“What Would You Say?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2005. 

The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 14, 22 – 32; 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; and John 20: 19 – 31.

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And Thomas said, “Until I see his hands and feet and feel the wound in his side I will not believe.” So Jesus showed him where the nails had been placed in his hands and feet and then He let Thomas feel His side. And Thomas declared, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus said, “You have seen and you believed. Give glory to those who believe though they have not seen.”

As Peter tells the crowd, they can believe in the resurrection of Christ because there were witnesses still alive who saw Christ crucified on Good Friday and then came to know that He had in fact risen from the dead on Easter. And you could trust the witnesses’ account because there were several witnesses, not just one or two. Later, as we read in today’s second lesson, it is our faith that enables us to believe in the resurrection.

But what can be said today about the resurrection? No longer can we rely on eyewitness testimony; no longer do we have the actual words of the disciples or the first believers to tell us that what we believe is in fact true. How can we say to someone that the resurrection is more than just a story passed down from person to person, with all of its embellishments, additions, and subtractions?

How will someone react when you invite someone to be a part of this worship community? How will someone react if you tell someone that you are an evangelical believer? Will the images of Christianity that have been so dominate in our media these past few weeks bring people to the church? Or will these images drive people away?

We live in an era reminiscent of Europe in the 16th century. The evangelical church is doing everything it can to repress scientific and creative thought. It is almost as if we want to turn the clock back to days when the earth was the center of the universe and medicine was more magic than an organized science. No matter what the physical evidence might suggest about the age of this planet and the life that exists, we are supposed to accept the notion that this earth is only some eight thousands year old and that Darwin was a fool. I am not discounting the notion that God created the heavens and the earth. But God created mankind in His own image and He gave us the ability to think. So why are we supposed to stop thinking when the subject of religion comes up? Why are we supposed to stop thinking when science contradicts the Bible? Shouldn’t such contradictions help us to better understand who we are and what God would have us do?

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, states very clearly that my "faith is in an omniscient and benevolent God who created the universe out of nothingness, and whose purposes included the ultimate appearance of createrus who would desire fellowhips with him. God then provided the inestimable gift of Jesus Christ to teach us how to live, and to be a bridge between our own imperfect humanness and God’s perfect holiness." Dr. Collins adds that his own work does not take away from His belief in God but rather supports and prove His being and presence.

These thoughts are an interesting contrast to those who, in the name of Christ, would stifle research that would help cure the sick and prevent the study of how this world came to be. (From Context)

And in this day and age, you have to be careful about how you express your belief. For some, especially on the liberal side of life, to be religious is to believe in superstitions and age-old tales. Even worse, you cannot express the thought that you are a true evangelic Christian.

I was baptized in the Evangelical Reformed Church of Lexington, North Carolina, and I was confirmed in the First Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado. So, by action I am an evangelical. And if evangelism is to believe in the Gospel message, to believe that Jesus came to this world to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, let the lame walk, and set the oppressed free, then I am an evangelical by belief as well. And if that is what I believe, then I must also be willing to take the Gospel message into the world, telling others of what I know.

But today the word “evangelical” is associated with “bigot”, “homophobic”, “chauvinistic”, and “reactionary.” And in the same breath, individuals will describe Jesus as “caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and empathetic.” How can the description of Christ be so different from those who have been asked to tell the story? (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo)

I am afraid that the church, in its classic sense, is in a crisis that it has not seen since the days of the Roman Empire. We already see some of this in place today. Each year we hear reports about how the traditional denominations, including the United Methodist Church, are losing members. It is also becoming apparent that this loss is more than just a loss of older members; it is the loss of younger people seeking answers elsewhere. And while there is growth in the non-traditional denominations, I fear that the negative images that are associated with preachers of these non-traditional denominational churches will soon start to drive people away.

It is painfully clear that the leadership of traditional denominations did not pay enough attention to the people in the pews that were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness. It has become painfully clear that these individuals longed for a message of deliverance. But this message, so much the centerpiece of the Gospel message, has disappeared from the message of the traditional church. The traditional church has failed to give recognition to a person’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism and did more than address the painful social crises of the times. Too often, such churches overlooked the fact that people crave a connection with God that gives them a sense of being inwardly transformed. These people wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit,” but they cannot find it in traditional churches. These people also do not want to hear a message that makes them feel guilty (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo). They tell the pastor that they don’t want to hear about the outside world on Sunday, they get enough every other day. In a world with complicated problems, today’s church going public want simple solutions; they want the problems of the world to disappear for a few hours on Sunday.

Now, everything I read about the churches in this country that are growing today tells me that such churches are giving the seekers exactly what they want. They are giving them a sense of “being filled with the Spirit”; they are giving them a sense that their sins have been cleansed. And they are certainly giving them messages that bring purpose to their lives without making them feel guilty about what they have done. They hear that the poverty of this world, the death and desolation that come to this world are only signs of God’s return, of Christ’s Second Coming. They find in these new churches comfort and sanctuary.

But the message of such churches is devoid of the Gospel. It is a place where the signs of Christ are missing for fear of scaring away sinners. In many of these modern day churches there is no cross to remind you of Christ’s sacrifice, so there is no need to ask you to make the sacrifices that Christ asks of you. You can feel good in these churches because they are designed to make you feel good.

But the Gospel message is not meant to make you feel good; it is meant for you to hear and to seek to do good for others. Each month I receive a newsletter from Barbara Wendland, United Methodist layperson, in Texas. In her quiet way, she offers thoughts about the nature of the church. She points out that many of the things that make us comfortable in church often times make us less effective as a church. Patriotism is effective if it reminds us of our nation’s commitment to justice for all people, yet flags and martial hymns in worship tend to glorify war rather than remind us that we have been called to be peacemakers. We may find that tradition provides a sense of continuity but it can also make it difficult to bring about change. Emotion can inspire us to do God’s work in the world, but wrapping one’s self in a blanket of emotions can often block critical reasoning. The church can only be effective if it keeps reminding us how far we have to go before God’s will is done on this earth. An effective sermon on poverty and disease in our own community may leave us feeling rightly uneasy about not doing more to help and inspire us to do that little bit extra. (From Connections, April 2005)

Thomas sought the truth. That is what we all want. We do not want a faith of smoke and mirrors. Like Thomas, we were not there that afternoon when Jesus met with the disciples. Those that seek the truth are not willing to accept the words of those whose actions belie their beliefs. Jesus’ reply to Thomas is not meant to belittle Thomas but rather to remind us to seek the truth for ourselves and to find ways to help others find the truth for themselves.

If we are to be true to our heritage as Methodists, then we are true evangelists. Evangelism means more than just persuading people to accept Christ; it means helping people change their lives and the world (important that we note that) by living out a mature faith as Jesus taught and modeled. It means that we are called to imitate Jesus’ example by meeting people’s needs and acting in their best interests, as described in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 25, and elsewhere in the Gospel. ((From Connections, April 2005)

I cannot help but be amazed by how non-Catholics around the world have reacted to the death of Pope John Paul II. But it should not be that surprising; he more than anyone understood the nature of modeling Christ here on earth. He was first and foremost a parish priest, even when He was the Vicar of Christ. His was a mission to bring Christianity and the message of the Gospel to the world, no matter where that might take him. Rightly so, he is given credited for the fall of Communism because he knew that the truth lie in Jesus Christ. We may disagree with his theological thoughts but we cannot disagree with someone who was willing put the message of the Gospel at the forefront of his own life.

The challenge that lies before us today and tomorrow will be to find ways through our lives, our words, our thoughts, and our actions to make it known that Christ has risen from the dead. The challenge before us today and tomorrow will be to fulfill the Gospel message that the sick will be healed, the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the lame will walk and the oppressed will be set free. The challenge today will be to answer those who will not believe until they see the wounds in Christ’s hands and side; what will you say?

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