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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”

26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

What I Am Learning:

Are we consumers of religious services or are we disciples?

For those of us in church leadership: Are we producers within the religious services industry or are we disciples leading and learning among disciples?

This isn't a very nice question for the beginning of Easter week, but it is one suggested by this reading.

I have been in conversation with quite a number of pastors who are asking the same questions. It has been inspiring to listen to them and to wonder with them about what the church could be like with a renewed focus on discipleship.

Since World War II, many churches have been formed in the model we are all familiar with: enough butts in the pews to financially support a pastor, musician, and support staff and the building that kept everyone dry. I have had mission developers from the 1960's berate me and other developers because we weren't getting it done as they did.

Ever since I was ordained, I have read articles and books and had conversations about the decline of the church as we knew it. We went through worship wars, marketing seminars and made mission statements about how the church could be saved from this decline. We have tried to copy our evangelical sisters and brothers in hopes that a band would help us do church differently and bring in the crowds.

But Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

Did Jesus start any churches as we know them today?

Now before we start the shame/guilt cycle here, let's state for the record that doing church as we have done it since the 1940's is not by definition unfaithful. There is no one way to organize the ministry of all the baptized in the Christian Scriptures. The church of Christ is, as the song goes, beset by change but Spirit-led, must claim and test it's heritage.

So what was Jesus sent to do?

There are many ways to summarize what John was talking about. Here is one:

John 1:9-14 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Jesus came into a culture full of darkness that did not see its creator and thus its true humanity in him. Even those whose communal story could prepare them for him, did not fully recognize him.

He gave power to become "children of God.

These children were born

  • not of blood: that is their identities, status and loyalties were not defined by what family they were born into - a radical statement in the first century.
  • the will of the flesh - this word is used in Paul's writings and in John to refer to a culture of domination, the bullying culture of so many empires including the Roman Empire.
  • the will of humans - the desires that all human beings are susceptible to.

These children of God were born of God. To be recognized as a child of God is to see that we and all humans are part of the divine family with all the dignity, worth and responsibility to and for and with our divine siblings.

Jesus was the living light in the midst of a culture and worldview darkened by bullying, power over others, of domination. He came to kindle that light in other humans that we might bear that light so others might have it kindled in them by the power of God.

Jesus was sent to restore human beings to the dignity, worth and identity that God intends for all humans to enjoy, and to enjoy within community. God sent Jesus to restore us to ourselves, to free us to be who God is creating us to be. This is his light that restores the flame of God's light in our souls.

In his story, we see that being restored to the dignity, worth and identity is both life-giving and painful.

Jesus was not just sent, he was sent into a particular context. In his first century Palestinian, Roman occupied context to recognize one's identity as God's child was to be at odds with all the forces of darkness in which humans were de-humanized, in which Children of God were set against themselves and one another: a world of darkness in which they were always playing the Hunger Games. To be fully human in such a culture, in such a worldview means engaging in conflict and putting oneself at risk.

When Jesus sent his disciples, he sent them in the power of the Holy Spirit to be children of God in the kingdom of darkness and domination, engaging others so they might recognize they are children of God.  To be fully human in such a culture meant the disciples were to engage in healing conflict and to put themselves at risk.

Which brings us to our initial questions.

All too often Christians have seen themselves as consumers of what Jesus offers. All too often Christian faith leaders have been happy to provide religious services consumers expected in his name.

I don't believe this is what Jesus had in mind.

He was inviting us to become his apprentices: people learning from Jesus' Way of life so that they might walk that Way as he did, risking being human in a dehumanizing culture.

Our culture is also de-humanizing to us. It encourages us to think of only ourselves, to see others as either irrelevant or as a threat, to reduce human beings to producers or consumers. We huddle in our darkened rooms, alone and increasingly afraid.

Once again and always, Jesus comes into our places of fear, isolation and seeks to reverse our dis-empowerment - to breathe on us the breath of life, to fill us with God's light and invite us to join him in his Way.

In the power of the Holy Wind, beginning where we are, we haltingly take our first steps.