SERMON 4/7/13 Easter 2C Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Dunedin, FL
I am grateful for the opportunity to be with God’s people here at Good Shepherd, and it is a joy for me to serve alongside my dear friend, mentor, and former boss, Pastor Becky. Nearly ten years ago, my family met Becky when she was serving as Associate Pastor at another parish in our diocese. Becky was one of the people who saw potential in me, to serve the church in a unique way, and helped set me on this journey, this path I am currently on. Today, I serve as Diocesan Missioner, and in this new position, I am being sent out by our Bishop, to cultivate new ways of forming Christian community, in an ever-changing, rapidly evolving, post-modern/post-Christian culture.
Why is this ministry important? A recent Pew survey reported that 20% of the American population, claim no religious affiliation at all. In a recent NPR story, it was reported that “a third of young adults in this country say they don’t identify with any organized religion.”1 In the geographic area of our diocese, 48% of the people claim to be “spiritual,” 18% say that “faith is important to them,” and 21% say “attending religious services is important.”
When we first saw those last three statistics, it became clear to the Bishop and me, that we have a growing mission field in our own back yard. We realized that the society into which, we the church is sent, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, is changing. It would seem that we must respond differently, we must seek out new ways and fresh ways to revitalize our communities, and we must follow the lead of other church leaders, and plant new communities in new venues, by embracing fresh ways of being. We must look deeply at who we are as faithful Jesus followers, shrug off that which holds us back from God’s mission, and be willing to take on those things, which will continue the mission, to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.
The culture of multi-faiths, the mission field into which God is sending God’s people today to proclaim God’s love, is not that different from the one into which, the first disciples proclaimed the life-altering reality of God in Christ. Consider today’s narrative through which, we hear a familiar story about the events related to how those early followers experienced the first sightings of Jesus; post-resurrection. In John’s account, the disciples were locked behind closed doors, gathered together hiding with fear and trembling. Then in the midst of their paralyzing terror, the Lord enters and simply says, “Peace be with you.” Unable to move, filled with doubt, overcome with unbelief, and lacking trust in the promises of God, and Jesus enters the scene and offers this simple encouragement, “be at peace,” and later, “don’t doubt, believe.”
Listen closely to Jesus’ exhortatations, and you will hear in each, the need for a response; a response to believe. Let me clear something up here. The belief Jesus refers to, is not merely an assent to a particular dogma or doctrine, per se. He is not merely saying, you may now acknowledge that I am here, you can proclaim the fact you saw me. Moreover, I believe Jesus was saying, because you saw me alive, because death is defeated, because the promise that you will not be abandoned, because you see these scars, this flesh, and my presence alive, you can trust in God. Faith is when we live each day trusting in the promises of God and it is through that trust, we find peace.
I met a young woman in a coffee shop a few months back, and we began to chat unexpectedly about faith. She said, “I have no faith per se. I’m not sure even I believe in the existence of God, and I’m curious how can you be so sure?” I replied, “I can’t scientifically prove without a shadow of doubt that God exists.” “What I do know is this, I see real reflections of God’s reality in the lives of people who trust in the way of Jesus. When I see how they trust in God, I myself am convinced that the reality of their faith changes things and thus, I too choose to put my trust in God. It would seem then, that when we step out and risk it all on God, when we begin to rely on that beyond us, we discover faith.” She thought for a moment and said, “I think I understand, but it all seems too simple .” I replied, “It is simple, but it is not easy. There are times when we trust, and there are times when we doubt, and that is okay.” Wait a minute Eric, did I hear you say doubt is okay?
Absolutely, and I think poor Thomas got a bad rap! Over the centuries, Thomas’ experience of the resurrected Jesus, has been mis-used to and convince Jesus followers that, “Doubt has no place in faith.” Consider this question, Have you ever noticed, that despite how many early artist’s depict the Apostle Thomas and the disciples standing before the Risen Jesus with Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds, scripture never records that Thomas actually did it. The same disciple who said he would not believe unless he touched Jesus hands and side, came to trust without the proof he demanded. Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) once wrote, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” Without both faith and doubt, how can we embrace mystery, how can we be transformed, how can we face uncertainty, and how can we imagine the possibilities of God’s grace. Doubt is essential to faith, but doubt alone can create paralysis. For faith to emerge, we must take a risk and trust.
Imagine what would have happened to the early Christian community if the disciples had not left the locked room, and proclaimed boldly the Good News. Imagine what would have happened if the Apostle Paul had continued to persecute the church, rather than making all those missionary trips to Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and Rome. Imagine if doubt had paralyzed all those saints who built churches throughout the ages. Imagine what would have happened if, when facing challenges, uncertainties, changes, and overwhelming fears, God’s people had remained paralyzed by doubt. I am convinced that those saints who came before us experienced periods of doubt, just read the works of Augustine, Luther, and even Mother Teresa who absolutely experienced doubt. But they also took risks and thus, it was because of their faithful witness of God in Christ that we are here today. The story continues.
As I read today’s gospel, I love how the assigned readings come to a conclusion. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.” Notice that the story is incomplete and not all was recorded. Maybe, just maybe, some of it left for us? This community of faith is facing some exciting challenges, some wonderful opportunities and growth . You stand at the cusp of a new day, and you are stepping out in faith as a community/ taking a risk, and investing in the future of God’s mission in this place. God is doing a new thing here and the story of salvation is ongoing through your lives of faith. The next chapters in the book of the God’s mission through God’s church, is found through the ongoing signs, the vivid reflections of God’s reality in your lives , the people who trust in the promises of God; the promises of love, mercy, reconciliation, and grace.
As we the church, embark in God’s mission of reconciliation, encouraging the ongoing renewal of the blessed traditional, inherited forms of Christian community, such as those to which many of us belong today, and by encouraging the development of new forms of Christian community, such as those I am supporting in my new ministry, I believe we can trust that God’s mission will continue . Through us, even through the doubt, fear, and anxiety, through the challenges, uncertainties, and change, our faith in those times, will most certainly serve as sign for others, that they may really see how we trust in God’s promises, how that changes our lives, and they too “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing (they) may have life in his name.”
1 On Religion, Some Young People Show Both Doubt And Respect, by NPR STAFF, January 17, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/01/17/169450811/on-religion-some-young-people-show-both-doubt-and-respect