Easter2C, May 3, 2016

April 5, 2016

Sacred Space

John 20:19-31


19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


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 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 the Board of Ordained Ministry – an austere assembly of United Methodist Elders who would do some final questioning of our fitness for ministry 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 he gave us just enough of a report of what they had asked him to raise our already spiking anxiety levels. At this point one guy pulled out his wallet and started showing us pictures of his family. My friend pointed out that this is something you would do if you were waiting to be executed. 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 of the questions, 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 encourage me to come back the next year, but it was a profound encounter with religious authority. That initial rejection actually made my friends and family feel worse than it felt to me. I was enough of a non-conformist to feel a little proud of being officially rejected by church officials, but I also value the approval of other people, and I knew it was something I would manage to obtain. I came to understand what they needed to hear from me, and two years later I was authorized to be ordained. That’s when I became a frightening church official.


Getting ordained wasn’t an easy process for me, and I’m a little proud of myself for acquiring that credential, but this business of being an official Christian leader is fraught with dangers. It’s not that I feel threatened by hateful people who don’t want the love of God as it was revealed by Jesus Christ to be set loose in the world. There are places in the world where it is actually dangerous to be a follower of Jesus Christ, but that’s not the case with me.


I’m frightened by the thought of becoming the type of religious person that the followers of Jesus were hiding from. John says the disciples were hiding from the Jews, but Judaism wasn’t the problem, the problem was that the Jewish authorities were threatened by the truth that their fellow Jew revealed to the world. And we official Christians can be equally threatened by that truth. Wearing the label of an official follower of Jesus Christ isn’t physically dangerous, but it is an endlessly challenging undertaking that provides daily opportunities for failure.


I proclaim Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and if I’m not careful I’ll begin to think that I’m succeeding! Identifying yourself as a Christian is dangerous business. If you aren’t careful you’ll think you are one.


The Gospel of John raises interesting issues for us. It’s a book that clearly offers this invitation to follow Jesus and to be empowered by Jesus to find true and abundant life. But it also identifies the possibility of not getting it – of being like the enemies of Christ who simply couldn’t accept who Jesus was and what he did. And as I say, I don’t think it was a problem that was unique to the Jews – Jesus was a Jew and many of the people who followed him and loved him were Jews. The problem was and is that we can let our own thoughts, aspirations, and agendas get in the way of what Jesus actually offers.


Jesus empowered his disciples to let go of their fear and to go about the work of spreading the good news of God’s eternal loving presence by breathing on them and filling 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.


At least most people do. I like to have coffee with this group of men who meet on Wednesday mornings at Hardees. It’s an interesting gathering – I’ve told people I should get Continuing Education Credit for that experience. But it’s also a group you have to be careful around. One day I made the mistake of getting up and leaving my cinnamon biscuit unattended. When I came back John Minor was taking a bite of it. They all got a kick out of that, and he gave it back to me when I sat down, but I wouldn’t eat it. I told them I was afraid I would catch whatever it is that he has. He thought I was talking about his throat condition, but I was afraid of catching whatever it is that moves him to do such crazy things!


Actually, I’m totally entertained by John Minor and the interesting way he goes about life. And it wasn’t just because it was John who had touched my biscuit. I really am a bit of a germaphobe. I’m careful to not get exposed to the germs of other people, but I’m thinking we need to try to catch this thing that Jesus had.


Jesus breathed on his disciples and they caught the Holy Spirit.


Thomas said he wouldn’t believe unless he could see the wounds, put his finger in the nail-holes of Jesus’ hands and his hand into the wound on his side, and that doesn’t sound like something many of us would be saying – not without access to disposable gloves and lots of hand-sanitizer. 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 we end up getting closer to people than our natural sensibilities generally allow. Jesus didn’t just want his disciples to stay safe, he wanted us to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his dangerous and messy 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 from a safe distance.


This story of Thomas having doubt about the risen Christ seems to be an opportunity for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection to be told once again. 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. We aren’t to need proof, but it’s not such a terrible thing to want to have a close encounter with the risen Christ. 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 troubled by 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 careful to actually maintain our relationship with the living presence of Jesus Christ – we need to stay close enough to him to catch what he’s got. 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 insert ourselves in to 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 the single-handed ability to do the work of Christ. 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 to find the right way to be in each other’s space. We need to be in touch with other people in helpful ways, and by so doing I think we remain close to Jesus himself. When we are close enough to others to feel their pain and to share their burdens we are in sacred space, and I believe Jesus is there with us.


The danger for us is 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, wounded bodies, or religious authorities of any kind. Our work is hard, but our calling is high, and if we are infected by the power of the Holy Spirit there really isn’t any other germ that we should be afraid of catching.


It’s not the approval of any religious body that authorizes anyone to engage in the holy work of following Jesus Christ and spreading the good news of his living presence – such work is only authorized by the holy breath of Jesus Christ himself. And thanks be to God Jesus is still breathing on people! Jesus continues to infect and empower us. It is still possible for us to find ourselves in that sacred space where we are able to catch what he had and to share it with others.


Thanks be to God!



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