niece perform.
To accommodate the large crowds, the dance instructor rented the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, for, not one, but two days of dance recitals. But for the little girls — Vivian was a preschooler then — the highlight of the dance recital was getting to wear the costume, or costumes, depending upon how many numbers they were in.
So, this is a big deal. And, like dutiful grandparents, we made 4-and-a-half hour trip one way to see Vivian on stage for all of about 3 minutes. That’s what grandparents do, and we did it a couple of times.
Well, by about the third or fourth year of dance lessons, Vivian’s interest in dance classes was waning. So before signing up for dance lessons for another year, Laurie, our daughter, and Vivian had a little chat.
Laurie asked Vivian if she wanted to take dance for another year. Vivian said, “Yes.” Then, Laurie said, “But that means you’ll have to go to dance lessons every week.”
Vivian replied, “Oh, I don’t want to go to the lessons. I just want to be in the recital.” Laurie informed Vivian that the only way to get to be in the recital (and wear the sparkly costumes) was to take dance lessons each week. Thereupon, Vivian’s dance career came to an end.
The Disciples Face a New Challenge
All of us have had those moments where we want the big finish without all the prerequisites that go before it. And followers of Jesus are no different. Let’s look for a few moments at the implications of being sent by Jesus.
First, of all, we have to realize that the disciples had not thought about their future without Jesus present to lead them. However they had imagined their lives turning out as Jesus followers, a life without him was not one of the scenarios they entertained.
So attached were they to Jesus that when they thought about his leaving them, as they do in John’s Gospel the 14th chapter, Jesus has to reassure them that where he is going, they are going to, and that there are rooms prepared for them in his Father’s house. (John 14:1-6 NIV)
But that doesn’t seem to satisfy at least one of them. Thomas complains, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
So, when Jesus is crucified and buried, their world collapses. Now, on the first day of the week, the disciples have had time to see the empty tomb, and to discuss the implications of that for themselves. Of course in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the Lord herself, but in John’s telling of the story, the disciples have gathered together behind locked doors because they are afraid of what the Jewish authorities will do to them next.
They must be imagining that the authorities, with the consent of Pilate, have raided the tomb of Jesus, and concealed his body so that his grave will not become a martyr’s site for Jesus’ followers. Or, they might be afraid that the authorities have stolen the body of Jesus in order to blame them, his followers, of doing the same thing and thereby trying to perpetrate a hoax that Jesus rose from the dead.
Whatever they are thinking, they are dealing with the implications of having been Jesus’ followers. And, I imagine that not a few of them are wondering how they got in the mess they found themselves in.
But suddenly, without announcement or warning, on the evening of that day that had seemed to go on forever, John simply says, “Jesus came and stood among them…”
He greets them with the words, “Peace be with you!” which was the standard greeting among Jews, the greeting that God’s peace would rest on the person or family to whom one was speaking.
Immediately he shows them his hands and side. This is no apparition, no ghost, no fog-machine scene where they can barely see Jesus. No, as proof that he is who they think he is, he shows them the nail wounds in his hands and the gaping spear wound in his side. Now, you and I can only speculate on what this looks like. Apparently these wounds were meant to verify that this really was Jesus, rather than further disturb the disciples, so the visible wounds had a reassuring, rather than revolting, role.
Then, Jesus says to them again, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And there we have it. This is what they are going to be doing in their future which does not include the physical presence of Jesus. They are going to be sent into the world by Jesus, just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world.
We read these words so casually now, as if we are thinking, “Well, of course that’s what Jesus is doing, sending the disciples into the world. We all know that.”
But for the disciples this is a new revelation. Of course, Jesus has hinted at their mission. He’s even sent them out on trial runs of the sort capture in Luke 10, where 72 of Jesus’ followers go on a mission of ministry to do what Jesus did. They heal the sick, they cast out demons, they seek the person of peace — meaning one who is a conduit of God’s shalom — and when they return Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18 NIV).
But now, rather than going immediately where Jesus is going, Jesus is sending them on a mission to the world, in the same manner in which God the Father has sent him. In other words, just like Vivian learned, before you get to the big finish, there are some things that have to be done first.
So, what are the implications of being sent into the world by Jesus?
Equipped by the Spirit
The first implication of being sent my Jesus into the world is that Jesus isn’t sending them, or us, alone. No, as he promised he is sending the Holy Spirit to be his presence in our life.
Jesus promised the disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16 NIV)
This Spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit. Now this is not the first time we see the Holy Spirit. From creation onward, the Spirit of God has been present and at work. But this is the first time that the Spirit is promised to someone other than a king, or a priest, or a prophet. This time the Spirit is promised to be the ever-present companion of every follower of Jesus, just as Jesus was with the disciples in his earthly life.
Then, Jesus doesn’t just promise the Spirit, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Wow. That was unexpected by the disciples. While they’re still trying to digest the idea that the resurrected Jesus is standing before them, and that he is sending them, he does something he has never done before — he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Somehow in our misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit, we have thought that the Holy Spirit is optional, at least in our worship and doctrinal expression. So, when the charismatic movement came along, you were either in or out. You either decided that you wanted those expressions of the Holy Spirit or you didn’t. The same is true today. Pentecostals represent those who are led by the Spirit in worship, while the rest of us are led by our understanding of Scripture, or tradition, or doctrine.
But if we think that about the Holy Spirit we miss His presence and power. The Holy Spirit is our promised companion regardless of worship style or basis of authority. You might find it interesting that early in our founding years, Baptists were viewed as wild-eyed spiritual fanatics who neither respected tradition or reason, but held an unseemly commitment to letting the Spirit of God speak to them. Interesting how we’ve gotten tamer over the past 400 years!
But the point is, one of the implications of being sent by Jesus is that we’re not sent alone — the Holy Spirit is our ever-present companion.
An Unthinkable Ministry
But if you think the idea of having the Holy Spirit present as our companion is unsettling, just wait. Jesus also gave the disciples a ministry previously reserved for God alone. The act of forgiving sins. You remember the famous encounter Jesus had with the religious authorities of his day in Mark 2:1-12. Jesus is teaching in a house, and the crowd is so great that no one can press through. So, four friends who have brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, quickly climb up on the flat roof, remove the roof tiles in the spot above where Jesus is teaching, and lower their friend down right in front of Jesus.
Mark says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:5 NIV)
Religious authorities are present in the crowd, and they are appalled. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they ask. Then Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take up your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:10-11 NIV)
The disciples must have recalled that incident as Jesus gave them authority to forgive sins. But, what does that mean for us today? Is that our ministry, or did it just belong to the disciples? Well, if the Holy Spirit is ours, then this ministry is ours also.
But, this ministry of forgiving sins is a mystery to us. We do not know exactly what it means. What it does not mean is that we are now to pass judgment on others who are not like us.
What I think it means is that we act like Jesus acted toward those who are sinful. While that would include all of us, in Jesus day there were the righteous Jews, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and other religious figures, and then there were the sinners like the tax collectors, women of the street, and so on. Jesus ate with these sinners. Jesus went into their homes. Jesus pronounced as Zachaeus came to faith, “Today salvation is come to this house.”
Our ministry, with the leadership of the Holy Spirit, is to be Jesus to those for whom access to God has been denied, or discouraged. We open the way for them to find forgiveness by showing them the kindness of Jesus himself, the kindness wrapped in redemption and hope.
When I was in the hospital, a lady came in to clean our room every day. I’ll call her Pauline, which was not her name, but I want to protect her privacy. It was obvious Pauline had had a difficult life. You could see it in the stoop of her shoulders, and the shuffle of her feet. And it was written on her weary face.
At first, Pauline went about her business of emptying the trash, and then mopping the room with little to say. She would say to Debbie, “Come out so I can mop.”
For many people, Pauline was the anonymous housekeeper, one of the many faceless, nameless people to do menial labor that others do not want to do.
Debbie and I decided to make a friend of Pauline. We had heard one of the nurses calling her name, so each day when she came in, we were greeted her with the same friendliness and warmth of a welcomed guest. And each day, Pauline opened up a little more of herself to us. Pauline was there everyday except Sunday. When she returned on Monday, we told her we missed her the day before.
She asked if anyone had mopped our room, and we said no, they had only picked up the trash. With a sense of pride, she said, “They’re supposed to mop, but all they do is pick up trash.” We assured her that we had missed her careful attention to our room. By the time I was discharged, Pauline was actually laughing with us.
Okay, you say, “But where’s the forgiveness of sin in that?” I believe as we forgive each other the little moments of sullenness, the times of testiness, the words that wound, and the looks that kill, we free that person to be what God intended for them to be — His child, filled with his Spirit and joy.
Of course, there are other implications of being sent by Jesus than the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness. But those are two that are important. Sometimes we skip over those two implications and rush right on to preaching and teaching and all of the ways in which people hear the Gospel. Because after all, Jesus told Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
But in this Easter season, let’s not forget that the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness are where Jesus started with the disciples.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow at my church. In it I reflect on the illness that has put me in the hospital for the last three weeks. But I also reflect on the resurrection, and how the resurrection itself makes possible Kingdom actions today.
Thinking About The Resurrection
John 20:1-18 NIV
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18 NIV)
An Unexpected Lenten Journey
To say that the past five weeks have been unexpected is an understatement. On February 21, I went to my primary care physician with what I thought then were a couple of minor complaints for someone who is my age. Along with those issues, I also remarked that my legs were aching and burning, like when you have the flu, except the discomfort was just in my legs not my whole body. Both the doctor and I thought this was a minor issue which might be corrected with a little physical therapy if the symptoms did not disappear.
Well, they didn’t. As a matter of fact they grew worse. On Monday, February 25, I made the first of what were to be three trips to a hospital emergency room. Because I showed no signs of heart problems or stroke, the emergency room physicians all sent me home to follow-up with my primary care doctor, and they suggested that I see a neurologist.
By March 7, which was my first appointment with a neurologist, I was experiencing increasing pain and difficulty walking, so much so that I had begun using a cane. To add insult to injury, during the two weeks from February 25 until I was hospitalized on March 9, I was not sleeping. At first I was able to sleep 3 or 4 hours per night, but this gradually decreased to my complete inability to sleep at all on the Friday night before I was admitted to Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday night, March 9.
During the week I was at Moses Cone Hospital, doctors ordered several MRIs, CT scans, blood tests, and a spinal tap. In the meantime, my symptoms grew worse, and I was losing the ability to walk. All of that was a very uncertain time, as you might imagine it would be.
By Friday, March 15, with the encouragement of friends and the help of my neurologist, I was transferred to Duke University Hospital. At Duke, doctors performed additional tests including a muscle and nerve study, and a PET scan. The muscle and nerve test indicated that the sheath around my nerves — called myelin — was being attacked, probably by my own body. The PET scan revealed several lymph nodes that “lit up” more than they should have, according to the doctors.
I began a regimen of plasma pheresis treatments. In those treatments they draw all your blood out of one arm, remove the plasma which contains the antibodies that might be attacking my nerves, and then return the freshly laundered blood to my body through the other arm.
Thinking About The Resurrection
During all of this time, neither Debbie nor I were afraid or distressed. Both of us seemed to be at peace with whatever was happening, and both of us had faith in God to do the right thing. Your prayers sustained us and your love gave us strength.
But I never thought “Why me?” because I was in a hospital full of people sicker than I was. I do not believe in a capricious God who metes out suffering randomly just to see how people react.
I also did not ask, “What is God trying to teach me?” because, while I did learn some things in the hospital, I do not believe in a God who teaches us by inflicting pain and suffering on us. As a father, I tried to teach my children a lot of things, but I never hurt them in order to teach them a lesson. I don’t believe God does that either.
I do believe that all things work together for good to those who love God and live according to his purpose, but that’s a far cry from believing that God is the author of suffering and pain.
Actually, here’s what happened. One day in the first week of my stay at Duke, Debbie had gone home to get a good night’s sleep, and to get some things we needed. Alone in my room, after the doctors had told me that the PET scan showed some possible cancer sites, I was just sitting and thinking about my illness.
Without focusing on anything particularly spiritual, the word “resurrection” popped into my head. I thought about it for a moment, and then I realized “That’s it!” This journey I’m on is about the resurrection.
Let me explain.
Jesus Announces and Demonstrates The Kingdom of God
Often when we gather on Easter Sunday, we think about the resurrection as making it possible for us to go to heaven when we die. That certainly is true. But what about the resurrection in everyday life? Does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have anything to say to us in times of illness, sadness, joy, or celebration? I think it does, so follow me as I explain why.
First, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)
Now the kingdom of God isn’t heaven. The kingdom of God contains the promise of heaven, but it contains so much more. The kingdom of God is generally thought to be the unhindered rule and reign of God, when things are as they should be. That’s why the reading in the Old Testament for today says this in Isaiah 65:17-25 (NIV) —
17 “See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach[a] a hundred
will be considered accursed.
21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
23 They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.
This was the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. His message was directed to the Jews who would return to the land of Judah after the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. But it wasn’t just to them, because while God might make Jerusalem a delight and the people a joy again, the new heavens and new earth, the wolf and the lamb eating together, the lion eating straw like the ox, and the absence of harm or destruction of any kind would have to wait for another day.
Jesus came announcing that God’s plan to put everything right was being implemented with his presence. Remember that John says “They (the disciples) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9 NIV)
It is the resurrection, with its defeat of death, that becomes the foundational event making possible the new heavens and the new earth, the wolf and lamb eating together, and the lion eating straw like the ox. Let me explain.
Jesus not only announces the kingdom of heaven, he demonstrates what life will be like in that kingdom. So, how does he do that?
Jesus demonstrates what life will be like when God puts all things right by performing miracles. The point of the miracles is to demonstrate that in the kingdom of God everything is as it should be. That means that no one is hungry, so Jesus feeds people. He feeds 5,000 at one time, 4,000 at another. But a miracle that we overlook sometimes is the miracle of his sharing table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others of ill-repute in that day. Why does he do that? Because in the kingdom of God all are welcome to God’s banquet.
Jesus also demonstrates that in the kingdom of God there will be no more “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV)
So, Jesus heals people. Let’s talk about healing people. In various places the New Testament tells us that Jesus healed everyone who came to him. And because of his healing power, vast crowds flocked to Jesus.
The sick came to Jesus because in the first century if you were lame or blind or had a skin disease, you were an outcast. You were reduced to begging for food, or anything to keep you alive. Your family abandoned you, your friends avoided you, and there was no hope because the practice of medicine, if it existed, often did more harm than good to the sufferer.
But in the kingdom of God, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and lepers are made clean. There are no diseases in heaven, because the Great Physician heals that which has gone wrong.
The Resurrection Makes Kingdom Life Possible
Okay, let me tie all this together for you. So, if Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, and then demonstrated what it would be like by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and raising the dead, then how does that affect our daily lives now?
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead makes all of that possible and more. The resurrection is the pivotal event in which God exalts Jesus, and makes possible kingdom events then and now.
In the resurrection, God demonstrates his power over sin, death, and the grave. God forgives sin because Jesus has given his life to put God’s people right. God has power over death and demonstrates it by raising Jesus. God’s power over the grave means that not only are the dead promised eternal life, but those who mourn shall be comforted.
The resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, is the “first fruit” of God’s kingdom. The indwelling Spirit of God is the down payment, assuring us that God is going to make good on his promise.
So, as I was thinking about the resurrection and my illness, I realized that the hospital I was in, the doctors and nurses who cared for me, the healing that was done, was all a direct result of the resurrection of Christ. Healing is kingdom work, and any who do it are participating in the work of God in this world.
In Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) Jesus details what those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God will be doing;
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
In other words, those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, befriend the stranger, clothe those in need, care for the sick, and visit those in prison are doing the work of the kingdom of God. It is to those Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. We do not create the kingdom of God by what we do, nor do we ourselves bring in that kingdom. That is God’s doing. But we can pray that God’s “will would be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we can actually do the work of the kingdom of God because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has made that possible.
Paul sums up the significance of the resurrection this way:
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NIV)
On this Easter Sunday, I want you to know that the resurrection of Christ has opened the door for the kingdom of God to be demonstrated, and one day fully realized. But until then, those who do what Jesus did — who feed the hungry, who care for the homeless, who heal the sick, who reach out to the stranger, who minister to those in prison, who seek justice for the most vulnerable in our society and care for them — those people are demonstrating the values and the vitality of the kingdom of God here today, whether they know it or not.
The resurrection does matter. It matters to us when we approach the door of death, and it matters to us each day of our lives. Where there is healing, God’s kingdom is present. Where there is care for the hungry, the needy, the outcast, God’s kingdom is present. The resurrection matters because it is our guarantee of God’s power, presence, and providential care — now and all the days of our lives.
So, I’m not afraid of this illness I have. I’m not angry because I can’t walk like I used to. I’m not fretting that parts of my body are numb. I’m not questioning why this happened. And I’m not anxious about the future, because I know that the God who can raise the dead is a God who can do all things. Amen.
In John 21:15-19, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Most Bible scholars agree that Jesus is giving Peter the opportunity to atone for his betrayal of Jesus during Jesus’ arrest. But what does this mean for us today? How do we know if we love Jesus? In this passage we find the simple evidence of our love for Jesus.
During these Sundays between Easter and Pentecost, I am departing from the revised common lectionary to explore several of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Here’s the link to the podcast, If You Love Jesus.
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