Sermon for April 28, 2013: The Second Pentecost

Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6, and John13:31-35

Each of the lessons today points to a question that we should ask ourselves about what we do, how we live, and the direction our lives take. It’s a different question in each lesson, but each passage from the Bible this morning does give us one thing to think about as we live our lives. We’ll get to those three questions in a bit.

But I would like to begin today with that rather strange and complicated lesson from the 11th chapter of the book of Acts.  To make sense of it requires some careful reading. Yet one thing is clear: in the book of Acts there are two Pentecosts, two times when the spirit comes and blows out the minds of the apostles, and changes the course of the church. Over the centuries, we have made a big deal about the first Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts with the rush of wind, the tongues of fire resting on the heads of the apostles and the speaking in various languages as the spirit gives them utterance. We know that story of Pentecost pretty well and will recall it in a few weeks as we celebrate it in our church year.

But this is the second coming of the Spirit in the book of Acts. The passage reads, “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” This Pentecost II also invades the minds of the apostles, changing their perspective and altering the course of things. Pentecost I is really a Jewish event. Pentecost II is a Gentile event.

So let’s focus a bit on the details of this Pentecostal transformation of Peter in Pentecost II. How does the spirit work on Peter and those to whom he speaks? How does the spirit of God work in the book of Acts and in our lives as we ask those important questions?

The New Testament Greek word for spirit is pneuma, meaning breath or wind. We use the word in English when we talk about a pneumatic hammer or drill, a tool powered by strong air, or when we say someone has pneumonia, or a loss of air. For us, it is important to think about how we might have a pneumatic life, a life filled with God’s spirit or presence.

To reflect on the pneumatic life, I’d like to look at the details of story of Pentecost II in Acts and also to look at the life of a friend of mine named Jack, who has supported Off the Square Club and other causes for those in need for some time now, has been in recovery for a long time now, and who has felt the presence of the spirit in his life.  I’ll refer to both the book of Acts and Jack’s life as we consider a pneumatic life.

A pneumatic life is a step by step process.  In the story of Pentecost II Peter explains himself step by step. It takes awhile for the heart to change, for the spirit to work. And although we may suddenly change, those around us will need our step by step story in order to get engaged, to see the pattern in the seeds. There is a progression or progress of the spirit. The spirit may suddenly change our lives, but there is the step by step, one day at a time movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people.  As Jack looks at the power of the spirit in his life, he sees a series of events, large and small, good and bad, mysterious and powerful, over the course of his life that together, step by step, reveal the spirit at work.

Prayer.  The vision for Peter is connected to prayer. Prayer is not just a onetime thing. It’s a lot like exercise, or taking time to sit quietly to listen for the spirit’s blowing.  As we exercise more, we become stronger. As we pray with persistence and consistency, as we practice meditation and openness to the spirit, we become stronger in faith and more open to the Holy Spirit.  My friend Jack had a Christian friend who prayed for him daily.

Visions and trances. We Lutherans are a rational lot. We fill our heads and sermons with ideas. That is a good thing. But sometimes we need to dream, to have visions, to entrust ourselves to the mysterious ways that God is present in our non-conscience and sub-conscience. God works on both sides of the brain. And often we sense the purpose of God, the presence of God, not in ideas but in art, or beauty, or in the sudden way that something strikes us, or in the dreams and pneumatic experiences we have and remember.

Sometimes the vision involves healing. Jack went to a healing seminar at Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee with his friend Tim. Jack assumed that it was for him to help others heal, when actually it was all about his own healing. At the seminar Jack had a moment in the spirit which he described as ripping the veneer off and seeing what’s inside the person.  And he still speaks of a vision in which he put the liquor in a box and found the strength to stop drinking.

    A harmony or unity. There is a harmony or unity that undergirds the presence of the Holy Spirit. When the spirit is present we become aware not of distinctions, but of the way in which things come together. All animals are included in the blanket of heaven. Clean and unclean is a human distinction.  The vision of the spirit reconnects us with the harmony or unity of the universe.

Distinctions which we think are important fade into the background. Jack onetime wanted to talk with a pastor at a church about a pain. The pastor said, “No, you’re not a member.” And that was the last time he attended that church. The spirit moves us into unity and harmony.

The third draft. The fullness of the vision may not take root on the first attempt. The first draft usually needs more work. If at first we don’t succeed, we need a second or third attempt. By the third time around, as there is more give and take, the idea will start to take hold and take the shape it needs. Peter gets to the third draft in his dream.

When Jack reflects on the role of the spirit in his life, he says that one thing he has learned is that you can pray for something several times, and may end up with an answer you did not expect or see coming.  Never give up, he says. Look for that third or fourth or fifth draft of God working in your life.

Accompaniment. When the spirit works, there is usually someone along for the ride. We are accompanied. Accompaniment is an important part of caring for people as they go through a spiritual process whether that process involves grief, profound change, or adjustments that need to be made in light of changing conditions or a fresh approach. Peter is accompanied by six people as he makes his case about Pentecost II.

Jack speaks of many people who have accompanied him in his life. His wife has been with him through the good and the bad. His friend, Hank, has been with him in the spirit. He speaks of the powerful witness of his aunt. And he remembers his time with his friend Tim. We are all called to accompany others in their journeys and to experience the company of others.

Cooperating with God at work. Peter feels that all this is not something he does, but rather he wants to get out of the way of God. When the spirit is present we feel that we are not the actors, but the witness to a drama in which God is the principle player. We stop blaming ourselves and we stop taking the credit.

Jack sees his life not as a biographical list of accomplishments and successes in the face of challenge. He sees his life as a witness to what can happen for a person if he as Peter does, cooperates with the work of God, not standing in God’s way, as God accomplishes a greater and mysterious good.

 

How do we lead a pneumatic life? It involves prayer, a vision or trance, harmony and unity, a third draft, accompaniment, and cooperating with God at work.

And it involves something else. The pneumatic life drives us to ask those basic and important questions about life. It doesn’t give us all the answers. In fact, the pneumatic life is filled with more mystery than certainty. But the pneumatic life in the spirit leads us to ask important questions of ourselves and others.

Three such questions come from the Bible lessons today. The first lesson speaks of the spiritual wisdom of the church that Jesus was for everybody, even the Gentiles. As we think about our lives in the spirit, the first question is, “How can we heal the divisions that divide us?”  We are all different, but we are all children of God together. In Pentecost II God is for Jew and Gentile, for all.  What divisions need to be healed? How can we move more deeply into unity and harmony with God and others?

A second question comes from the second lesson. This is the last chapter of the Bible, the 21st chapter of the book of Revelation.  It is a description of how the ending of all things is in the heavenly graceful arms of a waiting creating God. This chapter of the Bible asks all spiritual people to ask that second question, “Where are you headed?”  Are you off-course? Do you need to change directions? Or maybe you need to remember how it will all end?

What divisions need to be healed? Where are you headed? And a third spiritual question comes from the final story from the 13th chapter of John. It is the question, “Who needs your love?” The gospel and letters of John involve the spiritual and mystical intertwining of Jesus, God, and those who follow Jesus, connected like a spiritual vine.  In all that intertwining in John, the most important question is “who needs our love.” It is by our love that people will know how we are connected to the God of love. No greater love has one than this, than to lay down his life for a friend. Love one another, as I have loved you.

What divisions need to be healed? Where are you headed? Who needs your love?  These are the spiritual questions that lead Jack and all of us as we continue to be renewed in the spirit, as we  pray, have visions, find harmony and unity, get to a third draft, accompany one another and get out of God’s way.

 

Sermon for April 21, 2013, Who Is This Host Arrayed in White?

Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30 

Today let’s start with that second lesson from Revelation. This ancient manuscript is in some ways a song book, a collection of the church’s earliest chants and hymns.

     The first song is a chant:
Caller: Salvation belongs
Side One: to our God
Side Two: on the throne,
All: to the Lamb!

     In the next few verses we have another more complicated chant:
Children: Amen!
Women: Blessing and glory
Men: wisdom and thanks and honor
Women: power and might
Men: to our God forever!
Children: Amen!

     We still use these ancient chants today. They are the backbone of our Hymn of Praise; This is the Feast of Victory. Look at the sermon notes this morning  as we sing again our Hymn of Praise. Kristie will sing the section once and then we will sing it together………

Note that the wording and music change for the second Hymn of Praise found in your notes or in the hymnal on page 140. Kristie will sing the section once and then we will sing it together………

Now look at “Now the Feast and Celebration,” in your notes or Hymn 167. Kristie will sing the section once and then we will sing it together…….. We know these versions of these ancient chants well. The Hymn of Praise known as This is the Feast, regardless of the music used, is based on these ancient chants.

I know it is politically incorrect to use militaristic metaphors these days to describe the church. But I probably should point out that this kind of chanting that we did was used by soldiers and citizens to cheer on the empire, to glorify the Roman Emperor and to prepare the hearts of ancient soldiers for battle. The fact that the ancient chants of war and empire are used in this way indicates the subversive ways of early Christians.  It is a meek lamb, not the war machine of the Emperor that prevails.

This ancient hymnbook is important for us, not only for our worship but for our spiritual health. For the songs we sing re-orient us to our future, our destiny, and our purpose.  And they still call us to remember God in a troubled culture.

But did you notice that the real question in this section of the book of Revelation centers not on the songs, but the singers. The question that comes after the chants in today’s passage regards the singers, “Who Is the Host Arrayed in White?” Who is doing all this singing?

“Who Is the Host Arrayed in White?” That brings us to another hymn, number 425, Behold the Host Arrayed in White. Please turn to it if you will. Now the heritage of this congregation is German Lutheran rather than Norwegian Lutheran, so we do not know this song as well. Hymn 425 speaks of the host arrayed in white and is constructed on this passage of Revelation and an appreciation for the mountains of Norway. It is often sung at Norwegian funerals. The snow covered mountains, suffering through this life, the wiping of the tears, seeing with new eyes the pattern in the seed all speak not only of this ancient hymnal but Nordic farming life. I last sang this song in March at Pastor Stan Klyve’s funeral at Advent Lutheran. He and I worked together at Midvale Lutheran in the 1980’s before he retired. Let’s try verse one. Kristie will sing the verse once and then we will sing it together……

Who Is the Host Arrayed in White? I believe we are the ones becoming that host. They are us and those who have gone before us. And these lessons together tell us many things about this host of saints called by God. We who sing are a motley crew.  We weep and rejoice at the same time. Our heaven and our earth are the same but different. We are a militant flock. We are un-snatchable.

We who sing are a motley crew. The heavenly choir, the Bible says, comes from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. The people of God include all sorts. It always has. It always will: slaves and free, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, men and women, children and the old, liberals and conservatives, hopeful and despairing. Heaven even includes some creatures we do not recognize.

In the book of Acts, that first lesson, we are in the ninth chapter. Peter is staying at the house of a tanner in a Gentile area. Tanners were unclean according to Jewish law because of the nature of their profession. And the entire area is contaminated by those people known as Gentiles.  And the whole story just assumes that there are women as well as men, like Tabatha or Dorcas, in leadership positions in the church. And there is something called a group of widows in the church playing a significant role in female leadership. The miracle of new life takes place not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, young and old, slave and free, men and women. We are a motley crew.

We who sing weep and rejoice at the same time. Now saints are not perfect people. We make mistakes. We sin. We fall short of our purpose. And we suffer consequences and misfortunes like everyone. Perfection is not a requirement for being in this choir. In fact, most of us sing off key now and then. Every once in awhile one of us actually rips up the sheet music and we all start over. Singing in the white robes means not perfection but that we are grounded in Jesus. And because of how life is and the fullness of our sorrows and joys, greatness and failures, we know how to weep and we know that the tears will end. We laugh with God even as we cry.

 Our heaven and earth are the same but different. Faith is not about going to heaven. And it is not about living a good life here on this earth. It is about heaven and earth together. On earth as it is in heaven we say. Too often, we want to separate the two, making the faith too other worldly or too centered on this world. The choir, the host arrayed in white, stands and sings in both worlds at the same time faithful in the here and now and in a time yet to come.

The embedding of the heavenly and the earthly in each other is found in that hymn 425. It is a rebuilt or re-purposed Norwegian folk hymn. Note how the music is constructed. The worldly part of the hymn is based on that group of three notes evenly spaced, a third, I think they call it, ………and that little up and down element that follows……. That is the heart of the song’s structure as it sings of the challenges of this world.  On the second page, when the heavenly material is the theme, the structure stays the same, just the last note of the third is lifted one note…….. Heaven and earth are built on the same pattern, and are meant to be together as God’s unison will is accomplished in all dimensions of life. It’s not about this world. It’s not about the next. It’s about both coming together in our hearts as the spirit’s song changes everything.

We a militant flock. In these lessons much is made of how Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. Sheep are usually thought of as docile, meek and mild. But most Christians are not that easy going. Leading a group of Lutherans is more like herding cats than sheep. We sheep cause trouble now and then. Wander into fresh pastures, resist following the herd, rejecting the ways of the world, often questioning the best path.  In this militancy (which gives us the courage to work on things, to change things, to matter) we are gently led by Jesus into the fold so that we can find our place in the song that has been sung by those who came before and will come after.

We are un-snatchable. No one snatches us from the arms of God. Even the black sheep are embraced by the loving shepherd. Not even the evil one, not even the forces of death can separate us from God. We are always with God, or better, God is always with us as we face the challenges of this day, this week, this month, this decade, and this lifetime. It’s a strange choir: sort of like being on a church committee. You can join it, but you can never really quit it. God will not quit on you.

Who is this Host Arrayed in White? It is us. And we who sing This is the Feast are a motley crew.  We weep and rejoice at the same time. Our heaven and earth are the same but different. We are a militant flock. We are un-snatchable.

Sermon for April 14, 2013

Acts 9:1-6, Revelation 5:11-14, and John 21:1-19

 I.

     This has been a challenging week for all of us in the church, synod, and at St. Johns, perhaps one of the most difficult weeks we have shared in our common life. For many of us, thoughts regarding our fellow parishioner and Bishop Bruce, his family, and the family of Maureen Mengelt remain at the forefront of our minds. But today, as always, we have another Sunday and another set lessons from the Bible upon which to reflect. And we begin with those.

As many of you know, Dick Severson has been working on book shelves in the pastor’s office. He is doing amazing woodwork. On those shelves is a book, only ten years old, called Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds by Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University (Boston, 2004).  I bought the book because this is an important issue in any congregation. Whether it wants to or not, every contemporary Christian community in America faces more change than stability these days in its worship, in its mission, in its witness to the world and communications, in its membership, and in its self understanding. These times require as much agility as faithfulness. And as people face these things, not only in church, but in all dimensions of life together, we discover ourselves changing our minds, sometimes quite often. And sometimes we find ourselves not able to change our minds when we need to. How mind changing takes place is what Gardner’s work is about. And working with people as they change their minds is an important part of pastoral ministry and leadership.

Mind changing. It happens in many ways. We learn more. We meet different people. We hear different stories. We are overwhelmed by and then overcome tragedies. The world becomes different. A mentor guides us. We talk with people we know and respect. We reassemble the facts we face. We get a bigger picture. We discover a new or fresh solution to an old dilemma. Sometimes it happens slowly like a ship changing course. Sometimes it comes suddenly.

II. 

    It comes suddenly to St. Paul this morning in the story of his conversion in the book of Acts. Suddenly on the road to Damascus to persecute the Christians, he encounters a risen Jesus. The encounter overpowers him. He changes his mind. He who once persecuted the Jews who believed in Jesus, leading the charge to stone them to death, in this chapter of the Bible becomes the great Christian missionary to the Gentiles.

How could this happen?  Paul was so sure he was right. Following Jesus in his view would be the undoing of the Jewish law. In his certain mind, the way of Jesus would not work as an expression of the Jewish faith. The verses that follow the lesson this morning describe how Paul spent time with a guide or mentor rethinking his point of view, a time of reflection, recovery from blindness, and renewal.

In all this there is a mind changing. Paul’s mind changing gave birth to what we call Christianity. As a Jewish sect, the way of Jesus does not work very well. Paul’s new vision was that Jesus was God’s grace for all regardless of their nationality, heritage or state in life: that Jesus was for the Gentiles and that something called the church needed to include all people in its fellowship and mission. Christianity, built upon its Jewish heritage, but standing on its own, as its own faith, was the new idea that was born in the heart of this man as he changed his mind.

It was an amazing new approach to Jesus and God. Jesus was not about God’s plan for the Jews but God’s plan for the rest of the world. This new thing had its problems. Jews and Gentiles in the same congregations raised all sorts of questions, issues, awkward and even violent moments. But Paul changed his mind, and the world was changed.

 III.

    Now there is something about the changing of minds that is important for us. It has to do with that second lesson from the book of Revelation and this thing called singing. Gardner in his book says nothing about singing as the way to change the mind. But he is not a Lutheran pastor. For us, it is important to celebrate, to rejoice, to sing our way into the new reality of Easter’s joy, hope, and new life. Our songs point us to our destiny. Our singing re-orients us to the new ways of God, to our ultimate destination, to what really matters in the end.

The book of Revelation is an ancient song book, an old collection of the songs we still sing to orient ourselves to the transforming ways of God. Here in this book of the Bible are the songs of hope to come, blessing and honor and glory and might, alleluias sung by creatures we do not even know, about the Lamb of God who was slain and now reigns, as our hearts though heavy still sing of our future in God’s bright love. I know there are days when we do not feel like singing. But remember the persecutions faced by these ancient singers in this book. They sang these songs of joyful hope precisely because they faced dark days. And such songs still shape the hearts and minds of Christians both faithful and changing in times both good and bad.

 IV.

     But the gospel lesson today speaks to something else about changing minds of which Gardner also speaks. Here in the story from John we have a post-resurrection experience, an encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus. Yes, there is new life after all the bad things happen.

What strikes one about this encounter is how extended and friendly it is. There is nothing brief here. They fish together. They discuss the fishing possibilities. They build a fire. They have breakfast together. They get deep into it as they go through forgiveness. And they come up with a possibility for the future. They spend time together on the beach: an ancient metaphor for that edge where one moves from one way of being into another from one frame of mind to another. And in this chapter of the Bible the disciples shift from their return to their old fishing business to doing the fishing that matters. Their minds are changed.

Gardner says that one important element of changing minds is emotional resonance as we stand on the beaches of our lives. People need resonance in their relationships within the group in order to move from one place to another. Resonance builds with time together. It’s said it takes three cups of tea to build a school or anything in Afghanistan, while that emotional resonance is built among the partners. It usually takes Lutherans 1,000 cups of coffee to create the resonance needed to accomplish something. A 1,000 cups of coffee or a little something to eat like a bit of bread and wine, broken and poured, shared together at the one table, creates the resonance we need with one another and the one still present with, in, and through us, to go ahead and make it happen.

 V.

    Now this week has been difficult for the church, our synod and for St. Johns. For us, Bruce is not only our bishop. He is our fellow member of St. Johns, committed to our mission here of service to those in need in the heart of the city, a baptized child of God whom God and we will always love.  He will continue to be our member, and the baptized child of God, through all of this time of change. And we will be with him in congregational care for some time to come.

And precisely because we are a congregation bearing mutual woe, and frequently facing that woe named grief that comes with death, we are deeply stricken by the death of Maureen Mengelt in these events. It is not enough to say we wish her family well. In our suffering and times of grief, we sense the depth of her family’s suffering, and we weep knowing the burden of their sorrows. We weep for her family even as we focus on our care responsibility for our own.

This week I have done many things I have never thought I would do or would need to do. What unfolds will undoubtedly change us all. And we will need a great deal of spiritual, emotional, and mental agility as we are changed by the course of events swirling around us. But we have some coffee to drink together, and a bit of bread and wine to share in this weekly breakfast we have been given with our Lord on this beach of forgiveness. And we have songs to sing both old and new to lighten our load along the way. And we know that we are people of faith and change because God is with us, and we know where we are headed.

Kat Trio Concert, April 20, 3:00pm at St. Johns

The Kat Trio will give a concert in celebration and renewal of the mission and building of St. John’s Lutheran Church, 322 East Washington Ave on Saturday, April 20, at 3:00pm.

Working with Porchlight, LSS, LIRS, and MALC, St. John’s is the location of a day and night shelter, expanded emergency financial assistance, refugee settlement, the MALC Women’s Backyard Mosaic Project, and several near east side anonymous groups. Of the 900 people coming to St. Johns each week, only one out of seven does so for religious reasons.  St. Johns has completed the second of three stages of building renovation designed to facilitate this mission; and we are celebrating the mission, the renovations, and the support of members, friends, and partners with this concert.

The Kat Trio, founded in Ekaterinburg, Russia, has become a Madison favorite. The violin, clarinet, piano trio’s work includes classical, religious and contemporary favorites. Join us for the celebration.

For more information: www.thekattrio.net

Reflection for April 7, 2013

Acts 5:27-31, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

 

I.

     The Sunday after Easter is a quiet Sunday in the church. After the big celebration, we all sort of ease off a bit and unwind, as we begin to move into a spring. In fact, for some of us, with a lingering winter and a March Easter, the joy and hope of the season may just now be coming to us. Yes, it is coming after all. Winter has ended in the world around us, in our religious life, and in our hearts. Hope springs again.  Soon, we know, the first flowers will appear.

However, the death and resurrection of Jesus for the first Christians was not part of a spring time expansion of hope. For first Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus was a different experience. For us, the challenge of Easter is to re-orient ourselves so that we are the joyful, confident people of compassion and grace we have been called to be: knowing that not even death itself will separate us from the love of God. For us, the call of Easter is the call to hope and joy.

But for early Christians, the death, burial and resurrection story raised not only the issue of hope and joy, but also different matters. Some of these are found in these lessons today. And as we look at those lessons and the challenges embedded in these stories, we find important themes for our own lives as we become resurrection people.

II.

     The story from Acts today is the first of several readings from Acts during the Easter season. Acts is the story of the early Church written by the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke.  Here we have a story of Peter and the disciples placed on public trial for talking too much about Jesus. Much has been said about these early statements attributed to Peter. Sometimes they are seen as the first kernels of an emerging message or proto-sermons or preliminary beliefs or creeds of these earliest Christians. And Peter’s speeches do sound like an ancient formula that may have been widely shared.

But note two matters or concerns regarding the death and resurrection in this lesson. First, there is the issue of blame. Who killed Jesus? One of the most basic human behaviors is to blame someone for bad things. We just naturally do that. When things go wrong we instinctively blame someone.

In some ways it appears that Peter is blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. That may be case. But in this speech the blame may rather be ascribed to those religious leaders in power who killed Jesus. In many ways, it’s religious leadership rather than Jews in general who are condemned or blamed in Acts and in the gospels except for John.

Those of us in leadership positions in the church need to admit to ourselves and others in humility to those times we have stood in the way of God’s new work rather than assisting it.

But as we think about our lives, perhaps we should think about our own tendency to blame others for bad things. I haven’t heard American clergy being lifted up recently as the cause for all our problems in our country, but almost constantly someone is being blamed for bad things happening. In our public life, is it time to stop blaming people and begin to work together to construct a new reality based on compassion and justice?

With a bit of perspective in 2013, some have suggested that the first decade of the new millennium has been one of our worst ever in America: endless wars, economic collapse, terrorism, political gridlock, religious extremism, mass killings, and profound disillusionment are the fruits of that first decade. Yes we can all continue to argue about who is to blame, but what matters is our capacity to build a new future together.

And what of your own life? Are you blaming people, perhaps too much for the way things are with you and yours? Today, take some time to think about blame.

And then Acts speaks of Jesus as the Messiah in a new and complicated way. Now the Messiah was supposed to come and save Israel from the Romans. But Jesus does not do that. Nor does he say he is not the Messiah. For Peter, Jesus the Messiah does not save Israel from Rome. Jesus attempts to save Israel from Israel. In an old cartoon strip, Pogo, who misspoke all of the time, said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” The Messiah changes, transforms, re-furbishes or re-purposes the people of God, saving and delivering them from their own failures in the process.

All too often we want God to save us from stuff, and make our lives better. But God wants to save us from ourselves and make our lives different. Hmm. No wonder the leaders put Peter on trial. But really, what needs to be changed in your life? How does God need to change something about you in order to save you from that part of yourself overwhelming you?

III.

     Now absence was also a challenge for these first Christians. The doubting Thomas is really the absent Thomas.  And, dealing with the absence of a leader like Jesus would be difficult for a group. When people are missing, absence hurts the quality of community life. Absence is an issue for us. Why are there fewer people this week than last? Absence, both physical and emotional, can be difficult in families and relationships. As we think of Thomas this week, we might contemplate absence.

Absence has not only a physical side but also an emotional or spiritual side. And these dimensions, the physical and the spiritual, mark all human life, are an issue in resurrection stories, and are found in this story of Thomas. Did Jesus physically or spiritually rise from the dead? Is Thomas asking for physical proof?

Jesus in the story is both physical and spiritual in a mysterious way. It is almost as if the resurrection is neither physical nor spiritual, and at the same time it is both. I’m not too sure what to make of this, but the text is a reminder that we can get too physical in our approach to things. Thomas did not actually touch the wounds of Jesus, but saw them, witnessed them. Thomas is invited and yet spared the gruesome necessity of doing what he vows. The passage says blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.  Yet the text reminds us that we should not make the resurrection into something only spiritual. Jesus is corporal enough that he enters a room and Thomas can probe a wound.  Jesus is not absent, but present, in a spiritual body.

 

IV.

     But what does that mean? What is it all about? What matters? What’s the significance of it all and of my life? That may have been one of the most difficult questions for first Christians writing this material, and it is still that way for us.

What does matter about life, death, resurrection and our life? What matters about Jesus and God? The book of Revelation, that second lesson, sees Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection as God’s initiative to move all creation back into the arms of God.  The resurrection of Christ is seen as transforming death into new life for all creation. Yes, there is plenty of sin, death and destruction in this world. And there is plenty of blame to go around. But in the end (that Alpha and Omega) in the end, God is using the life, death, and resurrection of this faith healer named Jesus, to begin the healing of the world, to restore creation.

And that’s what matters. That’s the point of it all. For not even death it seems separates us from God.  And this whole thing is part of the great movement of the heavenly spheres.

Blame, being changed rather than rescued, being changed through death rather than being rescued from it, absence, the physical and the spiritual, and the significance of Jesus: these are the themes first Christians witness to this morning, and we still face these challenges as we, the church together, greet own spring, our own dawn of hope.

I.

     The Sunday after Easter is a quiet Sunday in the church. After the big celebration, we all sort of ease off a bit and unwind, as we begin to move into a spring mentality. In fact, for some of us, with a lingering winter and a March Easter, the joy and hope of the season  may have not yet fully come to us. But, yes, it is coming after all. Winter has ended in the world around us, in our religious life, and in our hearts. Hope springs again.  Soon, we know, the first flowers will appear.

However, the death and resurrection of Jesus for the first Christians was not part of a spring time expansion of hope. For first Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus was a different experience. For us the challenge of Easter is to re-orient ourselves so that we are the joyful, confident people of compassion and grace we have been called to be: knowing that not even death itself will separate us from the love of God. For us, the call of Easter is the call to hope and joy.

But for early Christians, the death, the death, burial and resurrection story raised not only the issue of hope and joy, but also different matters. Some of these are found in these lessons today. And as we look at those lessons and the challenges embedded in these stories, we find important themes for our own lives as we become resurrection people.

II.

     The story from Acts today is the first of several readings from Acts during the Easter season. Acts is the story of the early Church written by the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke.  Here we have a story of Peter and the disciples placed on public trial for talking too much about Jesus. Much has been said about these early statements attributed to Peter. Sometimes they are seen as the first kernels of an emerging message or proto-sermons or preliminary beliefs or creeds of these earliest Christians. And Peter’s speeches do sound like an ancient formula that may have been widely shared.

But note two matters or concerns regarding the death and resurrection in this lesson. First, there is the issue of blame. Who killed Jesus? One of the most basic human behaviors is to blame someone for bad things. We just naturally do that. When things go wrong we instinctively blame someone.

In some ways it appears that Peter is blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. That may be case. But in this speech the blame may rather be ascribed to those religious leaders in power who killed Jesus. In many ways, it’s religious leadership rather than Jews in general who are condemned or blamed in Acts and in the gospels except for John.

Those of us in leadership positions in the church need to open ourselves in humility to the ways and times we have stood in the way of God’s new work rather than assisting it.

But as we think about our lives, perhaps we should think about our own tendency to blame others for bad things. I haven’t heard American clergy being lifted up recently as the cause for all our problems in our country, but almost constantly someone is being blamed for bad things happening. In our public life, is it time to stop blaming people and begin to work together to construct a new reality based on compassion and justice?

With a bit of perspective in 2013, some have suggested that the first decade of the new millennium has been one of our worst ever in America: endless wars, economic collapse, terrorism, political gridlock, religious extremism, mass killings, and profound disillusionment are the fruits of that first decade. Yes we can all continue to argue about who is to blame, but what matters is our capacity to build a new future together.

And what of your own life? Are you blaming people, perhaps too much for the way things are with you and yours? Today, take some time to think about blame.

And then Acts speaks of Jesus as the Messiah in a new and complicated way. Now the Messiah was supposed to come and save Israel from the Romans. But Jesus does not do that. Nor does he say he is not the Messiah. For Peter, Jesus the Messiah does not save Israel from Rome. Jesus attempts to save Israel from Israel. In an old cartoon strip, Pogo, who misspoke all of the time, said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” The Messiah changes, transforms, re-furbishes or re-purposes the people of God, saving and delivering them from their own failures in the process.

All too often we want God to save us from stuff, and make our lives better. But God wants to save us from ourselves and make our lives different. Hmm. No wonder the leaders put Peter on trial. But really, what needs to be changed in your life? How does God need to change something about you in order to save you from that part of yourself overwhelming you?

III.

     Now absence was also a challenge for these first Christians. The doubting Thomas is really the absent Thomas.  And, dealing with the absence of a leader like Jesus would be difficult for a group. When people are missing, absence hurts the quality of community life. Absence is an issue for us. Why are there fewer people this week than last? Absence, both physical and emotional, can be difficult in families and relationships. As we think of Thomas this week, we might contemplate absence.

Absence has not only a physical side but also an emotional or spiritual side. And these dimensions, the physical and the spiritual, mark all human life, are an issue in resurrection stories, and are found in this story of Thomas. Did Jesus physically or spiritually rise from the dead? Is Thomas asking for physical proof?

Jesus in the story is both physical and spiritual in a mysterious way. It is almost as if the resurrection is neither physical nor spiritual, and at the same time it is both. I’m not too sure what to make of this, but the text is a reminder that we can get too physical in our approach to things. Thomas did not actually touch the wounds of Jesus, but saw them, witnessed them. Thomas is invited and yet spared the gruesome necessity of doing what he vows. The passage says blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.  Yet the text reminds us that we should not make the resurrection into something only spiritual. Jesus is corporal enough that he enters a room and Thomas can probe a wound.  Jesus is not absent, but present, in a spiritual body.

IV.

     But what does that mean? What is it all about? What matters? What’s the significance of it all and of my life? That may have been one of the most difficult questions for first Christians writing this material, and it is still that way for us.

What does matter about life, death, resurrection and our life? What matters about Jesus and God? The book of Revelation, that second lesson, sees Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection as God’s initiative to move all creation back into the arms of God.  The resurrection of Christ is seen as transforming death into new life for all creation. Yes, there is plenty of sin, death and destruction in this world. And there is plenty of blame to go around. But in the end (that Alpha and Omega) in the end, God is using the life, death, and resurrection of this faith healer named Jesus, to begin the healing of the world, to restore creation.

And that’s what matters. That’s the point of it all. For not even death it seems separates us from God.  And this whole thing is part of the great movement of the heavenly spheres.

Blame, being changed rather than rescued, being changed through death rather than being rescued from it, absence, the physical and the spiritual, and the significance of Jesus: these are the themes first Christians witness to this morning, and we still face these challenges as we, the church together as we greet own spring, our own dawn of hope.