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.

When God Takes Over

A sermon based on Joshua 5:9-12 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 preached on March 6th, 2016

Sermon audio

The summer after I graduated high school, I went with my church’s youth group to Montreat for my 4th and final Youth Conference. We just heard Tatum tell us about her time there. I’m so happy that time spent at that conference, and in the thin spaces up on top of the mountains of Western North Carolina, is still changing hearts and lives. Part of the Montreat experience is getting to know other people your age in small groups.

So, there I was, gathered with my small group—about 30 of us—in a room. It was a sunny day with a nice cool mountain breeze blowing, so we had an exterior door propped open to let mother nature in, and on in comes a butterfly. But instead of scurrying in random directions, it flies around the periphery of our room, high above us, instantly capturing everyone’s attention. Ever so slowly and carefully, the butterfly dances its way around the room, flying overtop of each one of the small circles that we were congregated in, almost like it was there to deliver a message to each one of them. And only when it made its way around the entire room did it fly out the same door it came in. Our entire group was silent. What we saw could not have been some sort of random mistake of nature—some haphazard coincidence. Our small group leader broke the silence and said,

You won’t believe it, but for the last 3 weeks, a butterfly has come into this room and has done the exact same thing each time.

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Do you know how a butterfly is made?

A caterpillar somehow knows when it’s time to try something new. It climbs a tree to hook itself to the bottom of a leaf and begins to turn its own skin into a chrysalis, basically turning its body inside out, basically destroying its old self and melting down, becoming nothing more that an ooze—something that’s neither looks like caterpillar or butterfly. And it’s from that ooze—that nothingness—that some brand new creature begins to take shape. And in the span of 7 to 10 days, a butterfly is hatched. In order to become the next version of itself, the caterpillar gives up its old way of being, somehow knowing that giving itself up leads to new life.

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It’s the mysterious and wondrous transformation from caterpillar to butterfly that will help us understand what Paul is talking about here in 2 Corinthians. Paul says that we are being invited into a new creation. A new way of being. We can participate in it if we want to, but the catch is that becoming a part of the new creation means ditching everything we’re used to.

See, we’re used to the old creation. The old creation, Paul says, sees things only by human standards. In the old creation, it’s those human standards that are of utmost importance. Human standards tell us that there are divisions out there that are real and meaningful. That the lines we draw and the walls—either physical or metaphorical—that we put up to keep everyone who’s unlike us on their own side, are real and important.

That old creation says there’s Us and then there’s Them. Jew and Greek. Slave and Free. Black and White. Male and Female. Gay and Straight. Rich and Poor. Muslim and Christian. We know, for each of them, which ones are lifted up as the ideal and which ones are struck down and scoffed upon by this way of seeing. By all human standards, we know which ones have more power and say-so than the other. And in a world that exists in, functions under, is fueled by, and maybe even celebrates, these clear divisions between Us and Them, we Christians, we the people who follow Jesus, are to reject all of it. We’re to reject all of it because any notion that we’re supposed to separate ourselves from those who don’t look like us, believe like us, love like us, live like us, is an old notion, it’s old news it’s a worn out way of being, a part of the old creation, and see, something new has arrived! With Christ, there is a new creation, a new way of being, a new way to see. And in this new creation, none of those distinctions matter. Why? Because Christ’s love is greater than any of them.

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The world though, the world is steeped in the old order. We are exceedingly aware of it right now in our current political climate. Actually, it seems like the dividing lines of the old order are becoming bolder than ever before. We’re building bigger walls to keep each other on their respective sides.

But this passage says that all those political and social distinctions that we’ve been indoctrinated into are falsehoods of the old order. They rope us in real good, though, don’t they? We’re championing our own side like never before. But all of it, every single bit of it, is a lie told to us by people who really love the way the old world works—who have no notion at all that Christ has already come and given us a new way of being in and for the world. They either don’t know a new way exists, or they just simply refuse to see it, or maybe it benefits them to keep the lies of the old order going strong.

But look,

Paul says,

the old things have gone away; see, new things have arrived.

We need new eyes to see, and transformed minds and hearts to know, that this new way of being is here and available to us. This new creation Paul is telling us about and inviting us into is called the Kingdom of God. This isn’t John Lennon dreaming of pie in the sky notions of the world living as one, this is Gospel. It’s a real thing, a completely different way to see ourselves and each other. One where the world’s categories melt away. One where we become reconciled to one another.

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Let’s stop there with the word reconciliation. Reconciliation is big word with a simple meaning, but it’s awfully hard for us to live into. Reconciliation happens when the distinction between Us and Them disappears, when the walls come down, when the distance between the two collapses, the fear between us floats away into thin air. It happens when we start looking into each other’s eyes and start sharing our stories with one another, so that we can better understand our differences. It’s not that all of our differences disappear. It’s just simply that our differences cease to threaten each other.

There’s only one way to be reconciled to each other, and that’s to regard our neighbors as we would like to be regarded ourselves—with dignity and respect. That’s easier said than done, I realize. Maybe the Charter for Compassion founder Karen Armstrong’s way of saying it is easier:

Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you.

Baby steps.

If we were reconciled to each other, we who have homes would be offended by homelessness in our community, in fact there would be no homeless; we who have full bellies would be offended by hunger in our neighborhood, in fact there would be no hunger in our neighborhood. And on and on the examples go. You get the idea. That’s what it would be like to live as a part of the new creation. All those old dividing lines erased. All those walls torn down. Understanding instead of fear. Taking care of each other instead of fending for yourself.

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In our passage from Joshua this morning, we have this crazy story of a mysterious divine presence visiting the people of Israel as they are encamped in Gilgal. At this point, the people of Israel are a war-torn nation. All they know is fight. All they see around them are enemies. Whoever you are, you’re either you’re with them or you’re against them. This man, the text says, is from God and he has a sword. Joshua approaches this man and asks him,

Are you on our side or that of our enemies?

What a timeless duality that is! A false dichotomy. This all happened 3,000 years ago, but we’re still such a war-drunk people that we can’t see why that’s a shortsighted question. This divine presence answers:

Neither. I’m not on your side. I’m not on their side.

See, when God shows up, He doesn’t take sides. When God shows up, He takes over! And when God takes over, swords drop to the ground. Our old way of Us and Them is exposed for the ridiculous and destructive thing that it is, and just like Joshua, our eyes are open to a third way. There’s three sides to every bible story: How we see things. How those people over there see things, and then there’s how God sees things.

Our vocation as followers of Christ is to wake up to that Third Way—that new-world way of seeing everything, to work our hardest, to pray our best words, so that those distances and divisions of the old-world way would one day collapse for good, that the walls and the wars between us would crumble into nothing. That our swords would once again be beaten back into plough shares. That through our work as Christians in the world, all those old worn out ways of being might melt down to nothing, and our world might be transformed into something entirely new. Because that’s what happens when God takes over.

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

Alleluia! Amen.