Sunday, April 3, 2016

Second Sunday of Easter

On this Second Sunday of Easter I am with the people of Trinity Church in Ware. This is the first parish I preached in as Canon to the Ordinary in June 2013. Since that time they have been in transition, with two interims along the way. But last week they announced the call of their new rector. who will join them on July 1, the Rev. Mary Rosendale. This was an exciting time to be with them! 

In some places, this day has been called “Low Sunday.” Unlike a lot of names in our Episcopal lexicon (such as verger or narthex or thurifer) this name is pretty self-explanatory. After a busy Holy Week and Easter morning, everyone takes a little time-out. Even, apparently, the interim pastor here in Ware! (Well deserved, I’m sure!)

But please don’t call this Second Sunday of Easter by that name in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts! Our Bishop is on a mission to remind people across this diocese that Easter is not a day but a season – fifty days to be precise. So he likes to call this “Momentum Sunday.” Again it’s pretty self-explanatory: how can we build on the liturgies of a week ago in ways that carry us to Pentecost and beyond? How do we recommit ourselves to the Risen Christ in ways that make it clear we know that the good news shared last Sunday is no idle tale, but the truest words we can speak, a truth upon which we are willing to stake our lives?

Well, you all had some exciting news shared here last weekend, in addition to the announcement of Christ’s resurrection. A new rector has been called to serve among you, and she will be arriving on July 1. So with Randy out of town today, and me here, let’s reflect in this sermon on what God has been doing, is doing, and will be doing here at Trinity among you, and through you, and how we might build on that momentum as you anticipate Mary’s arrival. 

As for today’s gospel reading, it is still last week as John remembers the story. The Holy Spirit comes on that same evening of that first Easter Day, according to John, not on the 50th day of Pentecost as Luke tells the story in Acts.

There is a part of all of us, I suspect, that finds this a little disconcerting. Don’t you wish that John and Luke would get their stories straight? Those who mistrust Christian faith relish in pointing out such contradictions, while some on the more fundamentalist side tie themselves up in knots trying to pretend the contradictions aren’t there. In both cases people are tempted to think we can discover the right answer—the historical facts—behind the testimony we have been given. When exactly did the Holy Spirit show up? On Easter evening or at Pentecost?

But for Episcopalians who appreciate both/and answers this is actually very good news for us. The primary point is not historical, but theological: Jesus does send the Holy Spirit and Jesus does not leave us comfortless. But that doesn’t always happen on our timelines. Think about how grief works, even in families. We take it at our own speed.

I suspect that our experiences here of the Holy Spirit are as diverse as the experiences of the early church as it is for us. Some of us experience the Spirit as a comforter. Others of us experience the Spirit as shaking us out of our comfort zones and pushing us to take risks we would otherwise be afraid to take. Some of us experience the Spirit as rather loud and disruptive like a tornado, while others of us experience the Spirit as more like a still small voice and a calm breeze on a June night.

Actually, more accurately I suspect over our lifetimes we all experience the Spirit in these diverse ways. But guess what? They all have Biblical backing. In Acts (written by Luke) the Spirit comes to shake things up and leave some with the impression that the disciples are drunk. Here in John’s Gospel, however, the Spirit is less wind and fire and more breath of life and a flickering candle. I think John means to remind us today that it is in and through Easter—and Christ’s resurrection—that the Holy Spirit is unleashed to bring courage and hope and healing. Luke wants to stress that there is a time of prayer and waiting; the Spirit doesn’t come on our timetables.

The point in both cases is that the Church is now meant to carry on the work that Jesus began. The Spirit equips us to do that work: to teach and preach and heal and point to the Kingdom of God. The Spirit comes so that we might love and serve the Lord, that we might be light that shines in the darkness. The real star of the day on this second Sunday of Easter is the Spirit that the risen Christ breathes into us. That Spirit is persistent if nothing else. Sometimes the Spirit comes to us gradually, in ways that help us to grow and mature and know we are loved and then share that love as our lives unfold. The Spirit comes to the disciples so that they might find the courage to unlock those doors and go back out into the world to do the work God has given them to do.

You have been blessed with two very capable interims here, to help prepare you for what is coming next. I’ll leave it to you to decide what parts felt like tornado and what has felt like a gentle spring breeze. But I have no doubt it’s all been the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is most definitely not yet finished with Trinity, however. As Mary comes to join you in this work of ministry, the Spirit might at times come to comfort the afflicted. But the Spirit may also come to afflict the comfortable. Be attentive to both and to the diverse ways the Spirit works, which is always about calling us into deeper relationship with the living God.

Now we’ve been focused on the Holy Spirit, but we cannot ignore Thomas on this day either. Notice that he wasn’t there on Easter Sunday when Christ stood among them. Apparently he didn’t get the memo. Maybe he was out buying milk? Who knows? The text doesn’t tell us. What we are told is that he is not a part of that initial experience. So a week passes and they are there again and this time Thomas is with them. For Thomas, however, what happens on this Second Sunday of Easter definitely makes it Momentum Sunday for him.

Good old “doubting Thomas.” Only we need to learn a little bit of Greek to hear a Word of the Lord today. Stay with me, here! In English we tend to associate faith with belief, which has caused us all kinds of problems right up to the present day. We think that what we think about our faith—our belief system—is the same as faith. That grows directly out of the Enlightenment, which means it’s been around for a while. We then think that our beliefs are what make us Christians. So we argue. And then we mistakenly believe that we are engaged in doing Christian theology. I submit to you that we have taken a wrong turn.

The Church is older than the Enlightenment and we need to go further back if we mean to make sense of Thomas. Jesus said on the night before he died that the world would know we are Christians by our love, by our willingness to be servants in a world bent on abusing power. St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth that what makes us Christians is faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love. We can have all kinds of gifts or knowledge and “orthodox theology” but if we don’t have love we are clanging cymbals. That’s what St. Paul says.

And I think our text today comes at it from the same angle, which becomes clearer when we learn some Greek. Pistis is not talking about the content of faith, about what we think we know. It’s about something much more primal. It’s about trust. In fact that is a better translation of what the Greek word “pistis” means. Trust – which is more about overcoming fear than doubt.

What Thomas is struggling with isn’t his doctrine of the resurrection. It’s about whether or not he can still trust Jesus since he was killed by the Roman authorities. He had chosen to stake his life on Jesus, to follow him wherever it might lead. We’ve heard from him on two previous occasions in John’s Gospel. In the eleventh chapter when Jesus decides to go back to Judea to raise Lazarus even though it is clear at that point that the authorities are out to get him, Thomas is the one who says to the other disciples: “let us go with him that we may also die with him.” (John 11:16) He is willing to follow Jesus to death; to stand in solidarity. The question before us today is an even harder one: is he willing to live with Christ?

And then one of my favorite Thomas moments, when Jesus is waxing poetical about how the disciples should not let their hearts be troubled, about how he is going to prepare a place for them and that in God’s house there are many dwelling places. And then Jesus says, “and you know the way where I am going.”

And good old Thomas pipes up and asks the question that all the disciples want to ask. It’s like men and directions: Jesus says “you know the way” and everyone is nodding, oh yeah, we know the way…we don’t need no stinking GPS! And Thomas says, “Excuse me Lord but we don’t even know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) It is in that quite specific context, to his own beloved disciples, that Jesus says essentially, “Keep your eyes on me, don’t lose me, I’ll get you there: I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Those words are not a threat to “un-believers” but a promise to all who put their trust in Jesus.

So Thomas the twin, at least as he is remembered in the fourth gospel, has some history. He’s not afraid to ask the so-called “dumb” questions. He’s not afraid to die. He loves Jesus. I don’t think he is looking for indisputable proof so much as the fact that his sense of trust has been shaken. He wonders if Jesus is still the way, still the truth, still the life, or is just another dead martyr?

Literally, the Greek should be translated like this: Jesus says to Thomas, do not lack trust; trust. And I submit to you that these words are addressed to us as well on this second Sunday of Easter and to all the baptized community across this diocese and the world on this Momentum Sunday. That our faith goes nowhere until we figure out and navigate our way through trust. Some people struggle with trust issues their whole lives. But you really can’t mature in faith until you find your way through these questions. Is Jesus worthy of our trust? Is he the one who will show us the way to the Father? But how can that be if he is dead? I need something to go on…

When Jesus comes to that room, both times he is about the work of transforming fear into faith. They are hiding out beyond locked doors for fear of the religious and political authorities. The gift of the Spirit gives them a way forward: a renewed sense of trust. It leads to the boldest of claims: “My Lord and my God!”

This, I pray, is the gift the Spirit brings to you in this season of new beginnings:  trust that God isn't finished with you yet, Trinity. On this Second Sunday of Easter I am praying that the momentum builds toward the Feast of Pentecost and beyond. Know the Holy Spirit is with you all the way. Put your whole trust in the risen Christ as you seek to do the work God has given you to do on this day and beyond. 

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