Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," to trust in resurrection.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That would be us, folks! We are included in the generation that John was writing to and the 2000 years of generations since .... folks who had heard the story and yet not seen with their own eyes and are called to believe. Those who trust the story with their whole hearts and base their lives upon God’s resurrection power. In the New Testament belief is synonymous with trust.
As 21st century folks we resonate with poor old Thomas, don’t we? Thomas had a hard time trusting. Doubting Thomas who has gotten a bad rap for doing something that those of us in the 21st century find natural. – wanting to see for himself, get the facts, the first hand experience. He is just trying to sort out false news from truth. And his brain was reacting like our brains still react under crisis and stress or shock and grief in the 21st century. We jump to the most manageable story. The most concrete....at least at the moment .... so we know whether we need to go into fight or flight...What is real? How can that be real? Won’t believe it till I see it!
Have you ever prayed, “God, just give me a sign SO obvious that I can’t miss it! Let me know what is real so I know what to do?” If so, you understand Thomas.
We resonate with Thomas and his desire to know for himself.
And, like Thomas, we forget what Jesus has just given the disciples in his appearance on that first Easter evening as he appeared to them even through doors locked in fear. He gave them the power to trust through the Holy Spirit and through community. He breathed on them the Holy Spirit just as the Creator God breathed on the unformed waters of creation in the Genesis creation story. This holy, transformational breath creates form out of void. Community out of randomness.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus. And then that odd statement. “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Which has often in the history of Christendom has been interpreted to give authority to hierarchy to include or exclude. But I think the implications are much deeper for Christian community....I think Jesus’s statements reveal the true power of community. What I hear is that in community we as disciples have the power to be create a place of compassion where forgiveness is freely given or a place of rigidity where hurts are retained and continue to damage the fabric of life together. Good community is a place where there are boundaries and consequences for hurtful actions....but these are based in compassion and forgiveness and transforming love rather than punitive retribution.
Forgiveness creates community among difference. We may be very different from one another and misunderstand one another and take offense even. But with forgiveness we stay in community....with the holy spirit of forgiveness we must listen across the differences and divides. We stay with the process of growth. When we reject forgiveness...when we retain the sins and withhold forgiveness, community is damaged if not destroyed. Could Jesus’ statement about retaining sins be a warning....this will not serve you as community? You have great power in community. Forgive or hold on, retain?
I find it insightful that the next scene after Jesus words is Thomas rejecting the testimony of the community. And what is their response to him? The implication is that he stays within the community despite his rejection of their testimony of good news. Which could have stirred up on conflict and ill feelings. Yet Thomas is still part of them....was there forgiveness of harsh words, understanding despite difference?
He is still with them and so has the opportunity to experience the transforming grace of Jesus’ presence. And to be transformed himself.
Perhaps Thomas’s mistake is not doubting the extraordinary and shocking news of the resurrection. But instead the misstep came in not trusting the witness of the Spirit-filled community that loved him. Doubting and questioning is not bad...in fact they can lead us to new understanding. And the community of the Body of Christ holds this transforming power. We need a community in which to ask the questions, to kick against the incomprehensible. A community steeped in the breath of God, filled with the Holy Spirit. A community of compassion and courage, of forgiveness and unconditional love, of strength and boldness and tenderness.
In such a community we can be in crisis and grief and express our doubts, our despair. And we can lean on the faith of the community when we feel we have no faith of our own. Not the doctrine, but the living faith of the community. We can trust the prayers, the songs, the sacraments, the words of testimony, both contemporary and in ancient scripture, when we can no longer trust our own reactions. And eventually we will find we are led to the presence of God that astounds and heals us. I believe this is what happens in the story of poor old, unjustly maligned Thomas...who was doing his best to be faithful. In God’s holy community, Jesus gave us all the grace of transformation as we each struggle with seeing for ourselves even as we learn to trust the power of the community who has not seen and yet has come to believe.
So I finish with questions for us in this Body of Christ. Are we, as the community of Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, fully receiving the Holy Spirit into our midst and embracing God’s compassion, forgiveness, courage and love for us all? Are we fully receiving the Spirit into each of our individual lives so that we may offer these gifts of the Spirit to one another and to all who come through our doors and to all whom we meet? Will we hold the space of Spirit for each other and for the world in times of belief and dis-belief. Will we hold a space where utter despair can held along with utter joy as we trust the presence of the Risen Christ in God’s Holy community of faith?
Think on these things as you worship today and walk with the Risen Christ in the coming week.
Amen. And Amen.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
The images that are left in my mind following this week are different than they are most years during Holy Week. Normally, I would have images of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the mock trial and beating at the hands of Pilate, the crucifixion by the forces of Empire.
And to be sure, those images were present with me as we walked from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday. But this year there were other images as well. Images of fire enveloping the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, flames licking the 19th century spire before it fell, spreading the fire along the roof covering the nave, and ultimately collapsing in on itself.
President Emmanuel Macron has promised that Notre Dame will be restored in the next five years, which is probably optimistic, though the moneyed families of France seem to be willing to part with millions to make it happen.
The fire at Notre Dame, apparently accidental, is manifestly different than the torching of African-American churches in Louisiana, which is being considered arson and a hate crime; and thankfully, money is flowing in there, too, to help rebuild.
So, in the course of this Holy Week, I was thinking about Notre Dame as an icon for Christianity as a whole. It made me wonder whether Christianity will go through its own version of Holy Week and Good Friday, dying back before it can emerge as a resurrected faith.
For 2,000 years the church universal has gone through repeated times of decline, retrenchment, and downfall, only to re-emerge in a new form. French Catholicism has been moribund for decades, and who knows whether the process of rebuilding Notre Dame will help the faith rise from the ashes…and not just the building. Certainly, stranger things have happened.
The church in our nation, too, is coming to a crossroads. The mainline church has been in decline throughout my lifetime, and though you wouldn’t know if from Plymouth’s experience, that regression has accelerated dramatically in recent years. And it isn’t just mainline Protestantism: Evangelical churches are also in decline, and the Roman Catholic church continues to be shaken to its foundations by the continuing revelation of clergy sexual-abuse scandals.
I wonder if American Christianity needs to experience a type of death in order to come into new life. That may be what is already happening nationally, and though you may not see it, we are not immune from this experience this in Fort Collins.
One thing I do know is that you can’t really understand the meaning of Easter Sunday resurrection without walking through the dark shadows of Holy Week and into the valley of the shadow of death on Good Friday. You can’t experience new life without first experiencing death. That may be where American Christianity finds itself today.
A favorite hymn in our church, “In the Midst of New Dimensions,” contains this line: “Should the threats of dire predictions cause us to withdraw in pain, may your blazing phoenix spirit resurrect the church again.” The Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the church itself, may indeed rise from the ashes.
But the cycle of death and new life isn’t just a sociological paradigm, it’s at play in each of our lives.
As we walk through life, we’ve all experienced the “small deaths.” When we are young, the first loss we experience may be that of a beloved pet or a dear grandparent. As teenagers, we may encounter a broken heart with the end of a first relationship. And then as we enter adulthood, we are introduced to a whole new range of losses: being fired from a job we love, the death of a parent, a divorce. And as we mature further, we are bound to encounter the hard diagnosis delivered by a physician, the death of friends and family, and the loss of physical and cerebral ability. Life doesn’t get easier as these losses begin to occur even more frequently. Ultimately, each of us will say goodbye to this world as we die into the next.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote earlier than any of the gospel writers, said that every day, we are dying and rising with Christ. “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” Paul writes to the church in Rome, “so we too might walk in newness of life.” That newness of life is here and now…not just in the life beyond physical death.
In other words, death is never God’s final word with us. There is still more life to come.
Throughout our lives, there are forces around us that entomb us, not just through the little deaths I’ve described, but through the macro-events in the world. And those death-dealing forces, like greed, violence, self-centeredness, and fear can seal the tomb over us if we let them…and there are moments when that happens to each of us. But death is never God’s final word with us.
Somebody has to roll the stone away from the tomb with us, because none of us can budge those huge boulders on our own. The large stones of fear can keep us locked in a sepulcher of our own making. They can lead us into ways of thinking and of being that feel anything but life-giving. So, who will help us roll the stone away?
One of the essential functions of a church community is to be a group of stone-rollers. There are people in this congregation who not only have emerged from the valley of the shadow of death, but who are willing to lend a hand in rolling away the stone that is holding others in death’s dark bond. I see stones rolled away when a lesbian couple, turned away by others, finds a church home that loves them for who they are. I see stones rolled away when we open our building to 12-step meetings. I see stones rolled away when a grieving family is surrounded by the love and support of true intergenerational community. I see stones rolled away when a member’s fear dissipates because of a visit and a prayer before surgery. I see stones rolled away when our volunteers find ways to keep people from becoming homeless. There are countless ways that the people who form Plymouth help to roll the stone away, not just for people within our congregation, but in the community at large.
And so, this is an invitation to resurrection: I welcome you to become part of the movement that Jesus started and that continued after his crucifixion. I invite you to be part of this great sea wave of resurrection that sweeps people up together to become part of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. I invite you to find your place of resurrection here at Plymouth, where you can be part of a community of belonging, where you can deepen your own spiritual journey while helping to roll stones away for somebody else.
There isn’t much in the news these days about hope or new life or new beginnings. Our nation is in a shadowy time…but death is never God’s final word.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who lived through “the Troubles,” which, ironically, were settled by an agreement called The Good Friday Accord, wrote these lines:
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
History says, ‘Don’t hope on this side of the grave,’
but then, once in a lifetime,
the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So, hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.
That’s a promise of new life as well. It can be ours as a nation and as a world. It can be ours as a community of hope and faith and love and new life. It can be yours as someone who is God’s beloved. Death is never God’s final word.
That word — God’s ultimate word — is love.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Romans 6.4
 Seamus Heaney, from “The Cure at Troy.”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
by Anne Thompson
Images we see --
black churches in hateful flames,
Notre Dame ablaze
dims the green spring grass.
Can we rise up from ashes?
comes to all of us --
the common lot in all life.
Every day we die.
Death dealing forces
can seal the tomb over us.
Roll the stone away?
Unseal our grief tombs?
We can be the stone rollers,
Roll the stone away
for those who are ill and weak,
for those who need food.
Hope for a sea change
believing in miracles,
In love and new life.
What is it you seek?
Death is not the final word.
Love is ultimate.
Help us bring the spring
after the winter darkness
which nurtured new life.
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