Friday, April 10, 2015

Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

Believing is Seeing

Readings: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

We read in the Acts of the Apostles of a community of believers on fire with enthusiasm for the Christian faith. They are of "one heart and soul". A great transformation has taken place in them since the death of Jesus. These same people who had fled in fear following the crucifixion of their leader are now gathered together and with great power are proclaiming the good news of the resurrection. Their way of life declares their confidence in the risen Saviour. It is a community marked not by words only, but also by its service to others. They are living out their faith.

What a far cry from the discouraged and frightened band of followers huddled behind locked doors that we meet in John's gospel! They are still reeling from the affects of the past few days. They are in mortal fear that the same authorities who killed Jesus will catch up with them. Then suddenly Jesus is with them in his risen glory. This is not some ephemeral ghost, but the risen Lord, the bringer of peace, the one whom they can see and touch and handle. He is back in relationship with them, consecrating them to do mission. His presence transforms their lives. They meet the risen Christ, and seeing, they believe.
Throughout his gospel John gives us sign after sign of the power of God working through Christ. He sums it up at the end of the gospel. "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book," he explains. "But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.

The disciples believed because they saw. They were eyewitnesses to the resurrection. But where does that leave us? What do we believe? Why do we believe? What difference does it make? What is the difference between the kind of believing we did when we were children and kind of belief system we are called to as adults? When we were children we believed without question. We believed in Santa Claus. We knew that if we were good little boys and girls and went right off to sleep that Santa would come and leave us a wonderful toy under the tree. We believed in the tooth fairy. We believed in the Easter Bunny. We believed in Tinker Bell.

Now we are called to believe in the Resurrection. It should be the same thing -- shouldn't it? Believe it hard enough, live a good life and we'll be rewarded in the end. And what a reward it will be -- eternal life! Isn't that worth putting all doubts aside and simply trusting that it is so?

I remember in my first year of Philosophy reading something that Aristotle said of faith. It must have resonated at some deep level for me to remember it still. "That which is probable and impossible is better to believe than that which is possible and improbable." Somehow or other we must be able to come to a sense of reasoned, reasonable faith. To go on blind faith is to remain a child in one's spiritual journey. Yet somehow we must choose to believe in what Coleridge calls a "willing suspension of unbelief." It is a faith that comes through allowing ourselves to see the signs of resurrection around us.

That is certainly the purpose of the resurrection accounts in the gospels. It is the evening on the first day of the week. The disciples except for Thomas are gathered together behind locked doors. Confusion reigns. They have heard conflicting stories. No one knows quite what to believe. Then Jesus is there with them. "Peace be with you!" he says to them in that familiar way of his. He commissions them, breathing his life-giving spirit into them.

Suddenly they have a sense of purpose. They want to share the good news. They share it with Thomas. "We have seen the Lord!" But he is skeptical. "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."

They should not have been surprised that he did not just respond and believe what they were telling him. They had all been through more than anyone should have to bear. How could he accept what they were saying only to have his hopes dashed? It was too much to ask. He felt betrayed. Hurt. He simply could no longer risk hoping.

We are all like Thomas at least some of the time in our faith journey. We can no longer risk believing simply to have our hopes dashed. Sometimes we have been hurt too much by life. How can we go on hoping when we see such problems in our world? What kind of a God goes on allowing such terrible things to happen? If there really is a God why doesn’t God simply stop terrible tragedies from happening? What kind of a God lets little children go hungry? What kind of a God allows suffering?
Or we may have been let down by the church. It has not always been the safe refuge that it should be. The place that should be the healer has often been the abuser. We go to church expecting to find a loving and caring community. Instead we find people bickering and arguing. We find cliques that won't make room for us. We expect to be affirmed and find that there is no place for our talents. We are not made of feel welcome. We don't feel as if we belong. It is not the church it used to be. There are strange liturgies. There are new people sitting in our pew. We cannot cope with the changes.

Or we may have been let down by our profession. We have coped with downsizing but now the plant is closing. We have to start all over again. We feel helpless, out of control, useless. How can we keep faith when nothing is going the way it should? Doesn't being a Christian mean that everything is supposed to work out for good? What is the point of having faith if it does not help to solve life's problems?

Or we may have been let down by our health. We try to live well, to do the things that we think are good for us. We still face sickness and pain. Yes! We have all met Thomas. We may meet him each time we look in the mirror. Like Thomas we need to see in order to believe. What can increase our faith?

When we think of faith I suspect that we often think in terms of seeing some miracle that will dispel all sense of doubt. "God," we cry out. "Show me in some tangible way. I want to be certain."

I came across a story that circulated around the net a few years back. I don't know if it is true. But it is probable. A young man had attended a Bible Study at his church where the pastor had discussed listening to God and obeying God's voice. He kept thinking, "Does God still speak to people?"

Driving home, he began to pray, "God... If you still speak to people, speak to me. I will listen. I will do my best to obey."

Suddenly he had the strangest thought: "Stop and buy a gallon of milk." He shook his head and said out loud, "God, is that You?" Getting no recognizable reply he continued, "Okay, God, in case that is you, I will buy the milk." He stopped at a convenience store, purchased the gallon of milk and started off toward home.

He had an urge to turn down a street. "This is crazy," he thought, but he turned just the same. He drove several blocks, when suddenly, he felt like he should stop. Again, he sensed something: "Go and give the milk to the people in the house across the street."

He worried that if they were asleep they might be pretty angry at being awakened. But he felt like he should go and give the milk to the people in the house.

He walked across the street and rang the bell. He could hear some noise inside. A man's voice called out, "Who is it? What do you want?" Then the door opened before the young man could get away. A man was standing there in his jeans and T-shirt. He looked like he'd just gotten out of bed. He had a strange look on his face, and he didn't seem too happy to have some stranger standing on his doorstep.

"What is it?" he asked.

The young man thrust out the gallon of milk, "Here, I brought this to you." The man took the milk and rushed down a hallway speaking loudly in Spanish.

Then from down the hall came a woman carrying the milk toward the kitchen. The man was following her holding a baby. The baby was crying.

The man had tears streaming down his face as he turned to his unexpected visitor. He began speaking and half-crying, "We were just praying. We had some big bills this month and we ran out of money. We didn't have any milk for our baby. I was just praying and asking God to show me how to get some milk."

His wife in the kitchen called out, "I asked God to send an angel with some. Are you an angel?"

The young man reached into his wallet and pulled out all the money he had with him and put in the man's hand. He turned and walked back to his car, with tears rolling down his cheeks. He knew that God still answers prayers, and that God still speaks to His people.

We don't all get clear guidance like the young man in the story. We don't all need it. We may say like Thomas, "If I could see, I would believe." Jesus answers, "If you would believe you would soon see." God offers us grace. It begins when we really believe – when we stop talking about God and start depending on God's sustaining grace and love. We may not feel anything very significant. We may not see miracles taking place before our eyes at least maybe not any huge ones. But there will come the realization that we are in touch with divine power, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. Such power can make a difference in our lives. Believing, may we see!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter Sunday

The Challenge of Faith

Readings: Isaiah Acts 10:34-43; Ps 118:1-2, 14-24; Mark 16:11-8

Through baptism we have been joined to Christ in his death so that we can begin a new life. That is the bold claim of Easter! What a message of hope it is. It is the message we acclaim with joy as we ring bells and shout joyful alleluias.

But is it true? Can I dare to believe it? How do we know that Easter happened? How do we know the truth of the resurrection? There is only one answer to that. We believe because we have encountered the risen Christ in the experience of the Church.

But when I read the gospel it raises all sorts of questions for me. The women are heading back to the tomb. They are grief stricken at the events of the past few days. Their beloved leader has been executed like a common criminal. His followers have scattered in fear. They themselves are heading to the tomb with a sense of futility. They had seen with their own eyes the huge stone that had been rolled into place across the entrance to the tomb. “Who will roll away the stone for us? They murmur to one another. It is a formidable obstacle. They could have given up and gone back home. They could have given up hope. Yet they needed to do something. And so they gathered together the spices needed for embalming and headed to the tomb.

And when they got there, the stone had been rolled away. They went in, wondering how it had been moved. All sorts of things must have gone through their minds. Who could possibly have removed the stone? What further indignity had the authorities heaped on their beloved leader? They must have been filled with fear. And yet they dared to enter the tomb.

And they were greeted by a man. “Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee,” he tells them as if it is an everyday occurrence. And what is their reaction to his message? Awe and shock! Terror stricken, they flee from the tomb. They run and hide. They tell no one. What kind of a message of hope is that? What are we to take away with us from their response to the empty tomb?

I must say that I can understand their reaction. It is the normal reaction of people faced with the death of a loved one, right from the need to be doing something to the shock and disbelief at what their eyes are telling them. Following a death there is nothing to do, and yet there is so much to do. Nobody goes to work. Nobody is hungry. Nobody has anything to say. Helpers feel helpless and in the way. There are so many things to attend to. Legal matters! The funeral! Music! Choosing the casket! Finding a burial spot! There are people, relatives and friends, to inform about the death. There are dozens of phone calls to make. The reception needs to be arranged.

And through all of that busyness you are trying to grieve. You need to feel anything through that sensation of numbness that overwhelms you. The death of a loved one brings you face to face with the reality of death. Life is not easy. Facing the death of someone you love is overwhelming. The hardest thing of all is facing your own death. We struggle to exist knowing that death is the one constant in our existence. We even joke about it – death and taxes. That is one of the many ways we have of coping with the knowledge that we will all die. We live in the present, refusing to even think about tomorrow. Or we live our lives in a kind of dream world where we don’t have to face reality

We began our Lenten journey with the symbol of ashes. It reminded us not only of our sinfulness, but also that we are mortal. Our Lenten journey has taken us from ashes to the cross, to the empty tomb. We look for hope. And Easter gives it. Easter proclaims that Christ is risen. Easter proclaims that death has been conquered. Once and for all! It gives us hope in life.

But back to that question, do I dare believe it? Consider the people who were eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. The holy women, those same women who scattered in fear when they saw the empty tomb! They became part of a Church alive in Christ. They had one of those ‘aha’ moments that are scattered throughout our lives. They got it. They began to understand the message of the empty tomb. They really got it! And in that ‘aha’ moment Easter entered their Good Friday world. It transformed them. It changed their grief and sorrow and pain into joy.

And it isn’t just the women who were transformed by the event. There is Peter, brash Peter who swore never to abandon Christ, but who denied ever knowing him. He became so fearful for his life that he ran away. But Peter became the rock that Jesus knew him to be. He preached Christ crucified; he proclaimed Christ risen from the dead.

And what is true of Peter is true of all the disciples of Jesus. Something so astounding happened that they began to proclaim their newfound faith in the risen Christ. Their fear turned to enthusiastic, spirit filled proclamation.

What about us? It is difficult for us to understand the terror of those first Christians. But it was well founded. They were in danger because of their allegiance to Christ. It is such a far cry from our experience of Easter. For us it means alleluias, special music, people we have not seen since Christmas, chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs. Those are not things that bring about terror or amazement. How do we recapture a sense of the wonder and awesome mystery at the heart of the Christian faith? Are we so anaesthetized by familiarity that we cannot fathom such feelings? Can we capture moments when that sense of awe breaks through? There must be moments on our journey when we say ‘aha’ and the light goes on. For a fleeting moment a door opens and we realize the beauty and the glory of the mysteries of Christ. We feel a sense of astonishment at the sheer grace and goodness of God. Those are moments to treasure and to keep. Those are moments that transform our lives.

Mark’s Easter account is full of Good News. It is good news that needs to be shared. They are to go to Galilee to meet the risen Christ. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. And yet the ‘how’ continues to defy us. It is after all about going to Galilee. It is after all about meeting the risen Christ. It is not about proving through historical evidence or contemporary analysis. It is by living and acting on the basis that it is true despite any feelings or emotions or scientific evidence to the contrary.

The truth of the resurrection does not depend on me, on where I am, on my feelings. I can run away in fear. I can find myself unable to understand what is happening. But sometime I will stop running. Then I will see the face of Christ in those around me. I will boldly proclaim that Christ is risen. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...