April 19, 2020
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
I thought that to begin things we might just reflect a little on the gospel of John itself. First of all, it was likely written over 1,900 years ago. That means that 80 or so generations have passed John’s testimonies about Jesus to one another as sacred truth. And now, we’re continuing that tradition as we gather today. I find some comfort in that alone – that we are a part of something holy, part of something that has to do with divine life both in and beyond this life that we are currently living, part of something that connects us all with a much greater community of witnesses that have over time both apprehended and longed for the truth that we rely on. I find some comfort also in knowing that through these generations a broken reality of tragedies and triumphs has moved with inevitability – these past generations have celebrated much and suffered much – and yet what they and we proclaim and perceive in varying degrees about God’s love remains a greater truth – a truth that somehow encompasses it all.
The part of John’s gospel that we read today is generally considered to be the original ending. That makes sense; it reads like a conclusion: John tells us that there is much more that he could tell us, but hopefully what he’s shared will suffice for encouraging our faith so that we might believe and thereby have life in Christ’s name. But, it’s more than just the way it reads. It’s also how the message comes full circle. John’s gospel famously starts out, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… [John continues} and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is John’s version of the Christmas story, a theological reflection on Christ’s birth (rather than a description of it) as an introduction to the testimony that is to follow. And then, in today’s conclusion to the gospel Jesus comes again in the flesh – with flesh enough to be touched! – and Thomas, seeing both the risen man, Jesus, and that man’s desire to come to him specifically, gives a personal and human voice to that proclamation that began it all, “My Lord and my God” – identifying Jesus as that eternal Word of God.
I find comfort and hope here too. Jesus wasn’t simply a man of the past, a teacher of lessons to live by; he was and is the embodiment of God – God’s will and ways and presence made flesh. He was and is the expression of God’s love, God’s yes to the world’s no, God’s victory over death, God’s vow to find us in our fear, behind locked doors, in places where we’ve shut God out, in the midst of our doubt and disbelieving; and finding us wherever we are, however we are, he is God’s will to grant us life.
I believe this is true even if we don’t quite know where we are, or how we feel, or what we need to do. I find comfort in this as well. Though we may lose our bearings God never loses us.
I’m not sure I have all my bearings at this point. I mentioned last week the cycle of sadness and inspiration I’ve been feeling. I did it partly in hopes that I might speak to feelings that perhaps you are having as well. I’ll add also a sense of confusion in knowing where to situate myself and where to look for this life that Christ offers. The right here and right now poses some serious challenges for finding Christ. In varying degrees and in different ways for all of us this is a fearful, sad, busy, lonely, disorienting, depressing, stressful, and uncomfortable time. How do we find God in it when we don’t want to be here? On the other hand, I don’t want to wait for the light at the end of the tunnel to arrive in order to feel alive. Our hope isn’t in some distant return to normal, if normal is even something we want to return to. We need life now in the midst of what is happening.
It’s funny though, as I say that, it occurs to me that the dynamic that I’m referring to is in some ways an amplification of a dynamic that defines life in general. Maybe it is a kind of relative comfort I have that keeps me from a more regular recognition that our deepest desires for the kind of life that John mentions and Jesus offers come in our deepest times of pain and need. And, in those times our hope is for a happy outcome and for a sustaining divine love to meet us where we are and carry us through. Obviously, this is the case for those who are sick, but it is also always the case for those who are hungry, those who are oppressed, those who live amidst the threat of violence. It is the case for those of us scrambling to keep things together and it is the case even for those who are coming to the end of their lives.
A friend of mine just shared that his wife was sent home on hospice care. It’s not just heaven they hope for; it’s that her remaining days and their time together might be made sacred, that despite the impossibility of finding life within the locked doors of dying, they might find it anyway because that is what the God we worship, the God of Easter, gives. God gives life, and God gives it not “to those who believe” as if it is some reward for subscribing; God gives it through the blessed act and gift of believing.
My friend’s wife will be accompanied by a loving husband as she lives out her remaining days. They will celebrate the fruits of their life together. They will share their stories and remember the blessings and struggles. They will pray with one another, hold one another, and grieve with one another. Their children will join them (in person or online or by some combination of the two), bringing their devotion and raising memories of the joys and pains of parenthood that are somehow couched in the miracle of the lives that God birthed through them. Their grandchildren will come too, full of energy, shy with concern, but bounding with affection and the promise of life’s unfolding. They will be for her both a family and a church, and by their presence her dying days will be sacred days. Their love will make a God of love believable. It will hallow – or make holy – her time such what is left of it will know life rooted in a belief that such love cannot be other than a taste of something eternal.
We noted at our Wednesday evening discussion group how something seems to be happening with church. People are seeking. They are tuning in. They are sharing and reaching out. They are eager for the Word of God’s love and the shared experience of worship. It’s not just our church, it’s lots of them. We had the opportunity to think about the question, “What is church for?” Why do we gather, and worship, and baptize our babies, and celebrate Communion, and pray, and serve, and eat together, and share our lives? My answer is that we do these things, we live as a church family, in order to become the kind of community in which belief is possible. Our love, though always imperfect, makes a God of perfect love believable. We become church in order to create the kind of sacred space in which belief in a sacred God becomes an animated reality. And, as we’ve heard from both Jesus and John, this is no small thing. To give one another the gift of a believing community is to do nothing less than open doors to the kind of life that really is abundant with life.