Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

***EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an emergency with the scheduled author, we are re-posting the featured essay from 2016.***

Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Doubting Thomas: a tale of skepticism, suspicion, and contempt—or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe. In reality, we’ve gotten far more mileage out of the label “doubting Thomas” than we have from the meaning of the story itself. And yet, every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear this story. In fact, this is one of the few passages in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that never changes. Every year, we journey through Lent and Holy Week, arriving at Easter Sunday with an interchangeable combination of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as our guides with John occasionally appearing along the way. But on this and every Second Sunday of Easter, we always hear from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel.

There is much fertile ground for preaching and teaching this text by following the trope of doubt—both in the text and in our lives. On closer reading, it becomes clear that Thomas’s doubt is not the exception, but the rule. Much the same is true in our own lives of faith. We all have moments—some longer than others—of doubt. It is important to note that Jesus never condemns or rebukes Thomas for his doubt and indeed, lovingly reminds both Thomas and us, “Do not doubt, but believe (John 20:27).” Preachers and teachers who follow this exegetical path will also find several good commentaries and other resources, such as the Feasting on the Word commentary series, or through several of the helpful resources provided weekly by TextWeek.com (oh, and an unsolicited plug: if you don’t know about the wonderful weekly preaching and teaching resources provided by The Text This Week, do yourself a favor and check them out!)

For my part, however, I find flowing from this passage a different but no less pervasive aspect of human identity being brought to bear: blame.

Although there are no overt mentions of the disciples blaming Thomas for failing to believe, this passage has been preached and taught as an exercise in blaming the “other” in innumerable ways. As early as the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE, St. John Chrysostom wrote that Thomas “is held to blame” for his unbelief at the Apostles’ assertion that they had seen the Risen Lord.[1] Artwork dating to the early 6th century also portrays Thomas as an obstinate, incorrigible doubter. The famous “Incredulity of Saint Thomas” is a fixture among the mosaics at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

The Patristic authors and classical artists aren’t alone in their contempt for Thomas. History is teeming with scores of (often bloody) examples of Christians rushing to position ourselves for Jesus and against anyone or anything we decide is against Jesus. And in Thomas’s case, doubting Jesus is just close enough to being against Jesus to wind up with a less-than-glamorous remembrance.

We know this “us versus them” dynamic all-too-well. If we can assign blame to the “other” political party or the “other” religious sect or the “other” ideology, then we can create for ourselves a cozy (albeit false) blanket of security, thinking ourselves immune from whatever interpersonal or religious or societal ills we’ve hocked at our enemies.

The Buddhist mystic and author Pema Chödrön writes eloquently and provocatively about our need to blame others in her book, When Things Fall Apart:

We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things that we don’t like about our associates or our society. It is a very common, ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better. Blame others… Blaming is a way to protect your heart, trying to protect what is soft and open and tender in yourself. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.[2]

Was Thomas the only person to doubt Jesus’ resurrection? Of course not. In fact, everyone doubted it! Was Thomas lacking in moral fortitude? Hardly. After all, Thomas’s affirmation of the Resurrected Christ as “My Lord and my God” is perhaps the most powerful statement of faith among any of the disciples. No, Thomas is our scapegoat; he’s our “fall guy.” And like it or not, we’ve all met him, and some of us know him well.

Thomas is the embodiment of the “other” that we blame for the problems facing our religions and our societies. Thomas is the one we saddle with blame so we can protect our hearts from vulnerability, from pain, and perhaps even from the parts of ourselves we’ve spent our lives trying to ignore and outrun.

The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said that our fears, our anxieties, and our insecurities lay the groundwork for sin because it is from these things that we are led to absolutize our values, identifying ourselves as “right” and everyone and everything else as “wrong,” in an attempt to satiate those very same fears,  anxieties, and insecurities.[3]

Perhaps, then, it is fitting after all that we hear this very same tale of Thomas every year on the Second Sunday of Easter—fitting because maybe we need Thomas to convict us of more than our doubts. Perhaps we also need Thomas to bear witness to all that is “other” in our world, blamed for an ever-expanding litany of sins, but in the end summoning the faith and the courage to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] John Chrysostom, “Homily 87 on the Gospel of John.”

[2] Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 100.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, 1844. Trans. Walter Lowrie, 1944.

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

John 20:1-18

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Here you are again (or again for the first time), trying to write an Easter sermon. If you’re a parish preacher and you’re like most new preachers, this task doesn’t seem easy. This is, after all, one of two times per year that you’ll see some of your parishioners: the fabled “Christmas and Easter” crowd. It makes sense, then, that preachers would be tempted to throw everything into this sermon, telling a story so compelling that at least one of the “Christmas and Easter” crowd will become a regular.

Every year, preachers make Easter their Super Bowl, trying to find some new take on Easter that will compel and wow the congregation. And every year, preachers fail at this task for one reason: the resurrection story was already compelling enough. People are not coming to church to hear your take on the Easter story.

            People come to church to hear the Easter story.

They come to smell the flowers and to shout, “Christ is risen indeed!” and to see everyone they haven’t seen since Christmas. And that’s okay. Because, you see, the tomb was empty before anyone else arrives. In John, there is no angel to announce that Christ is risen. The tomb is simply empty, and that is all God’s doing.[1]The tomb was empty before Mary arrived, and preacher, that is true for you, too.

Before the Easter flowers arrive, before the paraments are changed to white, before you write your sermon and put on your vestments, and before the people arrive at the church on Sunday morning, Christ is risen indeed.

So what should you preach?

The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nothing more, and nothing less.

You don’t even really need that much setup. Regardless of how often they come to church, the people that you will see from the pulpit do not need convincing that death is an impossible and draining reality. You will look from the pulpit into faces of those who have just lost their spouse to cancer last year, those who lost a friend in a car crash last week, those so overcome with depression that they only made it to church on Easter because they knew they’d hate themselves if they didn’t. You will look from the pulpit into the eyes of adults whose marriages are crumbling, children just coming to terms with the reality of the death of a grandparent, and the young adult who’s are hiding her addiction all too well. You’ll see the transgender teen who’s wondering if their parents will ever accept them as they are, and you’ll see the preteen who dreads going to school tomorrow because the other kids are so cruel to him.

Those people do not need to hear your groundbreaking fresh take on Easter; they simply need to hear that Christ is risen. In the words of Harvey Milk, “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

So here’s your chance, Preacher. Take a breath and get ready to tell them the story.

Tell them the story of a radical rabbi born to a poor carpenter and his fiancé who grew up in an occupied land. Tell them about how he grew up to tell everyone that God is loose in the world. Tell them about how he caused such a ruckus that his loved ones begged him to lay low for awhile, but he wouldn’t, because he had a mission. Tell them about how the powers that be captured him and mocked him, beat him, and killed him while the people looked on or even joined in. Tell them about how he was buried in a cold tomb hewn out of the rock, sealed there presumably forever, like every human who had died before him. And then tell them how Mary found that tomb empty three days later.

            Preacher, just tell the story they came to hear.

The story they need to hear.

            Tell the story you need to hear.

Because it’s also true that you have tombs of your own. If you’re preaching on the first Sunday of Easter, chances are good that you’re in parish ministry. You’re tasked with so much with so little support. You’re responsible for reports to the local denominational body and preparing for Bible study and pouring a ton of effort into sermons that a very limited number of people are likely to either read or hear. You’re answering emails with silly questions and consoling people who are upset over the color of the carpet and maybe even wondering if this whole church thing is worth it anymore. There are moments of hope and joy and there are wonderful people, yes. But there’s a lot of loneliness, too.

The church can indeed be a lonely place, especially if you’re the pastor and you’re the only person your age in your parish, as is the case with many millennial pastors.

It’s been pointed out many times before that Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. She comes to the tomb, overcome with death’s effects, overcome with grief, weighed down. And the risen Jesus calls her name.

Because the Good News is that God is still loose in the world. Through the closing churches and the angry emails and the frustrations and the loneliness, God is still loose, undeterred by the Church’s failures, even the failures that are our own.

            Through it all, God still finds a way to get to us. Not even death could stop God.

So let go of trying to find a new take on Easter. Instead, consider preaching that Jesus is loose: in wine and bread, in water and words, in human bodies and broken souls. Jesus is loose and that matters, regardless of — well, anything else.

Preacher, Jesus was risen long before you arrived on the scene. Your job is simply to give ‘em hope — so just tell the story. Tell them that

            “Death took a body, and discovered God.

            Death took earth, and encountered Heaven.
            Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see….

            Christ is Risen, and death is defeated!

            Christ is Risen, and demons are cast down!

            Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

            Christ is Risen, and life is loose!”[2]

            Jesus is loose. God is loose. Love is loose in the world, coursing through your church sanctuary and every seemingly forsaken corner of the world and our own hearts.

That is all they need to hear. And just maybe, it’s all you need to hear, too.

Go get ‘em, Preacher.

 

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

 

 

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 377.

[2] John Crysostom, Easter Homily, (paraphrase)

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

John 17:1-11

By: The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

Recently, my husband and I moved from Kentucky to Missouri where I accepted a call to serve as Co-Pastor at National Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). When we arrived in Springfield, I showed up to the office for my first day at my new church and already had a message waiting for me. A reporter from the local paper had gotten word that a church in town had hired an openly gay minister and was calling with an interest in setting up a time to sit down with my Co-Pastor and I to do a story. While the article that followed highlighted the ministry that we are doing here at National Avenue, the reporter was also very interested in the theology of a church that would welcome everyone, affirm everyone, and even hire a gay minister. The product of our conversation together was an article that highlighted all of the things that made me fall in love with this particular congregation, but also gave people an idea of who I am as both a person and as a minister.

While we initially said “Yes!” to this opportunity to reclaim the conversation of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, I quickly found myself being put on the defensive. We received incredible amounts of support and saw increased visitor traffic for a few weeks following the article’s run, but I was emotionally unprepared for how to handle the constant criticism of not only the authenticity of my call as a minister who happens to be gay, but also my worth as a person in general.

As I initially read these words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, I cringed a little bit. It seemed like these words that Jesus spoke were laced with exclusivity; the same sense of exclusivity that many have tried to use in order to keep me “out”—to convince me that I had done something to separate myself from the love of God.

When I finally got beyond my negative criticism of the text and finally started looking for the themes that I found to be helpful, I noticed a few things. First and foremost, there is a very obvious relationship at play here between Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. Jesus acknowledges that while he is on earth finishing the work that he was sent to do, he is still one with God and is returning to God.

We also see a very real sense of devotion, loyalty, and authentic faith displayed through these passages. This whole prayer is being prayed for those who have followed Jesus. It is said in the text that these folks for whom Jesus prays have kept the word of God, have acknowledged Jesus’ oneness with God, and have received the words that have been given to them from God through Jesus. In many ways this is being set up as a commissioning of the disciples to carry on the ministry of Jesus beyond the time of his earthly life.

Toward the end of one’s life, or even at a time of real transition, it is common to find ourselves asking, “What about all of this that I have built? Who will care for it when I’m gone?” I found myself asking those same questions as I was wrapping up my ministry at my first call in Kentucky as I prepared to relocate to Missouri. I was nervous that the youth group I had built up would fall apart. I was afraid that the kids that I had loved and formed relationships with wouldn’t have anyone left to love and care for them once I was gone. I was scared that they would be forgotten in the midst of the chaos of a church in transition. So I did what I could do to ensure that that wouldn’t be the case. I began acknowledging the leadership I saw in some of our volunteers and making sure that they felt empowered and equipped to handle things in my absence. Once I saw that the kids would be cared for, I could breathe a little easier and found peace with the transition.

It seems like here Jesus is worrying about some of those same things. It seems as though he’s trying to position the leaders that he has been training—those that had been walking beside him through the teaching, preaching and healing—and empowering them to take over his ministry in his absence.

Even more importantly, though, it seems like there is a prayer from Jesus here that the church may become one—that the church that can be so divided may somehow find unity amongst themselves. I can’t help but think that in a time such as this, a time when we are facing great division over politics, sexuality, quality of life and care, and a whole host of other issues, that Jesus is still praying this prayer. For me, this scripture stands as Jesus’ ordination of the church to join together and continue his work in the world; showing his love and light to all that we encounter through the ways in which we live our lives.

May it be so.

 

Kevin CK
The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Springfield, Missouri with his husband, Ryan, and two dogs, Bailey and Rey. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky where he lived until he moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University, earning his BA in Religion. He received his Master of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a lover of Chipotle, bowties, and dogs.

Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

John 14:15-21

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

At this point in the church year we are winding down Eastertide and looking towards Pentecost. The reading assigned for Easter Six rather obviously reflects this, in that Jesus is talking about the coming of an Advocate which will be with the apostles (and presumably at this point the Church which proceeds from them), but this selection of Scripture is about more than just the promise of a coming spiritual power.

There are a lot of paths people take when they try to exegete some meaning out of this passage. Of the many options presented here, the one that struck me upon reading the text and reflecting on it was the notion that Christ takes a moment here to help us figure out the roadmap for a relationship, complete with where we fit in, and how we can best live it out.

When I read this passage of Scripture, there is a phrase that comes to mind that may (or may not) be popular in your part of the world. I know growing up and continuing to live in the South (North Carolina—a state I didn’t used to have to apologize for every five minutes) it was and is popular for a great many folks, especially “youthy” kinds of people, to describe Christianity as “not a religion, but a relationship.” I think of that often (over)used phrase when I read this because most of this passage is taken up in relationship dynamics involving Jesus Christ, his Father, and his followers. There is a lot of I in you and you in me and I in the other kind of talk here (insert your own I am the Walrus joke here if you like—goo goo g’joob[1]). I am not particularly fond of that “not a religion, but a relationship” saying because I think it creates a false dichotomy. A religion is often about a relationship of some kind, and our relationship with God the Holy and Undivided Trinity and its consequences for our relationships with other people is a religion.

As I said before, what is set out for us today is the roadmap of a relationship/religion, looking at the dynamics of what would later come to be called the Holy Trinity and how we all fit into that eternal and undivided relationship of love which is at the heart of all things. It can be a little confusing to read it at first because a lot of the I in you, you in me language can read sort of like a tongue twister for your eyes. What the Gospel communicates here is that when we love Christ, we then find ourselves in the midst of the eternal force of love that is the Trinity. At the core here is the assurance that we belong and will not be abandoned, but rather strengthened if we consciously participate in a relationship with God in whom we live and move and have our being.

That being said, another popular issue arises.  Again, being from the South, I hear a lot about “faith, not works” leading to salvation (which is usually another way of saying that faith is what is really important and works are just kind of a nice detail). Unfortunately for this often misused tagline, the Gospel here does not really mesh well with it. When Jesus describes those having faith in him, in the same breath, he speaks of keeping his commandments. Faith and works (actions) together, like two sides of the same coin (like relationship and religion). Faith and actions are an intrinsic part of keeping this relationship with Christ going. The love of Christ is not conditional here. He phrases it such that those who love him keep his commandments. It is another way of saying that love has consequences. Just like any other relationship, if you don’t live out your love, it will wither on the vine. And if we do not keep Christ’s commandments, then we are in a one-sided relationship of love, where we receive but do not properly reciprocate. Any clergy who has done pre-marital counseling knows that is a giant red flag right there.

It can be a daunting task to think about being in a solid and growing relationship with God and basing it on not just having emotions, but letting actions flow out of them. Loving our enemies looking first to the outcasts and weirdos for the face of God, respecting authorities and partisans without letting them define us, promoting peace in a world of war, respecting the dignity of all, feeding the hungry, comforting the sorrowful and afflicted, healing the sick, casting out demons, loving God, loving Jesus, loving one another as Jesus has loved us—these are all difficult things to do more than once in some cases, much less make a whole lifestyle out of it. With Jesus no longer among us as he once was with the disciples, it can seem even more impossible to try, much less succeed. Much like the early Christians, faithful folks today may think, “Who will lead us?” “Who will guide us?”  “What power will sustain us?”

The answer to that is the Advocate spoken of here: the Holy Spirit. The early Christians faced these difficulties of maintaining a flourishing relationship with God in Christ while having to make basic decisions in the world and deal with impulses common to us all and contrary to the Gospel, but they were sustained by the same Spirit who has fallen afresh on each succeeding generation in the Church.

I often find that Christ’s commandments promote a vision of a world and a humanity that is so brilliant we can barely bring ourselves to look at it, a way of life so liberating that it frightens folks to consider all of the consequences, and then he calls us to live them out as a part of our relationship with God and others. I find it personally reassuring to see such passages that promise the Spirit’s help as we navigate the spiritual depths of our relationships with one another and with God.

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The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Carrboro, North Carolina where he lives with his husband Logan and their dog Archer. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.

 

[1] By the way, it is “goo goo g’joob,” not “coo coo ca choo,” as is often said. John Lennon may not have been bigger than Jesus, but he is certainly misquoted by his fans about as often.

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

John 14:1-14

By: Jay Butler

Growing up, my family strongly emphasized our faith in God through Jesus Christ. We went to church all the time, participated in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and any other activity that the church offered. It’s not that I was forced to go either. I genuinely wanted to be there. As a product of me being there all the time, I picked up a lot of information, especially after I started attending a Christian school in seventh grade. I was a “Bible class All-star”, because I was banking all of this knowledge. Knowing that information was important to my faith. It also warped what I thought a relationship with Christ was, but that’s a whole different story, for a whole different time.

My job as pastor now requires me to use that knowledge to help my congregation, and to help my congregation understand the importance of having that knowledge in their lives. Being a pastor also means we have to deal with people who don’t get it the first, or second time. It’s not because they’re trying to undermine your ministry. They just genuinely don’t get it. Nevertheless, ministry can sometimes give you “facepalm” moments.

Have you ever heard of a “facepalm” moment? A “facepalm” moment is when you are either so embarrassed or frustrated at something or someone, you put the palm of your hand up to your face and just shake your head in disgust. One of my most memorable “facepalm” moments occurred in seventh grade. We were reading “The Hobbit” in English class. In “The Hobbit,” Bilbo and his company of dwarves encounter and run away from a band of giant spiders. We talked about them for days in class, because it’s a sizable portion of the plot. However, one girl in our class looked up from her book and asked our class, “What spiders?” The class just froze. How could you miss that? The whole class just shook their head in disgust. Jesus must have a lot of those moments in the Gospels.

Jesus, in His ever-abundant patience, dealt with a lot of questions during His ministry on earth. Whether it’s people asking Him questions they already know the answer to, or Pharisees trying to trap Him with questions, Jesus answers them all to some degree. He also answers questions from his apostles. Oftentimes they’re questions they should already know the answer to. In this week’s Gospel reading, John 14:1-14, I want to look at the dynamic between Jesus and His apostles, specifically Jesus’ responses to those questions.

John 14:1-14 takes place in the middle of Jesus’ “Last Supper Teachings.” These are the final teachings of Jesus before He is arrested, and starts a process that leads to the death and resurrection of our Savior. It has iconic verses, such as, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” In many ways, this is Jesus’ farewell sermon. However, the first thing I notice when approaching this scripture is not Jesus’ profound wisdom, but the apostles’ many interruptions.

Jesus is interrupted twice in only fourteen verses. Thomas asks in verse 5, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In the next verse, Jesus responds with the iconic “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, when Phillip asks Jesus another question, Jesus seems exasperated. It reads as though Jesus is confounded by the idea that Phillip doesn’t know the answer to his own question. For the longest time, when reading the Gospels, I grew frustrated at the apostles’ supposed sheer stupidity. How can you not understand what Jesus is saying? What don’t you get when it comes to following God? I then had a stark realization that my viewpoint was immensely prideful and arrogant. It was then I began to identify with the apostles in the Gospels.

Character studies can be a tricky way to exegete scripture. It’s not an exact science, but it allows the text to come to life, not just in the interpreter, but in the congregation that hears the interpretation. When we dive into the characters of the Bible, we make theology more relevant and applicable to our congregations. When preparing a sermon on this text, my mind immediately wanders towards the apostles. I want to know what they’re thinking, because even though Phillip and Thomas are the only ones that John mentions as asking questions, I’m sure that the others had questions as well. What was going through their head-space during Jesus’ last sermon? The text focuses a lot on Jesus leaving the apostles, so maybe there was confusion. This wasn’t the first time Jesus spoke about this in the book of John. Jesus has been dropping hints that he will be betrayed and die, so maybe there’s fear and anxiety. Finally, there may be some anger or stubbornness (I’m looking at you, Peter), because they do not want their Rabbi to be hurt, and will do whatever it takes to protect Him. Whatever they felt, I feel it’s necessary to look at the apostles and to look at their questions from their perspective.

When looking at the interactions between Thomas, Phillip, and Jesus, I notice that Jesus is trying to give some of His most important theology as an answer to the apostles’ questions. In the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “These verses announce in clear language the theological conviction that drives the Fourth Evangelist’s work…”[1] The verse that that theological conviction is based off of is verse six, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This powerful display of the power of God is in response to a “dumb question”! It wouldn’t have been given if Thomas hadn’t asked that question!

Thank the Lord that the Lord is so patient. Our humanity gives God many “facepalm” moments, but the Lord is just and powerful. It allows us to ask the questions like, “What spiders?” that portray us as not seeing the work of God overtly playing out in our lives. It gives us the freedom to grow, because God gives us gems in response to our questions. It frees us to grow unhindered, and to leave no proverbial stone unturned. Thank the Lord for patience, and ask your stupid questions.

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Jay Butler

Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.

 

 

[1] O’Day Gail R., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Luke/John, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (1995; repr., Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 633-34.

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Sheep Sunday! Every year on this Sunday, the lectionary doles out a reading from John 10–and, as the reader will quickly realize, the dominant metaphor of John 10 is sheep. Last year, Jesus was concerned with those who were not among his sheep because they did not believe. Next year, our text will pick up where today’s leaves off in verse 11, with the famous, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” But today, Jesus is concerned about the flock’s ability to recognize the shepherd.

The imagery of Jesus as shepherd and the faithful as sheep is to Christianity what apple pie is to America. They go hand-in-hand. Perhaps that is why most preachers I know–myself included–let out an audible groan whenever this Sunday comes around. What more is there to say about Jesus the Good Shepherd, anyway?

And yet, here we are…

 

For starters, I suggest steering clear of an agriculture lesson. Most folks have already heard the truth about sheep: they’re ornery, smelly, dirty, dim-witted, like to get into trouble, and would rather follow each other than their shepherd. We know the truth about goats too: they’re creative, agile, intelligent, and they have a built-in defense mechanism–horns! Yes, there’s a metaphor in there that could be mashed and patted out into a sermon, but I am convinced that there’s a more important word here that the faithful need to hear.

Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

By itself, this phrase sounds nice–comforting, in fact. But while it can be difficult to catch, this week’s Gospel lesson is actually the second part of a larger story that started at the end of chapter 9, which we heard way back on the 4th Sunday in Lent. Remember that? Jesus heals a man from physical and spiritual blindness, which causes the Pharisees to ask if Jesus was insinuating that they, too, were spiritually blind.

Here, we get Jesus’ answer to their question.

Jesus speaks of abundant life to emphasize the fact that our lives of faith aren’t simply about having sins forgiven or getting our celestial tickets punched. It’s also about our lives right here, right now!

Remember the man in chapter 9? For him, abundant life means sight. It means freedom from his socioeconomic station in life. And the healing that Jesus provided meant abundant life now–in the moment!

I think the word that our people need to hear from us is that the salvation made known to us in Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd is not an other-worldly, enigmatic thought experiment. It’s tangible, and it’s here among us, making itself known right before our eyes!

You know your community better than I do, so what would it look like to hold out examples of where abundant life is making itself known in your community–among your people?

Here in the living of these Easter Days, I’m reminded of Athanasius of Alexandria’s short but incredibly profound book, “On the Incarnation.” He writes this about God’s revelation in Jesus: “[The revelation of God] is in every dimension–above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”

The salvation that Jesus invites us into is not some distant notion or cosmic future. It’s a concrete invitation to discover life more abundantly; to discover God in the world around us!

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Luke 24:13-35

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Third Sunday after Easter. We have passed the austerity of Lent, the spiritual high of Easter, and (hopefully) everyone is now back in their pew after the post-Easter slump. Now the real work of the Resurrection life can begin.

There is a lot of exegesis that could play into a study of this text, and if you go looking you are sure to find it. The third Sunday after Easter is always the Road to Emmaus. Every lectionary commentary deals with it at least three different ways and every commentary on Luke addresses the text at least once. That is to say nothing of the academic periodicals, blog posts, and preaching commentaries like this one that can be summoned from the depths of google and ATLA.

My advice to you is to resist a deep exegetical dive into this text. You may be tempted to delve into a complicated theological treatise on the divine presence of the Eucharist, but I say to you: RESIST.

People in the pews are tired after a long Lent and the exhausting ecstasy of Easter. Let deep theological explanation melt away this Sunday. Let the bread be bread. Let the fellowship be fellowship. Let the road be the road. Let the hospitality of Cleopas be hospitality. Let the Resurrection be the Resurrection. Humble yourself on Luke’s Emmaus Road; you cannot do better.

Let the text be the text, because in this story of fellowship and resurrection the specter of Good Friday is shed from the eyes of Cleopas and his companion. The road to Emmaus is about seeing God in our midst overcoming death, and the Church is preoccupied with death. Attendance, membership, and budgets have been steadily declining for 30-50 years.

The Millennial pastor to whom this blog is aimed is in an interesting position; we have never known a year of Church growth. Sure we may be part of growing communities, but we have grown up in failing denominations. We have heard about new methods for church growth our whole lives and now our whole ministries, because the Church has not found one that works.

As contrary as it sounds, millennial preachers, pastors, and priests are in a wonderful place because MILLENIALS HAVE ONLY KNOWN CHURCH DEATH! This could be a depression inducing epiphany, however I believe that this is our generation’s greatest strength. Who better to point to life? Who better to say look at who has come out of the tomb? Who better to stand with the disciples in Emmaus and say, “Were our hearts not burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?!?!?!”[1] Life isn’t the status quo the church has been trying to hold onto, or claw back to life; true eternal life is a gift given only by and in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the joys and purpose of table fellowship. He says:

…The congregation of Jesus believes that its Lord will to be present when it prays for his presence. So it prays: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest”—and thereby confess the gracious omnipresence of Jesus Christ… Christians, in their wholehearted joy in the good gifts of this physical life, acknowledge their Lord as the true giver of all good gifts; and beyond this, as the true gift: the true Bread of life itself; and finally, as the one who is calling them to the banquet of the Kingdom of God… At table they know their Lord as the one who breaks bread for them; the eyes of their faith are opened.[2]

Our gift as Christians, as the Church, is found in fellowship together. It is in fellowship that we see the resurrected Christ revealed, and realize both who has given us these gifts of life and who and what the true gift is.

For this third Sunday after Easter let Jesus confound our expectations. Emmanuel Lartey, who taught my Introduction to Pastoral Care course, said in class that the role of the pastoral caregiver is to walk into someone’s life and point to a God who is already there.[3] This Sunday, more than most, the role of the Preacher is to stand up and point to a God who is already there, to the places where God is at work, and the people who are inviting Christ into the community. We are Millennials (and folks who resonate with the Millennial generation). Who better to point to the creative, innovative, and new *gasp&shutter* ways that Christ is breaking the bread in our midst? Who better to see the new life that has been flowing all along, name it, and embrace it? Who better to see the ways that Christ has broken bread, broken death, and brought life than the very people who have only seen a church preoccupied with the power of death?

Preacher, SPEAK OF NEW LIFE! The dead will bury the dead and only the gift of Jesus Christ will raise the dead to life!

This week isn’t about deep exegesis of the text. This week is about a deep exegesis of the congregation. This week is about pointing to the moments where Christ is revealed in the lives of those in the pews. Speak of the grandparents who bring their grandkids to Church. Speak of the retiree who gives their time reading with school children during the week. Speak of the folks who staff soup kitchens, clothing closets, and homeless shelters. Speak to the creative, new, and unexpected ways that God is breaking into the world. God is already here. Speak of those who are caring for the immigrant and refugees in your community and our nation (Trust me. No matter what you think of your congregation’s politics, you will not have to look as far as you imagine). The resurrected Christ walks among us here and now. This Sunday do not let Christ get away without breaking the bread of himself and opening our eyes to the resurrection that is among us.

 

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a grad of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. Jonathan enjoys the outdoors, spending time fly fishing, biking, running, and hiking. He has thru hiked the Appalachian Trail, completed a triathlon, keeps chickens and bees, and ran his first half marathon in March. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. They have one dog named Nantahala (Hala for short).

[1] Luke 24:32; NRSV. Punctuation mine.

[2] Bonheoffer, Dietrich, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, trans. John W.Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 67-68.

[3] Lartey, Emmanuel. “Introduction to Pastoral Care” Seminary Course, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 2013.