Close Encounters

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday of Easter + April 3, 2016

Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31


For the last month or so my guilty pleasure has been watching Fargo, the TV series, inspired by the Coen brothers film from the 1990s. In Season 2 there are constant — but not really connected or explained — references to alien life: What were those weird lights in the sky? Why is the young kid drawing flying saucers? Did the narrator just quote War of the Worlds?

(**mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t finished season 2 and care about the alien subplot line**)

In the last episodes there is a huge shoot-out at a motel: two warring Midwestern crime mobs face off in their last battle, and the police are caught in the middle. Suddenly, it appears: a giant flying saucer, hovering just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, shining beams of light down on the gunfire and fistfights. Everything comes to a halt as everyone stares up at this unbelievable sight. Then, just as suddenly, the spaceship disappears.

fargo

Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly website

What I enjoyed most about this crazy scene was watching the characters react to their U.F.O. sighting. Peggy, a young woman who has never been fully hooked into reality, seems totally unfazed. She and her husband are making a run for it, and when he stops to stare at this thing in the sky, she just says: “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed. We gotta go!” When the saucer flies away, everyone goes back to the fight as if nothing had happened.[1]

A few days later, two of the most level-headed and competent characters in the show — a pair of police officers — talk about the UFO sighting. They’d both been eyewitnesses. Sheriff Larsson asks, “So…you gonna put that in your report, then?”

“What?” asks Officer Solverson, “‘Gunfight interrupted by spacecraft’?”

“Yeah…maybe leave that [as] subtext…”

Even though they both saw this giant flying saucer, neither of them finds the story believable…at least not believable enough for a police report.[2]

Jesus’s disciples witnessed something even more unbelievable than a flying saucer appearing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; they saw a living man appear after they had seen him die.

Of course there are many ways we can attempt to prove that Christ’s resurrection really happened: the authors of the gospels did it themselves, writing about how Roman soldiers had been guarding the tomb, so the disciples couldn’t have stolen the body (Matt. 27:62-66); how the stone had already been rolled away when the first of the Jesus-followers showed up at the tomb (Luke 24:1-12; in Matt. 28, they see an angel roll the stone); how the resurrected Christ ate fish with the disciples, so he couldn’t have been just a ghost (Luke 24:36-42). Christian apologists from today add that those people who saw the resurrected Christ probably weren’t hallucinating or lying, because the whole lot of them chose to face persecution and even martyrdom rather than renege on their story about the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.

But even with all those arguments, the resurrection is still unbelievable.

Officer Solverson could have written about the U.F.O. sighting in his report. He could have quoted multiple eyewitnesses. But still, I think he was wise to leave it out. No matter the proof, no one would have believed the report, because everybody knows flying saucers are a bunch of hooey.

And if “everybody knows” that, how much more does everybody know that dead bodies don’t come back to life. Even if we could prove it happened, it would still be unbelievable. We would find a way to doubt, because resurrection is just not how the world works.

So maybe we can understand why Thomas didn’t believe his friends’ report about receiving a visit from the resurrected Jesus. Sure, a whole group of his closest companions shared their eyewitness testimony. Sure, he had heard Jesus talk about dying and rising. Sure, he’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead with his own eyes (John 11). But still the resurrection was unbelievable. Maybe Thomas reasoned his way out of all the proof. Maybe his doubt was just a gut reaction. But in any case he was responding based on what he knew to be true of the world: death is death. People don’t come back.

Thomas didn’t believe otherwise until he’d experienced Jesus for himself, until he’d had a real close encounter, touched Jesus’s crucified body, heard Jesus speak to him. And then Thomas did more than admit that Jesus had been brought back to life. In that very moment Thomas made the most basic and yet most life-changing confession of the Christian faith. He looked at this man, crucified-and-resurrected, and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”

So how do we react to the unbelievable story of Christ’s resurrection?

I would wager a guess that few — if any — of us react with faith because we heard a convincing argument. Even C. S. Lewis, that great logical mind, who did spend much time debating the reasonability of Christian belief, who heard arguments and argued back, who studied the faith so carefully before becoming a Christian, and who, as a Christian, wrote many a logical defense of the faith…even C.S. Lewis, in the end, described his coming to faith as an experience of encountering God; and his confession almost echoes that of Doubting Thomas. In his autobiography he wrote:

You must picture me in [my room], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In…1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.[3]

It reminds me of a conversation I had with some friends from Vanderbilt Divinity School shortly after we’d all graduated. We were all about to embark on very different religious careers: one pastor, one hospital chaplain, two prison ministers, one director of religious life at a college, one scholar. Some of us had grown up in mainline traditions; some Southern Baptist; some, secular households; I’m sure at least one of us had been raised by hippies. What we had in common — besides being a bunch of white women — was that we were all very intellectual and rather skeptical, and we’d come to divinity school ready to doubt and question and challenge, and not entirely sure whether we were going to hold on to our faith through that process — or whether we even wanted to. My friend Sarah asked us: So, do you still believe in God?

I expected a variety of answers, but we all shared one. And it wasn’t what you might expect from a bunch of Vanderbilt eggheads, e.g. “Well, I had my doubts, but that paper by Kathryn Tanner really convinced me.” No. The answer we all shared was: “I can’t explain why. I have a lot of doubts, and I’ve even tried to stop believing…but I just feel like God won’t let me go.” It was not a well-reasoned argument; it was the reluctant confession of a bunch of doubters who’d had an encounter with the holy.

The main message of Martin Luther’s reforms was that it is faith alone that saves us: faith that God loves us and forgives us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet even for Luther this faith was more than believing that message to be a fact; it was primarily the result of an encounter with God. In the Small Catechism, in the section on the Apostle’s Creed, Luther wrote:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…[4]

For Doubting Thomas, for C. S. Lewis, for Martin Luther, for many people I know personally, and for myself: believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ is less about agreeing with certain statements, and more about encountering a God who won’t let us go — an encounter that drives us to exclaim “My Lord and my God!” sometimes even despite our doubt.

Jesus wouldn’t let Thomas get away with his doubt; instead, he appeared and said “Here I am. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.”

How does God encounter you? Maybe you have had a “mountaintop experience” that changed your heart in an instant. Maybe there is something going on in worship or in the stories of the Bible that moves you. Maybe you look back on a life spent going to church on Sunday mornings, and you just feel like that’s where you belong. Maybe you found something in the life of faith that had been missing: peace, joy, forgiveness, acceptance. Maybe you simply find yourself here this morning, or praying by yourself, or thinking about God, and can’t put your finger on why.

Another question is: how can we, as the Church, help others to encounter God? Surely God can and does work on God’s own to reach out to people. But the Church is referred to as “the Body of Christ” frequently enough in scripture that I have come to see it as more than a description or a metaphor, but as a calling, as a mission. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Living out our mission as the Church is less about convincing people of the things we believe, and more about offering an encounter with the Body of Christ. Doubting Thomas came to believe because he encountered the Body of Christ.  In that moment Christ’s body bore the marks of crucifixion and death: it was vulnerable; it had known suffering; it had sacrificed. Yet it was also invigorated with new life: a life that didn’t survive, but triumphed over death.

How can we — the Church — be that Body of Christ for those around us? How do we best offer what Jesus offered to Thomas: Touch Christ’s hands, see Christ’s body, experience both the sacrifice, and the new life?

Let us pray: Open our hearts to your presence moving around us and between us and within us, until your glory and compassion are revealed not only to us, but in us. In the name of Jesus, crucified and risen, we pray. Amen.[5]


Sources of Inspiration:

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “#477 – Second Sunday of Easter,” Sermon Brainwave podcast, March 27, 2016. Available online.

[1] Fargo: Year 2, “The Castle,” Ep. 9, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley and Steve Blackman, FX, originally aired Dec. 7, 2015.

[2] Fargo: Year 2, “Palindrome,” Ep. 10, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley, FX, originally aired Dec. 15, 2015.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, (London: Harvest Books, 1966) pp. 228-229.

[4] Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), Third Article to the Creed, 355-356.

[5] Adapted from an intercessory prayer provided by Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resources for April 3, 2016 (2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C), available online at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=134

Doubting (Logical, Loyal) Thomas

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday in Easter + April 12, 2015

Texts: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Photograph by Andy Moxon, with thanks to A Concord Pastor

Today we tell the story of Doubting Thomas, the man who could not believe the good news that his teacher and Lord had risen from the dead. It seems like the resurrected Christ made a special appearance among his disciples just to say 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.”
But I also want to tell the bigger story of Thomas the Apostle – Doubting Thomas – who might also be called Thomas the Logical, or Thomas the Loyal, or maybe Thomas the Grieving.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are pretty quiet about this disciple of Jesus, but in the Gospel of John we get a few glimpses of his character. There is, of course, the famous story of Doubting Thomas. But before that, there’s the story of Jesus’s friend Lazarus.

Jesus and his disciples have just left the region of Judea, fleeing across the Jordan River after Jesus was nearly arrested and stoned to death. Then Jesus gets the news: your friend, Lazarus, is dead. Jesus plans to travel back to Judea, to the place where Lazarus is lying in his tomb.

His disciples are 100% AGAINST this idea. They say to him, “Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?” When Jesus explains that his friend is dead and that he has a plan up his sleeve, it is Thomas who turns to the other disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas the Logical knows the cost of following Jesus. Thomas the Loyal will follow his Lord to death. (John 11:1-16).

The second glimpse of Thomas comes later, during Jesus’s last supper with his disciples. Rather cryptically, Jesus is explaining to them that he is going away to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, so that later they might follow him. Thomas is the first to pipe up, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas the Logical wants to know the full plan. Thomas the Loyal is once again ready to follow Jesus anywhere. (John 14:1-6).

The last snippet is the familiar story of Doubting Thomas. Thomas missed out on Jesus’s first appearance to his disciples, and when he rejoins the group later and they’re rushing to explain to him, “Jesus is alive! We saw him! We saw him!” Thomas just isn’t buying it. “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.” Doubting Thomas. But also Thomas the Logical, who needs that physical proof. And maybe Thomas the Loyal is still here too; maybe Thomas wants to make sure he isn’t following a false rumor instead of his true Lord.  And maybe he is also Thomas the Grieving: a man who has just lost his teacher, companion, and hope for the future; a man who is terrified of hoping lest he be hurt all over again.*

We can’t know the exact reason for Thomas’s doubt. But one thing I can say with some certainty is that this story is meant for us, for readers of the gospel who have not seen Christ with our own eyes or touched his wounds with our own hands. After Thomas comes to believe, Jesus goes into Aesop’s Fables mode and tells us the moral of the story: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Maybe we believers will never see and touch the risen Christ in this lifetime. But it is not because Jesus is hiding from us or because God has abandoned us. We are still blessed. We are blessed even without a personal visit from the Savior.
But, if you’re like me, you might be thinking now, “Yeah…but sometimes that’s just not enough.” It’s hard to believe in something we can’t see, hear, or touch. Or, we look around the world and see so many other faiths, all so certain of their truth, and wonder “Why believe in Jesus over all of these?” Or, we see all the tragedy in our world and wonder if there really could be a loving God. Sometimes it seems there are so many reasons to doubt and so few reasons to believe. And in those times we understand Thomas’s doubt. In those times we hear Thomas question the resurrection and think “Yeah! You tell them how hard it is to believe!”**

Still Doubting by John Granville Gregory with thanks to A Concord Pastor

And you know what? I believe that sometimes, when we’re stuck in that Doubting Thomas place, Christ still comes to us, to let us touch and see the power of God.

Think back to our very first reading for today, a reading from the book of Acts. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

It’s not flashy — but isn’t that miracle? Sharing anything can be hard for us humans, and sharing EVERYTHING sounds impossible. And yet here is a group of people willing to lay down their lives and their livelihoods for one another. That has got to be the power of God. That is the Body of Christ in the flesh right here with us.

When the Church is at its best, it lives out that kind of abundant giving, that total generosity. And that radical sharing shows us – and the world – Christ.

I experienced that myself in just these last few weeks. Word got around St. Andrew that I had moved into my own apartment. Almost before I’d signed a lease, I was being stopped in the hallway by people asking if I needed anything: a set of dishes? a couch? help moving? And I thought, “This really is the Body of Christ. I believe in God all over again.”

My friend Caleb told me the same story yesterday without even hearing mine. He was on his way from Virginia to Texas to start a new job. He had first left on Wednesday, but a few hours out his car broke down. When he got back to his hometown, he went right to work looking for a car, but he worried about how he would be able to afford one on such short notice. Word got out to his church. And the money came in. When Caleb finished the story, he said the same thing I did: “There’s that Body of Christ thing!”

It’s not seeing the body of a Jewish teacher from ancient Israel. It’s not putting our hands in the wounds on his body. But when the Church follows in the way of Jesus: the way of washing feet, of sharing just a few loaves and fishes to feed as many as possible, of laying down one’s life for another – when we act like that, it must inspire faith. Such generosity and sacrifice is so different from what we usually see and from what we expect that it must be God’s work.

We truly are the Body of Christ. We are the body sent to all the Doubting Thomases, within the Church and without, to show that God’s power is great, that Christ is risen and working in our midst, Alleluia, Alleluia.


*The idea of Thomas the Grieving came from a comment on “Commentary on John 20:19-31” by Lance Pape. Scott Major wrote: “…Thomas was likely wrestling with loss. I see this often as a chaplain. My brother wasn’t able to be there…present with God and his friends. Is this doubt…maybe, but it is definitely grief.” (April 7, 2015).

**Lance Pape also cheers on Thomas for being willing to voice doubt (see link, above.)