24 April 2016

Sermon – “Unfinished Business” (John 21:15-19)

In the Gospel of John Jesus’ last words from the cross were these: “It is finished.” At that point, as he prepared to give up his spirit, Jesus had accomplished all that he had come to do—to offer up his life as what the Anglican Book of Common Prayer calls the one “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world”. The curtain of the temple (reputed to be as thick as a man’s hand) was about to be ripped apart, from top to bottom. The impenetrable wall of separation between sinful humankind and the all-holy God had been breached. Yet, in spite of the colossal nature of the cross, there still remained some loose ends that needed to be tied up.
For the past couple of weeks we have been having some renovations done to our house. Very soon I am hoping we will be able to say that the project has been completed. Yet, as with almost any undertaking, there will undoubtedly still remain a few details that will need to be attended to. Without wishing to be in any way frivolous, the same was true in those days following the crucifixion. Yes, Jesus’ mission was completed on the cross. “It is finished.” Yet there were still some important matters that needed to be dealt with. There were mourners like Mary Magdalene and Cleopas and his friend, who needed to be consoled and delivered from their grief. There were doubters like Thomas, who needed to be convinced that Jesus had indeed conquered death. And then there was Peter, who needed to be relieved of the terrible burden of guilt he carried about with him following his cowardly denial of Jesus outside the high priest’s court.
That last story is found only in the fourth gospel. It almost seems, at the end of chapter 20 and Jesus’ dramatic appearance to Thomas in the upper room, that John has come to the end of his account—and what a high point to end on! And so he concludes, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). I can imagine John putting down his pen with a great sigh and then saying, “Oh! I almost forgot to tell you what happened with Peter…” and picking up his pen again to add the twenty-first chapter.
“It all happened like this…” he begins. The scene this time is to the north, in Galilee, where the disciples’ adventure with Jesus had begun. Seven of the disciples had gone out to fish. The first glimmers of the rising sun were beginning to appear on the horizon when they heard a voice from the shore. “You wouldn’t have anything to eat, would you?” Their annoyance at having caught nothing in spite of having been in the boat all night was evident in their monosyllabic reply: “No.” “Well, toss your net over to the right side of your boat and you’ll find some.”
Now you would think the disciples should have started to become a little suspicious. The scene was remarkably similar to something that had happened three years before. That time Peter had objected. This time, however, there was no demurral. The net had barely sunk into the water before it was bursting with fish. It was at that point that the penny dropped for John at least. “It’s the Lord,” he stammered. No sooner had the words left his mouth than Peter was pulling on a tunic and splashing into the water.

“Do you love me?” – Discipleship, not competition

It was after they had eaten that Jesus turned to Peter with the painful question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” The question was painful for two reasons. First, Jesus was addressing Peter by his formal name, not the nickname—Peter, Rock—that Jesus himself had given him. Secondly, Jesus’ question harked back to a conversation that had taken place on the eve of his crucifixion. “All of you are going to desert me,” Jesus had warned them. But Peter objected, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will” (Mark 14:27-31). I don’t think it was intentional, but Peter was implying that his devotion to Jesus was greater than that of any of the other disciples. Now Jesus was asking, “What do you think about those words now, Peter? Do you really love me more than these?”
Jesus’ penetrating question reveals one of the most insidious dangers for the followers of Jesus. It is the temptation to turn discipleship into a competition. It is a very easy rut to fall into, to begin to compare ourselves (either favourably or unfavourably) with other Christians. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it isn’t good to have role models or saintly examples of Christian living that we look up to. Nor am I suggesting that there are some people (and, sad to say, Christians among them) whose lifestyles we should avoid. No, this is something considerably subtler than that. In the New Testament we see it in the church in Corinth, where some people were under the impression that their spiritual gifts were more valuable to the life of the church than those of others. No, says Paul, such comparisons have no place in the Christian community. To get his point across, he uses what has to be the most powerful image of the church in all the New Testament: the body of Christ, where every part, no matter how large or small, visible or hidden, plays a vital part in the functioning of the whole.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ … But God has put the body together … that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 21,24-25)
We find our Lord Jesus enunciating the same principle more than once in the course of his teaching. Remember his absurd picture of the man attempting to remove a speck from someone else’s eye when there is a great beam protruding from his own (Matthew 7:3-5). Or how about his story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple? Do you recall the Pharisee’s prayer? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:9-14). It is a trap that good, well-intentioned people can easily fall into. I have seen it in the churches where I have served. I have seen it in myself.

“Feed my lambs…” – Discipleship as service

“Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Three times Jesus addresses Peter with this painful question. Peter could hardly have failed to grasp the significance. Three times he answers: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Yes, Lord, I love you.” And three times Jesus comes back with a commission: “Then feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”
What was the point that Jesus was at pains to get across? It is that the essence of discipleship is not competition but servanthood. Once again, turning to Paul and his words to that contentious, competitive bunch in Corinth: “To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). And of course Paul is really only echoing the same principle that Jesus had emphasized to his disciples during his earthly ministry. It was when James and John had come to Jesus asking to sit at his right and his left in his kingdom. When word of this got to the other disciples, their blood rose. But Jesus’ words put a stop to any indignation they might have felt:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)
Jesus’ injunction to Peter was a call to servanthood. More than that, those words, “Feed my lambs,” would have taken Peter back to an earlier time when Jesus had declared of himself, “I am the good shepherd.” And the good shepherd’s faithfulness to his flock would lead him to give his very life for his sheep (John 10:11).
I recently received an article from a friend in Cairo about a remarkable example of Christian servanthood.
In 1969, the governor of Cairo created the slum by relocating the mostly Coptic Christian trash pickers [to the city’s squalid garbage dump…] Women and children pick through 15,000 tons of the city’s collected refuse, sorting out recyclable waste from the biodegradables useful for wandering livestock. Men haul burlap trash bags twice their size into garbage trucks poised to tip from overfill… By 1974, the community of Manshiat Nasser had grown to about 14,000 Copts, living without electricity, plumbing, or church. Alcoholism was rampant. Crime was common. A reluctant Orthodox layman was asked to visit with an eye toward ministry… One day Farahat Ibrahim was walking in the area, feeling overwhelmed. “Lord, I'm just a drop in the ocean,” he prayed. “There are many people here and they are very hard and wild. What do you want from me?” Ibrahim bought a pair of boots and a flashlight, and trudged out in visitation to his unreceptive adopted flock. One man attacked him with a knife. Another hid in the pigsty. But in an abandoned cave above the slum, in a tin hut with a reed roof, nine people attended the first church service… [Forty-plus years later Ibrahim, now ordained in the Coptic Church as Father Simon, continues to minister there.] Six churches have been planted and serve the poor. Patmos Hospital serves the sick. Ninety percent of all trash gets recycled, as NGOs market creatively designed garbage-turned-crafts.[1]
Tragically, I fear that we Christians are probably better known for what we are against than for that kind of servanthood. At the same time, I don’t think you have to scratch too far beneath the surface of almost any church to find people who are feeding the hungry, offering shelter to the homeless and engaged in countless other ways in taking care of Jesus’ lost sheep.

“Follow me!” – Discipleship as a response to God’s love in Christ

It is a compelling picture—and Peter would indeed find himself serving in that very way, even going to the death for it. Yet I believe it still misses what is at the heart of genuine discipleship. I believe we need to go a level deeper—and that comes to us in Jesus’ final words to Peter in this morning’s passage: “Follow me.” “Follow me”—the same words Peter had heard addressed to him as he had stood casting his net for fish three years before.
You see, at its core discipleship really has nothing to do with what I can do for Jesus. It begins with what Jesus has done for me. Discipleship is a response—a response to God’s love for me in Christ. We will inevitably falter and fail in our service to Jesus and to others, just as Peter did. But there is one who will never fail, one who says to each of us, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jeremiah 31:3). Again I am reminded of the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he writes of his own ministry, “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance beautifully illustrated what I want to say when he reminisced of an experience he had with his daughter. He wrote,
Many years ago I recall thinking of the marvellous way in which our human faith is implicated in the faith of Jesus Christ and grasped by his faithfulness, when I was teaching my little girl to walk. I can still feel her tiny fingers gripping my hand as tightly as she could. She did not rely upon her feeble grasp of my hand but upon my strong grasp of her hand which enfolded her grasp of mine within it. That is surely how God’s faithfulness actualized in Jesus Christ laid hold of our weak and faltering faith and holds it securely in his hand.’[2]
Discipleship just isn’t about us. It’s about Jesus taking us, feeble and fault-ridden as we are, and working through us. May what we have read and heard this morning encourage each of us to be grasped by that strong hand of Jesus to draw us more deeply into himself, so that forgiven, restored and impelled by his love, we may go out to serve him in the world. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

[1]        Jayson Casper, “From Garbage to Glory”, Christianity Today, April 2016
[2]        Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, page 83

03 April 2016

Sermon – “Unless I see the scars” (John 20:24-29)

It seems that on the Sunday after Easter there just isn’t another story to tell than John’s account of Thomas and his unwillingness to believe. I have to admit that I looked hard for one, since I just preached on this passage a year ago and did not want just to rehash an old sermon. However, just six weeks ago my wife Karen and I had the enormous privilege of visiting what tradition claims as the sites of the martyrdom and burial of the Apostle Thomas in Chennai, India—so I decided to take a look at Thomas once again.
Thomas is a character who occupies very little prominence in the gospel story up to this point. The first we meet with him is in the lists of Jesus’ apostles in each of the first three gospels. The lists divide into three groups of four, and Thomas is in the second group, suggesting, in the words of one scholar, “neither eminence nor obscurity”.[1] We do not meet with Thomas again until towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had been informed that his friend Lazarus was grievously ill. The disciples tried to dissuade him from going to him for fear that Jesus’ life might be in danger. Thomas, however, challenged them, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). The next time Thomas comes into the picture is in the upper room. Jesus had been saying puzzling things about going away to somewhere that they could not come and yet that he was preparing a place for them. It was Thomas who protested, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus famously replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:5-6).
Fast-forward now a few more days. The disciples were again in the upper room—all of them, that is, except for Thomas. The doors were locked, just in case the religious authorities decided to come down on them now that they had managed to dispose of Jesus. A mixture of fear and puzzlement filled the room because of the recurring reports that Jesus, who had been executed only days before, had been seen alive. Whether it was the weak flickering of the oil lamps or whatever, we do not know. But for some reason they were not aware of the other person in the room until they heard the familiar words, “Peace be with you.” Their fear turned to joy as he showed them his hands and side and they realized it was Jesus. When they told Thomas what had happened, he could not bring himself to believe them. We all know his words: “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.” It was a week later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples once again and this time Thomas was among them, that his adamant refusal to believe melted away. “My Lord and my God!” was all that he could manage to sputter out—one of the greatest and most famous professions of faith in all of history.

A little more about Thomas

The story of Thomas does not end there, however. Twice more we meet with him in the New Testament: the first time on the shores of Lake Galilee as Jesus appears to the disciples (John 21:3), and finally in the upper room once again with the other disciples following Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:13).
Although the New Testament has nothing more to say about Thomas, early Christian tradition does. And while we cannot guarantee its accuracy, the odds are pretty good that some of it has a basis in historical fact. So here is how the story goes. Thomas, a carpenter by trade, was sold as a slave to an Indian merchant and ended up in the service of a king named Gundaphor, who is known from contemporary records and coins to have reigned from about 20 AD at least until the year 46. Thomas was engaged to build him a palace. The king gave him a substantial sum of money, the entirety of which Thomas promptly distributed among the poor. When the king insisted on seeing some progress, Thomas told him that the mansion he was building was in heaven. His words were these: “You cannot see it now, but when you depart this life, then you shall see it.”[2] For that he was immediately sent to prison but miraculously escaped, and King Gundaphor was converted to Christianity.
Thomas’s missionary journey then led him more than a thousand miles southwards along the west coast of India, where he arrived in the ancient city of Muziris in the year 52. Muziris had enjoyed a longstanding trade relationship with the Roman Empire, in addition to a Jewish settlement that had been established for six centuries, and it was probably both that drew Thomas there. Clearly Muziris was ripe for the gospel. During his short stay Thomas is credited to have founded seven and a half churches. (I’ve never found out what the half-church was all about!)
The next we hear of him is on the southeast coast of India, in Mylapore, part of modern-day Chennai. Through his ministry both the king’s wife and his son came to profess the Christian faith. Thomas, however, was sentenced to execution. Under the king’s orders he was led to a hill outside the city by four soldiers, who pierced him to death with their spears in 72 AD. Nearly fifteen centuries later, when Portuguese missionaries first traveled to India, they discovered that there were already well-established Christian communities, which traced their origins back to St Thomas’s evangelistic exploits. Right down to the present day the Mar Thoma Church of India, or Nasrani as its members are called, continue, as Thomas did, to worship Jesus as their Lord and their God.

The wounds we have received

I confess that all of that is really off-topic. So let’s go back to the upper room, a week to the day after reports of Jesus’ resurrection had begun to circulate. Thomas’s dogged insistence on seeing Jesus’ scars may seem almost ghoulish to our sensitivities today. I personally find it difficult to be faced with the sight of an open wound. Yet I have always appreciated the story of Thomas. It assures me that there is a place for healthy skepticism in the church and that Jesus is more than able to deal with our doubts.
This time around, however, I have begun to see the story of Thomas from another angle. In the past my focus has always been on Thomas and his transformation from doubt to faith. This time reading the story I have found myself attention drawn to Jesus—and not just to Jesus but to those nail marks, those scars that Thomas was so insistent on seeing. I have been helped in this by an article I came across recently by Leonard Vander Zee, interim editor of The Banner. He wrote this:
We all have scars … countless inner wounds: the griefs that never quite heal, wrongs that can never be righted, memories that cannot be erased, hurtful words or betrayals that still seem to have a direct line to our tear ducts or to the recurrent knot in our stomach. We are all scarred in one way or another. You can’t get through life without scars, inside or outside.
So it’s fascinating that when John tells the story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after the resurrection, he tells how Jesus shows them his scars—not once, but twice.[3]
A generation after the events in the upper room (as Thomas was far off in south India) the apostle Peter reflected, “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Peter was of course quoting from the famous passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, from which we drew our Old Testament reading this morning:
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4,5)
And so, as we stand with Thomas and look upon Jesus’ scars, we recognize that those scars are ours: the hurts we have carried with us since childhood, the betrayals that have left us feeling forsaken and destitute, the losses of deep and abiding friendships, or perhaps the physical pain and deprivation of illness and disease—all of what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.[4] Jesus has borne all of these upon himself on the cross, so that we can look forward to that day when sorrow and sighing will have fled away and our only tears will be tears of joy.

The wounds we have caused

Yet as I look upon Jesus’ scars, I recognize that these are not the only wounds he bears. What about the injuries, not that others have done to me, but that I have caused to them?
I remember years ago being asked by a doctor friend to visit one of his patients in the hospital who was suffering from intractable pain. It should have been amenable to treatment but it was not, and he had begun to wonder if her problem was not physical but spiritual. She was German originally and in conversation it turned out that she had been a member of the Nazi party, and while she had never personally tortured or killed anybody, she could not forgive herself for her complicity in the untold sufferings of millions of innocent people. Sadly, she was never able to recognize that Jesus had taken those wounds upon himself, never able to accept the forgiveness that God offered to her through the cross.
I don’t know about you, but as I look back on my life, there are things of which I am deeply ashamed: unkind words spoken without thought—and sometimes quite deliberately, not responding to others in their time of need because I was too busy with my own preoccupations, allowing my actions to be dictated by prejudice or preconceived notions about others, not to mention my complicity in global injustices and inequalities. The list could go on and on and indeed it does. And while there are some things for which I may be able to make amends and should, there are far more that I cannot, some of which I am not even aware of. These scars too Jesus has taken upon himself on the cross.
One year after the carnage of World War 1, Edward Shillito, a Free Church pastor serving in England, wrote these words:
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;

Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;

We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,

We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;

In all the universe we have no place.

Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?

Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,

Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;

We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,

Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;

They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;

But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Today let us thank God for Thomas and his doubts. But even more let us thank him for the scars that Jesus revealed to him. Surely he bore our sorrows and was bruised for our iniquities.

[1]        Robin E. Nixon, “Thomas, Apostle”, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church

[2]       Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 51

[3]       “He Showed Them His Wounds”, Reformed Worship, December 2012 http://www.reformedworship.org/article/december-2012/he-showed-them-his-wounds

[4]       Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

[5]        “Jesus of the Scars”