Sunday, April 7, 2013

How We Know Him

How We Know Him
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 7, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 20: 18-31 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

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.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. [1]  

So the lectionary passage as I just read, for this week, the second Sunday of Easter is the famous "Doubting Thomas" passage. Since I preached on Thomas, and the idea that doubting is a necessary part of faith, that many people today unlike Thomas would hide their doubts, fear their doubts, leave their doubts untested, and not ask to see the wounds because they would rather not know. The idea that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is running loose in this world is truly awesome, and in many ways two awesome, and so unlike Thomas, we'd not test our unbelief, we'd rather just go on safely doubting afraid to test because the truth, either way would be way too much to deal with, but that was last year, now a year later I have the same passage staring me in the face, an new challenge of the familiar.
Familiar is a word that is troubling about Easter, Risen Jesus texts. We are way too familiar with the stories that we often miss the amazement of the people Jesus encounters. They are all amazed, and in disbelief, often times they do not even recognize Jesus at first, but to us because we've been reading these stories all our lives, and people have read them for 2000 years, that it is hard for us to get a grasp of the extraordinary quality of encountering the risen Christ, for it seems just so ordinary and familiar to us. So we miss the fact that so many people who see Jesus raised fail to see him at first. Which makes me wonder, how often we miss the Risen Jesus in our world, much like the disciples do, all so sure that we would know him if we saw him. Beard, sandals,  long brown hair, bright blue eyes, we wonder why those disciples who walked in his midst for three years, how can they not know Jesus when they see him. Why does it take a double take? Why does it take that second glance? Why does it take more than just looking at him at all to know Jesus? Why is it so difficult? And we ask ourselves as well, why is it that people, regular people all around us, don't how wonderful Jesus is, how amazing having him in your life is, and so live life in the darkness of not knowing Jesus?
Because you see it often in these Risen Christ encounters. In Luke, the disciples walk with Jesus for a while and do not know him. . . Luke

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles  from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. [2]  

There they are, walking about seven miles, right there with Jesus, but they do not know it. Why is it so hard to recognize Jesus? In John's Gospel, which we read this morning and also last week, the disciples and others have trouble recognizing Jesus, too. Mary was in the tomb, and Jesus is there, talking to her, but she doesn't know him. And then this week, Thomas, and he needs more than just seeing Jesus, he needs extra proof, he needs to see the wounds.
We are familiar with this story, Thomas says, “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.” Just seeing his face isn't enough. What I want to look at this morning, is what are the ways that people come to see Jesus, really see Jesus, as he is, and come to know him. It is more than just by sight, and each encounter has a different way. I've been through all of the encounters, but let's recap again just so we have them. In Luke you have Jesus on the road to Emmaus, unknown with the two disciples, Cleopas and the other unnamed. Then in John, Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and Thomas' demand for proof. Jesus makes himself known to each of them and each in a different way, and each significant to us in our world, as we seek the Risen Christ in our lives. and seek to be faithful disciples.
Let's start with Thomas and go backwards, to Mary, then to the disciples, and last to the folks on the road. Look at what Thomas needs to see. Look at the defining marks, the identifiers for Thomas, the wounds, the marks of his sacrifice, the marks of his suffering, the marks of the cross. Jesus is known by this sacrifice. Without the sacrifice, Jesus is not at all recognizable. Jesus is not Jesus. For us to encounter the Risen Christ we have to be familiar with the cross. We have to be familiar with struggle. We have to be familiar with the tremendous cost of our salvation. This is important, and an important detail in the story, the Easter story is not just about resurrection, but about the entire story, and without the entire story, without knowledge of the entire story, it seems you cannot know the Risen Christ. It appears that you cannot skip through the pain. . . Oh but how often we want to. How much of our contemporary culture is about avoiding pain at any cost, avoiding struggle at any cost? Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer people in America have come to know the Risen Christ?
Which brings us to the earlier encounter in John's Gospel, from what we read last week, Mary Magdalene's. Here is that passage just to refresh our memory. John 20: 13-16

[The Angels] said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). [3]  

How cool is this one. Jesus calls Mary by name, and then she gets it. Jesus knows her personally, and in this intimate personal greeting Mary comes to know him. Jesus knows us in that way as well. Jesus knows us personally and when he calls to us we know him. I talked last week about the personal quality of the resurrection, the individualness of salvation. So important. Shirley gave me an interesting article from the Washington Post last week. It was an article reporting the new demographic of what they called "nones" meaning no religious affiliation. Not atheist, not really agnostics, but instead a new kind of ambivalence towards matters of faith. The article suggested that the growing trends of Americans becoming more individualistic and more questioning of institutions has added significantly to this phenomenon, and that churches if they would want to appeal to these people, to get them back, as it were, they would need to find ways to adapt the message to be more individual and more challenging of institutions. Really, you think? Now they wouldn't say this but I will, it seems that the church then needs to get back to the Jesus message because Jesus saves individuals, cares for individuals, and love is an individual type of thing, and Jesus himself was a huge challenge to the institutions of his day. So the church needs to return to a Jesus message to attract these so called nones back in, but must do so the hard way, one by one, calling each one by name, for that seems to be another way, along with suffering that people come to recognize the reality of the Risen Christ.
And so we have personal, calling by name, and we have the suffering, the marks of the sacrifice, and last we have the mysterious stranger encounter on the road to Emmaus. Let's look at the rest of that story. So these guys are there, they are walking with Jesus, they are talking to Jesus about Jesus, and they don't even realize it. Luke picks up, at verse 17:

17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,  who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.[4] 

So he walks with them and they don't know him, he talks with them and they do not know him, he speaks about the scriptures and the prophets, and they do not know him, he even speaks about the resurrection and they do not know him, it is not until he breaks bread, and serves them that they come to know who he is, and they are amazed. There is something about this breaking of the bread, in the breaking of the bread, he comes to be known. There is again and intimate aspect of sharing a table, there is the personal aspect about sharing a table, and there is the service aspect about sharing a table. These things together seem to introduce the Risen Christ to those blind to him.
So for us, for Christians in a world called to be fishers of men, and to baptize all nations, there is teaching here for us, that the Risen Christ is who makes Christians not Christians themselves, important to remember, for Thomas needs that personal contact, and so do we all, but we see here ways that Christ is revealed. We seem know Christ by sacrifice, by struggle, by suffering. . . we see the marks on his hands and feet and we know, we feel suffering ourselves and we know, so maybe suffering is not something to be avoided at all cost. We also know Christ when he calls us by name, each of us not all of us, one by one, personally, not as a group, but as an individual. Maybe we as a church should reach out to individuals and not demographics, persons not types. I think we do this well here, but I've been in churches, and I would say the PCUSA as a whole struggles with this. Finally then we know Christ when we share the table, when we allow ourselves to be served. And so we come to the table this morning, where Christ invites us, each of us, personally to come to his table, he doesn't say we must, he invites us to join him because we may, he tells us to come not because we are worthy, but because he knows us and knows we are not, he tells us to come to his table and share in his holy feast, commemorating the night he was betrayed, remembering the holy suffering, that his body was broken, just like the bread, asking us to take it and eat it, in remembrance of him. And that he took the cup, the new covenant sealed in the blood that flowed from his body, he poured it and said drink you this also in remembrance of me. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you know me and you proclaim my death until I come again. Let us pray, beginning with singing our communion him, Alleluia, Alleluia give thanks to the Risen Lord. . .



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 20:19-31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 24:13-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 20:13-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[4]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 24:17-31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.