Hindering God

Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18

1 The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. 2 When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. 3 They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”

4 Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. 6 As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals–including wild beasts–as well as reptiles and wild birds. 7 I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ 8 I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10 This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. 11 At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. 13 He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. 14 He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ 15 When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. 16 I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

18 Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.” (CEB)

Hindering God

I joined a fraternity in my freshman year at The University of Findlay. For the most part, I enjoyed it. I had a great group of brothers. We studied together, we had fun together, we occasionally caused a little trouble together. But there was one part of the fraternity experience that I really didn’t like. At the end of each recruitment rush, we got together to talk about the potential recruits. We discussed each person and either our desire to include them or our desire to not. We decided who we would let into our brotherhood, and who we would fence out.

Now, I could maybe understand it if such discussions included the examination of a high school transcript and concern about grade point averages. After all, our fraternity was supposed to be a scholarly social club. But the discussions that transpired rarely rose above the ridiculous. We talked about how this person looked or dressed. We bantered over the manner in which this person greeted or didn’t greet a certain brother at a party. Or whether we thought they were cool or a dork.

We made every decision based on trivial nonsense. And I hated it. I hated how we judged others and made decisions about whether or not we would allow them to associate with us based on such ridiculous distinctions. It made me wonder how I got in. I was never one of the cool kids. I certainly had no fashion sense. I’m fairly certain I made it because one particular leader in my fraternity vouched for me after getting to know me in a campus ministry organization. In our fraternity, we set boundaries. We excluded people for reasons I found unsatisfactory.

It’s a common phenomenon, this desire to fence-out, to set close boundaries, to keep a level of control over our community. The early church faced just such an issue, and it threatened to tear the young movement apart.

After Peter healed Aeneas and raised Tabitha to life, he was led to the household of Cornelius the Centurion. He preached the message about Jesus Christ to this Gentile man’s household, and the Spirit of God fell upon everyone who heard the word. Peter and his companions were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on even the Gentiles.

It might help to recall part of Peter’s sermon from Acts chapter 3 after he healed a crippled man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. Peter proclaims, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus.” (Acts 3:13, CEB). Peter’s message was about the God of the Jews and good news for people of a certain genealogy. Prior to Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the idea of Gentiles being included in the promises of God hadn’t crossed their minds. Gentiles were people on the outside, even righteous Gentiles like Cornelius.

The other apostles and believers in Jerusalem heard the news that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God, and it disturbed them. So, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians leaders called him on the carpet. They demanded to know why he ate with Gentiles. Eating was a sign of acceptance. It’s why Jesus caused so much controversy when he ate with tax collectors and other known sinners. It meant he accepted them, and his acceptance of sinners was a theological and practical problem for the Jewish religious elite.

They probably assumed Peter had unilaterally decided to do some evangelism among some Gentile folk and, when they accepted and believed, he baptized them of his own accord. The problem with Peter having done this is that the other believers in Jerusalem didn’t want some dirty Gentiles associated with their holy church. This Christian thing is a God-movement. We can’t have some unclean, ungodly Gentiles associated with us. You can’t just invite those kind of people here!

So Peter got up and, contrary to his usually impatient style, he explained everything that led up to the Gentile incident. Peter described the vision he had while praying. Unclean animals were lowered down from heaven in a sheet. When Peter saw the animals, he heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter! kill and eat!” But he replied, by saying that nothing unclean had ever entered his mouth. Then he heard another voice say, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”

This whole vision scene happened three times, then it was taken back up into heaven. At that moment, three men who had been sent by Cornelius in Caesarea, arrived at the house. The Spirit again spoke to Peter, telling him to go with the men and to not make a distinction between “them”—meaning the dirty Gentiles—and “us”—meaning the Jewish believers. Six others also went with Peter. When they arrived in Caesarea, Cornelius explained to them how an angel had stood in his house and told him to send to Joppa for Simon Peter who would give him a message by which he and his entire household would be saved.

As Peter began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had to the disciples on Pentecost. Peter asked, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way? Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, ‘So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.’” (CEB).

The Jewish Christians were left with a choice. They could have said no. No, Peter, these Gentiles can’t be a part of the church. They’re unclean. They haven’t converted to Judaism. They’re outside the Law, they’re not heirs to the promises God made to Israel. They aren’t welcome.

They could have said that, but they knew too well that the church didn’t belong to them. The church belongs to God. They can try to stand in God’s way by grasping for control. But, the thing about getting in God’s way—attempting to hinder God—is that God really can’t be hindered. God will either work around us, work through us, or plow us over and work right over top of us. When it comes to the church and the work to which God calls us, we’ve never been anything more than along for the ride.

Thankfully, the early believers responded to the radical shift God had just thrust upon them with rejoicing. Their first response was anger. But when they realized it came from God, they praised God for this unexpected, unbelievable thing. Even Gentiles can repent. Who knew? Who knew God would include those people, the outsiders, the unwanted?

No one. God has a long history of doing the unexpected. And yet, we always act surprised when the Holy Spirit moves in a way we didn’t anticipate! That God would extend such good news to all of humankind was indicated in Genesis 12:3, where God says to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” (CEB).

God revealed long ago what was going to happen; yet the believers in Jerusalem were astonished when they heard that Gentiles had accepted the word of God. They were angry. They demanded an explanation from the one who was, they thought, responsible. I love Peter’s response: I didn’t do it. This was totally God’s fault. Blame God. I didn’t do it.

Peter made it clear to his critics that what happened to these Gentile sisters and brothers was not his own doing, but God’s! Peter didn’t arbitrarily decide to go baptize some Gentiles; all along the way he was guided and moved by the Holy Spirit. The Good News of God’s salvation offered to all through Jesus Christ is not something that was to be limited to the Jews. It is for all who come to believe.

The Holy Spirit made this happen. This story from Acts should scare us a little bit. We have no control over the Spirit’s movement. We cannot tie the Holy Spirit down. The Spirit of God is going to do what the Spirit of God will do, whether we like it or not. Our job is to expect the unexpected outpourings of God’s grace and mercy because we, too, were once on the outside.

One of the things we need to remember, especially when some unexpected thing comes to us, is that the Holy Spirit only acts for the good of people. Even if our initial reaction to God’s action is visceral repugnance, we must recognize that sometimes it’s not only about us. Yes, we’re special to God, but so are the people we don’t like. That’s not an easy lesson to learn. The Holy Spirit consistently acts for good, and expresses God’s love in ways that we, with our many limitations, could never do.

In this case, the Jewish believers were flabbergasted that God gave Gentiles repentance. Repentance is God’s gift to us. We often think of it as something we do—a first step we make toward God by overcoming our doubts and faithlessness. When it comes to our relationship with God, not one of us ever acted first. We can only respond to what God has already given. Repentance is a gift from God. It is our response to the way God has already given God’s self to us. What this story tells us is that everyone—even those we least expected—can turn away from their sins and receive the life God has offered. Everyone can have life.

But it’s easy to forget. Paul had to remind the Gentile Christians in Ephesus not to get too proud. He reminded them: “At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God.” (Ephesians 2:12, CEB).

I don’t know your genealogy, but I’m one of those Gentiles. It is only through the blood of Christ that I have been brought near to God, and the early Christians initially weren’t fans when they heard people like me had accepted the word of God. They were surprised. Come to think of it, I was, too. God is full of surprises. I wonder what the next one will be.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Tabitha

Acts of the Apostles 9:36-43

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. 37 About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!” 39 Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.

40 Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. 42 The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed for some time in Joppa with a certain tanner named Simon. (CEB)

Tabitha

In the list of Biblical names that sound incredibly unfortunate to the English-speaking ear, Gomer and Dorcas stand out as two of the worst. Gomer was the name of two people in the Bible: a man and a woman. One was the son of Japheth, the other was the wife of the prophet Hosea. And Dorcas… Well, there’s only one Dorcas. That’s her Greek name. Her Aramaic name was Tabitha, which sounds much nicer. In English her name would be Gazelle. That’s what Dorcas and Tabitha both mean.

At first glance, this story looks like a straightforward story about Peter raising a woman from the dead. It’s about the disciples and their work after Jesus’ resurrection. But that interpretation shortchanges everything Luke wrote here. It glosses over the crux, the heart, the meat, and the depth. This story isn’t so much about Peter as it is about Tabitha and her community. It offers a glimpse of what Luke claims about the gospel, and how it looks in the midst of community.

One thing to note first off, is that Tabitha is a disciple. Tabitha is the only woman in the New Testament who is described with the Greek word μαθήτρια (mathētria), which is the feminine form of the word disciple. I’ve heard the arguments from certain wings of the church that women shouldn’t be leaders in the church because it’s not Biblical. Luke says, they’re wrong. Luke put women leadership in the Bible in such a way that we cannot deny it. It’s right here. Tabitha is a disciple. This word, μαθήτρια, puts Tabitha on equal footing with the likes of Peter, John, Thomas, Nathaniel, James, Paul, and the other disciples. Tabitha is a leader in the Church. She is a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Not only that, but Tabitha gets stuff done in ways the other disciples didn’t. Earlier in Acts, we find reference to a dispute between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. These were probably Greek-speaking Jews and Aramaic-speaking Jews. The Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. (Did you know the church distributed food to widows every day? They took care of each other in ways we can’t fathom. They were a community, which is something the church today severely lacks).

So, in order to address the problem of food distribution, the Twelve called the community together and said this: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2b, NRSV). Then, they selected the first seven deacons to do that work. Never mind that Jesus, himself, waited on tables as an example to the disciples of what they ought to do. He said, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27, NRSV).

Instead of delegating the grunt work to others, Tabitha saw a need among the widows of her community in Joppa and she got to work. She made clothing for them. Widows were the definition of poor. Much like today, the majority of those who are poor and starving are women who live in patriarchal culture. If you don’t think we live in a patriarchal culture, all you have to do is look at how we value women and their work. The gender wage gap is 21 percent. Men can say, Another day, another dollar. Women can only say, Another day, another seventy-nine cents.

Tabitha took the needs of the poor and most vulnerable upon herself. Her proclamation of the word of God was her action. Tabitha is the one who has given these poor women life! Every article of clothing she handed out to the widows was a sermon of God’s love and care, and a declaration of the gospel that Christ has come “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (see Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6).

Tabitha’s work challenged the dominant culture’s devaluation of widowed women. The early church challenged a lot of social norms. People didn’t stay put when the gospel got a hold of them. Many of the disciples were fishermen from Galilee, but they preached Jesus as the Messiah with authority and boldness in the Temple, in Jerusalem, and throughout the land. Right before this story of Tabitha, Peter raises a paralyzed old man in Lydda who got out of his bed and caused people to start believing in Jesus Christ.

And Tabitha heads up this assistance program among the poor in Joppa which followed the same redistribution of power that Luke set up at the very beginning of his Gospel in Mary’s Song: “He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:50-55, CEB).

Through Tabitha, God is turning the dominant system of power on its head. Her work declares that these people, whom the world holds as of no account or value are worth everything. Because of Tabitha’s discipleship, the lowly are being lifted up to their rightful place among us.

But Tabitha dies, and the work she does for these widows dies with her. Tabitha’s community feels the loss deeply. They no longer have their Tabitha to protect them, to love them, to clothe them, to give them what they need for life. They wash her body, and lay her in an upstairs room. They had heard that Peter was in Lydda, so Tabitha’s community sent two men to retrieve him. In the text, the men don’t tell Peter why they need him to come. Maybe the community doesn’t even have an expectation. But they know their need. They know their loss. And they know Peter is the leader of the church. They only say, “Please come to us without delay.” (CEB). So Peter got up and went.

When he arrived, they showed him their beloved Tabitha’s body. The widows stood outside and showed Peter the tunics and other clothing Tabitha had made for them. What’s interesting here, is that the participle in Greek for showed is in the middle voice. English doesn’t have middle voice, but what it means in Greek is that the widows weren’t holding piles of folded clothes out to show Peter what Tabitha had made. They were showing Peter the clothes that were on their backs at that moment. They were wearing the clothes Tabitha had made for them. They were holding out the hems of their garments saying, See! She made this for me!

I doubt very much these widows were concerned with theology. In that moment, they probably weren’t interested in the hope of “pie in the sky when you die” and other such future consolations. Their needs were much more immediate. These widows were too poor. They probably would have been too consumed with the need to get by a day at a time to bother with the possibilities of tomorrow.

We don’t know what they thought, or what they hoped for when Peter came before them. But we know these women needed Peter to see them as Tabitha saw them: as valuable. They needed Peter to know that much of their hope had died with Tabitha, and they didn’t know how they would survive tomorrow.

So Peter put everyone out of the room and knelt down to pray. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up! She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them.” (CEB).

I think there’s an important reminder in here, given the way Luke crafted these words. He says that Peter called God’s holy people, including the widows. No longer would those seen as worthless be worthless. In this new community known as the church, widows are holy, the poor are beloved, the lowly are raised up, the weak are shown mercy. Peter’s prayer and raising of Tabitha from the dead is evidence that death will no longer have the final say. Death’s power has been broken. Widows will not be left to perish. The poor and powerless have become God’s holy people.

Something else we can learn here is that Luke doesn’t explain anything in this story. We don’t know how Peter’s prayer enabled him to raise Tabitha to life. We don’t know how he wrenched life from death. Today, we often wonder where God’s power is. We pray for cures. But it may be helpful to consider the distinction between praying for a cure, which seems to demand God do what we want, and praying for healing, which can come in a myriad of unexpected and often surprising ways.

The thing is, Tabitha won’t live forever. Peter won’t return time and again to restore her to life. Even Peter wouldn’t live forever. Just like Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, one day, Tabitha would die again. It just so happened that this particular day was not her time. Tabitha’s incredibly vulnerable community needed her to sustain them a little while longer. Her being raised from the dead was for the community, and stands as a sign for the world that God is turning the order of things over. A new age has come upon the cosmos.

That’s why this text isn’t so much about Peter as it is Tabitha’s community. They wept together. They experienced distress together. The mourned Tabitha as a community. They surely celebrated together when Peter gave their benefactor, Tabitha, back to them. They shared their lives together: the joys and the sorrows. They shared life together. They lived community in ways that seem foreign to us because we’ve honestly forgotten the depth to which authentic community should invade our lives in ways that are transforming, healing, and good. We touch on it in places. We see occasional glimpses.

Tabitha lived Christian community with the poor in her midst. They loved one another. They took care of one another. Tabitha, the disciple, and her community are examples to us of what the gospel can do to transform lives and renew hope. When the Word of God comes to us, how can we be the same? The Word of God binds up what is broken in our lives and leads us to wholeness as individuals and as communities. In Jesus Christ, God has changed the game, and nothing is ever quite the same as it was before this Word invaded our lives.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Breakfast Club

John 21:1-19

1 Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. This is how it happened: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.” They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing.

4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus. 5 Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.

9 When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” 11 Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” (CEB)

The Breakfast Club

As a child of the ‘80s, I knew the movies of John Hughes. He’s the guy who wrote the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies. He wrote, produced, or directed Sixteen Candles; Weird Science; Pretty in Pink; Ferris Beuler’s Day Off; Uncle Buck; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; and the Home Alone movies. For some reason, one of my favorites was The Breakfast Club from 1985.

Back then, I just thought it was an interesting movie. Watching it again as an adult, I thought, Wow! This really deals with a lot of stuff. When I was a kid, I had no idea how deeply the movie examines who we are and how we act as people, how we perceive and judge others at the most superficial levels without bothering to know their story.

In the movie, these five kids from different cliques are forced to spend the day together, and all kinds of craziness happens.

I imagine Jesus calling the Twelve Disciples together looked similar. You have different people with different personalities, different values, and different stories all smashed together in this ragtag band that follows Jesus around. They argue, they vie for power, they fail to understand, they disagree with each other, they get belligerent, they complain about each other, and talk behind each other’s back. It’s all the drama of high school and more (because they’re adults).

Sometimes I think the real miracle of the early Church is that Jesus was able to guide this collection of jack-wagons through the entire journey with only one of them betraying him.

I think one of the things this story highlights is the fact that the disciples were people not so different from us. After the crazy events in Jerusalem where Jesus had been crucified, raised from the dead, and appeared to the disciples twice, the disciples went back north to Galilee. To home.

The story sounds more like something people would do after a funeral than after experiencing the joy of a resurrected Jesus. They gather together in uncertainty. Finally, Peter can’t stand it anymore. He gets up and announces that he’s going fishing. None of the others know what to do either, so they say, “We’ll go with you.” After all, many of them had been fishermen prior to their lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. They went back to what was familiar.

And who could blame them? The last few weeks of their lives had been overwhelming. They had experienced emotional highs and lows: from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the trial, beating, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, to their glimpses of him in the resurrection. They probably needed some time and space to sort things out. After all, their lives would never be the same. What had once been ordinary and routine would no longer be ordinary and routine. It doesn’t matter where they go, God is there before them.

The Psalmist asks the questions, “Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there, too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight!” (Psalm 139:7-10, CEB).

Wherever we go, whatever we do, God is there before us. God is there with us. Even in something as mundane as working at our occupations. The disciples fished all night. They didn’t catch a thing. But Jesus shows up on the shore and calls out to them. Jesus tends to interrupt daily life and sometimes asks us to try something different. He tells the disciples to cast their net on the other side of the boat.

Now, if I had been fishing all night and didn’t catch anything, and some dude on the shore told me the fish were hiding on the other side of the boat, I might have said something unkind to him. Strangely, the disciples don’t object. They simply cast the net on the right side of the boat and get so many fish in their net—153 to be exact—they can’t haul it in.

The disciple whom Jesus loved recognizes the person on the shore as Jesus before the others do. When Peter hears it, he throws his clothes on and dives into the water to swim ashore. John might have been the first to recognized Jesus, but Peter is the first to come to him. It’s a repeated theme. When Mary Magdalene brought the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead, John ran to the tomb and got there first. He looked inside and saw the tomb was empty. But Peter didn’t stop outside the tomb. He ran in.

Saint John Chrysostom interpreted this story allegorically. He commented, rightly, that John is usually the first to recognize Jesus. Recognition of Jesus is a necessary part of faith, but time and again, John’s recognition doesn’t turn fully into action. Peter is usually the first to act, which is also a necessity of faith, but his action isn’t always grounded in recognition. Neither understanding nor acting apart from the other counts as authentic faith. It takes both. We have to recognize and act. We have to unite in ourselves the best of Peter and the best of John to be a true person of faith.

Along those same lines, I think we can interpret this as something that points to community. We all have different gifts, different leanings, different insights, different perspectives, and even different theologies. The thing is, John and Peter needed each other. Without John’s insightful recognition, Peter might never have acted the way he did. Without Peter’s brash action, the disciples might still be staring at Jesus contemplatively from the boat.

Oh yeah. That is Jesus. I’ll be darned. Wonder what he’s cooking? Huh. How about that.

It really does take the community for us to grow into authentic disciples of Jesus Christ. Others around us see things that we don’t see. We need each other.

One of the things I enjoy about teaching confirmation classes is the discussion we have together. Each of the youth have a mentor, and they go over the lesson together sometime during the week. Their job is to take notes. Then, when we have class to go over the lesson again, each confirmand brings a unique perspective about that lesson through their conversation with their mentor.

I’ll never forget the lesson we had on God as Trinity. Part of the lesson talked about how Saint Patrick used the shamrock to teach about how God is Three and yet One. I asked the confirmands to think about what other metaphors from nature might help us understand God as Three-In-One. One youth mentioned the three primary colors. Another mentioned the three physical states of water. We talked about the potential problems with those metaphors. But my favorite one, by far, was the youth who said chicken feet. One foot. Three front toes (we ignored the toe in the back, apparently). One God. Three Persons.

We need each other. We need to value each other, including our divergent ideas, actions, and thoughts. We all come to Jesus in different ways and by different means. It’s Jesus who meets us where we are.

When the disciples finished eating the impromptu breakfast Jesus cooked for them. Jesus begins his questioning of Peter. “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Simon replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Jesus asked a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Simon replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ He asked a third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” (CEB).

Some have interpreted the three questions and answers as a kind of restoration of Peter after he denied Jesus three times. And maybe that’s right. But I think the significance lies more in what the questions and answers mean. Loving Jesus exhibits itself in caring for others. We are called to feed each other and every person we encounter with the love of Jesus Christ.

It means we look past the superficial judgments and surface first impressions. It means we take time to learn each other’s stories and love each other because of and in spite of those stories.

I think Jesus would have liked the move The Breakfast Club. Eventually, these five kids start to talk. They learn each other’s stories and, though they come from different places in life and are categorized differently by their peers, they realize they have much more in common than they assumed from their superficial judgments. So much so that they begin to see themselves in each other.

In the end, they become something like the church. The become a new community. The smart guy, Brian, writes the essay the Assistant Principal, Mr. Vernon, assigned to them. Only, he writes it for entire the group. He says, “Dear Mr. Vernon. We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”

Sometimes I wonder if we are able to see each other as well as they saw one another. Do we even bother trying to see past our own judgments? I think Jesus would have liked The Breakfast Club. It’s the kind of community we’re called to be.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Faith of Thomas

John 20:19-31

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name. (CEB)

The Faith of Thomas

It always worried me when I was a kid in school. Whether it was gym class or recess, I hated the drama of it. The anxiety it caused in me and others, no matter if it was dodge ball, kickball, soccer, or baseball always made me hitch my breath. I worried about who would be the last one. You see, I was never considered by my peers to be significant enough to warrant an early draft pick. If I made the fifth round, I felt pretty good. It is not fun at all to be the last one picked, the one left out, the one chosen because I was the only piece of meat left standing there, waiting with baited breath, fear, and anticipation.

The thing is, I was good at dodge ball. There were several times in elementary and middle school where I was the last one standing. But I didn’t look like I was good. Physically, I fit the nerdy, scrawny profile. Of course, I may have been the last one standing because I was so skinny that I made for a difficult target. Advantage me, I guess. But I was still never picked in the top rounds. I was one of the little kids who got left out. So I know exactly how Thomas felt.

You have to understand Thomas. He was one of the Twelve. He was a disciple. He was the one who knew what would happen to Jesus before the others, and he accepted that fate without batting an eye. He loved Jesus so much that he just kind of accepted it with reckless abandon. Do you remember the story from John 11, when Jesus heard that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was ill? He waited a few days and told the Disciples he wanted to return to Judea again. But the Disciples were like, Whoa, Jesus. The Jewish opposition wants to stone you to death, and you want to go back?

Jesus told them that Lazarus was dead, and he was going. So, while the other Disciples were standing there trying to decide if they should go with Jesus or fake a sudden illness, Thomas says this: “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.” (John 11:16b, CEB).

It’s like Thomas is the Disciples’ little ray of encouraging sunshine. Come on, guys. You knew this was gonna happen sooner or later. This crazy dude was bound to get himself killed eventually. Why’re you acting so surprised? Are we gonna follow him or not? Let’s just go and die with him, already. He’s our friend, Lazarus was our friend. We’re all gonna die eventually. We may as well go out together like Thelma and Louise. (They probably didn’t see that movie, though). So they go, and a few chapters later, Jesus is dead.

Thomas got it. He knew. And he rolled with it.

Another thing about Thomas—and talk about being the guy who was left out—we don’t really know Thomas’s name. Thomas wasn’t actually his name. Nobody was named Thomas in the ancient world because it wasn’t a name. Thomas was applied to him as sort of a distinguisher. Like, if you have two people with the same name, but one has freckles and the other one doesn’t, after the hundredth time of saying, Hey, Jennifer, and having two girls turning around to say, “What?”, you might start to address the one with freckles like this: Hey, Freckles! (And just a disclaimer, I think freckles are exceedingly cute. So if you have freckles, chances are I think you’re cuter than the people who aren’t lucky enough to have them).

According to some traditions, Thomas’s given name was Judas. But he was called Thomas, which is the Aramaic word for twin in order to distinguish him from the other Judas. So every time someone called him Thomas they were saying, “Hey, Twin.” Can you imagine the other nicknames he would have had? Twain. Mirror-man. Double-vision. Double-mint (I mean they always had twins in the commercials), The Better Judas.

So, for posterity, we don’t even know the guy’s name for certain. He was one of the Disciples! Shouldn’t someone have written his name down? Poor Twin! Or, whatever his name was. He got left out in so many ways. And then, to add salt to the wound posterity has already given him, everyone knows this story. Everyone knows the name for this story. What do we call it? It’s the story of… Doubting Thomas! He’s labeled for all time as a doubter!

I mean, come on! Not even Judas got it that bad! We all know Judas Iscariot’s name. No one calls him Betraying Judas or Sell-out Judas. It’s just Judas Iscariot. No one calls Peter Denying Peter. But poor Doubting Twin didn’t even get his proper name written down. It stinks being the kid who is always left out, the kid whose name no one remembered. My nickname in elementary school was Chicken-legs. That’s how skinny I was. Thank goodness that one didn’t stick. People might be calling me Pastor Chicken-legs to this day. (And no. You’re not allowed to start calling me that).

I get Thomas. I get why he was upset. And that’s the thing. I think he was more upset than disbelieving. I think he felt more dejected than doubting. Because what happened? Mary Magdalene got to see Jesus, face-to-face. She came running back to the Disciples saying, “I’ve seen the Lord!” (John 20:18b, CEB). Then, the Disciples locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. And Jesus shows up in the midst of them, he shows them the wounds in his hands and his side. He makes them believe that it’s really him. It’s really Jesus who has been raised!

But Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas had gone outside, which just proves that he was the bravest disciple among them. The others were cowering in a locked room, but Thomas probably said, Guys, I’m hungry. I’m going out for Chinese. You want anything? They have these little carry-out boxes now.

You see, Thomas was the one Disciple—the ONE Disciple—who was NOT hiding in a locked room! He was the one with courage.

So, imagine how the Courageous Anonymous Twin felt when he got back and the other Disciples met him with joyous enthusiasm told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” (CEB). I bet he threw the Chinese take-out across the room. I mean, who among us wouldn’t have felt left out? Who among us wouldn’t have felt downright betrayed. Couldn’t Jesus have waited for them all to be together? Did Jesus leave him out on purpose? He had been willing to die for the Lord, he had been faithful, he had been the glue that held the group together when the others didn’t want to return to Judea, and Jesus showed up when he was gone?

I would have said it, too. I would have called bologna. I would have said, I deserve the same proofs you guys got! I deserve to see his wounds, too. I deserve to know for sure that it’s him. I followed him all this way, too, and he left me out! I deserve to see. So until I do, I won’t believe!

It makes Thomas sounds more like a child with hurt feelings than a doubter. And I imagine that’s exactly what he was. Hurt. Dejected. Offended. Annoyed. Betrayed. And belligerent enough because of it to simply refuse to acknowledge what his heart probably already knew to be true. And I’ll tell you in a second why I think Thomas already knew it.

Jesus made him wait a week. A week! Gosh, when I was a kid I hated it when my parents let me stew longer than a few hours, but a week! Ouch!

But I bet Jesus gave The Twin that amount of time because he needed it. When Thomas was ready, Jesus appeared again in the midst of the Disciples. He gave Thomas the same proofs he had given the others, but he gave Thomas something more. He showed his wounds to the others, but for Thomas he offered touch. He invited a kind of intimacy denied to the others. He told Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him. But he invited Thomas to come close. “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB).

Thomas’s response is why I think he really did believe, but refused only because he felt hurt and rejected. He answers Jesus’ invitation by uttering one of the most profound proclamations about Jesus in the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!” (CEB). Now, that is a statement of faith. That’s why I think Thomas really believed without seeing, but chose to cross his arms and pout in his hurt and anger because he knew who Jesus was. Jesus didn’t have to leave him out.

In that moment, I think Thomas recognized that Jesus understood him in ways no one else could. Jesus, too, had been rejected. He had been betrayed. He had been cast off. He knew Thomas’s wounds inside and out.

The thing is, everyone in our world seems to be searching for some connection to God or to some kind of divinity or spirituality beyond ourselves. We all want connection. We want to believe in something out there that transcends our struggle-filled lives and understands us. John’s Gospel tells us that we find connection to God in the wounded body of Jesus Christ. No one knows our wounds better. No one offers the kind of invitation to God that Jesus offers. No one has sought us so relentlessly as Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.

In the wounded body of Jesus, God takes the worst of human behavior and the worst of human experience into God’s own self and transforms it. God transforms brokenness into healing and wholeness in individuals, in entire communities, and—indeed—for the whole human race.

We may no longer see Jesus in the flesh, but we have the Holy Spirit to guide us and be our connection to God. We have a meal where we receive the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus into our own bodies and receive grace beyond measure. God has given us what we need to believe, even if we cannot see or touch as Thomas did. In the broken body of Jesus Christ, we have healing and wholeness, we have community and connection, we have belonging and we have an invitation to abundant life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!