April 24, 2022

"Breathing is Believing"

Rev. Scott Landis

John 19-31

The story begins with four little words that set the tone for an amazing experience of the disciples – “Later on that day.” We don’t know exactly which day but we can surmise “Later on that day” – meant on that “first day of the week.” The same day that Mary Magdalene and a couple of the disciples discovered an empty tomb. Later on that day, they were huddled together behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. Still reeling from the trauma of the crucifixion, they were probably planning some sort of “exit strategy” so THEY would not be included in the supposed insurrectionist movement the government had accused their teacher, Jesus, of initiating.

How he appeared to them is a complete mystery, but they, too, were convinced that they saw Jesus. That he offered them “peace.” That in taking a deep breath, he breathed into them. Blessing them with the Holy Spirit, he empowered them to go and serve as his witnesses and challenged them to forgive the sins of others. And then he vanished from their sight.

What the heck just happened, they must have wondered, as they began to move from shock to denial in their grieving. How could this have happened, they questioned as Thomas entered the room and they began to describe what – THEY thought – had just taken place.

Here is where the misconception begins. Naturally, Thomas would have been skeptical after having heard their story. Wouldn’t you if you were in his shoes? But his words can be translated a couple of ways in which case his reaction might be somewhat misconstrued. Typically thought of as the “Doubting Thomas” most translations begin his response, “unless I see or touch — I will not believe.” But this phrase can also be rendered, “I, too, want to see and touch — then I will be able to believe.” Do you hear the difference?

What Thomas wanted was nothing more (or less) than the same experience the other disciples already had. Not to have this left him feeling cheated, removed, not included in the blessing the others had received. Thomas wanted desperately to experience the presence of the Risen One at this very dark moment in his life. Instead, he felt forgotten.

I wonder if you’ve ever had that feeling. Forgotten, overlooked – a feeling, I think, that is particularly painful when it comes to our relationship with God. [Pause]

Coincidentally, I’ve had several conversations this week with deeply faithful folks about this very phenomenon. I’m not sure if it was the post-Easter let down or what, but their situation sure fit this story. I told them to re-read this passage — that I would be preaching on this very topic this week and not to think that I was directing my mana’o “AT” them. Instead, I would be preaching to me as well. To all of us for we all need to be reassured from time-to-time when it comes to our faith — especially when it is severely tested.

The conversations centered mostly around how we respond when things have gotten really bad in our lives. Personal physical illness, the loss of a loved one through death, or watching another experience unendurable pain through an extended and irreversible illness, financial disaster – the list is endless. In each case the person struggling with a painful reality rightly questioned the way of God. Where is God in my situation? Like Thomas, they wanted evidence of God’s caring, God’s understanding, or mere presence in their struggle. Instead, there was the feeling of being forgotten. [Pause]

Most of us feel very guilty when we question, or even curse God for the untenable situation in which we find ourselves. And it feels even worse when others (like Job’s so-called friends) piously quip formulaic or religious platitudes reminding us that “everything happens for a reason.” A phrase that I am not sure I believe.

I take a different approach – particularly when I feel I have lost faith in God because it feels like God has forgotten me. I must cling to the promise that, God has NOT lost faith in me. And there is NOTHING I can dish out that God would find too egregious or too big to handle. I simply do not have the ability to offend God – because God is pure love and keeps on coming back – with love – in love – through love.

That’s the message of the resurrection. God will keep showing up — and differently depending on our specific need. And not even death can separate us from the love of God. Re-read Paul’s affirmation in Romans 8. [Pause]

This understanding and realization does not come easy for most of us.

Biblical study and theological reflection have done us a great service in our understanding of God and God’s purposes and promises for our lives. But such academics have too often left us swimming in our thoughts. While we may believe with our heads, we’ve got to trust with our hearts. And faith requires both. It’s a tension AND a balance that we must be mindful of as we seek the presence of God in our lives.

A faith that relies solely on our heads can so easily become rigid and self-righteous in our attempt figure out or even control God in our lives. On the other hand, faith that is solely heart-based too often results in emotional exhaustion leaving us bereft of any moorings or stability. I believe we are given brains to think carefully and study with intensity as we seek to know God, but we cannot give our lives to a book or a scholar or a theological construct. Only when we yield our heart can we echo Thomas’ response when he realized for himself, “My Master – my Lord – and my God!” [Pause]

Doing that work, seeking that balance is not easy – and the work is no different whether you are a pastor or a parishioner. Because the work is not an achievement or a goal – it is a journey. And not one, I believe, that can be done alone. [Pause]

The temptation to which folks often succumb when we feel that God has forsaken or abandoned us, is to remove ourselves from fellowship , that is, from our faith community. We convince ourselves if we don’t have to face others, or listen to their pious dribble, if we don’t allow them to see or hear our anguish during our moments of agnosticism or worse we’ll be much better off. We may rationalize that stepping away will be better for everyone. Truth be told, those of us who remain in fellowship are often relieved to see the suffering ones simply disappear. Then we are no longer confronted by their weakness which may expose the fragility of our own faith.

Too often I’ve seen that happen. The young woman who has repeatedly miscarried quietly slips away to spare herself the shame. The one whose adult child has tragically died just stops coming to church. It’s easier that way. The man whose pain is overwhelming cannot bear to see the faces of others whose lives seem to be absent any problems. It’s just easier to stay away.

But that’s precisely when we need our faith community - those who know the Truth that – “There but by the grace of God go I.” That not one of us is immune from danger or disaster or disease. And that when YOU are the one who is falling – that is when you need the faith of others to carry you and wait with you until the Savior reappears, once again, in your life. [Pause]

It’s “Later on that day,” friends. The beautiful floral cross has wilted and been put away for another year, the doves have flown back to their cages, the spectators have returned to the beach, and the painful reality of life remains. Even so, the Savior promises to reappear – again, and again, and again. And will breathe once more into our lives and reassure us we have not been forgotten.

If you cannot believe that today. Hang in there. Stay with us. Your doubt does not make you any less a child of God or the promise any less true. Allow others to believe for you – for the time being. Keep seeking the God who is pure love. Who keeps coming back. One day, I promise, you will be able to say again, “My Master, My Lord, and My God.”


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