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John 20:19 – 31 Holding On with the Help of Others Until We Can See the Big Picture

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:58 pm on Sunday, April 23, 2017

Jeff and Ryan

A sermon preached April 23rd, 2017 — the Second Sunday in Easter — based upon John 20:19 – 31.

I’ve mentioned in the past that one of my favorite authors is a wise old woman named Rachel Naomi Remen.  Rachel overcame a chronic illness — Crohn’s disease — that doctors told her would take her life by the age of  40.  She was determined to become a medical doctor, which she succeeded in becoming, but midway through her career, having become aware of what might be called the spiritual dimension of healing, she shifted her focus to counseling patients with life threatening disease, and working with doctors to recognize the mysterious dimensions of healing that aren’t given much attention in medical school.  She has written two books that are a collection of little stories with reflections that are some of my favorite books, and I want to begin this morning by telling a little story recorded in “Kitchen Table Wisdom” that was shared by a doctor she calls Tim at one of the conferences she holds for medical practitioners.

He said that his father had been diagnosed early on with Alzheimer’s disease, by early I mean when Tim was just a young boy.

Rachel writes, “Despite the devoted care of Tim’s mother, he had slowly deteriorated until he had become a sort of walking vegetable.  He was unable to speak and was fed, clothed, and cared for as if he were a very young child.  As Tim and his brother grew older, they would stay with their father for brief periods of time while their mother took care of the needs of the household.  One Sunday, while she was out doing the shopping, the boys, then fifteen and seventeen, watched football as their father sat nearby in a chair.  Suddenly, he slumped forward and fell to the floor.  Both sons realized immediately that something was terribly wrong.  His color was gray and his breath uneven and rasping.  Frightened, Tim’s older brother told him to call 911.  Before he could respond, a voice he had not heard in years, a voice he could barely remember, interrupted.  “Don’t call 911, son.  Tell your mother that I love her.  Tell her that I am all right.”  And Tim’s father died.

Tim, a cardiologist, looked around the room at the group of doctors mesmerized by this story.  “Because he died unexpectedly at home, the law required that we have an autopsy,” he told us quietly.  “My father’s brain was almost entirely destroyed by this disease.  For many years, I have asked, ‘Who spoke?’  I have never found even the slightest help from any medical textbook.  I am no closer to knowing this now than I was then, but carrying this question with me reminds me of something important, something I do not want to forget.  Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.”

I begin with this story because when we speak of the Resurrection, what we are speaking of is a mystery – not something that can be explained, only witnessed.

One of the peculiarities of the story we just heard is the mystery of Jesus’ resurrected body. He has a body that can be touched, and yet it is also a body that is capable, as apparently it did in this morning’s two appearances, of passing through walls.  At certain moments he is easily recognized, at others not so at first, as was the case last week in the story with Mary Magdalene.

In 1Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul speaks of this mystery when he writes of how in this life we possess a physical body, made of dust, subject to decay, but in death, our bodies are like seeds planted in the earth, which God raises up with new, spiritual bodies that are truly whole and can not die.

For the Jews from whom we inherit our faith, there is no true life except for “bodily” life.  The Jews in Jesus’ day seemed to have believed in what are referred to as “ghosts” – disembodied “spirits”— but from their point of view, being a “ghost” was a truly pathetic form of existence.  What kind of life is that?  To be alive is to have a body — one that can experience the goodness of creation.

Even the notion we are familiar with of the “immortal soul” made no sense to the Jews.  The “immortal soul” is a notion from Greek philosophy, not the ancient Hebrew faith.  To be alive, to be a person, was to inhabit a body.

It seems to me that the mysterious story that the doctor told of his father’s death points towards this mystery of what Paul called the “spiritual body.”  The story the doctor tells suggests that as his father came to the moment of his death, he was transitioning from his physical body with it’s decaying brain cells into his spiritual body, and it was his dad who had begun to inhabit his spiritual body that spoke to him — the dad that was finally being made truly whole — expressing his love for their mother, and his assurance that in death he truly was well.

I’ve heard other stories like this – and perhaps some of you could tell similar stories – of people holding vigil at the bedside of someone they love, when suddenly, just before the loved one died, they woke up from what had appeared to be a coma, opened their eyes, and with a lucidity they had not recently possessed spoke clearly, perhaps words expressing their love for you, or words describing what they were seeing from the realm of what we call “heaven”.

If you listen carefully to how John described Jesus’ appearance to those frightened disciples huddled together behind locked doors, there seems to be a moment of stunned silence when the disciples aren’t sure what it is they are seeing as Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.”  Is this some kind of ghost?

So John adds this:  “After (Jesus) said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” It was as if Jesus were saying, “look – see — I really do have a body.  It’s really me, not just a ghost.”

One of the striking details of the story is that the marks of the crucifixion remain on the spiritual body of Jesus.  In showing them his hands and his side, he is showing the disciples (and later Thomas) the wounds where the nails pierced his hands, and the wound where the spear pierced his side.

This might seem odd – shouldn’t the resurrection body be whole, with all the wounds taken away?

And yet, in this case, the wounds have now become something beautiful.  Not only are they the proof that this is the same Jesus that they loved before — they are also signs of his love for them – reminders of his willingness to suffer and die on their behalf.

What was once horrific, has now become something beautiful.

So, for whatever reason, the disciple Thomas wasn’t present in that upper room when Jesus first appeared Easter night to his disciples.  The other disciples tell him what they have seen, but he won’t believe them, and who can blame him?

Thomas truly loved Jesus, and he is in the midst of what we might now call post traumatic stress disorder.  The horror of the wounds of Jesus that led to his death are still emblazoned in his mind, and it is going to take more than his friends telling him he no longer needs to be so traumatized for him to move from death to life.

Just a quick observation: there is room in the circle of the disciples’ fellowship for Thomas, even though he won’t believe what they believe.  They don’t tell him, “Oh, you won’t believe what we believe?  Then get out of here!”  No, he is fully welcomed in their fellowship.  They love him exactly where he is.  They don’t require him to be where they are on their journey.

Time passes.  Eight days.  Once more the disciples are together, and this time Thomas is with them.   And mysteriously Jesus appears once more to give Thomas what he needs – to move him from his state of trauma to the peace of faith.

One of my “go to” passages in the Bible is 1Corinthians 13, where the Apostle Paul talks about love being the most important thing — the only thing that never ends.  At the end of that chapter Paul writes these words:  “For we know only in part (that is in the present moment of this journey through life) but when the complete comes (that is, when we reach the end of our life) the partial will come to an end… For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” (In those days, mirrors weren’t what they are today.  They were just a polished piece of metal.  You looked into what they called mirrors and you could see only the dimmest reflection of your face) but then (again, when we reach the end of our lives and stand before God) we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

It is impossible to grasp the full meaning of our lives in any given moment along the way.  We cannot see “the big picture” – how the parts all fit together, like a tapestry of seemingly ill-fitting pieces which, when woven together create something extraordinarily beautiful.

When the other disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord alive again, he isn’t there yet.  He sees not the “big picture,” but only the “smaller picture”, the one that begins and ends with the torture and death of the man he has loved and devoted his life to.

But sometimes in the course of our journey we reach a moment when we look back on where we’ve come from, and see a meaning we couldn’t grasp at the time.

(Another of Rachel’s stories that often refer to is of the middle aged woman who as a teenager had suffered through an eating disorder.  Little was understood in those days regarding this illness, and she remembers thinking that she wished she could meet someone who had gone through what she was suffering and made it to the other side.

She began attending a support group of mostly young, very thin women.  She said very little in the group, only that she had once suffered the same illness.  Mostly she just listened.  She was taken aback when at the end of a meeting a young woman came up to her with tears in her eyes and thanked her for being a part of the group.  She felt embarrassed – she didn’t even know the girl’s name and couldn’t remember having an individual interaction with her.  It was only later, with a profound sense of wonder that she realized:  “I have become the person I needed to meet.”

This past week I was given a moment to grasp something more of the big picture of my life.  I had the opportunity to go back to the place where I spent my first seven years in ministry after I graduated from seminary — two little country churches out in Hunterdon County. I was invited back by the family and the present pastor of a lovely woman named Ethel who had died after 95 years of life to share in the officiating of her funeral.

There had been a part of me that over the 28 years since I had left those churches that had been reluctant to return.  My seven years there were some of the most difficult of my life – not because of my congregations – but because of my own personal inner turmoil. When I arrived I had so wanted to feel like a real grown up, like I had it all together – but I didn’t have it all together, and often I felt like I was play acting – pretending to be what I thought a pastor was supposed to look like.

I’d never lived out in the country, and I arrived there single and quite lonely, and three years into my tenure my loneliness led me to enter an ill-conceived marriage after a courtship of just six month.  The whole community had gathered to pack one of the little country churches to celebrate the wedding.  Nineteen months after the wedding I was blessed by the birth of Andrew, my beloved first-born child, but just eight months after his birth my wife moved out of the parsonage, with the separation eventually leading to a divorce.

My parents had gotten divorced, and with some arrogance I had been determined that I would never do the same.  “Love… is not arrogant,” said the Apostle Paul, and I was humbled in my time out there in the country, and being humbled isn’t fun.

When the possibility arose in my mind that my marriage would end in divorce, the thought that arose alongside was that such an outcome would mean the end of my ministry — that it would expose me as a fraud and envelop me in shame.

For quite some time as my marriage deteriorated I had been quietly withdrawing from people.  But as the separation came to pass, people like Ethel reached out to me with unconditional love, and also practical help and support as I spent a great deal of time parenting my very young son, an exhausting and consuming task in itself.  I opened up to people, and loved in my brokenness, I experienced for the first time the true meaning of grace.

This is who you got 28 years ago when I arrived here.  I was grateful to move on – to start a new chapter so to speak.  And to a large extent I had avoided returning there, because I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain I experienced there.

As the years have passed, doubts I had about my vocation to be a pastor gave way to a deep sense of confidence as I grew into  my calling.  I am no longer a child trying to play a part, but a pastor with frailties easily acknowledged trusting in the power of God’s grace revealed in the crucified and risen Christ to work through my weaknesses.  I have become the pastor I needed when I was trying to play act the role of pastor.

So I spent Tuesday, which if you recall was an exquisitely beautiful day, back in the country community where I spent those painful seven years.  As I took in the beauty of the countryside, I also came to recognize something beautiful in the wounds I had endured in my time there. I saw a bit of the bigger picture of my life – the larger view that was pretty hard to see when I was back in the thick of it.   I sensed that as hard as that time was for me, it was an essential part of my journey; a time of humbling that allowed me to discover the true nature of my calling.

Sabitha interviewed Amy Gripp and I appreciated in the write up how Amy described my ministry.  “Jeff doesn’t preach at us; rather, he walks beside us.”  I like that. I know that my ministry is not based upon my somehow achieving a place above you on some moral ladder.  I am just another sinner, just like you, saved by grace. We’re in this together.

So we all know something of the crucifixion of Jesus in the crosses we are called to bear in this life, and hopefully, if we can hang in there, put one foot in front of another, walking by faith when we can’t see the signs of God’s grace, or letting others have faith for us when our faith seems to falters, we reach a day when we realize that it is the resurrection rather than the crucifixion that is the deeper reality.

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