Readings for this Sunday:
Acts 5:27-32 |Psalm 118:14-29 |Revelation 1:4-8 |John 20:19-31
The Bible is good literature. It is carefully and thoughtfully and intricately crafted. It is filled with connections, with insight, and with depth. It is accessible on many levels to all ages. It tells basic stories that the young can understand, and yet, it has a complexity, a surplus of meaning that carries us through a lifetime.
Inspired. It’s a great word, isn’t it? I know I long to be inspired. I want to be filled with life. If I have nothing to look forward to, nothing that intrigues or excites me, I can get bored, down, despairing even. Uninspired. How about you? Especially in these times, and in this season of history when so much seems to be broken, counter-productive, misdirected. I need something to hold onto. I need a reason to get up in the morning. I need to believe that life makes some sense, that there is a value to it, that I can make a difference. I need something to believe in.
“Do not doubt—but believe,” says the risen Jesus to Thomas.
So let’s look a little more closely at this. The use of the word “doubt” here is actually something of a problem, especially when paired with belief. When you think of “doubt” what do you think of? Allow for responses.
We doubt that something is true or that someone is being truthful. We doubt a theory or a claim. Our understanding of doubt is usually an intellectual reality; it is about what you think; about what truths or assertions you hold onto. This is not, though, the kind of doubt that Jesus is talking about. It’s not what the Greek word translated into “doubt” means.
There’s a clue in the unfolding of time in the story. Perhaps you noticed. The story about Jesus’ first appearance to the frightened disciples behind locked doors after his crucifixion begins like this: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…” The first day of the week, then—for John—is what we consider it to be now—a Sunday. We might not think anything of this, except John seems to care a lot about the first day of the week. He again makes note of the time when the disciples are back together and Thomas is with them: “a week later.” And John tells the reader it was the first day of the week in last week’s Easter story when Mary discovers the gardener at the tomb to be her risen Lord. So why would the disciples be gathered on a Sunday? Allow for responses.
Observant Jews gathered on the last day of the week, on a Saturday, on the Sabbath. Christians gathered on Sunday—the day of resurrection. This was when the believers assembled to share the story, to break bread together, to worship. If you were here last week, you may remember me pointing out that the Gospel of John was written some 60 years after the historical Jesus is commonly dated to have been walking around ancient Palestine—about 90 or 100 in the common era. The gospel was written in other words, some three generations later, in a time when Christianity was established as a movement distinct from Judaism.
The Gospel of John, in other words, is written to and for the early church in particular, and the church in general. It is written as a book to be used for the church’s worship. It is written as a book to reform and direct our life together, that we too might meet the risen Christ, and be inspired to believe. It isn’t a history piece as much as it is a literary piece, a work intended not to inform, but to change. A work for the well-being of a community of believers. The narrator signals this at the end of this story:
… 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.
The inspired writer of this inspired work is trying to say something to the church about what makes for life, and it isn’t about intellectual assent. It isn’t about a position or a political theory you hold. It isn’t about something you’re thinking. It is something you do. It is about a practice. Thomas’ doubt is evidenced by his absence.
John is telling us something about the way we believe and the way we come to believe. We believe together. We believe in community.
Let’s say it this way. The opposite of the word doubt in this text is not certainty. It is inspiration or conviction or courage. And this makes some sense, doesn’t it? Consider what inspires you. Consider what brings you back from dead hopes and abandoned dreams? What breathes life back into your spirit?
For me, this has always been the energy, the courage, the clarity, the purpose, the integrity I experience in other people. The purity of presence I encounter in children brings me back to life. The strength of conviction of a long life lived consistently brings me back to life. A word of encouragement from someone who knows me brings me back to life.
John is saying here, I think, that our life together in community is what moves us from doubt to belief, from despair to hope. Our life together is what raises us to new life. And the life of the Christian community gathered around this Word and this Table is where we encounter the risen Christ again and again in ways that give us new life and the courage displayed in the story from Acts today.
I need Sunday mornings, because more often than not, they raise me from the dead. The spirit of life in you together raises me from the dead. It moves me from doubt to belief. But this isn’t true for everyone, is it? Historic trends are clear that a generation of which only 5% didn’t practice some kind of organized religion is dying away. It is being replaced by a generation of which some 25% do not find meaning in organized religion.
The church is one of the last remaining institutions committed to relationships across generations. I believe this is incredibly important. I believe we need each other for life. We need each other for our well-being. Peace does not come in isolation. None of us can do it alone.
And yet, I wonder if we have made too much of Sunday morning. I wonder if we have assumed that smaller attendance means a diminished life. I will confess I have wondered about this. But what if I’m wrong. What if this isn’t a sign of death, but of transformation?
You see, it is also true that the church exists for the life of the world. On both of the Sundays in John’s story Jesus shows up, and the first thing he does is to breathe on his followers his spirit of life. And the second thing he does is to send them out. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And the world we are sent to, despite what we are often led to believe, is filled with life and possibility. You see, the Spirit is there too, seeking life together, gathering in community. What if our work is simply to join ourselves to what is already happening?
This was posted in the New York Times this last week. Listen to it:
When you read the headlines. Or turn on the news. When you scroll through your social media feed. Or listen to the candidates. You could easily mistake America as a nation, lost. A people who have severed the common bonds that hold us together—compassion, respect, shared responsibility, a belief in service, a willingness to unite despite our differences.
Today, for just a moment, we wanted to pause and reflect. To go beyond the hatred and vitriol, and see a different story of America.
It’s a story that is not bound by party affiliations, or religious beliefs. It’s not dependent on living in one zip code over another. It’s not left-leaning or right-leaning. It’s not about your income or your wealth.
It lives in our small towns and also in our cities. In the classroom of a teacher who is fighting for the potential in every student. You see it in the volunteer who mentors youth, and in those helping America’s veterans successfully transition to civilian life. And in those who work to include, rather than discriminate. You see it in the leader who invests in her community. And in the nurse who treats the elderly with dignity. This is the story we believe in.
This is not about the choice we make every four years. This is about the choices we make every single day.
And at the bottom of this text, which is for me no less than inspiring, is the familiar logo of Starbucks. This is, of all things, an advertisement. And yet the Spirit of it! What a stunning thing. Beloved of God, the Spirit is everywhere. Do not doubt, but believe. Do not give up. Hold on. Keep at it. Give yourself to what makes for life wherever you can find it. And come back to tell us. It is abundant—far beyond what we could imagine.