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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 4/19

Last week the gospel ended with, “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid,” but obviously that silence reported by Mark didn’t hold.  The story of the resurrection was told and its telling elicited responses ranging from confusion to fear to joy to amazement to disbelief and of course to what we understand to be the doubt of Thomas as Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.

A wide variety of responses but what we really get with Thomas is not so much doubt as it is him placing conditions on his belief; it’s an if/then thing.  What Thomas says is that if the conditions he has set are not met, then he will definitely not believe.  It’s kind of a bargaining session and that’s nothing new relative to faith. 

There are psalms where this kind of bargaining goes on as the psalmist essentially tells God if you bless me and/or bring down wrath on those who I think deserve wrath, then I will praise you.  And you know all the modern versions of this; if I had historical or scientific proof; if God would appear to me in a vision or speak to me like he seemed to do with so many Bible characters; if the Risen Christ would appear to me; if God would do this or Jesus would cure that; if we seemed to be getting closer to peace on earth; then I would believe and come to church and spread the word.  You’ve heard all that and you also know that the truth is more likely to be that if all those conditions were met, then I would come up with some more conditions. 

Thomas however does come to believe and some would say, “Well, his conditions were met;” the Risen Christ did appear to him and invite him to explore his wounds.  But what’s not clear is whether or not that was the reason for his statement of faith.  There is nothing that says he accepted Jesus’ invitation to physically touch him; it may have been the word of Jesus that brought Thomas to faith.  I’m not here to argue that either way though because I think the main point here for us is that Thomas didn’t believe the witness of the other disciples; that’s why he established his conditions. 

Those who had experienced the Risen Christ had begun to talk about it and tell others after the initial silence that we heard about last week.  But as has been noted, from the beginning the news of the resurrection was met with a wide range of responses and that continues to be the case.  The responses the Bible gives us are all still part of the mix today, but we could add a couple of others.  One response that seems to be out there these days is anger.  In the last couple of years there have been a number of books written by avowed atheists who don’t just proclaim that those who have any kind of religious faith are stupid at worst, silly at best, they also seem kind of angry about it.  Maybe this anger is just reflective of how journalism is done these days where conversation between those who have disagreements has largely been replaced by people yelling at each other; I don’t know.

More common than that response though, and I think more troubling, is the response of indifference.  I sense a growing population of people who are not antagonistic toward the church or religious faith, in fact many would probably profess faith in God; they’re just pretty much indifferent to it.  It doesn’t play a large role in their life and whatever faith they have, the church isn’t viewed as an integral part of it.  The sad truth of it is, while this response of indifference is true of many who are not part of the church, for most churches this group probably represents the largest group of members.  As I said, that’s troubling and it should be troubling to all of us.

If I knew how to make all those indifferent people more alive in their faith I guess I’d be the bishop or the pope or something or better still I could be an “expert” and write books saying that if you do this, this and this, then your worshiping congregation will double in numbers.  In reality though, I can’t, we can’t control the responses to the proclamation of the resurrection any more than the first disciples could, any more than Paul and others who wrote letters trying make sense of what it all meant could.  Thomas didn’t believe the witness of the others who said, “We have seen the Lord.”  Why should we think the response to us is going to be any different?

We can’t control the response; but we can control the proclamation and that’s where we have to try to make sure that we get it right using the witness of the Bible and the fathers of the church, listening to reformers like Luther and scholars down through the years, paying attention to ordinary, faithful people who have gone before us, but also continuing to interpret, trying to get the proclamation right for what it means today for an indifferent world.

What I think the proclamation of the resurrection should be is the good news that we do live in a new reality where the world’s power structures don’t win in the end and no situation of loss or brokenness is beyond the hope of new possibilities because God can and will act to change things and he will act out of love.  To be sure, God is portrayed in a lot of different ways in the Bible, but the resurrection reveals the fact that God’s last word is love; God’s hesed that we focused on during Lent finally does win the day.  God’s love means acceptance—God’s love means second chances—God’s love means forgiveness that is available to all people not after they have jumped through all the right moral and doctrinal hoops but forgiveness that is available just because…just because of God’s love for each of us even despite all those things about us that we don’t want anyone to know.

When we can see God that way, loving and forgiving and welcoming, we have seen the Risen Christ and we can invite others to share the vision.  Again, that is why we have to try to make sure we get it right, so that what we do here in worship witnesses to that vision of love and welcome.  We can’t control the responses, but I do think that if more people knew that this is the Risen Christ that we’ve seen, then more people would be here…not all, but more…and they too could see the Risen Christ.

Does one have to be here to see the Risen Christ?  Does one have to be part of the church?  I can’t limit what God can accomplish…but I’m certain that being part of a faith community does make a difference.  Thomas is the first example; he didn’t believe what the others told him but apparently he was still around, open to the possibilities within that community…and he saw the Risen Christ.

I just finished an excellent new biography of Abraham Lincoln by Ronald C. White.  There’s no shortage of books about Lincoln but what’s unique about this one is how the author weaves Lincoln’s faith journey into the story of his life.  Lincoln was never a member of any church, a fact that was used against him when he ran for office (nothing new there, I guess), in fact he was quite skeptical of the religion he was exposed to as a young man because it seemed to him to mostly be about checking your brains at the door and accepting a bunch of doctrine that he found hard to accept. 

But Lincoln loved the Bible, he read the Bible, and may have known it better than any president we’ve ever had…and throughout most of his life, he kept going to church.  He never joined, but having found that there were churches where you weren’t required to turn your brain off, he went to listen to the preaching (which was much longer in those days).  What he heard in church, especially the preaching of Dr. Phineas D. Gurley at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington after Lincoln became president, really caused him to struggle with God and the divine will and how God fit into something as awful as the Civil War.

For Lincoln the Civil War was initially about preserving the Union but it came to be more about the inhumanity of slavery and the need to abolish it, even though that made lots of people hate him.   His faith journey and what he heard in church were integral to the evolution of his thinking that this was the direction he had to go.  He never claimed certainty about knowing God’s will, but he knew what he had to do.

The point is that Lincoln was there; he wasn’t indifferent.  Despite his skepticism, despite his doubt, Lincoln was there in church, open to God’s word and he encountered God in church.  I’m not sure that he ever jumped through all the correct doctrinal hoops, in fact I’m pretty sure that he didn’t, and I doubt he would have put it quite this way, but like Thomas, being part of the community of faith, he too encountered the Risen Christ.

The Risen Christ is what we have to offer.  Amid all the things that can distract us here at Bethany and as a national church, let us not forget that.

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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