Sermon from April 11, 2010

April 13, 2010

The Texture of Christ

John 20:19-31

I can’t read this passage of scripture without being reminded of my first experience of going before the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry in hope of being found fit for ordination. There were four of five of us huddled in a small room in the old Madkin Building at Camp Aldersgate, and while we weren’t experiencing fear of the Jews — we were experiencing fear of the Christians. We were being called out one by one to go before this austere gathering of Elders who would do some final questioning and then they would vote on us. It was a terribly intimidating situation.

The first guy they called out never returned. We didn’t know what came of him. The second guy returned while they were voting on him and gave us just enough of a report of what they had asked him to raise our already spiking anxiety levels. I remember one guy pulled out his wallet and started showing us pictures of his family. It was as if he was saying, “These are the people who will miss me when I’m gone”.

I don’t know how the process of reviewing people for ordination should be done, and I know it doesn’t need to be an easy process, but what I experienced was actually harrowing. When the guy came to call me before the board he actually made the joke of saying that it was time for fresh meat, and it was probably more prophetic than he intended because I actually got chewed up and spit out. They didn’t like the way I had answered some questions regarding Baptism, and they voted not to ordain me that year.

There may have been other issues that played into their decision not to proceed with my ordination, and they did ask me to come back the next year, but it was a profound experience on some level. It actually made my friends and family feel worse than it felt to me. I’m enough of a renegade to feel a little proud of being officially rejected by church officials, but I also understood their need to maintain proper order, and I could see why they wanted me to do some additional homework and soul searching. I came to understand what they needed to hear from me and what I wanted to hear from them, and two years later I returned and was allowed to become a frightening church official.

I’m honestly quite unsettled by my role as an official Christian. This business of being Christian is fraught with dangers. There is the danger of being actually threatened by powerful people who don’t want the love of God to be set loose in the world. And there is the danger of distorting the message of Christ and actually becoming complicit with those same people. There is the danger of being like the religious people Jesus warned his followers not to imitate, and there is the danger of watering down the calling so much that it comes to mean nothing.

I think these are very interesting issues for us to ponder. They are particularly interesting to me because I do function as one who is charged with maintaining “Word and Order”. I feel a sense of responsibility to at least point people in the right direction – even if I’m not inclined to actually go there. I’m not exactly anxious to go up against those who actually hate Jesus – not that those people are easy to find and go up against. It’s hard to find actual Jesus hating people.

It’s not hard to find people who profess atheism, and it’s easy to find people who label non-Christian professing people as enemies of God, but such non-believers are not the kind of people that were hostile to the life and message of Jesus. It wasn’t the people who were outside of the religious body that were most opposed to Jesus. As we read at the beginning of this passage, the disciples were gathered in fear of the Jews – not the Romans or anyone else who was outside of the faith community.

And this isn’t an indictment of the entire Jewish community. I think it’s always worth remembering that Jesus was a Jew – he was a perfectly faithful Jew, and he embraced Jewish teaching. His primary followers were Jews, but so were his primary adversaries, and that is what we need to remember. It wasn’t easy being Jesus, nor was it easy for his early followers, and much of the threat of being an early follower of Jesus came from the community Jesus came out of.

The fact that Jesus was crucified in a very violent manner was not lost on the early disciples, and this passage doesn’t gloss over this detail. Jesus calls attention to his wounds, but he combines the revealing of his wounds with the words, “Peace be with you”. He didn’t want them to be unaware of what may happen, but he didn’t want them to be unconscious of the opportunity they had to experience true peace.

As I pondered this story, I found myself thinking of the various textures that Jesus presented to those gathered disciples. He was clearly identifying that there was roughness involved in being his follower. He didn’t want them to be unaware of the way his body had been torn, but following him wasn’t going to be without the experience of comfort.

And he issued this invitation to be in touch with the power of the Holy Spirit. He breathed on them and in doing so he filled them with the Holy Spirit.

You know, when people breathe on us we go running for antibiotics. Actually we don’t let people breathe on us – and I’m talking about myself. I don’t like to experience other people’s breath. You don’t have to worry about this with most people, we Americans know how to keep our distance from each other. Germs are remarkably agile, and we pick them up regardless of the precautions we take, but we don’t casually breathe on each other. Kids aren’t so careful, so I’m especially careful when I’m around kids, but we generally keep our distance from each other.

And there aren’t many of us who would be asking to put our hands in other people’s wounds — certainly not without disposable gloves and lots of hand-sanitizer. And I’m not saying we’re foolish for being germ-conscious, but I think we are probably much more careful than we are anything else.

Following Jesus is a risky community experience, and if it’s done properly – people get killed. This sounds terrible, but I think it’s true. Jesus didn’t just want his disciples to stay safe, he wanted us to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his work. He didn’t give us false hope about what might happen to us, but he did give us the means to experience peace in the midst of frightening circumstances.

I don’t think this means we need to go looking for trouble, but I do believe it is a call to be involved in the lives of other people. It’s a call to be engaged in this world – as opposed to just maintaining some kind of proper set of beliefs.

This story of Thomas having doubt about the risen Christ seems to be an opportunity for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection to be reiterated, and the message is that it is more of a blessing to trust in the resurrection of Jesus without physical proof, but it seems to me that Thomas was blessed for wanting such a graphic experience with Jesus. That’s not a terrible thing to want. We’re told not to be doubting Thomas’, but the truth is that Thomas benefitted from being honest about his perspective. Jesus isn’t threatened by people who have suspicious minds. I dare say Jesus is more ambivalent about people who don’t want to get their hands dirty.

We’re gathered here on the first day of the week, but we’re not behind locked doors. We aren’t threatened by our association with Jesus, but we need to be careful so that we don’t become threatening to the message of Christ. We need to be mindful of the importance of maintaining the proper texture of Christian discipleship. The point of Jesus standing in the midst of his disciples, showing his wounds, breathing on them, and commissioning them to offer forgiveness and judgment is an indication of how important it is for us to be involved in the lives of other people.

This isn’t an invitation to be busy-bodies who try to get involved in other people’s business, but Christianity is a corporate experience – it’s not just an exercise of the mind. None of us have a perfect understanding of Christ or capacity to do the work of Christ, but we are stronger together than we are alone. We have more access to the truth when we share our thoughts together than when we act on our own.

Our challenge and our opportunity is maintain the proper texture of Christ in our day and in our community. We are to be strong without being harassing. We are to be compassionate, but we need to expose injustice, and we need to fear being unfaithful to God more than we fear the judgment of others.

The danger for us in not to share the skepticism of Thomas, but to live without passion for the calling and commission we’ve been presented. This is a world in need of fully engaged disciples who don’t live in fear of bad breath and wounded bodies. Our work is hard, but our calling is high, and we can’t ask for better company.


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