Is Your Mind Too Small?

April 23, 2017 – 2nd Sunday of Easter
John 20.19-31

Preliminary Remarks: The gospel reading this morning is from John’s gospel. I like John’s gospel a lot because there’s so much depth and breadth to the writing and to the mysteries and wonders it points to.

But there are also distinct difficulties in preaching from John’s gospel. One of them is the language of “the Jews.” We hear it in this passage so I want to unpack it just a bit before I read the gospel.

Jesus, his disciples, and almost all members of the earliest Christian community were Jews. It’s only sometime after the death of Jesus that the Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah began to have a separate identity from those who didn’t. For the writer of John’s gospel “the Jews” primarily referred to those who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, and particularly the religious leaders who did not see Jesus in this way. As one commentary puts it, “The conflict that develops between the Jews and Jesus and his disciples was an intramural Jewish conflict, as Catholic/Protestant conflict at the time of the Reformation was not the persecution of one religion by another but an intramural Christian conflict.”[1]

Unfortunately, John’s gospel has been used over the centuries to support anti-Semitic racism because of his repeated, negative reference to “the Jews.” But this is a misuse of the gospel. So as we often do in reading John’s gospel, I’ll use “religious leaders” instead of “the Jews” directing our attention to the theological dispute in John’s gospel rather than a racial or ethnic dispute.

Read John 20.19-31

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the other disciples on the evening of the resurrection. The other disciples are together and afraid. The religious authorities colluded with the Roman Empire to destroy Jesus.[2] So it’s not unrealistic for the followers of Jesus to think they would also be in the crosshairs. In this setting, Jesus appears and shows the disciples his hands and his side—and seeing his wounds, they know that it is Jesus. It’s not some ghost. Not some unembodied spirit. This Risen One has the wounds of the One who was crucified. So the disciples, except for Thomas, see Jesus’ wounds and believe it is Jesus but when Thomas asks for the same experience, he is often criticized, unfairly I think, as a doubter.

As a side note, the nails, blood, and spear thrust of the crucifixion are all unique to John’s gospel. While John has the highest Christology (meaning we experience the divinity of Jesus more in John’s gospel than the humanity), John is also the most insistent that Jesus is also truly human. The first chapter of John’s gospel says, the Word [true God] became flesh [true human].[3] Now the gospel ends with that same mysterious combination—Jesus is both raised from the dead and physically wounded—both God and human.

A week later, Thomas is with the disciples and Jesus appears again. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his side and hands and in response Thomas makes a profession of faith.

The criticism of Thomas as a doubter is often picked up again when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Instead of a criticism of Thomas, I think this is Jesus turning to us—breaking the fourth wall, as they say in the theatre—to address those of us listening to this story in the generations that follow. Because none of us will have seen Jesus in the flesh but that does not mean we cannot come to believe.

This sermon has its roots in the hymn that Phillip suggested to follow the sermon. The hymn is specifically about Thomas and his encounter with the risen Jesus.

Hymn writer Tom Troeger wrote these words in the second stanza.

“The vision of [Thomas’s] skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.”[4]

While Thomas often gets a raw deal as a doubter in many interpretations of John’s story, this hymn text got me thinking of the multitude of ways we fail to see what falls outside of our expectations and our conclusions.

The other day I was looking for a book. I was quite sure where I had last put it on the shelf but I couldn’t find it. I knew I was looking for a book with a white cover and spine and maroon lettering. I looked through all my bookshelves twice and still could not find it. Later in the day I looked one more time for the book I couldn’t find. This time, instead of scanning for what I remembered the spine of the book looked like, I slowly read each book title on the shelf where I thought I had put the book. And, what do you know? I found it. While I was convinced I was looking for a book with a white cover and maroon lettering, it turned out it was a maroon cover with white lettering.

Now that’s a small example of the way we see what we expect to see and we don’t see something new. But it happens in large ways too.

Jesus says to Thomas, “Touch. See. Believe.”[5] Jesus does not condemn Thomas’s inability to see. He offers Thomas what he needs.

Faith needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Faith gets narrow-minded when our minds are small. When we think what is true has to be protected and guarded because somehow it is fragile or subject to damage.

John Calvin said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Which I take to mean there is no reach of our minds, in our search for what is true, that can take us outside of the realm of God. There is no discovery that can somehow threaten God. There are discoveries that can unsettle our minds about God. There are discoveries that can upend what we thought was true. But there is no truth that would, by definition, take us away from God.

Which is why, on this weekend of The March for Science, that has happened around the world in 600 cities on six continents, it feels like a good time to affirm that science and religion can be friends. One can be a follower of Jesus and a scientist without having to check your heart and mind at the door of the church or at the door to your classroom or office.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said this week, “one of the great things about science is that it is an entire exercise in finding what is true.”[6] Which could also be said of religion. We want to know what is true.

Just like faith, science needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Because we don’t know all there is to know. And, likely, we will never know all there is to know. Science, too, gets narrow-minded when our minds are small.

A number of you know my undergraduate degree was in Biology with an emphasis in nutrition and anatomy and physiology. But I delayed my chemistry sequences in order to take classes in the School of Religion…which is part of the reason why I’m here instead of teaching biology or giving talks as a Forest Ranger.

When I studied anatomy and physiology I was constantly amazed at the wonder of our bodies and how they work. For me, that all the systems of our bodies function as they do leads me to give praise to God for this amazing creation. And I can also marvel at the evolutionary changes that have happened as single-cell organisms over billions of years have become us. That too speaks to me of an amazing wonder in creation.

And as a person of faith I read the creation story in Genesis and hear the theological questions it asks about the nature of God and the nature of creation and of human beings. I can read that without needing to compress those questions into a scientific explanation that the universe was created in six days. Religion asks questions like, “What is the nature of God?” and “What is the purpose of human beings?” while science asks questions like, “Where did people come from?” and “How was our galaxy created?”

As a person of faith and as a scientist I marvel at the engineering feat of how the two new bridges were built across the Ohio River and give thanks to God for the intellectual knowledge and the technological capacity and physical labor that go into building a bridge.

As a person of faith and as a scientist my heart can be broken by the reality of cancer and know that researchers are working every day, using their God-given gifts, to understand how cancer changes normal cells into abnormal cells so scientists can develop new treatments and cures.

Often what we think we know is, in truth, a small world of facts (or, these days, so-called “alternative facts”—also known as half-truths and lies). Even in 2017, with all that we know about the world, there is still so much to be curious about, to be surprised by, things that we miss when we get stuck in a small world of facts—whether those are religious facts or scientific facts.

So may we, scientists and Christians alike, in service to God and to humanity, cultivate an open, curious expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised so that together we may discover what is true.

 

 

 

[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 287.

[2] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “John 20:19-23 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels, John, Volume 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 320.

[3] Boring and Craddock, 358.

[4] Thomas H. Troeger, “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #256.

[5] Martin B. Copenhever, “John 20:19-31 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 396.

[6] https://www.facebook.com/neildegrassetyson/, April 19, 2017 post, accessed April 22, 2017.

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Peace – John 20.19-31

April 7, 2013 – Second Sunday of Easter

Introduction: Our story is set last Sunday evening—that is, on the evening of the Sunday morning appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene. We’re in John’s gospel where Mary is the first one to see Jesus after the resurrection.

Also in John’s gospel Jesus calls God “Father” more than any of the other gospels. Here it is a term of closeness and intimacy. It is the language of a beloved parent and beloved child.

Peace

The first part of this reading always seems like an odd part of the Easter story. After our glorious Easter celebration with great music, great food, beautiful flowers and the multitude of ways we joyfully sing and say, “Christ is risen!”—we don’t expect the gospel stories to be so bleak. We heard last week from Luke’s gospel about the women who go to the tomb to properly care for Jesus’ body; who are told Jesus has been raised and they are terrified and perplexed and the story ends mostly with confusion.

In John, the disciples are not kicking back on Sunday night with a great feast to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples are afraid. They’d followed Jesus and now he was dead—although Mary Magdalene had reported she had seen him alive. But for all they really knew, Jesus was dead and had taken their hopes for the future with him to the grave. Now they cower in a room with the drapes pulled shut and the doors locked, wondering if the next knock on the door will be the authorities who will arrest, torture and kill them too.

Then through those locked doors, Jesus appears. He doesn’t scold them for cowering. He doesn’t ridicule them for their fear. He says, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them the physical evidence of his crucifixion—the wounds on his body—and the disciples rejoiced when they realized who this really was. And again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

And then he commissioned this cowering, fearful, hesitant bunch of disciples: “As God has sent me, so I send you. The ministry which God gave to me, I now entrust on to you.”

Jesus breathes on them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit which he had promised before his death. In John’s gospel, there’s no gap in time between Easter and Pentecost—between the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. In the church now we follow the tradition of Luke and Acts where there is a fifty-day pause between Easter and Pentecost. We’ll celebrate Pentecost at the end of May. But when we read John’s gospel, celebrating Easter is also celebrating the beginning of the church’s mission1—our mission—one leads immediately to the other.

“Peace be with you. I give to you the work which God gave to me. Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then the story turns to Thomas. Who gets a bad rap as a doubter. Despite our translations, the word “doubt” does not show up in this story. What gets translated “doubt” in verse 27 is really the word “unbelieving.” Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believe.”2 Thomas had already told the other disciples that he could not believe their news about Jesus unless he could see and touch the wounds in the hands and side of Jesus. Which is exactly what the other disciples needed as well. In verse 20, it’s not until the other disciples see Jesus’ hands and side that they rejoice.

Jesus does not shame Thomas or belittle his unbelieving. Jesus offers Thomas what he needs to believe—Jesus offers himself to Thomas. And Thomas believes and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”—a confession of faith recalling Jesus’ words in John 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”3

In the Eastern Orthodox Church this day is sometimes referred to as St. Thomas Sunday which honors the tradition that says Thomas took the gospel to India in the first century. Thomas is remembered then—at least in one tradition—not because of his unbelief but because of his belief.4

But we tend to remember him as the guy who doubted. A guy who we’re not supposed to be like. Or at least not let anyone know we are like him.

Here’s the thing about doubt. In the larger church culture, we tend to treat the phenomenon of doubt on an individual basis, as if doubt is an individual flaw and then we leave doubters to figure things out for themselves. We don’t make room for doubt. Doubt is seen as failure and as a reason not to participate in the community of faith. I’m not supporting that position—I’m just saying that’s what generally exists out there.

I can’t count the number of people who confide in me that they don’t believe in whatever theological idea it is they think they are required to believe in order to be part of a church. There’s this mythology out there that being part of a church is all about a laundry list of beliefs to which one must ascribe. And, in some traditions and congregations, there is a big list you have to sign your name too. But not in most—and certainly at Central and among Presbyterians the list is much shorter than most people expect.

But here’s the more important thing we see in this story. We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t part of the first gathering of disciples who saw Jesus on the night of the resurrection. Did he have other plans? Was he at his in-laws’? Was he upset? Did someone say something to him and he took offense? Was he even more afraid than the others? We don’t know. But we do know he’s back in the community of the followers of Jesus the next week. And it is here—in that community—that Thomas meets the living Christ and is restored to a functioning faith (as opposed to a non-existent perfect faith that we think we’re supposed to have). Restored to the community, he is restored to faith. Thomas overcomes his unbelieving, not by the private ruminations of his own isolated heart and mind somewhere off by himself, but by meeting the risen Christ in the midst of the gathered community.5

This story in John’s gospel bears “witness to how we meet Christ in the community of faith that gathers to receive [Christ’s] living presence.”6 It shifts the focus off the perceived failing of one individual and puts it instead on the significance of the community where the risen Jesus appears and where faith is born and nourished—where is it sustained and supported.

It is to this community—this community that includes Thomas, with his unbelief and his belief—that Jesus is passing on his mission—the one he was given by God—Jesus is passing it on to them and passing it on to us. It’s clear we’re included because the writer of John’s gospel goes to great lengths to make certain we know that meeting the living Christ is not just for those first century followers who got to see Jesus in the flesh and who saw and touched the wounds on his body. The stories about Jesus are written down so that we too, 2000 years later, might also come to believe that Jesus is the Christ and through believing we may have life in Christ’s name. Not because we believe things about Jesus but because we have met the living Christ and set out hearts—our whole selves—after the way of Jesus.

And so it’s our turn now to do what Jesus did. To follow the way of the One who says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That kind of love—loving one another as we have been loved by Jesus—reveals God to the world and “by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love.”7 So our work as the church is to bear unending witness to the love of God in Jesus.

That’s probably old news to most of you. But sometimes we need a reminder. A point to fix on the compass of our lives to set us true. Sometimes we get bogged down in the details of all our responsibilities that we forget the big picture and the mission to which we have been called.

And that’s why we gather week after week, year after year. Because we carry this mission together—holding one another together in our believing and our unbelieving. Together we watch for the presence of the living Christ in our midst. Together we tell the stories of Christ’s appearance that we might not lose heart when the road is steep and long. Together we gather around the table where the followers of Jesus have met again and again that we too, like those earliest disciples, might meet the living Christ in bread and wine.
* * *

1 Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. ix, Nashville; Abingdon, 1995, p847.
2 Ibid., p850.
3 John 14.9 (cf. John 14.7) Remember that in John’s gospel, John uses the language of Father and Son not as the language of patriarchy and domination but as the language of intimacy and relationship—of a loving parent and beloved child.See Gail O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, p496. I have briefly summarized some of O’Day’s work in my sermon, “Celebrate God’s Wildly Inclusive Love,” April 24, 2005.
4 Kenneth H. Carter “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 19 April 2011, p21.
5 Thanks to my friend Dee Wade who share and succinctly summarized what Thomas Troeger wrote in Lectionary Homiletics, April-May 2013, inside front cover.
6 Thomas Troeger, Lectionary Homiletics, April-May 2013, inside front cover.
7 O’Day, p848.