Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sermon May 1

This past weekend I was a guest seminarian preacher for a two-point parish about an hour or so away. The sermon focuses on the gospel reading for the day, and tries to incorporate some measure of seminary explanation.

John 20:19-31

Good morning. I am honored to be able to share this morning with you. My name is Sarah Timian, and I am an intern at First Lutheran Church in Lincoln. Basically that means I am in my third year in seminary, which is graduate school for pastors. I attend the one in Gettysburg, PA, where I will return next year and continue studying to be a pastor someday. At Gettysburg, my friends and I do study a lot—it’s graduate school after all—but we also like to just hang out, take study breaks, and we love to laugh.

I was thinking the other day about some of the jokes I’ve shared with my friends at Gettysburg, and I realized that to even understand some of them without so much explanation you ruin the joke, you’d have to be a seminary student. Some of them, you’d have to be a seminary student at Gettysburg, and even some of those you’d need to be a Gettysburg seminary student who knows Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In other words, some of the inside jokes are over my head.

You don’t need to be in seminary to understand inside jokes, though. Almost every group has them. Co-workers, families, circles of friends, whatever—the point is, you have to have some sort of inside knowledge to understand what’s going on. No one is going to get the significance of this or that unless they know Aunt Mabel or Uncle Fred, unless they were at that reunion picnic, unless they understood the accountants’ system.

In today’s reading, we have the same thing happen. The disciples are locked in a room, probably hiding from the Roman authorities, afraid for their lives, and suddenly Jesus is with them. He breathes on them and says, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” What an unimaginable experience. The disciples have been through the death of their leader and friend. Now they not only see that he has risen, they have been bestowed his peace and given the Holy Spirit to sustain them through whatever they may face. I can’t imagine the sort of joy, relief, and sheer happiness that must have taken place. God had played the ultimate joke on the world—death has been cheated, defeated, and Jesus lives again! Fear is gone! Peace is with them.

One of them is missing, though. Jesus has appeared to the disciples, but Thomas is not there. His circle of friends tries to tell him, but Thomas insists it’s one of those “you had to be there” moments. He doesn’t get it. He declares that he will not believe unless he sees it for himself.

That’s probably understandable. Thomas asks to be granted what the other disciples have been given without asking. He perhaps feels like they’ve gotten something better than he was allowed to have. Perhaps they feel they’ve got some inside information that he isn’t privileged to receive. Where was he? We don’t ever find out—all we can say is that he wasn’t hiding with the others.

So he asks, actually, he demands an answer. As a seminarian—a student—I love Thomas’ story. It gives me so much hope because I know I have questions all the time. Sometimes I have more questions than my professors or my supervisor would like, I’m sure. The idea that one of the disciples would have questions or demand equal explanations to come to a conclusion is awesome. Thomas doesn’t fiddle around with little things, either. He asks the most fundamental question of all—did Jesus really rise from the dead? The others have seen it, and he demands their experience before he will share their understanding. He wants to be an insider, too.

Is it okay to question? Like I said, as a student, I really hope so. For Thomas, it is more than okay. Look at the next line “a week later…” A week later! The disciples lived with this person and his uncertainty for a whole week—to the point that he was with them the following week. Despite their differences, they were able to stay together even though there was no apparent resolution to their disagreement. Are we so kind? Can we live with those who differ from us on our most basic beliefs? Can we get along with people of other denominations? Other faiths? Other values systems? Other political views? I think we have a lot to learn about accepting others from this little phrase, this half-verse that says “a week later.”

Okay, so the disciples make it through a week together and gather again—this time Thomas is with them. Once again, Jesus appears among them. Thomas isn’t scolded or reprimanded because of his questions. Rather, Jesus offers Thomas what Thomas said he needed for his faith.

Turns out, Thomas doesn’t even need what he said he did. He doesn’t stick his fingers into Jesus hands and side, but answers straightaway with the first declaration in this book of personal faith after Jesus’ resurrection “My Lord and my God!” Thomas has been given what the other disciples had—he has now seen the risen Christ, and taken his place again as an equal to them in this experience.

Thomas didn’t need what he thought he did. Does that mean he shouldn’t have asked? No way. This is another reason I love this story. So often I know I—and I suspect others—don’t get it right the first time. I have trouble separating what I need from what I want. Thomas wants to stick his fingers in Jesus’ side and hands. He needs to see and hear Jesus’ voice. Jesus helps separate out what is needed from what is wanted, but that doesn’t mean we as humans can’t or shouldn’t voice what we think we need.

Had Thomas not asked, that desire would have gone suppressed, maybe even destroyed his relationship with the other disciples over time. We shouldn’t suppress those questions and concerns we may have, either. Only through voicing and exploring them do we slowly go deeper and deeper into our faith—growing up as we go beyond shallow and simplistic beliefs. Only through voicing and exploring them do we find out what we truly need and what is just a want. Perhaps we also discover a little more clearly what it is we actually do believe. Thomas, receiving what he needed, is able to articulate his faith at last.

Thomas is given what the others had experienced, and brought into the disciples’ inner circle. And then Jesus does away with this insider/outsider nonsense. “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Those who were able to witness first-hand the resurrection of Jesus are not superior to those who didn’t simply because of that factor.

So what’s the point of all this? This sermon has gone off in at least four different directions, but how does it all come together? It comes together in us—here and now. In fellowship and community, as the disciples were, we take and learn and discuss and grow. Like Thomas, we are allowed to question, to demand what we think we need—even if we don’t really need it. We realize that doesn’t mean we’ll get what we demand, but that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and those around us will help us see what we do actually need. We hold one another accountable, and we live together anyway when we do not agree.

We are invited to go beyond the surface levels of belief to deep faith, to cry “My Lord and My God!” We are blessed to receive the Holy Spirit, and like the disciples, we are given the peace of Jesus, who comes to us in our fearful times. We are blessed to be given faith without always seeing—that is sheer grace from God, given to us as we come together and as this story comes together in its many layers in us. We are called to live this story—our story. Strengthened by Jesus to go ever deeper, we question, we cry out “My Lord and My God” and we live out that confession. Amen.

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