Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

A sermon based on 1 John 1:1-2:2 and John 20:19-31 preached on April 12th, 2015.

Happy Easter!

Today is what many in the Church refer to as Low Sunday. Today, there are fewer in attendance than there was last week. We have this idea that Easter is a day. 1 out of 365—the day we give out Easter baskets, have our egg hunts out in the lawn, get our knees dirty in the grass. It’s one out of 2 days of the year when shops like Target are closed.

But we Christians live by a different calendar, and according to our calendar, Easter is far from over. This Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Easter, and we will celebrate the Good News of the resurrected Christ who lives and reigns among us for a total of 7 weeks. Everyone knows that Lent is 7 weeks long, but how many folks know that the season of Easter lasts just as long? This is the season of adjusting our eyes to new and brighter rays of light. And our eyes take time to adjust.

Easter is the radiant light that cannot be hidden. The great news of Jesus’ resurrection is too big to keep locked up, held down—and it’s too big for just one day. Some things are too loud to keep to ourselves, and the power of God to bring to life what was once dead is the loudest sound the world has ever heard.

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But sometimes it’s the silence that is deafening and the dark that blinds us. That’s where we find the disciples that first Easter evening: all locked-up, surrounded by 4 walls, doors barricaded shut out of fear—a fear that paralyzed them. Their eyes were having a hard time adjusting to the new and bright ray of light that Mary had brought them earlier that day.

I’ve seen the Lord!

She said to them.

Mary’s news didn’t release the disciples. Here they are still in bunker mode.

How ironic is it that the news of the empty tomb, the unleashing of death from its shackles, the astounding story that Mary shared with them of seeing Jesus, the Master Gardener, tilling the land for the new growth that is to come—how ironic is it that his disciples held themselves inside a tomb of their own making, refusing to emerge from it and show themselves to others?

Even a week later, they’re all still cooped-up inside the upper room—their hearts and lives contained, their breathing constricted, languishing shoulder to shoulder in that darkened space where they hoped to stay invisible to all the outside world. This is how the disciples celebrated that first Easter. Discouraged, in the dark, with the wind knocked out of them.

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When I was young, I remember coming downstairs on Saturday mornings to see that my mom was exercising in the living room to one of her Denise Austin workout videos.

I would be a couple feet away in the kitchen fixing some breakfast for myself, and I’d glance up to see Denise Austin in full 80’s-style workout gear—huge aerobic socks, her white Reebox, headband, perm and all.

In each one of her workout videos, Denise Austin, with her upbeat tone of voice, would remind her audience about every 8 seconds,

 Don’t forget to breathe!

As one who never exercised to anyone of Denise Austin’s videos, I would laugh whenever I heard her say that. Who would forget to breathe? Do we really need to be reminded of such things?

As one who works out to my own yoga videos these days, it turns out, Yes, we do in fact need to be reminded to breathe every once in a while.

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Not only is the Sunday after Easter Low Sunday, it’s also Bashing Thomas Day. Poor guy. You just say a couple words of defiance to a few of your friends in some room one day, and from then on, and into eternity, your whole life becomes defined by them.

But we’re not going to say much more about Thomas today, because there’s so much more to this moment than Thomas’ doubting. This is also the moment when the living Jesus—the One who was once dead—comes to each of his disciples and breathes new life into them. He literally breathes on each one of them. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a tiny Pentecost, saying to them as he exhales,

Receive the Holy Spirit!

This is Jesus saying to his disciples

Don’t forget to breathe!

This is Jesus coming to them that first Easter evening and sharing with them the same breath that swept over the waters on the first days of creation.

This is their and our Lord and Savior coming to His people—all of us who are held up in the tiny rooms of our own making, and sharing with us the wind that blows wild and free across the enormous landscapes of our world. This is Jesus giving CPR to dead men and women, rescuing them from the lifeless confines of that upper room, expanding our lungs and our lives so that with our breath we can tell the story of the One who lives and breathes in the world—and has for the last 2,000 years.

The presence of resurrected Jesus brings us back to life just as it did for Thomas and his fellow disciples those first two Sundays of Easter. That’s Easter breathing.

The Source of all life gives us our breath back. And on that tiny Pentecost, the heavy weight bearing down on top of their chests—all that fear that constricted their airways and kept their doors shackled up tight—was lifted and unlocked. And Jesus offers them peace. No more fear. Don’t forget to breathe.

Receive the Holy Spirit,

Jesus says. Then this:

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they’re forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.

See, forgiveness, friends, is like respiration itself. And the unwillingness to forgive is like holding our breath. When we refuse to forgive others we’re the ones who suffocate. Isn’t that the truth?We languish in the stale oxygen of something done to us that we haven’t forgiven another for, and when we do such things, all we’re doing is cutting off our own air supply—hurting ourselves.

The ability to forgive—to release ourselves and others from the dark and confining spaces where we and they are locked up—is like freeing our lungs to breathe in fresher air. Easter air.

The breath of Jesus brings peace and the power to forgive, both of which unleash us from the closed-off rooms in our own hearts and lives, and free us to be new people, willing and able to be the “Good-News-presence” that Jesus wants us to be.

Jesus gives us the lungs we need to proclaim that Good News to a world that is suffocating in its own way—that has forgotten how to breathe.

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So, let’s take a deep breath. Go ahead. Take it in.

We are the disciples who wish to see the resurrected Jesus in our midst. We are the ones who long to have our eyes adjusted to the new rays of Easter light that come in through the cracks of all the walls we’ve built up around us. We are the ones who are being freed from all that holds us in place and constricts our airways. Jesus comes into our presence with lungs that breathe out, and skin that we can touch, and He shows himself to us so that we can be freed to believe.

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Notice the last 2 verses of our passage this morning:

Jesus did many other signs, one’s not recorded in this scroll…

There’s always more to the story, there’s always more to say, more to uncover, more to discover, isn’t there? It’s as if John, through this little disclaimer at the end of chapter 20, nudges us, and points beyond himself to all of us and says,

You get to see what’s next!

Because, my friends, Jesus is still appearing. Long past that first Easter, Jesus is the One who’s still at-large, on the loose—the One out there, moving as wild as those first winds that blew over the newly created world.

We’re the ones who get to tell the next part of the Jesus Story. We’re the disciples Jesus walks in on, showing us his hands and his side, urging us to believe, empowering us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and entrusting us with the choice to forgive or hold out forgiving.

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It’s the risen Christ living among us who is the story-giver. But we’re the story-tellers: the ones invited to breathe in and out this sacred story, to live it or not, to tell it or not, to stay inside these walls and keep it to ourselves or not.

May Christ visit us and gift us with new breath, with lungs and hearts and minds big enough to share what we know with all those around us, because rooms this small can never hold a story as big as this one.

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But as you share your story, there’s just one thing to remember: the Holy Spirit is all around you, so don’t forget to breathe.

Happy Easter!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Thomas’ Twin

A sermon based on Psalm 16 and John 20:19-31 preached on April 27th, 2014.

 Sermon audio

You could say that Thomas had a rough week. Never mind that we’ve given him a hard time for the last 2,000 years, can you imagine what Thomas underwent in just the 8 days after that first Easter?

John says that Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter evening. He stood among them in the locked room that they had been hiding in since Good Friday. Jesus said “Peace be with you” and then breathed the Holy Spirit into them.

But that was 8 days ago. And Thomas wasn’t there to see it. It had to be an alienating and lonesome 8 days for Thomas.

I wonder what must have happened when Thomas came back to the disciples’ hiding place that evening.

Let’s imagine you’re all Thomases and I’ll play the role of the disciples.

Let me set the stage a bit, first: Earlier that first Easter day, the 2 Mary’s came pounding on the door, wanting, needing to be let it. They were breathless. Their eyes were wide. They were trying to tell the disciples something. Something about a gardener. But the gardener was really Jesus. It was confusing. Their words hardly made any sense.

The women said they saw him. He was alive. The disciples scoffed. Surely the two Mary’s were mistaken.

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Later that same evening, before the sun went down you (you all are Thomas) wanted to run a couple errands; maybe it was your turn to go and fetch whatever you could find for dinner. You’re strolling back to where you and all the rest of the disciples had been barricaded for the last 3 days, and as you approach the hiding place you hear the rest of the disciples in a complete uproar.

You walk inside, wondering what’s going on.

 Thomas, we’ve seen the Lord! He was right here! You missed him. Sorry guy, but that was awesome!

No, not the door, Thomas, he didn’t walk through the door like you just did. We kid you not—he walked into this room through that wall, right there!

Thomas, he spoke to us! Thomas, he was alive, just like the women said he was! He was standing right here and—what did he say—oh, he breathed on us and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.

Thomas! Wow! We’re telling you… It. Was. Amazing!

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Tell me, Thomas, how do you feel? What’s running through your head right now? Let me know what you think.

Wait, what? Why don’t you believe us? This is no joke. We promise, we’re not pulling a fast one on you. We wouldn’t kid you about a thing like this!

You won’t believe unless…what? Until you see what? Until you do…what?

Really, Thomas?! You don’t mean that! That’s ridiculous.

Do you seriously not believe what we’re telling you? Thomas, you’re incredulous.

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Can you imagine feeling alone in a room jam-packed with 10 other disciples for an entire week—each of them swapping stories about what they saw and heard that Easter evening? It would have been annoying!

I imagine Thomas plastering on a fake smile as his fellow disciples told the tale to one another over and over again. But I can also imagine the heavy loneliness that he must have felt. We all know what it’s like to be left out of a story. We’ve all laughed at inside jokes that we were never inside of. We all know what it feels like to try to be a part of a conversation that we really don’t understand.

Poor Thomas had a rough week.

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Jesus had nicknames for all of his disciples—or at least his closest ones. He nicknamed Simeon “Peter” which means “Rock”. He called James and John “the Sons of Thunder”. Matthew was a tax collector, so Jesus dubbed him “Levi”, which means “to take”—proof that Jesus had a great sense of humor. James was called “Alpheus”—“learned”. Jesus gave Judas—not the betrayer but the other Judas—the nickname “Thaddeus”, which means “courage”.

Thomas’s nickname as we heard in this passage is “Didymus”: the twin.

We’re not quite sure why Jesus called Thomas the Twin. We aren’t told of a twin sibling. It could be that he and another disciple looked a lot alike—could it be that Jesus thought Thomas looked a bit like him.

But at this moment, Thomas didn’t feel so much like a twin. Right now, he felt quite alone in the world.

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I have to stick up for Thomas. All the rest of the disciples saw Jesus. Would any of them have believed had they not seen? I guess it’s possible, but it’s probably unlikely. So when Thomas demands to see Jesus before he believes, he’s not asking for anything more than what all the other disciples had already received: he’s asking for proof.

Who could blame him? I’d be incredulous and stubborn, also.

In this way, I am Thomas’ twin. And I wonder if you are, too.

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A very long week later, Jesus returns to visit the disciples once more. Thomas is now with them. Jesus knows about Thomas’ unbelief. He invites Thomas to touch his hands and side… notice, though, that nowhere in this story does it say that Thomas takes Jesus up on the offer. Thomas never touches Jesus. Thomas sees, and seeing seems to be more than enough for him.

Jesus says to Thomas,

No more disbelief, believe!

but I imagine those words aren’t just for Thomas. Those words were spoken to everyone in that room. After all, the disciples were still fearful. They were still holed up in that tiny room. Every disciple in that room needs to be woken up from their disbelief.

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It can be easily overlooked that the earliest confession of faith in the risen Christ comes from the man who most call Doubting Thomas.

After Thomas sees Jesus that second Sunday of Easter, he exclaims the words,

“My Lord and my God!”

Thomas’ words in that tiny room in Jerusalem now ring out for the whole word to hear!

But this story isn’t about Thomas. It isn’t about any of the disciples. This is a story about a God who comes to us—even when we’re hiding away in our locked and lonely rooms. Even when we’re too scared to speak up or step out. When we’re too frightened by what awaits us out there.

This is a story about a God who meets us where we are and shows himself to us—his hands and side. Who shows us his scars as if to say,

I know the pain that you know, I’ve experienced the same darkness you’re now living in, and I’m here with you.

Jesus walks into the spaces in which we feel stuck and says to us,

Peace be with you.

We belong to a God who knows what we need to see and offers us a way to see it.

Our faith as Christians is an incarnational faith. We are not called by God to put our trust in things like an enlightened soul or in some immaterial thing like future world peace. I dare say that we aren’t even called to put our trust in the afterlife. What we’re called to do is to put our trust in Jesus, the One who became just as human as we are even if he was just as divine as God is, who came close enough for Thomas to touch him. Close enough to his female disciples that they could wrap their arms around his feet that Easter morning. Who comes to us where we are, shows us what we need to see, and breathes his Holy Spirit into us. This is a story about the One who meets us in the very spaces of our unbelief and offers us a word of peace and grace.

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We come to worship on Sundays in hopes of seeing Jesus. We come to this space to be with others, to express our unbelief out loud, to wrestle out our fears, to engage our doubt, to ask “Why” questions, to remind each other of the One who we follow, the One who meets us here—where we are.

We bring what little amount of faith we have—whatever we can muster—and we also bring a truckload of doubt. But still we come, hoping that Jesus will somehow meet us here and speak a word of peace, to invite us to come closer to him so that we may believe and trust more fully.

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We don’t know why Thomas was called Didymus: “the Twin”. Maybe he had a biological twin who everybody forgot to mention. Maybe he looked like another disciple or maybe like Jesus himself. But, I’d like to think something different: We are all Thomas’ twin. We all look like him and act like him. We all need the same thing that he needed—to see something real—something we can touch if we need to.

Maybe we recognize that part in us that needs more to grab onto—that desperately desires to see the risen Lord in our midst. That needs to see before we can believe.

Ultimately, what we really want is to respond to Jesus’ presence among us with just as much joy as Thomas did. Then we too can exclaim,

My Lord and my God!

And in that way, why wouldn’t we all to become Thomas’ twin?

All praises to the One who meets us where we are—behind the closed doors of our hearts, who meets us in all the spaces in which we feel trapped. All praises to the One who refuses to leave us there—who gives us a word of peace and assurance. The One who breathes new life into us—the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen!