Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Easter

John 14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

It seems unfair to end the world on a long weekend.

It’s been a long winter, and so it also seems cruel to schedule the apocalypse on the first decent day of spring. Do I need to weed the garden if the whole thing is coming to an end anyway? Should I worry about the phlox that seems intent on pushing everything else out of the garden? Should I finally split the sedum? At least we harvested our first rhubarb, preparing for the end with a belly full of tangy sweetness.

I’ve often wondered about the end of the world. I’m not sure I understand the attraction, or the fascination, but I have three theories, so you can decide for yourself.

The first theory I’m calling “the world is lost and cannot be redeemed.” In this theory, those who wait for the end of the world are convinced that humanity is too depraved to save, that sinfulness has taken over, and that only a fiery end will cleanse the earth. Think of a modern Noah minus the ark. In this case, salvation doesn’t come through saving a family and animals two-by-two, but in the rapture, a topic I will return too in a moment.

The second theory we might call “creation is complete, time to move on.” In this theory, we have done all we can to and with the earth, human history has reached an endpoint, and now it must conclude. This may be a slightly more positive expression of the first theory, but the result is the same. This theory most often involves the State of Israel, and the rebuilding of the Temple, and any number of other factors. On this last point, you can trace many of the outbursts of apocalypticism to the various wars in the Middle East, especially 1948 and 1967.

My final theory, I’m calling “I can't go on, plus or minus.” On the plus side, there seems to be a link between the enthusiasm of the newly converted and the end of the world. If you have just begun a passionate relationship with your Lord and Savior, there follows a desire to meet him as soon as possible. Apocalyptic hope can mean accelerating the process. On the minus side, and related to the first theory, is the sense that the world is not just a terrible place, but a terrible place for the individual believer, and the sooner the suffering ends the better. These are the scariest folks, because trying to speed up the process can have the side-effect of making it happen. The Israeli tourist people love conservative Christians, but there are a little wary of them at the same time.

It seems unfair to preach on the end of the world on a long weekend. It should be light, and pleasant, more flowers, and less hellfire. But it’s not my fault, it’s the lectionary, which gave us an end-of-the-world passage on the same weekend it made the news:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

There are twenty-one chapters in John’s Gospel, and already at chapter twelve Jesus is be anointed for death and we begin to understand the role Judas will play in the unfolding story. Later in twelve, Jesus predicts his death, and in the chapter that follows he predicts both the betrayal and Peter’s denial.

And so you see, almost half of the last Gospel concerns the passion of Jesus, his end, and the promises that follow his passage to new life. It is in this context then, that we hear the words “and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This is a very personal promise of the end, a pledge that has sustained many through the centuries.

Many of you, of course, will recognize John 14 as a regular funeral reading. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” For the faithful, for those who have lived under the promises of God, there seems no better expression of the Christian hope. If John 14 has a serious rival, it might be Matthew 25, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, with the conclusion “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it also for me.” It almost becomes a Mary and Martha-type division, where the tireless workers get Matthew 25 and the rest of the faithful get John 14.

Turing back to John 14, the promises continue: “I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus said, “I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” You begin to get the sense why this is among the most beloved chapters in scripture. And you also get the appeal for those who look forward to the end of the world. “…the world will not see me, but you will see me…I will come again and take you to myself”

Now, I promised a word on the rapture, and this might be the moment. If we return to Matthew, and we go back a chapter to twenty-four, we will find Matthew’s “Little Apocalypse,” his recounting of Jesus’ teaching on the end-time. It starts with a promise that the Temple will be destroyed, it outlines the various thing that will happen near the end, and concludes with this prediction: “That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”

Since the beginning of the last century in particular, and before that to a lesser extent, there has been an ongoing and lively debate about the moment believers will be taken up. If you study the parallel passages in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, you will see that the predictions are similar, but also vague enough to spark rival interpretations. These interpretations ended up with names, such as pre-tribulation rapture, mid-tribulation rapture, and so on. People have spent a great deal of time worrying about the hour and the day, but also the degree of suffering they will witness before the event actually comes.

You may have gathered from all that I have said that I’m unconvinced that everything will end in fiery tribulation. Yes and no. On a planet where the average yearly temperature is on the rise, and species such as the pine beetle can spread throughout our northern forests for the first time, and the constant risk of lightning strikes and forest fires is only increasing, and entire towns face destruction that seems to relate directly back to climate change, I’m keeping an open mind on the fiery tribulation. Call it a variation on the first theory of the apocalypse, call it “the world may be lost and may not be redeemed.” If we cook ourselves into oblivion we might prove the May 21st crowd correct after all, an outcome we would do well to avoid.

It might surprize you to learn that the roots of the United Church, and in particular the movement called the Social Gospel, was very much an end-of-the-world movement too. It came about around the very same time as the first fundamentalists were arguing pre-trib and mid-trib, and it also welcomed the end of history as a fitting goal for believers. It was related to the second theory I shared above. It argues that the goal of the Christian life is to bring about God’s realm, to usher in a new realm of peace and equality and at that moment history would be complete.

It was the movement that sparked the urge to unite the various churches in Canada, assuming that Christian unity would be a natural first step to creating the Kingdom, and based on the belief that improving the human condition superceded denominational tradition and worship practice. The union would not be completed until 1925, but the movement that gave birth to it—the Social Gospel—it died in the trenches in Belgium. For you see, the Social Gospel was based on the idea of human progress toward common goal, something that become a hollow fiction as so-called Christian nations fought the “Great War.”

And it was about that time that the mainline churches, United and Anglican and others simply stopped talking about the end of the world, and handed the entire conversation over to the conservatives. Mainline churches moved on to other topics, the problem of evil, Christ and the modern world, and gave a discussion of the life to come to others.

To all of this, to all of the discussion and all of the debate, I say ‘it just doesn’t matter.’ And the reason it doesn’t matter is found in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” It doesn’t matter if there is a fiery end or your life ends peacefully in your bed, the promise is the same: In my Father’s house there are many rooms. Yes, we need to leave the world better than we found it, and yes we need to work for a healthy planet and healthy children and healthy relationships, but the matter of my end and your end individually, it really doesn’t matter.

What matters is the promises of God. What matter is knowledge that a place is prepared for us, whatever route we take to get there. What matters is the assurance that a loving God waits to welcome us, forgive us, and embrace us in eternity. I believe the earth will go on, and people will smarten up and clean up the mess around us, and my children and grandchildren will enjoy life on earth as much as we do. But I also believe that death is something you train for, something to be pondered, something we can even welcome like an old friend if you work at it long enough.

We can make fun of the end of the world, as most newspapers and bloggers and preachers will today, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the world will end for each of us, that we will each experience our own little apocalypse, and that this place is always the best place to do your preparing. So enjoy the rest of your long weekend, and when someone asks you Tuesday what you did to celebrate the fact that the world did not end, tell them you went to church, to train for the next time. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

No one wants to be described as a gatekeeper. A quick look at Wikipedia, and you will see the various ways ‘gatekeeper’ has gone from keeper-of-the-city-gate to, well, a gatekeeper.

Newspaper editor, admissions officer, financial advisor, each has been given the informal title of gatekeeper. They decide which stories, applicants and financial instruments made the cut, which ones deserve a place in the newspaper, organization or portfolio.

Informally, gatekeepers are anyone we resent for having authority to decide. Within the United Church, the presbytery Education and Students Committee are often described as gatekeepers, charged with determining the suitability of candidates for ministry. In this sense the charge is both accurate and unfair at the same time. They have the authority to make decisions on the future of an individual, much like an HR department, but they are also a metaphor for the people who control access to something sought after. If you could call ordination something sought after, that is.

The non-literal role of gatekeeper, keeping some out of the club, is likely as old as the literal gatekeeper, keeping watch over the entrance of the city. You see, anytime a group has exercised a right to choose who is in and who is out, the gatekeeper function has existed. There are more than a few examples in the Bible, of course, but I think my favourite is the story of Simon the Magician found in Acts 8.

Simon is a local magician who follows St. Philip, accepts baptism, and is astounded that the apostles can give the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. Simon offers to buy the right to do it too. Unimpressed by the offer, it is St. Peter who says, "May your money perish with you!" (8.20). Simon repents, and even asks that Peter pray for him, but this doesn’t stop the early church from giving his name to the terrible sin of buying a position in the church, forever called simony.

So the church does it, and business does it, and your broker does it, so why the negative connotation? We depend on the gatekeeper function everyday to make sure that the right people are doing the right job in the right way. I kind of like the idea that the College of Physicians and Surgeons is on the lookout for quackery and incompetence (do you know how long I’ve wanted the use the work ‘quackery’ in a sermon?). Seriously, the gatekeeper over at the MTO, saying yes to one driver and no to another, is performing a valuable public function.

Generally, though, the idea of the gatekeeper seems to offend our inner Canadian, some deep part of us that thinks everyone deserves a shot, that taking on the role of gatekeeper is somehow haughty, and that really we just want everyone to have a chance to play too. I once made the mistake, while talking to my dear friends Ted and Caroline, to refer to the National Yacht Club as “the club where I belong.” “Oh, do you now,” came the reply, and another statement I’ll never live down was born.

I guess I meant “the club to which I belong,” but the moment passed and I gave up my membership anyway, not out of shame, but because you don’t need a membership to sail, something you golfers might want to note.

It was Groucho Marx that said, “I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” And as funny as that line is, it points to the truth that we have a healthy ambivalence about being in or out, member or non-member, part of the club or forever on the outside.

So what do we do with John 10? A good commentary will note that the passage Joyce read has two parts. In the first part, Jesus is the shepherd, who enters the sheepfold, and speaks to the sheep. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and they follow him. They will not follow a stranger’s voice, a voice they do not know, only the voice of the shepherd.

In the second part, Jesus is the gate, stating it twice in three verses, and using the “ego eimi” (I am) formulation that reminds us to pay attention, to note that this idea is foundational to Jesus’ self-understanding. So Jesus is the shepherd, but he is also the gate, a somewhat confusing passage that has tripped up many a preacher through the ages.

The simple solution, for this passage, is to assign the role of shepherd to God and follow the “I am” clue, making Jesus the gate. And this certainly fits with the other assigned lesson for the day, with Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) underlining that for John 10, at least, it is the God that the sheep follow, through the gate, that is Jesus Christ.

And this certainly fits with that other very famous passage in John, where Jesus is the ‘way, the truth and the life, and no one gets to the Father except through me.’ John 14 is perhaps the clearest statement of Jesus as gatekeeper, certainly on par with saying “I am the gate.”

But once again, we are ambivalent. We have learned, in this post-modern age, that truth claims are tricky and saying Jesus is the only way to salvation excludes four or so billion others who have their own version of the truth. And so, in the spirit of the age, we correctly say that our truth may not be their truth, and that all roads (with a few nasty exceptions) can be said to lead to God.

And it even fits with our revised understanding of the Gospel of John. It was the last to be written. It was the book written at the peak of a competition between emerging church and existing synagogue and therefore it reflects the politics of the day. “Religious leaders” become “Jewish leaders,” even though everyone in the story was Jewish, and John even goes so far to have the chief priests say “we have no king but Caesar,” something they would never say.

So the context determines the nature of the claims made, so we can support some and retire others, but we are left with the gatekeeper Jesus and his role in our life together. Now it gets really muddy.

I don’t tend to read the National Post, but I followed a link, and read an article published yesterday on the emerging split in the United Church. A couple of things first: split is an intentional over-statement, I think, but you will need to read the article for yourself and decide. Next, the National Post is famous for highlighting problems with the United Church, most often the church’s approach to the State of Israel, and occasionally on social issues.

The split, as described in the article, is between the theists and the post-theists, the people in the church who continue to believe in God and those who have moved on. Not moved on from the church, mind you, but moved on from a belief in God and continue to exercise leadership in the church.

For most people, particularly people outside the church, this is one of those scratch you head, “what the heck” kind of ideas that belongs in the “oddly enough” section of the newspaper and not the religion section. It begs the question why someone who no longer ascribes to the core beliefs of the church would choose to remain in the church, and to that I can only say ‘we live in strange days.’

The debate, of course, is not new. There has long been a fringe group in the church who long to shift Jesus from the centre to the margins, and this too is noted in the article, through a fine quote from my friend and colleague Connie den Bok:

“In the 1960s and ’70s we became embarrassed about Jesus. And so we distanced ourselves from Jesus, and the point is without Jesus there’s no point in having a church. iTunes has better music and the NDP has better policies; everything else we do now somebody else does way better. The only thing we can do is this Jesus thing,” she said.

And here I think Connie finds the heart of the matter. Theist and post-theist is just fancy language for the process that starts when you decide that Jesus is no longer at the centre of the church. It is his church, it belongs to him, and while not the founder (that honour belongs to Peter or Paul) he is certainly the reason for the whole enterprise.

And so, once again, Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the narrow way that some choose to enter and some cannot. We avoid the language of in and out because it offends our modern sensibility, but in the case of where the church is headed and who will be at the centre, Jesus is clearly the gate.

But back to the Post article for a minute, it follows the assumption that rogue leaders, post-theist leaders, and the high church officials that tolerate them are the root of the problem, but I have a different view, and I’ll tell you why.

A few years back I ran into a minister I once knew, and we talked about old times. We compared journeys and stories, starting back in Kingston and catching up to present times. My friend’s story was much more interesting, and he told it like this:

One day I woke up and I said to myself, ‘ don’t believe any of this anymore. I just can’t believe in anything I’ve preached all these long years.’ So I went to the Board of the congregation and I told them what I had discovered and told them I was happy to go but then something surprising happened: they asked me to stay. ‘We love you too much to lose you,’ they said. ‘Great, I said to them, let’s have an adventure together!’

Back in my day, when a minister lost his (or her) faith, they became a teacher or a social worker or a night guard at the mall. They didn’t continue being a minister. The story my friend told me, is a breakdown of an accepted tradition that understood loss of faith as loss of vocation. And without wanting to be too judgmental, this was a case where the congregation, the people who hold the mission and do the ministry, should have said, ‘you’re right, you should move on. We love you, but you should move on to something else.’

Jesus is the gate, not in a negative way, not in a judgmental way, but in a definitional way. He helps us to see where we are, in the fold or outside the fold, in the church or outside the church. Not in a “take sides” kind of way, a way to serves no one, but in a way that allows us, as individuals, to know where we stand and know where we belong.

To follow Jesus and follow in his way is a choice we make, something we ‘put on’ to define ourselves. It should never be something we extend to some and not others, rather, it is something that we allow people to claim. Even Simon the Magician, guilty of simony, wasn’t ejected from the church, but told to repent, and then prayed for. Jesus is the gate, not to exclude, but to allow people to self-exclude. It should be no other way.

God has given us the gift of God’s son, a source of mercy and truth, a source of healing and fullness, a source of new life and life everlasting. It is the greatest gift, and one we accept with humility. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

How often does this happen to you? You see someone, you know you know them, but you just can’t place them. Let’s call it the problem of context: take someone out of their usual setting and you’re ability to place them is diminished.

Now, the issue is not recognition. Unless you suffer from prosopagnosia, a diminished capacity to recognize faces, you know the face, you just can’t remember who they are or where you know them.

Of course, you are in good company. Our passage this morning is the classic story of two followers unable to recognize Jesus, unable to place him, until he breaks the bread. Suddenly the context is reestablished, they have new sight, and they know that this is Jesus. Then he is gone.

And this is not the only example in the Bible. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, manages to become the Prime Minister of Egypt before he reintroduces himself to his very surprized brothers. You might even make the same argument about Isaac, unable to recognize his son Jacob, but that situation involved stew and trickery, so it’s hardly a parallel.

Back to Luke 24, the two who walk to Emmaus are not part of the twelve, and we only learn the name of Cleopas and not his companion. Discouraged, they leave the Holy City and travel the road, only to be joined by a stranger, a stranger seemingly unaware of the events that have unfolded in recent days.

As the two describe and struggle to understand the death of Jesus and the story of the empty tomb, the unrecognized stranger offers an explanation. Beginning with Moses and the prophets, the stranger pulls all the recent events on their proper context.

They pause for a meal, and in the course of the meal, and in particular the moment when the bread is broken, the two recognize Jesus. No sooner do they see and he is gone. The scripture records they asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

One of the things to note in this story is that at no time does Jesus refer to himself. Now, part of it is the structure of the story itself. They story only works when the moment of recognition comes at the end, and if the stranger on the road spoke of himself (Jesus) then the ending would be preempted and the whole thing would fall apart.

Instead, and certainly not by accident, the conversation begins with Moses, moves to the prophets, and ends with communion. So why Moses? The story of Jesus is always a story about liberation. Sins are forgiven, the broken are mended, the outcasts embraced. At every step of the journey, Jesus freed people to love God and love their neighbour.

So Jesus is the new Moses and the new Elijah and the new covenant in the bread and the wine. All of this was revealed on the road and at the table and within the hearts of the two from Emmaus. And then it was revealed, in scripture, to us.


How often does this happen to you? You see someone in someone else, say your parents in your siblings or your mother in yourself? Call it Mother’s Day in reverse, the gift that my mother gave me, that I see more of her in me all the time. And Dad too, of course, I can’t leave out Dad, although he gets his own day and will just have to wait his turn.

For me it’s making the most of every situation, valuing relationships over whatever happens in the day-to-day, and being able to laugh and enjoy the smallest things. For these I say thank you, Marilyn. If you’re reading this online, mother, I will call you soon, if only because Harold keeps reminding me.


How often does this happen to you? You see Christ in someone else. If fact, it is the goal of the Christian life, the goal of the faith we spend our lives developing, the goal that began moments after the bread was broken and he was gone.

The first lesson of the Road to Emmaus is watchfulness. I can imagine Cleopas and his blessed companion not only recounting this story for the rest of their days, but continued to look for the Risen Christ in everyone they met. How could they not? Every stranger, every traveler on the road, every dinner guest became a potential Christ. It required a new attentiveness, a new imagination, and willingness to disregard the ordinary before them and look for Jesus.

Now, it’s easy enough to see Christ in the people we admire. Imagine the most generous person you know, the most loving, the most forgiving, and it’s easy enough to claim an encounter with the Risen Christ. The goal of the Christian life, at least according to C.S. Lewis, is to become “little Christ’s,” an imitation of our Saviour and Lord that would be fairly obvious to even the most casual observer. “They will know we are Christian’s by our love,” the song says, and it remains the gold standard for Christian behavior to do what Jesus would do. What would Jesus do? I should write that down.

It’s easy enough to see Christ in the people we admire, but that about the people we don’t? Or the people we barely see at all? John Bell’s hymn “Jesus Christ is waiting” is one of the best expressions of this phenomenon. He wrote the hymn to support youth ministry in Glasgow, a city troubled by gang violence second only to London within the UK.

Jesus Christ is waiting, waiting in the streets;
no one is his neighbour, all alone he eats.
Listen, Lord Jesus, I am lonely too.
Make me, friend or stranger, fit to wait on you.

Like the Emmaus two, we practice watchfulness, but we do it in the most unlikely places. We don’t do it because it’s a rule or something we’re compelled to do, but because it’s how the Spirit moves. “Listen, Lord Jesus, I am lonely too.” When I’m vulnerable, when I’m diminished, when I falling apart, someone just may see the Risen Christ in me. We trust that we can be Christ to others, not just at our best, but when we share in the suffering that Christ experienced.

Watchfulness, recognition and blessing. The Spirit moves in our midst, in the most humble places, in the most unlikely people, in the midst of our everyday. May we see Christ in others, and may others see him in us, now and forever, amen.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Red is in free-fall, orange is surging, blue hasn’t changed, light blue is more than a little frustrated, and I have no idea about green. If the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have done anything of note thus far in their marriage, it is to distract the good citizens of Her Majesty’s largest Dominion in the hours before an election.

It was going to be a sleeper, with likely the same outcome as last time ‘round, but that now seems far from the case. Just a week ago I confidently bet my mother that a Conservative majority was coming. But a week is a lifetime in politics, and she can probably use the twenty bucks anyway. Maybe I’ll put it in a card for next week.

The thing that makes me most frustrated about politics is the surplus of certainty that politicians bring to the election. Just once, I would love to hear someone running for high office address the challenges of governing and describe a sense of their personal limitations. Just once I would love to hear a politician say: ‘I’m not altogether certain about the future; I don’t know if our program has all the answers; I don’t know what challenges lie ahead; and the challenges I do see may be too great for any one person or any one party to tackle.’

But that would be asking too much. We have come to expect perfection, or at least the power of a strong denial in public life. And showing vulnerability, and being completely honest, will never fly in this time and place. Scars and brokeness are to be carefully hidden, mistakes denied, and uncertainty case aside.

What a great contrast to that first night after the resurrection, when Jesus enters the locked room, speaks his traditional greeting, and shows them his scarred flesh. This is no return in glory, there is no trumpet blast and no choir of angels, but a turn of the hands, a turn of his side, and the assurance that he was there in their midst once more.

And the response was utter joy! The disciples were all Thomas’ at that moment, hopeful that the testimony was true, ready to believe, but also ready to see for themselves. And see they did. He extended his peace to them, he breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and began to teach the theme that would define the church down to today. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

The first message, after extending the peace, is this: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” We should never forget that this is a sending religion, a faith based on taking the message out to as many people as possible and never hesitating to share it. It would be a mistake to imagine that confirmation is some sort of graduation, or completion, but rather it is a sending out, a tangible example of the message “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Abby, Liam and Robert are being sent into the world, to represent the Gospel and represent us, with a message and a level of articulation (as demonstrated in the creedal statements they wrote) that is truly impressive.

The second message, the core message that the disciples need to hear at this moment, is forgiveness: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” There, in a locked room, the disciples were no doubt relieved that their teacher and friend lives, but this does not mean they give up on the very human response to hate. The religious leaders (mistakenly call Jewish leaders—recall everyone in the story was Jewish) are at best guilty of collusion with the Roman authorities and at worst guilty of trying to destroy God. The disciples would naturally feel anger, and some guilt, since the foot of the cross was empty, save the faithful women.

So the message, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” is first and foremost a message as the disciples prepare to make their way into the world. They could be consumed by anger, they could seek revenge, but Jesus says ‘forgive, do not cling to your anger, do not let your anger get in the way of your mission to take a message of forgiveness to a hurting world.’

Implied in this message of forgiveness, is the recognition the disciples need forgiving too. They did flee away at the critical moment in the story, Peter did deny Jesus, and their first response to the resurrection was disbelief. The message Jesus shared, first pronounced from the cross, is that the disciples are forgiven. The oversights, the anger, the disbelief are all forgiven.

Back to our politicians for a moment, one of the true marks of leadership is acknowledging limitations. It is knowing when to seek help, when to admit you don’t understand, and when to declare that something about us makes it impossible to be effective. This is weakness as strength, the same weakness as strength that allowed Jesus to surrender in the garden and accept what was about to unfold. He had to be weak, he had to accept the suffering and death that was coming, in order to demonstrate that relationship between God and humanity could be righted. He had to accept death in order to defeat it, to be weak in order to be strong, to die on the cross that we might live.

So here we are, redeemed sinners, broken people in need of forgiveness, ready to forgive and be forgiven. This is not a “poor me’ message, or a message that we’re somehow born bad, but rather a message that takes the scars and the limitations and the brokenness that we all possess and transforms them into something good and faithful. St. Augustine, in a prayer, said: "By loving the unlovable, you made me lovable." (Yancey, p. 159)

"By loving the unlovable, you made me lovable [God]." You took the weariness and the doubt, the anger and the shortsightedness, and turned it into the last, best hope for the world. You, God, took a group of ordinary men and women, gave them a message of forgiveness and love, and unleashed them on an unsuspecting world. You took water and clay and fashioned us into worthy vessels, and when the vessels were spoiled on the wheel, you refashioned us into your children once more.

I could say that the message of forgiveness is needed in our world more than ever. But that would be to misread human history. Now, as much as ever, the challenges of the world, the wars and rivalries, the mistrust and the foolishness, can best be met with forgiveness. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Our three new disciples, newly sent, need our constant support and need to see an example being set. May God strengthen us to set that example, now and always, amen.