Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Second Sunday of Easter - April 19, 2009

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "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."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


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Diversity. It is the buzz word of our nation, day and time, something we promote and see as good, strengthening our nation, enriching our culture.

If you look up diversity in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, you find several possible definitions:

Diversity may refer to:

  • Multiculturalism, the ideology of including people of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds
  • Diversity (politics), the political and social policy of encouraging tolerance for people of different backgrounds
  • Diversity (business), the business tactic which encourages diversity to better serve a heterogeneous customer base
  • Diversity training, the process of educating employees, students or volunteers to function in a diverse environment
  • Biodiversity, the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem
  • Diversity scheme, a method for improving the reliability of a message signal by using multiple communications channels
  • Diversity jurisdiction, a concept under which U.S. federal courts can hear suits between parties from different states

All of this sounds very good, doesn’t it? Yet when it comes down to it, while individuals today may find the idea of diversity to be good, the fact is by spending a lot of time focusing on what makes us different from one another, we end up with division instead of diversity.

In today’s gospel reading, we have an illustration of diversity. While some disciples believed in the risen Christ without seeing him for themselves, Thomas did not. He wanted proof, he wanted to see, hear, touch, maybe even smell Jesus himself. And while we only hear about Thomas as being “the doubter”, the one whose faith maybe didn’t even make it to mustard seed size, surely he was not the only one who felt that way. Thomas was probably the public face of all the disciples and followers of Jesus who didn’t immediately believe, maybe even the only one who was honest enough to say what he needed to believe, while others were saying “yes, He is risen” to go along with the flow. And with this division of belief, the disciples were not what you could call a “church” or a “movement”. They weren’t about to do anything, accomplish anything, because they lacked something that we don’t talk about much anymore: unity.

Unity, as a buzzword, seems to have gone out of fashion. Our psalm today opens with the words: Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!

And while we find that inspiring, we usually get lost in the ideas put forward in the rest of the Psalm, that of oil running into people’s beards…to our culture that seems a bit messy, not the sort of thing we want to have happen to us. We spend a lot of money on shampoo to get rid of “oil on the head” why would we want to have it poured there, to drip down onto the collar of our new blouse or tailored shirt?

Originally, oil was used as a medicine in ancient times and by putting flowers and herbs in it, making a perfume that was used to sweeten the atmosphere in cultures where bathing was not done as often as we do today. In the psalm, though, the oil referred to is the oil of anointing, a pleasantly scented oil used to hallow the heads of kings, to confer the special blessing of God on an individual chosen for special service. Today we use a special chrism during our sacrament of baptism to do the same thing, and, like the oil in the psalm, it is a symbol of being set apart, marked as Christ’s own forever.

So unity, to God, is a special blessing, something that he gives us to help us in our work. And when we think of our church today, not just this particular church called St. Elizabeth’s, or our particular Anglican denomination, but the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, that is, the universal church, we can see how far we have strayed from the mark. We’ve got diversity, all right. Drive in either direction from our church and you will find half a dozen other churches on your way to wherever you are going. God’s church has been sliced and diced into all different kinds of forms, hasn’t it? A flavor for every palette, a creed for every comfort level. Don’t like sitting in a pew, preferably as far in the back as you can get, listening quietly, praying quietly and, alas for this music director, singing quietly too? Why, there is a church for you out there, where standing up and shouting “Amen”, dancing in the aisles is encouraged! Don’t want to believe in the actual death and resurrection of Christ? There’s a church for you out there too!

And where does this get us, this massive division in the body, this lack of unity? It gets us nowhere. The work of God goes undone while we spend our time focusing on those things that make us different.

In the reading from Acts which was our first reading today, we can see the metamorphosis that Christ accomplished when he showed himself to Thomas, that public face of the doubt and disbelief of the followers of Jesus. By breathing on, he spiritually anointed them, giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. With that gift, the disciples were united as never before. The disciples went so far as to pool every resource and put all their money together to further the church in the world, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. This unity allowed them to do quite amazing feats of evangelism, to continue performing the miracles that Christ himself performed and to embrace the gifts of the spirit which God has in store for everyone who believes.

So when did the wheels fall off? Why did we get to where we are now, broken and divided, our witness to the world tainted by internal squabbling, our focus dispersed because of human failings and foibles. What can we do to get back to that glorious age of spiritual unity?

There are many movements in the church today, movements which are defined by the word “ecumenism”. The ecumenical movement in the church today seeks to unite different denominations, allowing us to unite to do the work of Christ. The most profound movement in the Catholic church was made in the Second Vatican Council of 1962. Our own Anglican church seeks to further the cause of ecumenism by seeking communion with like denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Roman Catholic Church. Clearly there are signs that the through ecumenism, the church is moving in the right direction, but it seems to be taking a very long time, doesn’t it?

But while we are waiting for unity in the church as a whole, we certainly can examine our own internal church practices. We don’t need to go so far as to throw all our money into a common pot, selling our houses, possessions and cars and pooling the money, something that didn’t even work that well for the church in Judea which ended up having to be bailed out by the church in Antioch during a time of famine later on. What we do need is that unity of purpose that the early church had, the focus on what it is we are supposed to be doing here in this church, this community, at this time in our history. Unity in our purpose is important to God, as is evident further on in the gospel of John, when Jesus prayed for the disciples, saying, "As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can also be one in us".

That unity of purpose can only be restored to us by turning back to the origin of that unity, which is the Holy Spirit. Opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can achieve the kind of unity that allows us to move mountains. I found this prayer for unity on a website that is devoted to the week in January Christians all over the world spend focusing on Christian unity and invite you to pray with me:

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace; Give us grace to seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that as there is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!

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