[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
I was talking yesterday with a learned Christian man. “Mark,” he told me, “I’m more concerned about America than I ever have been.”
That man wasn’t worried about the economy. Like you and me, he knows that we’ve had recessions before, even several depressions. We’ve survived those and we will survive this economic downturn. His concern instead, was for the soul, the spirit, the life of America.
And his concerns aren’t unfounded. Materialism and greed, coarseness and inhumanity, violence and sexual immorality seem not only to be accepted by many in our country today, but encouraged.
On top of that, hopelessness, boredom, and thrill-seeking lead many to drugs…and not just in big cities, but right here in Logan. A law enforcement official in our community told me some months ago that he worried that we are at risk of losing the lives of a large percentage of those in the eighteen to twenty-nine year old category to heroin addiction here in our community.
These and other hard realities could lead us to be afraid, to lock our doors and our hearts, and let the world go by.
On the Sunday after Jesus’ resurrection, our Gospel lesson tells us that most of Jesus’ first disciples were afraid. They had locked themselves in a room, fearful that their fellow Jews would come after them as they had gone after their Lord Jesus. Jesus had died a horrible death on a cross.
And even though they had seen the risen Jesus, they still huddled in fear in that locked room. The only one of their number who felt bold enough to walk the streets of Jerusalem was a guy who hadn’t seen the risen Lord, who refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection: Thomas.
My colleague, Pastor Scott Baker, challenged me to think a few weeks ago, when he asked some of our colleagues and me: Why didn’t Thomas believe the witness of the other disciples? Why had he refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead?
Pastor Baker offered a plausible reason: The other disciples were claiming that God had conquered sin and death, that through the living Christ, God was with those who believe in Jesus always, that nothing could separate believers in Christ from the love of God. AND YET, they were still terrified of what others might say or do to them. Thomas saw no change in his fellow disciples that would verify the truth of their claim of having seen the risen Jesus. They lived like people without hope. So, how could he possibly believe them when they said that Jesus had risen?
Pastor Baker’s insight led me to painful questions about myself: Can the risen Jesus be seen in my life? Does Jesus make a difference in how I live? Or am I simply going through the motions, enjoying holy huddles on Sunday mornings, and then, locking out God and the world the rest of the week? How many people have I personally told the Good News of Jesus, for example, in the past year? How often have I dropped my own personal agenda in order to serve a needy neighbor? How many prayers have I offered up for others? What have I done to bring justice or hope or comfort to other people?
In 1966, Jimmy Carter ran for governor of Georgia and lost. He was particularly bitter because the man who defeated him was a raging racist and Carter considered himself a devout Christian. But as he wallowed in self-pity, Carter’s sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, an evangelist, invited him to take a walk with her. She asked her brother to compare the time he spent on serving God and neighbor with the time he’d spent in recent years advancing his own career. Carter had spent time in short-term mission work, sharing the Gospel with people in northern inner city areas. But by his reckoning, he’d only shared the Gospel with several hundred people, while having talked personally with thousands to get himself elected governor.
Then, Ruth asked him this question, “If being a Christian were a crime, Jimmy, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” As Carter thought through the implications of that question, he decided that whatever the future brought, he would strive to keep Jesus Christ as his highest priority in life.
Thomas had every right to think that if Jesus really had risen from the dead, it would shuffle the priorities of his fellow disciples, that they would be out in the world telling others the good news that God so loved the world He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will have everlasting life. He would be safe in assuming that if the other disciples really had encountered the risen Jesus, they’d be bold in confronting evil, illness, injustice, poverty, hopelessness, and unbelief. If we believe in the risen Jesus, it ought to make a difference in how we live.
The Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, in one of his books, tells the story of a man who approached him after Peale gave a talk at banquet. The man said that he was a nervous wreck. As we all know, things like depression and anxiety can be physiologically based. But often, our nervousness is simply rooted in fear that we’ve allowed to grow to monstrous proportions. That was the case with this man. Peale wrote out a passage from the Bible on a piece of paper. They were words from Paul, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” He told the man to be sure to pray every evening and whenever his fears were controlling him to call out to God, reminding himself that he could do all things through Christ, who strengthens those who place themselves in His hands. That, wrote Peale, was the beginning of a transformation in that man’s life. Faith overcame fear. That man knew peace because he had peace with God.
The risen Jesus can change the lives of individuals and of communities. Hector Vasquez is a Lutheran pastor who once lived and worked as a missionary in Guatemala. There, he says, he and his wife Mirtha “learned an important lesson—the success of any church is not dependent on great decisions or great wisdom, it depends on the ability and knowledge of [God’s] Holy Spirit [working in] each one of us.” The only ability God expects us to exercise in following Him is availability.
According to Vasquez, early one morning, he found a group of people standing outside his home. They represented several indigenous communities where he and his wife were starting to do community service work. These people had a request: “They said, ‘Pastor Hector, our communities sent us so that we can ask you to send us pastors and teachers to teach us and our children. We know that what you do is good and, therefore, what you believe must also be good.’”
If we believe in the risen Jesus, it ought to make a difference in how we live. It ought to surmount our fears, leading us from locked rooms out into the great world, where we can share Christ with our neighbors. Lutheran pastor Walt Kallestad writes, “The essence of faith is risk…Faith makes things happen, while caution simply watches things happen.”
That was why I was so pleased with your participation in the recent Prayer Vigil. And that’s why I’m hoping that you’ll get involved with helping our servanthood team with the food drive in May. On May 9, we’ll go out into some Logan neighborhoods with empty sacks. Each will have two flyers attached. One will invite folks to fill the sacks with four items, represented by the acronym, PSST!: peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, spaghetti, and tuna. The following Saturday, May 16, we’ll need a bunch of you to go out to help us pick up the donated food items, which we’ll then turn over to the Hocking County Jobs and Family Services folks for distribution among needy families in our community.
I have a dream. It’s this: That the people of Logan will come to see all the good we’re doing in the power of Jesus Christ, and one-by-one, those not yet connected with Christ or the Church will approach us, as they did Pastor Vasquez in Guatemala, and say, “Teach us and our children about the Lord Jesus. We see His love and His power in you. We know that what you do is good and, therefore, what you believe must also be good.’”
The once-unbelieving Thomas, without ever touching the wounds he’d earlier said he needed to touch before he would believe, fell at Jesus’ feet and worshiped. Then he confessed Jesus as, “My Lord and my God!” And Thomas’ belief in the risen Jesus made a difference. One of the Christian denominations in India today traces its founding back to Thomas, who, it’s believed, was martyred there. Through Jesus, Thomas gained a faith that overcame fear.
In our everyday lives and as a Church, we need faith like that. Our world needs faith like that. It’s a faith that dares to live in the peace that the risen Jesus gives to His people, a peace that overcomes fear. May we live in that peace always. Amen