Sermon preached April 11, 2010
Texts: John 20:19-31
In a wonderful bit of television metanarrative, Jerry and George, on the television show “Seinfeld” are meeting with television executives from NBC to pitch an idea for a television show based on the person Jerry Seinfeld. George, as he sometimes does, has an idea stuck in his head that he cannot let go of – that the show will be about nothing. The chief executive from NBC is skeptical, while George is adamant – no plot, no story, no character development. “So why would people watch it?” “Because it’s on television.”
Truth be told, I don’t watch a lot of television these days, but from some of the ads I see when I do watch, it seems like maybe there is a lot of nothing that has gotten on television. I don’t really get some of it. What’s the point? I hear about shows where women vie for the attention of a man, or men vie for the attention of women, and you see people’s pain and heartbreak, and if the magazines whose covers I see standing in line at the grocery store are any indication, even after the choice is made, things don’t always turn out well. Why would someone want to put their very real pain and heartbreak on television that way? What’s the point?
Maybe someone asked the writer of John’s Gospel that question at some time. You’ve written down all this stuff – what’s the point? In John 20:30-31, he answers that very question. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.
John, in composing his gospel, was not engaged in doing journalism or history – though there are facts in his gospel. Whatever biblical inspiration means it needs to be consistent with human authorship and human creativity. Each of the gospel writers took stories about Jesus and crafted a work from those stories – including some and not others, locating them in different places in their narratives. John is the only gospel writer to tell the story about Thomas. John’s purpose is to help people come to believe and to have new life. Actually, that’s not a bad way to think about the purpose of the Bible as a whole. But the kind of “belief” that John is interested in, that the Bible is interested in is not so much intellectual assent – belief “that” - - - belief that this or that happened, etc. Rather the gospel and the Bible are most interested in belief as faith, as trust.
In his book, Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, argues that the essence of Christian belief is trust, confidence. Belief is faith that makes “a difference in how the world feels and how you feel” (6). Faith was one theme of confirmation this past Wednesday and I share with the students two views of faith that have been important to me.
Daniel Day Williams: Faith is response. It is the whole-souled giving of life into the keeping of God who is the absolutely trustworthy source and redeemer of life.
Dorothee Soelle: Without faith you can’t live authentically…. You cannot live authentically without trusting that life is good, even your life, that the difficulties and setbacks are not the last word, not even for you, and that your life has a purpose.
Faith, new life. That’s why John tells the stories he tells in the gospel. He is inviting us to faith, and his invitation is also God’s invitation to faith and new life.
We see that very dynamic in the story John shares just before offering his “what’s the point” comment – the story of Thomas. Thomas is not present when the disciples first experienced Jesus as alive. Jesus offers words of peace. Jesus breathes on them, sharing God’s Spirit, his Spirit with them. But Thomas has missed that, and he is unwilling to simply take their word for what happened. A week later, he, too experiences the risen Christ. He received the Spirit in a different way. His faith is renewed. His life will be different. Legend has it that Thomas took the good news about Jesus to India. Early Christian writings bear his name.
But more importantly for John, the Thomas story leads into our story. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We who live centuries after Jesus have not seen him in the way his first followers did. We don’t know what he looked like. We don’t know the timber of his voice. We don’t know the facial expressions he used when he spoke. Yet, we trust that the story of Jesus did not end all those centuries ago, that it is a continuing story, that his is a continuing life that still affects ours. Jesus still brings peace, still instills Spirit, still sends us out. We trust. We know new life. We are blessed. Again, Rowan Williams: Because of Jesus we can now see that what God has always meant to happen is… peace and praise…. This and this alone is God’s agenda: the world he had made is designed to become a reconciled world, a world in which diverse human communities come to share a life together because they share the conviction that God has acted to set them free from fear and guilt. (8)
That’s the point – trust and new life. It’s the point of John’s Gospel, it’s the point of the Bible, it’s the point of Christian faith - - - an invitation to trust a trustworthy God and in relationship with God live life fully. And this God is the God of the risen Christ.
In their book Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, put new life in the context of resurrection, just as John does in his gospel. The Resurrection was the gift of persistent love, stronger than death, they write. And as disciples experienced that gift, celebrated it in community they took strength to embody ethical grace in the world – the world that God so generously loved (54,55). We trust God. We trust God’s love. We trust that God has no other agenda than to love and bring peace, reconciliation, freedom, justice, righteousness into the world. We trust and are made different by that trust. We trust and we live differently – live with ethical grace.
A final image and story. Desmond Tutu, in his new book, Made for Goodness, talks about his faith, his trust in God’s love. Through the years I have been blessed with so many people who have “put skin on” God’s love for me. One person who showed me God’s love “with skin on” was my maternal grandmother, Kuku, who brought me jam-filled treats as the end of the day. As was my mother, who made the long, weekly treks to the hospital when I was sick with tuberculosis. Before that, when at age six I had suffered a severe burn on my leg, she had made daily trips to that hospital to visit me. I hated that hospital, too. I hated the food. I hated the smells. I hated being there. My mother had to have me discharged from the hospital early because my sustained piteous whimpering was disturbing the other patients. Of course that meant more work for her, taking care of me at home. (183)
What’s the point of Christian faith? What’s the point of showing up here week after week to sing and pray? What’s the point of our life together as First United Methodist Church? Trust. New life.
Trust deeply in God’s love – persistent love, stronger than death.
Put skin on that love for others.
Embody ethical grace in the world.