Restoring Relationship

Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas, the disciple who refuses to believe in the resurrection unless he first has an encounter with Jesus and is able to place his hand and fingers into the wounds of the One he knew had been crucified.  The encounter between Jesus and Thomas occurs exactly one week after the resurrection, which is one of the reasons why this story is read every year on the Sunday following Easter. Unfortunately, because of this one particular event, our poor friend Thomas has become permanently known to history as “doubting Thomas.” I say that this is unfortunate, because the essence of this story is not really about Thomas’ skepticism or his doubt. This is not ultimately a story about the need for proof or the need for some kind of empirical evidence for the resurrection. Rather, the story of Thomas and Jesus is primarily a story about the restoration and renewal of relationship.

Now, in order to see this story in terms of relationship, we have to step back into John’s gospel and review what he means when he uses a particular word, and that is the word believe. Believing is really important in John’s gospel, but he is using this word believe quite differently from the way we often use that same word in our modern context. In our contemporary, post-enlightenment context, to believe that something is true usually implies that we have some verifiable, empirical evidence. That which is true and real is that which can be observed and measured and proven. And so, we tend to divide our experience into two categories. On the one hand, we have the experience of belief, which is our intellectual assent to that which is verifiable and provable and on the other hand, we have the experience of doubt, which is our questioning and wrestling and uncertainty when we don’t have evidence or proof that something is true. We can think of these experiences as being the two ends of a spectrum – belief at one end and doubtat the other. 

But these are not the categories that are at work in John’s gospel. In John’s gospel, belief is not primarily a matter of intellectual assent. Belief is not about correctly interpreting every line of the Nicene Creed. Belief is not ultimately a matter of information or understanding. In John’s gospel and throughout the New Testament, to believe is to enter into relationship with Jesus. This begins to make sense when we realize that in the New Testament, the words believe and faith and trust and fidelity are all derived from a single Greek word. 

And so, to believe is to have faith! To believe is to trust! To believe is to enter into relationship! To believe is much more a matter of the heart than of the head.

Let’s go back to the story of Thomas and Jesus. Thomas is a disciple. He is a believer. He has spent at least three years of his life following Jesus and participating in his mission and ministry. So, for Thomas and all of those first disciples, the crucifixion was a devastating and crushing blow – emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. They were afraid. They were grieving. They were angry. And all they could think of to do was to lock themselves up behind closed doors and wait. Thomas, perhaps because of the depth of this own grief and disillusionment, didn’t even stay with his fellow discipled, and therefore, he missed the encounter with the risen Christ that took place on that first Easter night. Given his emotional and spiritual state, is it any wonder that when the disciples share their experience Thomas is guarded? Why are we surprised that Thomas is resistant and hesitant given the pain and hurt that he has experienced? His heart has been broken once, and he’s not about to allow it to be broken again!

And I want you to notice that in that moment, Thomas doesn’t try to hide his brokenness he doesn’t try to be strong or religious or pious. He’s brutally honest, and he says, “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. I will not have faith. I will not trust. I will not enter back into that relationship.

But one week later…once again, the disciples are in the house. Once again, the doors are shut. Once again, Jesus appears. But this time Thomas is present and accounted for. Jesus doesn’t condemn or judge Thomas. He simply says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” In other words, “Look, Thomas, it’s really me!”

Now the very next line is where most translations get it wrong, because the word doubt does not actually appear in the original Greek. The literal translation is “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” What Jesus is saying to Thomas is essentially, “Do not be without belief. Do not be without faith. Do not be without trust. But believe. Have faith Trust me. Come and renew your relationship with me. Because, I’m not dead, I am alive, and I am here with you!

And Thomas responds, My Lord and My God! Not only is this one of the most profound and complete theological statements in the entire New Testament, it is also one of the most personal. This is not simply a theological declaration; this is a relational declaration – my Lord and my God.  

Notice that the story never tells us whether Thomas actually touches Jesus. I personally don’t think he did. Because it is not proof or empirical evidence that leads Thomas to a restored relationship, it is the presence of the risen Christ and the gracious offering of himself to Thomas. It is the power of the resurrection as a present reality in Thomas’s life that leads him to a restored and renewed relationship with Jesus. 

My brothers and sisters, this morning, I would like to invite us to reflect for a moment and to think about how often in our lives to we find ourselves identifying with Thomas. Times when we are afraid, grieving, angry and disillusioned – when the doors of our lives and our hearts are locked tight. In those moments believing and trusting can be difficult. Those are the times in our lives when we, like Thomas, need resurrection more than ever. Those are the times when we need the power of the resurrection as a present reality. And in those moments, it’s okay to be brutally honest with God. To express our frustration and brokenness. To release our anger and disillusionment.

Because somehow, often in the most surprising and unexpected ways, resurrection breaks through. You might be sitting in church or sitting in your car. You might be feeling spiritual strong or utterly defeated. It doesn’t matter. Resurrection life breaks through. Jesus walks right through the locked doors of our lives and offers himself to us. He says, “Come, renew and restore your relationship with me. I am not dead. I am alive and I am here with you.” And in those moments when the power of the resurrection becomes a renewed reality in our lives, we can boldly proclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Nothing Is Normal Anymore

Imagine a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. A time when life was different. A time when life was simpler. A time when life seemed normal. I’m talking, of course, about February 2020! Just fourteen months ago! Just fourteen months ago, our world seemed like a much different place. Worshippers filled many of our churches – like normal.Students filled classrooms and hallways – like normal. People attended concerts, went to sporting events, and socialized with their friends – like normal. In other words, everything was normal until suddenly it wasn’t. Now we learned some things over the course of the past year, right? We learned that the supply chain of toilet paper is not as reliable as we thought. We learned that with Zoom all things are possible or at least we like to think so. We learned that binge watching your favorite show on Netflix is officially the new great American pastime. But, if we’re honest, when our normal was disrupted, we were also reminded of some of the more serious problems that still plague our world. We were reminded that we are still deeply divided as a nation. We were reminded that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to issues such as racial injustice and political discord. We were reminded that we are still struggling to live into the ideals we have for ourselves and those we love. My friends, the past year has been one long disruption of our normal. But when our normal is disrupted, that’s precisely when we are given the opportunity to learn about ourselves and to see the world differently. And so, today, on this Easter morning, I want to invite us to reflect on how we deal with disruption, with change and reorientation in our lives. Specifically, what do we do when God is the one who disrupts our normal? 

Our gospel reading this morning can help us answer that question, Because, when the women went to the tomb on that first Easter morning, everything they were doing there that day was normal. Their friend had just died a horrible and tragic death, so, it was normal for them to be grieving. They were following the traditional Jewish custom of anointing the body after burial, so, it was normal for them to bring spices early in the morning. They were concerned about the size and weight of the large stone in front of the tomb, so, it was normal for them to be questioning, “Who might roll away the stone for us?” Everything they were doing there that day was normal until suddenly it wasn’t. They arrive at the place where Jesus was buried, and the stone is already rolled away. The tomb is empty. Where they expected to see the body of their Lord, they encounter a stranger who announces that Jesus has been raised from dead. Suddenly and without warning, nothing is normal anymore! Now, if you think about it, Jesus had been in the habit of disrupting things all along the way. There was that wedding in Cana that was pretty normal, until Jesus showed up and turned water into wine. There was a funeral in Bethany that was proceeding as planned, until Jesus showed and called the dead man out of the tomb. There was a worship service in the village of Capernaum that was perfectly normal, until Jesus started casting out demons, healing the sick and proclaiming the kingdom of God had come near. Jesus has been disrupting things all along the way. But Easter is different! The events of that first Easter morning changed everything. The whole world was changed. Everything was turned upside down. Nothing was normal anymore! For us, two thousand years later, it’s easy to shout “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” But for the women who were standing in front of that empty tomb, it was an experience of profound disruption and disorientation. And they were afraid!

That’s where the gospel reading ends: “they were seized with terror and amazement, and they told nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s a rather strange way to end a gospel reading on Easter Sunday, don’t you think? In fact, the ending of the Gospel of Mark was so dissatisfying almost from the very beginning, that later on someone added not one, but two alternative endings trying to smooth things out! But the ending we heard this morning is almost certainly what Mark intended for us to hear, because I don’t think Mark wants us to move past the fear too quickly. I don’t think Mark wants us to shout “Alleluia!” right away. I think Mark wants us to sit with and to acknowledge the fear. Because when everything has been turned upside down, when God has disrupted our normal, a healthy amount of fear and discomfort is probably appropriate. In fact, if we hear the Easter story and don’t tremble just a bit, I don’t think we have really heard the message. If we too casually proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” without realizing the implications of that reality for our lives, I don’t think we fully understand what we are saying. Because Easter changes everything! Nothing is normal anymore!

My friends, God is in the habit of disrupting our normal in order to open our eyes to a different reality. God disrupts our normal in order to stretch and deepen our faith. God disrupts our normal in order to shake us out of our complacency. God disrupts our normal in order to make us more like Jesus. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unsettling. It’s disorienting. And guess what? That is exactly the point!

But in the midst of the disruption, there is a promise. Because when God disrupts our normal, there is always a promise, and it’s the same promise that was given to the women on that first Easter morning. The stranger in the tomb declares to the women, “Jesus goes ahead of you!” Do not be afraid, because as you press on into your future, it is there where you will encounter the very presence and power of the risen Christ! That’s the promise of Easter! That’s the promise of resurrection! Fear doesn’t have the last word! Hopelessness doesn’t the last word! Disruption doesn’t have the last word! Not even death itself has the last word! Because the risen Christ goes before us and our hope and our future are found in him! No matter what you’re facing in your life. No matter what challenges may lie ahead of you. No matter how uncertain the future may seem. Jesus has already gone before you.

And so, this morning in the midst of the disruption, may you and I have the courage to let go of what has been in order to embrace what will be. In the midst of fear and confusion, may we trust that God is always working for our good. In the midst of change and disorientation, may we have confidence that God is in charge and our future is his hands. My friends, Easter changes everything! And because Jesus is alive, nothing is normal anymore! 

Sunday Ready – April 4

This week, we are launching a brand new video podcast called Sunday Ready. The purpose of this new podcast is to provide insight and background that will help you be ready to hear and respond to God’s Word when you come to church on Sunday. So often, we come to church and listen to the Bible being proclaimed, but we don’t really understand what we are hearing. We don’t know the background or the context. Our hope is that this new podcast will give you the information and insights you need to be “Sunday Ready!”

Here is the video for Easter Sunday, April 4. Enjoy!

Lenten Series – The Garden

Tonight, we come to the conclusion of our virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Appropriately, our final pilgrimage site is the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus spent his last night in prayer before his crucifixion. It was in the garden that Jesus prayed to his Father that “the cup might pass from him.” It was in the garden that Jesus fully surrendered himself to God’s will. It was in the garden that Jesus experienced betrayal and rejection by those who loved him and had been his followers. So, take some time this Holy Week to reflect on the experience of Jesus in the garden. The Powerpoint slides below also include a series of photos from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

He Emptied Himself

He Emptied Himself

The Rev. Doug Scharf

He could have clung to power and might. 

He had every reason. He had every right. 

He could have clung to glory on high,

thus avoiding the cries to crucify. 

He could have clung to his position as God,

safe at a distance, worshipped and awed.

But he emptied himself and became as a slave,

He poured out his life, from the crib to the grave. 

He emptied himself and walked in our shoes,

But we chose to reject the One bearing good news. 

He emptied himself and entered our pain,

For our sin, for our pride, for our shame, he was slain. 

He loved with a love as vast as the sea,

a love so immense it forgave you and me. 

He loved with a love so pure and so true.

This love has the strength to make everything new. 

But I must now choose to live my life like his.

To embrace what will be, I must lay down what is. 

I lay down my pride and my need to be right.

I must empty myself and give up the fight. 

I must humble myself and acknowledge my need

for a healing so deep that it caused him to bleed. 

I must empty myself, letting go of control,

in order to know I am healed and made whole.

My life and my hope are sustained by your grace,

a grace that I glimpse when I gaze at your face.

You emptied yourself my life to redeem,

I will empty myself to be part of your dream.

You emptied yourself my soul to reclaim.

I will empty myself to give praise to your Name.

Lenten Series – The Road

In the gospel of Luke, there comes a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus when he turns and “sets his face toward Jerusalem.” Up until this point, the majority of Jesus’ ministry public ministry has occurred in the region of Galilee. However, he knows that his mission will ultimately take him to Jerusalem. Tonight we journey with Jesus down “the road” from Galilee to the Mount of Olives, from which he will enter into the holy city riding on a donkey. As we reflect on the journey of Jesus, this is also an opportunity for each of us to reflect on own spiritual journeys.

Lenten Series – The Sea

Tonight we travel further north to the region of Galilee. According to the gospels, this is where Jesus spent most of his time. It was here, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus called his first disciples, taught the crowds about the kingdom of God, and ate breakfast with his followers after his resurrection. It was in the midst of a tempestuous storm that Jesus calmed the waves and spoke ‘peace’ to the hearts of his disciples. So, let us sit for a moment by the Sea of Galilee and spend some time with Jesus!

What Are You Looking At?

If you don’t like snakes, today’s readings may not be among your favorites! First, we heard from the book of Numbers, which recounts the strange and somewhat disturbing story of a time when God sent a plague of poisonous snakes against the ancient people of Israel. It turns out that in many ancient cultures, snakes were a symbol of life and fertility, but in the Bible snakes and serpents are often depicted as symbols of deception and evil and, at times, even death. Now, if that’s not enough reptile religion for you, how about the fact that Jesus himself in the gospel of John refers back to the snake saga in the book of Numbers as a way of describing his own destiny – Jesus said, I will be “lifted up” just as “Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.” As I said, if you don’t like snakes, these readings may not be among your favorites! 

But this morning, I would submit to you that these rather strange readings actually have something very important to say to us about the biblical paradigm for healing. They have something to say to us about what it means to be healed and to be made whole.   

So, let’s start with the book of Numbers. Moses and the people of Israel have been wandering in the desert for some time. They have escaped the clutches of Pharaoh, but they are still a long way from entering into the land that God has promised to them. And so, we find the people of Israel doing what they do best – complaining! Even though God has provided manna from heaven and water from rocks, the people continue to complain and to rail against God. And it seems that the consequence for their rebellion is this plague of poisonous snakes – the word here actually means “fiery serpents.” Now it may be a bit unnerving for us that God is the one who appears to order these poisonous snakes to descend upon his chosen people. But the whole book of Numbers is full of these strange signs. This is the same book that gives us the tale of a talking donkey and the story of birds raining down from heaven. So, a plague of fiery serpents shouldn’t necessarily surprise us. What should surprise us is how God chooses to save and heal his people!

God tells Moses to hold up a pole with a snake at the top! Think about that. Moses doesn’t hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments and say remember the covenant! He doesn’t hold up his staff as he did at the crossing of the Red Sea! He doesn’t hold up a dove or an olive branch or some other symbol we might associate with healing and new life! He holds up a snake! The very thing that was the source of pain and affliction and even death becomes for them the source of healing and the source of life! But notice that the snake on the pole didn’t automatically result in healing. The person bitten by a snake had to look at the snake on the pole. They had to look at the source of their pain. They had to come face to face with the very source of their affliction in order to be healed and to be made whole. 

Now, now let’s fast forward over a thousand years, to a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Their discussion is about salvation and how a person can be born from above. And it is in the context of this conversation that Jesus reaches back to the book of Numbers and says, “Remember the serpent that Moses put up on the top of a pole? Well, in the same way, I will be “lifted up” so that whoever believes in me will have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that so everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” I am confident that most people holding up a John 3:16 poster at a football game have no idea that it is actually connected to a reference about an ancient fiery serpent on the top of a pole. 

But this is the connection that Jesus is making. And the lifting up that he is referring to is his own crucifixion. Now, of course, the cross was and is a symbol of pain and affliction. A symbol of shame and humiliation. A symbol of death. Yet the cross has become for us and for the entire world the very source of our healing and our salvation. Just as the snake was a sign of affliction yet became a source of healing. The crucified Jesus was sign of death yet became our source of life. And when Jesus dies in the gospel of John, the last words that are referenced before he is taken down from the cross are the words of the prophet Zechariah who said, “They will look on the One whom they have pierced.” My friends, we have to look. We have to be willing to come face to face with the reality of that affliction and humiliation and death, which has become for us our source of healing and wholeness. 

That’s part of the biblical paradigm for healing! It is when we come face to face with the source of pain and the source of our affliction that we discover true healing and wholeness. It is when we are willing to look. It is when we are willing to confront the reality of the hurt and pain that we discover that God has been there the whole time, ready to heal, restore, and make all things new. That’s the paradigm. The very thing that was a source of pain or hurt, becomes the means by which God can heal us and make us whole.

Now, if we’re honest, we really don’t like this paradigm. We would much prefer to deny the hurt, dull the pain, and stuff our emotions. That’s the American way! I’m okay! You’re okay! We think we can just press ahead. And that works for a while. But then that deep desire for healing and wholeness, the longing of our hearts for freedom and deliverance, comes bubbling back to the surface of our lives. But if we don’t look at the pain. If we don’t face the hurt. If we don’t deal with the shame or the rejection or the humiliation. Nothing changes. 

So, the question for us this morning is “What are you looking at?” What are you looking at? The people of Israel were called to look at the snake on the top of a pole and to put their trust in God. As the people of God, we are called to look at the cross of Jesus Christ and to believe in his Name. And then we are called to look at our lives, to come face to face with our own hurt and pain, and to discover that Jesus is already there, ready to heal, ready to restore, ready to forgive and to make all things new. 

Lenten Series -The Mountain

Tonight our pilgrimage took us to Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Throughout the Bible, significant encounters with God’s presence take place at the top of mountains. These encounters represent “thin places” or moments when the veil between heaven and earth is especially thin or transparent. Join us as we journey to the Mount of Transfiguration, where we encounter the light of God’s glory in face of Jesus our Savior.