Sunday, April 7, 2013

Let's Change the Focus

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.

When I was a kid we had two cameras in our house.  One was my mom’s camera.  It was a Kodak 110 point and shoot camera.  It was a little bit fancy because you could slide this button and an additional lens would flop over in front of the primary lens and you could get a telephoto shot!  Of course you couldn’t control the focus with that camera.  You just aimed at what you wanted to have in focus and then hope for the best when you got the pictures back a few days, weeks or sometimes months later.  If my sister and I asked, we were allowed to take a couple of pictures with that camera.

The other camera in our house was my dad’s.  His was a 35mm Minolta with interchangeable lenses.  That camera was extra cool because you could change the focus, among other things and choose to highlight things in the foreground or the background and be a lot more certain that when you got the pictures back the thing you wanted to be in focus would be.  My sister and I were not allowed to take pictures with that one! 

Today’s gospel lesson is a little different.  Normally for any given Sunday in the church year the lesson you hear is on a three year rotation so normally it would be three years before you heard that same lesson again.  But on this Sunday, the first Sunday in Easter, we always read this lesson.  And I think because it comes after Lent, Holy Week and Easter, pastor and people are a bit worn out and, to use the camera metaphor, we pastors tend to just grab the point and shoot camera and snap a shot of the obvious subject in this story...Thomas.  But this time I’d like to look at this story through a different lens.  I’d like to change the focus and make the other things and people in this story the focus instead.

The first scene deserves at least a quick, in-focus snap shot to set the stage.  The disciples were in a room and the door was locked.  It may not seem strange to us to have locked the door, but in their time and culture it was REALLY strange.  Back then people knew and freely admitted they couldn’t survive alone.  They knew they had to count on a community for support and because of that it was normal for folks to walk in and out of each other’s homes helping care for kids, make meals and lending a hand.  Doors were NEVER locked.  When the disciples locked the door, they didn’t just lock the scary world out, they also cut themselves off from the only way to survive in the world.  Locking the door was a move that was literally like cutting off your nose to spite your face.  So now that you have a picture of that we’ll move on.   

The next thing that happens is that Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you.”  The peace Jesus gives here is WAY more than just Jesus’ way of telling the disciples not to freak out.  It includes that, but it’s so much more.  Jesus peace is also infinitely more than just simply an absence of violence.  The peace that Jesus is giving includes a blessing for wholeness, well-being, enough to eat, complete health, a feeling of safety, a sense of self worth and an abundant life that makes a difference in the world.  ALL of that is there when Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  It’s a really nice picture of what Jesus wants, not just for each of us individually but what God desires for all of creation.  This picture is worth getting it enlarged and framed so you can look it and remember it all the time.

Then Jesus says is “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  If you were to take a quick snap shot of this lesson you might miss how deep this is... how challenging this part is.  Jesus is saying, “All of the things God sent me to do... NOW I want you to go do those same things.”  So, what did God send Jesus to do?  Well, he proclaimed the Kingdom of God.  He told the world that the way things were working in the world was not the way God wanted the world to work.  But he went further than that.  He didn’t just talk about it, he actually made it happen wherever he went.  He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, fed the hungry, made the deaf hear, made the lame walk, raised the dead, calmed storms, confronted the Empire, pointed out the injustice in the political and religious institutions and insisted that things change, he called people out for getting rich on the backs of the poor, which made the powerful people very angry.  He insisted that the world was God’s world, not the Empire’s world and he insisted so loudly he was executed.  THAT, Jesus told the disciples was now their mission.  Then Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit... the tools they needed to do this mission, and was gone. 

Thomas, of course missed Jesus that day.  We don’t know where he was... I like to think he was out getting pizzas for the guys... but when he came back, notice what the disciples told him... “We’ve seen the Lord”... Now change the focus and notice what the disciples DIDN’T tell Thomas...  all that really hard stuff about going out into the world and turning the way the world works up side down.  Thomas, as we all know, didn’t believe them.  

But is Thomas alone here?  Change the focus and check out the disciples.  Notice where they are a week after seeing and hearing Jesus himself give them their mission to get out into the world and do what God first called Jesus to do... well, it sure wasn’t out there in the world doing that mission!  They were still right there!  Still locked in that room!  Not exactly the picture of perfect faith.  

When Jesus appears to the disciples again, this time Thomas isn’t out getting pizza.  The first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.”  Even though the disciples aren’t out doing what they are supposed to be doing, Jesus still desires wholeness for them.  Jesus’ grace even in the face of less than perfect discipleship is something I hold onto all the time when I think about my less than perfect discipleship.  

Now, after Jesus and Thomas have their encounter Jesus says, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  Traditionally this is seen as something directed only at Thomas, but I’m not so sure.  Still locked away in that room a week later..., none of the disciples seem to be exactly models of faithfulness.   

The really hard part about that particular picture is that among those disciples still locked away in fear, paralyzed by the idea of personally taking on Jesus’ mission in the world, I can see my face among those frightened disciples.   When I think that this mission that God gave to Jesus is now my, personal mission, hiding seems like a good idea... it is overwhelming.
But before we go and nail 2x4s over the doors there’s one more zoomed in, perfectly focused picture we need to take.  Go back to that scene where Jesus gives the disciples their mission.  He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  The “you” here is the plural “you.”  At Southern Seminary we would have translated this passage, “As the Father has sent me, so I send ya’ll.”  

I think THAT makes all the difference!  You see, Jesus does not mean for each of us individually to take on Jesus‘ mission in the world all alone!  Jesus means for us as a community, TOGETHER to take on this mission.  With God’s Peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, together we ARE the Body of Christ and together as the Body of Christ this mission of caring for the people of the world who have been hurt and forgotten and challenging the systems that hurt and forget people becomes not only possible but inevitable.  May we all not doubt that, but believe!