Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 15, 2012

2012.04.15 “The Church With Nothing” – John 20:19-31 The 2nd Sunday of Easter

Central United Methodist Church

“The Church With Nothing”

John 20:19-31

Pastor David L Haley

The 2nd Sunday of Easter

April 15th, 2012

Once there was a man traveling far from home, who fell into a catatonic state and was pronounced dead. He was taken to an undertaker, fitted with a coffin, and the lid closed. In the middle of the night the man woke up, pushed off the lid, sat up, and tried to figure out where he was.  He discovered he was in a room filled with coffins. He pushed the lid off the coffin next to him.  Finding nothing in it, he tried another, and another. All the coffins were empty. After a while, he said to himself, “I’ve been late all my life, and now I’ve missed the resurrection.”

Maybe some of us feel that way this weekend. Maybe you were away last Sunday and missed our Easter celebration, with the music, 204 people, and 43 Easter lilies. Or maybe you were here, but when you went about your week, it felt like nothing had changed, that the world was absolutely the same. Did we miss the resurrection?

The Easter story the Gospel of John tells this weekend – the 2nd Sunday of Easter — make us wonder whether Jesus’ disciples missed it also. But when we look closer, what we find is a story that is a gift to all churches who think we have nothing going, and for all disciples who feel we have more questions than answers, more doubt than faith.

First, when we turn to the text, here is the original story of a church with nothing happening. In the first part of John, chapter 20, Mary Magdalene shared the news with Jesus’ disciples that she had found not only the empty tomb, but had seen the risen Lord. And yet here they are, on the afternoon of the resurrection, locked in a room, cowering with fear at every knock on the door. Were they afraid that the religious authorities would come after them as they had Jesus?  Or were they afraid that now Jesus had gone, they had nothing to offer.

Thomas Long says that when we look at this less-than-inspiring picture, what we see is:

“a church with nothing. No plan, no promise, no program, nothing. A terrified little band huddled in the corner of the room with the chair braced against the door.” (Thomas Long, Whispering the Lyrics, Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., Inc. 1995, pp. 89-94.)

Long asks, “What kind of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members? ‘The friendly church where all are welcome’? Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality. ‘The church with a warm heart and a bold mission?’” Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front door.”

And yet it is exactly into this fearful group that Christ comes.  And the reason he comes is not to keep them in, but to get them out. And so he says to them, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” “This is a church,” says Thomas Long, “that will turn out to have only one thing going for it. It will have the risen Christ. “

Across our country, there are plenty of mega-churches, many of which are thriving. The people may be friendly, the sermons entertaining, and the music upbeat; they may have the best entertainment in town. We may feel we can’t compete. But where in their auditoriums is there a sign of the crucified and risen Christ? Where is the baptismal font to acknowledge being claimed by God in baptism? Where is the communion table, a reminder not only of the body of Christ broken for the world, but that we go from it, as the Body of Christ in the world?

On the other hand, there are thousands of churches across our country, many of them small membership churches, 75% of whom have less than 100 members. These churches may feel that they have nothing going for them. They may have lousy worship services, incomprehensible preachers, bad music, and non-existent parking. But if they know the Risen Christ in their midst, sending them out in mission and ministry, they have as much going for them as that first shaky band of believers in a locked room.

Secondly, if it isn’t enough that this is a story about a church with nothing, it is also a story about a disciple filled with more doubt than faith. Thomas, apparently, had missed the resurrection. He had missed Christ’s first resurrection appearance, and now had his story and was sticking to it: “Unless I can see, and touch, I cannot accept it.”

So, to Thomas, Christ comes. And what does he say? “Thomas, you doubter, how dare you raise such questions here?” “Thomas, I’ve had enough, take your doubts and get out.”  No, what he says is, “Here, Thomas,” says Jesus, “put your finger here.  Be not faithless, but believing.”

And John the Evangelist goes on to show us just what a gift, Thomas, the Patron Saint of Doubters, is to us, when Jesus says to him:

“So, Thomas, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

We always have room in the church for doubters and people with questions. Because surely, if Jesus made room in the Twelve for doubters like Thomas, there is room in the church for doubters like us. Today, India’s 27 million Christians credit Thomas the Apostle not only for bringing Jesus’ message there, but for dying for it.

Joanna Adams is a Presbyterian Pastor in Atlanta, and in one of her sermons, once described how she began the journey from doubter to Pastor:

“There was a time in my early 20s when I was a full card-carrying member in the circle of Doubting Thomases. My doubt simply got the best of my faith, and I left the church completely, thinking it was for good. I had such a difficult time making sense of it all. I stayed away until my longing for God became too much for me. I sought the council of a minister at a Presbyterian church near our home. I walked into his office and sat down, saying, “I am not exactly sure why I am here. I do not know what I believe about the virgin birth, the resurrection, the lordship of Christ.”

The minister answered, “I accept that. I wonder if you would like to try to figure these things out with people who are on a similar journey.”

“Yes,” I said, “I would like that very much.”

And he answered, “Well then, you are welcome here.”

Those words, “Well then, you are welcome here,” have been the pivot on which my entire life has turned. I was welcomed in love and invited to grow in my knowledge and understanding of the revelation of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Locked Doors, a sermon preached at The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago on April 7th, 2002.)

What Jesus did for Thomas, what that Pastor did for Joanna Adams, what others have done for us, we can do for others, by working on our doubts together – in church

We may feel like a church with nothing. We may feel more like doubters than believers. But any church, regardless of size or resources, and every disciple, moving from doubt to faith, who rejoices in the presence of the Risen Christ, who knows we are sent by him, can still powerfully continue Jesus’ presence and ministry in the world.

Here’s just one example. After 25 years, John Buchanan recently retired as Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.  But he is still editor of the Christian Century magazine, and his article is always the first one I read. Several years back, he wrote this one, which will not only sound quite familiar to us, but which I can personally attest to as well, in my recent experience with the death of my father:

“Those of us who work in the church know how trivial, vain, and self-serving the “institutional” church can be.  But we also wonder what we would do without the church. How could you celebrate Christmas without the church? How could you wake up in the dark of an Easter morning without the church?  Where else would one turn when ones’ spirit is assaulted and one’s emotions are raw from loss if not to the church and the people who are the church?

My wife’s father died at the age of 97 in a nursing home in a city where none of his family lives any longer. A real patriarch, he had three children, 11 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren, most of whom converged in Pennsylvania for the funeral, the committal service, and, a wonderful byproduct, a brief family reunion.

A major part of the proceedings was the Lutheran church in which he and his wife, who has been gone for almost 30 years, were faithful members. When driving became problematic and he moved to a retirement facility, he stopped attending the church and became a part of the worshipping community at the Presbyterian Home.  After he died everyone agreed that the funeral service should be in Trinity Lutheran Church, even though he had not been back for years and most of his contemporaries were gone.

Could the pastor preside at the service? Of course. Could we have the services of an organist and could we sing his favorite hymn? Yes. Any chance that we could have a light lunch catered for our large family between the committal service and the funeral service? Certainly, and a group in the church will prepare it for you. Might we use the downstairs of the church after the service to meet guests over coffee and cookies? No problem.

So that it how it happened, much the way it happens every day in Christian communities all over the world, unremarkable except for the fact that he was our great-grandfather, grandfather, father, father-in-law.

The hospitality was, I thought, pure grace, an act of simple, eloquent Christian love. The tables were set, and the napkins were linen, not paper. There were small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and vegetables, a relish tray, chocolate chip cookies and amazing tiny cream puffs, and coffee, regular and decaf.  Five women and two men were responsible. Their minister served as our pastor, and was obviously pleased that the church could serve in this unique, important, way.

A similar cadre of amazing people cared for my father-in-law at the Presbyterian Home with great kindness and compassion – for him and for all of us trying to cope with the situation from a distance.

I tried to find words to thank the kitchen volunteers and the Presbyterian Home staff. We will write checks to both institutions. We were deeply, profoundly gratefully for the church, and we cannot imagine that 48-hour period without it.” (“Graceful Presence,” by John M. Buchanan, The Christian Century, April 5, 2005, p. 3)

Says Thomas Long, speaking of such churches and such people, as surely as he does of those first disciples, and of Thomas:

“This is a story of how the risen Christ pushes open the bolted doors of a church with nothing. How a risen Christ enters the fearful chambers of every faith community and every human heart, to fill them with his own peace, his own life, and his own spirit.

May it be the story of our church, and of each of us.  Amen.

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