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.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
May 13, 2018
On Wednesday, members of one of our small groups and one of our Sunday school classes had a conversation with John Dominic Crossan from his home in Florida. (Zoom teleconferencing is so cool!) The Seekers group had read the book he wrote with Marcus Borg, The Last Week, and an adult class is reading Dom’s latest, Resurrecting Easter. And it was a treat to be able to ask questions of one of the world’s pre-eminent New Testament scholars.
Today’s scripture reading comes at the end of what we would call Maundy Thursday and before Good Friday. It happens just before Judas’s betrayal and Jesus’ arrest. Dom said that the thing that makes John’s gospel different is that the character of Jesus calls all the shots and controls everything that is going on. None of the events happen to him…they happen because he wills them.
In the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that he is “deeply grieved” and offers the tortured prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asks God to “remove the cup from me” and avoid crucifixion, which Jesus says is what he wants. It’s pretty clear in the synoptic gospels that Jesus does not want to go to the cross. But in John’s gospel, there is no heart-rending prayer in Gethsemane; Jesus is in control of his fate.
I have to tell you that my first reaction when I read today’s scripture was that John’s Jesus is incredibly verbose! Today’s scripture is part of a prayer, but not the kind of prayer we hear from the synoptic Jesus…these are not the words of a “needy petitioner, but the divine revealer and there the prayer moves over into being an address, admonition, consolation, and prophecy.”
John’s Jesus frequently mentions “the world,” and he has a love-hate relationship. The Greek word in the New Testament is cosmos, and it means God’s world as well as the created universe…but it means something else, too. (Stay tuned for that!) On the one hand, John writes that “God so loved the world…that he gave his only-begotten Son.” And he also says in today’s scripture that “they do not belong to the world” and two chapters earlier, John’s Jesus says, “I have chosen you out of the world–therefore the world hates you,” but at the same time he says of his disciples, “I have sent them into the world.”
For John the created universe is all good. However, the world of human civilization is pretty warped. John earlier says that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Speaking personally, I love the world. I love creation and the splendor we can see in it. I love the diversity of people and cultures that inhabit it. I love the amazing creatures that inhabit it (except for the Ebola virus, rattle snakes, and great white sharks). I love the bodily experiences we can get by living in the world. But I also know that the world is broken place…not because of nature, but because of us: because of humanity.
Did you all read the news this week? Mr. Trump revoked US participation in the nuclear arms agreement with Iran. Israel launched a massive missile strike in Syria. The Saudi foreign minister said that his nation will build nukes if the Iranians do. John McCain is urging fellow senators not to confirm Gina Haspel as CIA director because of her presumed endorsement of torture. Trump’s lawyer got $1.2 million from Novartis after he promised White House access to the pharmaceutical giant. Donald Trump ended protections for 300,000 Central American and Haitian living in the U.S. New York’s attorney general resigned after accusations of abuse from four women. The attorney general of the U.S. vowed to split up immigrant families. The NRA selected Ollie North as their new president. North was convicted in 1989 for obstructing justice, mutilating government documents and taking an illegal gratuity in connection with the Iran-Contra Scandal.
That was just last week, folks. If you think “the world” is all peaches and cream, I’d ask you to reassess your appraisal.
Jesus lived in a world that was dominated by empire…for Jesus it was the Roman Empire. It wasn’t that the people who ran the Empire were all awful, greedy, immoral, selfish individuals -– they weren’t. It is simply that the nature of empire is fall back on the human condition for its vision of the world. It is a vision of winners vs. losers, rich vs. poor, oppressor vs. the underling, economic domination vs. economic justice, slave owners vs. enslaved, the self-righteous vs. truly just, the proud vs. the humble, the landed vs. the landless, the dominant sex vs. the “inferior” sex, the privileged vs. the deprived. It is based on scarcity…the mistaken idea that there isn’t enough for everyone, so I’m going to grab what I can.
Where do you see the signs of empire today? I’m quite sure that Vladimir Putin has fantasy-filled dreams of restoring Russia to its former grandeur…he started with Crimea and Ukraine four years ago. I imagine that President Xi Jinping of China, now that he has swept aside the nuisance of term limits, has visions of even greater expansion of China’s reach into Africa and the developing world as a dominant economic player.
And what about us? The Romans in Jesus’ day had military outposts along the Rhine and the Danube, out to the Atlantic coasts of Spain and France, and they had troops stationed in Africa down to the Sahara. And of course, they occupied the Jewish homeland and Egypt. We have bases in Afghanistan, Australia, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, Djibouti, Greece, Israel, Italy, Germany, Greenland, Japan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Niger, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Syria, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. And we spend a lot to support our military. In fact, we spend more than the next seven countries combined -– that’s more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the UK, and Japan combined. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, I’m just saying that it is. What do we say about a nation whose leader who cuts taxes for the rich, increases military spending, and who wants to pay for part of the huge deficit spending it causes by getting rid of health coverage for needy children?
I think the case can be made that we human beings tend to create empires when we want something that someone else has, whether it is land, wealth, natural resources, political or military influence. The Chinese have appeared in Africa with the promise of development aid and economic prosperity, and their influence is massive, but their motives are not egalitarian. And it isn’t too far off from what the U.S. has done in Central and South America since the Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s.
Perhaps this litany has made you wonder why God so loved the world. I know that the world looks good here in Fort Collins. It looks good to those of us who have good jobs, a roof over our heads, time to go on vacation, some money saved for retirement, enough to pay our own student loans and enough to help our kids with college costs. But how ever beautiful our bubble, Fort Collins is not the whole world. Is the world such a benign place? Maybe that litany makes you think that God’s world actually needs saving.
If you see Jesus as an opponent of empire and a proclaimer of an alternative vision of a commonwealth of righteousness, peace, and economic justice, then perhaps the prayer you heard in today’s scripture is an anti-imperial prayer. See if this replacement of “world” with “empire” makes sense: “They do not belong to the empire, just as I do not belong to the empire…As you have sent me into the empire, so I have sent them into the empire.” The world that John’s Jesus talks about is the world of empire. The world of injustice. The world of dog-eat-dog. And the kingdom of God provides the only vital and viable alternative vision to those elements of the “normal” course of human civilization.
You and I don’t have to be part of that imperial world…Jesus has invited us to be part of the liberating reign of God. It takes time; progress is slow and often takes two steps forward and one step back, but don’t give up hope. You and I probably won’t be here to see the kingdom come into its fullness, and that’s why we have the church, which will continue to work for the reign of God long after you and I are gone.
I close with the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the guiding lights of the UCC in the 20th century:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
The world needs saving. The world needs us working together. So may you keep hope, keep faith, and keep love. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Mark 14.36, cf. Luke 22.42, Matthew 26.38-39
 Ernst Käsemann, quoted in Gerald Sloyan, John. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988) p. 196.
 John 3.17
 cf. John 17.16 &18
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.
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