Experience is Believing

Text: John 20:19-31

In this scene the disciples are all hovered in fear in a locked room. Their leader and rabbi has just been publicly and brutally executed and now they’re fearing for their safety- maybe even their lives. They’re worried they’ll be arrested and possibly executed themselves for their support of Jesus’s alleged conspiracy against the authority of Imperial Rome.

I would imagine that some might even be afraid that maybe they were wrong about all this. Sure, Mary came and told them that she had witnessed the Risen Lord, but can she be trusted? Maybe it had just been a gardener or a passer-by that spoke to her. Peter and John went with her and all they saw was an empty tomb and left behind linens. That’s not really proof of anything. Someone could have taken him.
I imagine their minds racing with fear and worry, and maybe even sadness and disappointment.
But then, out of nowhere, Jesus appears and says “Peace be with you.” And the disciples were understandably relieved, comforted, and I would imagine affirmed in their faith.

Unfortunately, Thomas wasn’t there, so they rushed out to tell him about their experience with the Risen Lord. But Thomas wasn’t convinced. He quieted them and told them he wouldn’t believe unless he actually sees the marks on his hands with his own eyes and even places his fingers in them and his hands in his side.

Eight days later, Jesus appears again to the disciples and this time Thomas is with them. And as if he had overheard his request, Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to touch his crucifixion wounds. And with that, Thomas is overwhelmed and I imagine dropped to his knees and in a confession of faith, proclaims, “My Lord and My God!”

Thomas and the disciples were blessed to have an actual, physical appearance by Jesus Christ to affirm their faith and to assuage their fears.
On some level, aren’t we all wanting that, too?
Aren’t we hoping to hear the audible voice of God to thunder down and answer our questions?
To tell us whether or not to take that job?
To enter into that relationship?
Or to make that move?

In those times when our faith is waning, don’t we sometimes wish Jesus would just appear as he did to the disciples and say something like, “See Brook— totally real. I told you! Feel better?”

It’s normal to want these things.
We live in a culture where “seeing is believing”
Mystery has no place in our modern existence.
There is concrete proof and that is it.
If we don’t see it with our own eyes, it’s not real.

What I invite you to consider today is that Christ does appear to us
Just like he did to Thomas and the disciples on that frightening night 2,000 years ago.
In very real ways.
He does it through us.
We become the Risen Christ for one another.

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this in his book Life Together. He writes:
“Christ became our brother in order to help us; through Christ other Christians have become Christ for us…Other Christians stand before us as the sign of God’s truth and grace…”

Jesus promises to show up in these moments when we need to experience the risen Christ
Sometimes it’s in the encouraging words of a loved one, when you’re experiencing loss
Sometimes its in the forgiveness you offer to someone for whom you’ve had a disagreement.
Sometimes its meals for your family when you have to be out of town 

When we allow Christ to work through us
We help others experience the Risen Christ.
And when we do this
we become the Church here on earth.
Becoming Christ’s hands and feet

Experience is believing.

And that’s the beauty and the power of being the Church today.
As part of the body, we are Christ to one and another
Together, we are able to be Christ in ways we would never be able to on our own.
Collectively, God works through us so our reach can become all the more vast-
So others far and wide may have the experience of Jesus.

Experience is believing.

Recently I met with my friend Chandler, who works for Lutheran World Relief.
Over lunch, we were discussing how the Risen Christ works through us – the church
We talked about how we have the unique opportunity—the privilege- to be the Risen Christ to people not only in our communities but throughout the world.

We started talking about how war and strife in particular are plaguing so many countries now
And how war impacts the food supply chains of these communities.

He shared with me how Lutheran World Relief is building bakeries in Aleppo in war-torn Syria.
The city- one of the oldest in the world- has been laid waste from years of fighting.
And the people who have not already fled the area are left alone to try to feed their families.
A staple in the diet is pita bread – it’s almost an essential part of every meal in that area.
Through building just 2 bakeries- 2! –
These bakeries are employing 30 citizens as bakers in an economy where jobs are scarce and —get this-
are able to produce up to 9 TONS of bread a day
which feeds 80,000 people
with just two bakeries.
80,000.
Imagine that.
By collaborating with organizations such as Lutheran World Relief, we can directly help people from around the world have an experience with the Risen Christ.
that’s the power of the church.

And the symbolism is not lost either
Think about this—they’re bakeries!
As Christians we know that bread is a sign of new life
So as the church we are bringing new life to a country in desperate need.

And whats even more cool is that our original plan for lunch was to eat somewhere entirely different, but at the last minute, we decided to go across the street.
To the Mediterranean restaurant.
So here we are, two dudes in North Carolina, discussing the incredible work of the church, feeding people in need with pita bread—
while eating pita bread.
Only the Holy Spirit could arrange for something so incredible, don’t you think?
Can I get an Amen?

Experience is believing.

We don’t know how this works.
Does Jesus just magically pop in when we need him, like some sort of divine Mary Poppins?
Maybe, but probably not—

Luther writes —
“The evangelist (John) says not that they saw him enter, but that he appeared in their midst which sounds as if he had been there already— hidden and now revealed…”

It’s encouraging when you think about it.
That Christ is always among us
And when we work together
and care for one another
We not only become, but we experience the risen Christ already in our midst.

Because experience is believing.

Like Thomas, it’s normal to seek the proof of our faith in tangible ways.
But perhaps if we take the leap of faith
to expand our imaginations to consider the experience of the Risen Christ in the work of others
it will touch us in ways far deeper and more meaningful than tangible proof.

And maybe this experience will prompt us not just to be convinced
But be transformed.

Experience is believing.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Love’s Power

In many ways our world has never been more divided.
Frustration, fear, and anger are casting shadows all over the world
Governments are dropping chemical bombs on their own children
Tribes are refusing humanitarian aid for their starving people in order to maintain power and control
Even in our own country, families are being divided and communities are falling apart all because of differences of opinion

Watching or reading the news has almost become an unbearable task as we are bombarded with headlines and stories of division, anger, and hate.
It’s easy to feel powerless, isn’t it?

Things weren’t so different in the ancient world.
At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was exercising ruthless domination
leaving the people of Israel desperate for hope and salvation

Like many of us today, the people felt hopeless in the face of so much suffering and pain.
They too were looking for a new path forward

In the Gospel reading tonight, Jesus startles his disciples when in the middle of supper, he gets up, removes his outer clothing, and begins to wash their feet.

None of them quite know what to do as this action is such a countercultural move
They’re not even sure what it means
It’s a reversal of everything they’ve ever known
Leaders do not serve like this, they are served!

But Jesus is demonstrating for them a different form of leadership

It’s a symbolic gesture, but a powerful one.
By washing their feet, Jesus isn’t just showing hospitality
He’s demonstrating for them an entirely new way to live.
Jesus is showing them that in God’s Kingdom humble service is the ultimate power.
It is love that dismantles oppressive forces and unites people.
It is love that liberates.

We spend so much of our time and energy searching for these miracle solutions to the world’s problems
We exhaust ourselves, debating and arguing in an attempt to find that silver bullet
when the Bible shows us that the solution is right in front of us-
it’s the power of love

In the interest of pragmatism, we are quick to dismiss the power of love as whimsical folly when Jesus is telling us just the opposite.
that yes, love is the ultimate power.
It is love that will ultimately have the final say.

But loving isn’t always easy is it?
Just like the disciples in that day, we build all these barriers between one another

The color of our skin
how much money we make
how much education we’ve had
our occupations
our political affiliations
even our religious affiliations

Pretty soon, we’ve created for ourselves so many barriers that can we no longer
see each other
or hear each other
let alone love each other.

But Jesus is showing us that

True love requires mutuality
True love requires vulnerability.
True love requires humility

And only when we open ourselves to these elements can the power of love truly be harnessed.

Jesus shows us all of this when he gets on his knees and washes the feet of his disciples.

Loving is not always easy, that’s for sure.
It often requires us to move past ourselves and our own needs in the service to the other.
It sometimes asks us to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations
It sometimes asks us to love someone we don’t want to love.

When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he knows its a difficult task indeed.

But we must remember that sitting at the table of the disciples was also Judas.
And Jesus knew good and well that Judas was going to betray him.
And it pained him deeply.
But in spite of this,
Jesus washed his feet, too.
Perhaps that is what is asked of us as well.

Maybe- just maybe- in the washing of feet Jesus is modeling for us true Christian community
commanding us to serve one another in love
to cast aside any notions of superiority
to humbly care for one another’s needs.
To break down those barriers that are keeping us from loving one another fully.

Jesus is setting up a pattern of service, of humility, of bearing one another’s burdens.
He says, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do”

This is radical love.
Putting yourself out there when maybe you really don’t want to.
Offering yourself in service when maybe you feel like it is you who should be served.
This is servant leadership.

Knowing that the hour was near that he would no longer be with them, Jesus offers a final commandment or in Latin a “mandatum” which is where we get the name, Maundy Thursday
It is one that is to be the shaping motive for all of Christian community:

He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And when we do this, we are living in to the promise of ushering in the the kingdom of heaven.

So equipped with the power of love
and motivated by the promise
we can be Christ to one another
we can make true progress in healing some of the wounds which plague us.

We can begin to dismantle some of these barriers.

No longer will the color of our skin keep us apart
No longer will how much money we make divide us
How much education we have and don’t have will no longer be a factor in our relationships

our occupations
our political affiliations
our religious affiliations
none of these will continue to divide us
none of these will stand a chance against the power of love

But we can’t do this on our own.
Quite frankly, left to our own devices, none of this really is possible.
Left to our own devices, we stay mired in our own selfishness,
paralyzed by our fears

To be liberated from these forces it will take an event bigger and stronger and more powerful
than anything we could ever imagine.

Friends, that is why we are here tonight
That is why we are walking together through the holiest of weeks
We know this big event is just around the corner
beckoning us
It is the event that will offer us the power of new life.

But for tonight, as a community and as the church we stand together in hopeful anticipation
locking arms in support
holding one another in love
knowing that we must get through the pain and sadness of Good Friday
to get to the glorious liberation and freedom of Sunday.

It’s just around the corner.
and for that we say,

Amen.

Palm Sunday Sermon: Who Is This?

Text: Matthew 21:1-11

It’s the year 33 AD or so
It’s probably a Sunday
And the setting is Jerusalem, now a world class city and the center of Israel’s religious life with its newly renovated temple that rivals any in the ancient world.

The city is filled with pilgrims in town for Passover.
everything is noisy and bustling
Merchants are actively selling their wares, families are moving and shuffling about.
Dust is likely filling the air as animals hauling belongings and supplies are shifting and plodding
this way and that
Chatter is everywhere.

And then, people begin to take notice of this scene developing at a distance, toward one of the entrances of the city
People are starting to whisper and point into the distance.
The interest and curiosity seems to be building
Some are grabbing each other by the arms and racing toward all the action
Something is going on but no one is quite sure what.
It appears that the crowds are noticing this man riding atop a donkey entering the city.
people are gathering on the edge of the road like its some sort of parade
many are even running alongside him seemingly to get a closer look
They’re shedding their garments and throwing them on the road in front of him for the donkey to tread upon
They’re ripping palm branches from the trees and waving them in celebration—
Gestures that everyone in the crowd know are symbols for victory—
They shout Hosanna!
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
In Hebrew, Hosanna means “save us” -which considering the story is interesting, but here it is likely just a shout of praise.

But who is this guy?
And why are they all responding to him like teenage girls to the arrival of Justin Bieber?
Who is this, making such a scene?
Surely it must be someone royal and powerful, considering this level of welcome.
And this enthusiastic welcome would indeed be appropriate
if what they’re saying is true-
Because the Messiah was understood to be from the lineage of King David, Israel’s greatest king.
being a descendent of David was a prerequisite for this new king
So when they shout out “Hosanna, Son of David” they are acknowledging that he fits all the criteria of the one who is hoped for
In other words, this could be IT.

This is the image they have likely dreamt about for years.
Perhaps lifetimes.
The arrival of the Messiah.
It fits all the descriptions they’ve heard in prophecies.
Almost to a “t”
So in their hopes at least- The Messiah has come to rescue them at last
To liberate them from the tyranny of the Roman Empire.

But who is this?

Well, they know his name is Jesus.
But this is a common name at the time
Almost like John or Bob or Richard of today—
so the name wouldn’t be a big indicator
But chances are they had a good idea of who this guy was
the word was on the street, so to speak
it’s likely the word was getting out about about this traveling rabbi from Galilee who had started up a movement of sorts
He’s creating quite the buzz
People are beginning to follow him from town to town to listen to his teaching.
many even consider him to be a prophet
And all this hubbub has been getting under the skins of the religious leaders
Everything he has been saying has been challenging them

Now we have this scene which will likely only make matters worse

Because from the looks of things, people are soaking it all in and starting to get excited.
As the text says
The city was all stirred up.

Jesus knew what he was doing by setting this all up this way.
He’s no stranger to provocation

He knows good and well that the people of Jerusalem will recognize the statement he is making
They’re steeped in Scripture.
They know the prophecies.

So, just before he enters the city, he stops by a suburb of Jerusalem known as Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, and sends two of his disciples to secure a donkey and a colt for which he was to ride.
this way, he’s intentionally linking himself to, and placing himself in, the prophecy in Zechariah 9:

“Tell the daughter of Zion (which is Jerusalem)
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

If you continue on with Zechariah passage, it goes even further in describing this king.

The image of a divine warrior
Promises to “set your prisoners free”
To return you to your stronghold
To restore to you double

By taking these well-understood symbols and reappropriating them, Jesus is deliberately claiming to be the promised king of Israel who will re-establish the throne of David

And they respond accordingly

When they throw their garments on the ground for him to ride over, it is reminiscent of how crowds acted when Elisha commanded the anointing of the prophet Jehu as King of Israel in 2 Kings 9:13. “hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’”

With his dramatic arrival into the city, Jesus is announcing that he is the king they have been waiting for. He is the Messiah that has been foretold for so many years.
And yes, he has arrived
And yes, he will save them.
And yes, he will liberate them.

But not exactly how they think…

The entire story in fact is a study in contrasts.

A king riding not on a majestic warhorse….but a donkey.
Instead of royal robes, the clothes of the poor and marginalized are rolled out on the ground like a red carpet
Here is a leader who conquers not with force, but with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
This is a kingdom not of glitz and splendor, but of lowliness and servanthood.

Now this is NOT what the people were expecting.

And we know that once they learn that their expectations are not as they think
Their shouts of Hosana will turn to hisses of “Crucify!”
But for those developments,
and to fully experience how this story unfolds,
you’ll have to come back later in the week.

See you Thursday.

Amen.