“Theory or Experiment”


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” on this 2nd Sunday of Easter (Year A), 19 April 2020.

Tradition has it that Nathaniel Bartholomew was the scholar of the disciples.  In John 1: 48, he asked Jesus how he knew him and Jesus replied that He had seen him sitting under the fig tree.  Tradition has it that Nathaniel was studying the Scriptures and it was that knowledge that allowed him to respond that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

One might say that Nathaniel was engaging in a bit of inductive reasoning – making a generalization from a set of specific observations.  The Scriptures of that time would have held many references to the identity of the coming Messiah and, in knowing what had been written, would have been about to conclude that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  To some extent, then, Nathaniel was theorist, basing his ideas and conclusions on what others had done.

I think that Nathaniel’s friend and compatriot, Thomas, was more of an experimentalist.  He needed to see the evidence before making any sort of conclusion.  His conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead comes not from what others said but on what he saw for himself.

But what does this all mean for each of us?  Are we theorists or experimentalists?  And what does how we see the Resurrection help others?  I think that if we are who we say we are, we are experimentalists because it is by what we do that others see that Christ is alive.

Those who say that the only path to salvation is through Christ offer a theory without evidence (and too often, it seems, live lives that belie the notion of Christianity).

But by actively living a life with Christ, we can offer the evidence of what is to come.

So, do you lead a life of Christ that is theory based or experimentally based?

“The Other Side Of The Universe”


I was at the at the Sloatsburg United Methodist Church in Sloatsburg, New York this Sunday morning.

Their services start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Year A), 27 April 2014. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 2: 14a, 22 – 32; 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; and John 20: 19 -31.

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My family lived in Aurora, Colorado (a suburb of Denver) when I was a freshman in high school and I attended William C. Hinkley High School. Now, even back then I knew that if a school was named after someone, it was because they had been very important or had done something really great. Why else would you name something after them? And I assumed that sometime during my high school studies I would find out who William C. Hinkley was and what famous deed he had done that warranted naming a high school after him.

Well, that spring, I not only found who William C. Hinkley was and what he had done but I got to sit next to him and help him fly his Cessna airplane. As it turned out, Mr. Hinkley was the Superintendent of Schools when the school named after him was built two years before. Clearly, he was not dead.

As one might think, it changes your perspective about someone you think is dead but is, in fact, quite alive.

Our thought for the day comes from the Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne. For the record, I have never met the Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne but I believe he is still alive and well, preaching and thinking somewhere in England. John Polkinghorne earned his doctorate in physics, conducted research in elementary particle physics and then made the decision to become an Anglican priest. It was a decision that probably shocked and confused many of his friends in the scientific community but it was one he felt called to make.

Still, in moving from the secular to the sectarian word, he did not forsake the one for the other. He has become one of the key thinkers in relating the conundrums of quantum physics with the mysteries of Christian faith. It should be noted that he is not alone in being identified as a scientist and a Christian but that is a story for another time and place (see “9 Groundbreaking Scientists Who Happened To Be Christians”, Allan Bevere’s response, “Groundbreaking Christian Scientists”, in which he adds Copernicus and Polkinghorne to the list, and my own thoughts on the subject of science and faith, “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”).

Part of that untold story lead me to the quote I chose for the thought for the day. In preparing this message and quite by accident I discovered that the thought for the day comes from a question Lyndon F. Harris asked him in an interview for Cross Currents (http://www.crosscurrents.org/polkinghorne.htm)

Reverend Harris asked the following question,

Your background in science gives you a special vantage point from which to do theology, an approach that you’ve described as “bottom up thinking.” Please explain that phrase, and why you think this methodological commitment is important for theology.

Reverend Polkinghorne replied,

Bottom up thinkers try to start from experience and move from experience to understanding. They don’t start with certain general principles they think beforehand are likely to be true; they just hope to find out what reality is like.

Now as it happens, this is only part of the answer to the question. Reverend Polkinghorne continued by saying,

If the experience of science teaches anything, it’s that the world is very strange and surprising. The many revolutions in science have certainly shown that. If that’s true of our encounter with the physical world, it’s likely to be even truer of our encounter with God.

We see such strange and surprising things in science and the world every night when we look to stars in the sky; we just don’t always know it.

From the very beginning of our consciousness, we have looked at the skies in wonder, awe, and amazement. Our first thought as we watched and observed the stars throughout the night was that the stars were fixed to the edge of the universe in what was called the firmament. If there was another side to the universe, it was on the other side of the firmament and beyond our reach or vision.

But the more we observed, the more we came to know. And when our ability to see into the heavens got better, we saw that there was more to the stars than simply what we saw with our eyes. The other side of the universe is still out there but now it is easier to reach. Our vision of the skies has lead us into new areas of exploration and wonder.

But it took more than just seeing what was in the skies to understand what was in the skies; it took a different sort of thinking. These visions of the skies required that we change how we thought about things.

A bottom-up thinker tends to see this new material in the same old way, using what they already know to try and explain what has happened. It doesn’t always work. Even the disciples, with all they saw and did still needed the experience of the Resurrection so that they could totally and completely understand what happened and what it meant.

A few weeks before the Resurrection, Thomas asked Jesus to explain where it was that they were headed. I think that Thomas gets a bad rap at times. For me, he wasn’t so much a doubter as he was a skeptic, wanting to know more about what was going on so that he could make a decision.

Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”

Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?” (John 14: 1 – 5, The Message)

In response, Jesus told Thomas and the others that He was the Way, the Life, and the Truth. He also said that no one would get to the Father without having Jesus in his life. And then Jesus added,

Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”

Philip said, “Master, show us the Father; then we’ll be content.”

You’ve been with me all this time, Philip, and you still don’t understand? To see me is to see the Father. So how can you ask, ‘Where is the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you aren’t mere words. I don’t just make them up on my own. The Father who resides in me crafts each word into a divine act.

Believe me: I am in my Father and my Father is in me. If you can’t believe that, believe what you see—these works. The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it. From now on, whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it. That’s how the Father will be seen for who he is in the Son. I mean it. Whatever you request in this way, I’ll do. (John 14: 6 – 14, The Message)

Philip’s response is what we would expect from bottom-up thinkers. They have all the information in front of them, yet are not willing to make the decision. That will come that night in the Upper Room described in the Gospel reading.

We are all, I believe, bottom-up thinkers at some point in our lives. It is part of our process of thinking. But we also should have experienced a moment in time that some call the “Aha! Moment”, a moment in time and thought when things suddenly become very clear (see “The Aha! Moment”and references within).

This moment of clarity and understanding is not limited to any particular field of thought or study nor is limited to any particular place and time. Rather, it has to do with who we are and where we are in our own thinking.Such moments are unique for each of us. Our problem is, first of all, we try to make everyone’s experience the same and second, we don’t help others prepare for that moment. It leaves a lot of people seeking experiences when they should be moving forward.

I think that our encounter with Christ is one of those moments. It is that moment in our life when we understand that Jesus Christ died for us on the Cross, and that in his Resurrection on Easter gave us a new life. Each of us has that moment and each person’s moment is different. This moment is more than a statement that we are a Christian but that we have an awareness, a feeling that we have that Christ is a part of our life.

It might be that we came to Christ in a manner similar to that of Saul on the road to Damascus. Or it might have been in a manner similar to that of John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment.

There is no doubt that the ten disciples gathered that night in the Upper Room experienced that moment. After all, how would you have felt if someone you had traveled with for three years, who had been your teacher and your friend, and had been executed by the religious and political authorities and was buried in a tomb suddenly appeared to you in the very room where you stood?

Now, for reasons that we are not given, Thomas was not with the others that night. But we do know that when they were together, he was neither willing or unable to accept what they told him about the Risen Christ. He needed that same experience that the other disciples had experienced in order to believe for himself.

But Jesus noted that others would come to the faith without the experience that he, Thomas, needed. And without saying so, it is up to each one of us to provide in some way that experience.

And therein lies the challenge we face today. There are going to be those today who are like Thomas, skeptical about the Resurrection and this whole Christianity thing. There are those who are seeking Christ and want to know where He is and how to find Him. And the problem is that we are the ones who will have to help those individuals find Christ.

Our problem is that we cannot make others come to Christ by telling them that they have to accept Christ or that they have to accept Christ in the manner that we did. There are too many people out in the world today doing that and, as a result, they are, I believe, driving people from Christ, not bringing them to Him.

I will be honest; this is a task that I have struggled with from perhaps the first moment that I choose to follow Christ in my own life. I know in my heart, mind, and soul that the story is true, otherwise why would we be here today, some two thousand years later?

If this story were a fable, a myth, or fabrication, how has it remained over time? Surely, if this story was not true, we would have found out by now, wouldn’t we?

As it turns out, Reverend Polkinghorne has some of the same ideas I have about the truth of the Resurrection. In his book, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity, he points out that if the story was not true, it might not have ever been told. Something had to have happened for us to know about a wandering carpenter from a peripheral province of the Roman Empire, a man who wrote no book and who endured an excruciating death on the cross. Something had to have happened that changed a group of frightened and demoralized disciples who ran away and hid on Good Friday into a confident group who would face the political and religious authorities on Pentecost and tell the Good News that the man they executed as the One and True Messiah. Something had to have happened to bring about such an astounding transformation.

Why were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus mentioned if they did not play a role in the actual burial of Jesus on Good Friday? In a time when the testimony of women was not acceptable in the court of law, why are women, among them Mary Magadelene, mentioned in terms of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday? Surely, in both instances, the reasons for the inclusion of this information in the Gospels is because there is some truth and validity to the story.

And we know that the world changed on Easter. Saul became Paul and went from being the persecutor of Christians to an advocate for Christ; the Methodist movement went from a rule-bound, legalistic club for college buddies to a world-changing movement when the Holy Spirit entered John Wesley. And when Christ becomes a part of our life, our life changes as well. It makes it easier to respond to the call from Christ.

We have to offer a new vision of Christ, one that shows God’s love for the people, all the people no matter who they are.

When John Wesley began the Methodist Revival, there was a genuine concern in the church establishment for the lower classes. But as you read sermons from that period of time, you find that it was assumed that if the lower classes, the poor and working class, were to be saved and enter into Christ’s purpose for them, they had to take on the culture and lifestyle of those better than them. In other words, it was God’s will that “they” would become like “us”.

Wesley was attacked because he helped the people find their own way to Christ. The early Methodist revival questioned the ideological assumption of the privileged that threatened the security of their own prejudices. For the upper classes in England in the 18th century (and I think for many in today’s world as well), there was an assumption that their life is a reflection of God’s will; they assumed that they could see God’s presence in their own way of life but what it did show was how they were projecting their own way of life as a means of determining what it was that God was doing. Wesley saw a need to take the church to the people, not bring the people to the church.

What had happened was that the Gospel had been shaped to meet the demands of the world instead of the demands of the world being met by the Gospel. But that is what will happen when the law of the organization becomes more important than anything else.

Two thousand years ago people thought the sky was fixed, like a dome over the earth. This single thought dominated scientific thinking for over a thousand years. It took a new vision of the universe to see that the other side of the universe was not a roof over the earth.

The Resurrection offers us a new vision for the world. It offers us the chance to see what God is doing and how we must respond. We all probably know Proverbs 29: 18,

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

But read it as it was translated in The Message,

If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves;

But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed.

What is God doing in this world today? More importantly, do we see what God is doing in our world today?

One of the text commentaries suggested that the law had replaced prophetic vision. When Jesus began his ministry in the Galilee two thousand years ago, the law had been so enforced that people were trapped and hope was gone. I think that John Wesley saw the same thing when he began the Methodist movement/revival. I am not altogether certain that we are not doing the same thing in this day and age.

But Christ broke free from the ghetto of religious law and regularity in which the faith of that time had imprisoned the people. In this new freedom Christ was able to meet the needs of the outcast, the hopeless, the helpless.

The light of Christ will only come to us when we are ready to move out into the world, when we are ready to leave the safe boundaries of the sanctuary and the law in which we have so often tried to keep God imprisoned.

We must be prepared to break free from these boundaries for they threaten to limit our vision of the world. If our vision and understanding of God’s purpose are limited, it becomes difficult to see Christ as He comes to us; it becomes difficult to hear Christ as He calls us.

If we are limited in our thoughts we will hide Christ in some sort of strange theology rather than having Him revealed as the One who came to set the prisoners free and makes Himself know in the events to which we can point,

Then he gave his answer: “Go back and tell John what you have just seen and heard:

The blind see,

The lame walk,

Lepers are cleansed,

The deaf hear,

The dead are raised,

The wretched of the earth have God’s salvation hospitality extended to them.

We are sometimes hesitant to do that. We know the history of the church and we know that many of those who began this movement died for the efforts. We know that Methodists in this country were often denied access to the church because they had chosen to follow the path set by John Wesley. We have no desire to be a martyr for the faith.

But a martyr is not necessarily one who dies for the faith; they are those who witness for the faith. We have the assurance from Peter and others that our efforts will not be in vain, though in a society that demands an instant response, that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

At one point in our life, the other side of the universe was literally a barrier, a barrier preventing us from moving beyond the boundaries of our own world. And because of sin, our lives were bound in slavery as well.

But through His death and Resurrection, Christ has given us a new life. Just as our exploration of the physical world has removed the boundaries that keep us on this planet, so too does Christ give us the opportunity to be free from sin and death.

We are charged this day and in this time to help others come to know Christ and receive the same opportunity.

“Faith and Vision”


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 1 May 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 14, 22 – 32; 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; and John 20: 19 – 31. There are references in this post to the age of the earth. ; see “A Brief History of Atomic Theory” and “How Old Is Old?” for a discussion on the topic of atomic theory and radiometric dating.

But unless I see the wounds in his hands and feet and feel where the sword pierced His side, I will not believe that He has arisen from the grave. With those words, Thomas the disciple became “Doubting Thomas”, forever remembered in the history of Christianity as the one who doubted the stories his friend told him about Christ’s resurrection.

It is very interesting that in today’s society, we will quite willing believe something someone tells us and not ask for the proof. Our educational system seems to have evolved into a system of pronouncements from the instructor that are taken at face value by the students who will dutifully write them down, memorize them, and then at the appropriate time, record them on the test. This will be followed with the removal of the information from the brain and the memory so that more facts, figures, statistics and trivia can be stored until the next test.

I don’t think that Thomas deserves the rap that he gets for telling his friends that he would not believe until he had the proof; it should be in our nature to question things and demand the proof.

As you should know by now, I am a chemist by training and temperament. The whys and wherefores behind the decision to become a chemist are more a matter of time and place; still, I made the decision to major in chemistry as an undergraduate and it is a decision that I have never regretted. And when I made the decision to become a teacher, I became interested in how students learn chemistry and that interest was behind my doctoral research.

And yet, today, when I look at the students in school today and society in general, I see a society and schools totally devoid of curiosity and a desire to inquire about the world around us. The frightening thing is that such a world, a world where statements made are blindly accepted, is a world in which a few individuals can easily control society.

And this includes the church as well. Now, Christ will tell Thomas that others will come to believe without seeing. But that is because Thomas and the other disciples will tell them what they saw and those individuals will tell others. And the story will be told throughout the ages until this time.

There are those who today say the Crucifixion and Resurrection were either a hoax or a conspiracy. But if it was a hoax, if it was a conspiracy, how is that the story has lasted for over two thousand years?

Faith may be a belief in things unseen but faith is often times seen in the things we say and do. Faith demands testing, for only in the fires of a test, is it refined and purified.

But too many people do not want their faith tested; they don’t want questions asked nor do they want to ask any questions. This is the way it is and the way it will be and that is all there is to it.

Such individuals are quite happy that we have lost our questioning skills. It gives them power. They don’t want people to question their faith because if they did they would fully understand what Christ meant when He walked on this earth two thousand years ago. They seek, they demand that we accept their version of reality, a version that tells us that the world is only six thousand years old. But the evidence tells us that the earth is over 4.5 billions years old.

They demand that we accept their version of how the Bible was written as insight from God and not through an agreement between individuals answering to the Emperor Constantine. They demand that we accept their version of society, in spite of the fact that the evidence of the early church was a society where men and women were equal.

But, in the end, those who prefer that the earth be 6000 years old, the Bible be written in somewhat magical terms and the rich have power while the poor suffer will succeed only if those who truly believe do nothing.

When Jesus began His ministry in the Galilee some two thousand years ago, disciples of John the Baptist came to Him and asked if He was the True Messiah. The Baptizer, sitting in Herod’s jail and about to be executed, was concerned that all of his preparation work and his baptism of Jesus had been for naught. In reply, Jesus told the Baptizer’s disciples to go back and tell him what they had seen, how they had seen the sick healed, the lame allowed to walk again and the blind regain their sight. Tell them that the people had regained a hope that had been lost. Then the Baptizer will know.

Two thousand years ago, how did those who did not see the Resurrection first hand know that Christ had risen from the dead? It is because a story was told again and again. It was Peter standing before the crowds and proclaiming that the prophecies that they had all been taught in school had come true in Jesus Christ. It is a story that we have the opportunity to tell.

In the end, I cannot make you believe; I can only give you cause to belief. I must put before you the reasons for you to change your own thoughts; I must challenge you (not command you) to see the new vision that Christ offers. To do that, I must provide a vision, a vision of the world where the Kingdom of God does exist. Faith may be a belief in things unseen but others see faith in action when those who have faith and believe live a life where Christ is a part of their life.

The words echo throughout the ages, “tell the world what you see and they will know.” The challenge is to lead a life that shows that Christ is alive; the challenge is to offer a vision so that others will know that Jesus Christ is alive today.

“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?

“Believing Isn’t Necessarily Seeing”


This is the message that I gave for the Second Sunday of Easter, 11 April 1999, at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church.  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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If there ever was a passage on the meaning of faith in everyday life, I think it has to be the Gospel reading for today. All the disciples except for Thomas are gathered in a closed room when Jesus appears to them. I think it is very easy for us today to imagine how the disciples must have felt on that day when Jesus appears to them, seemingly out of nowhere.

Easter and the resurrection of Jesus is just a week past and the disciples still fear for their own safety. That is why the room was locked and the meeting somewhat secret. And how are the disciples to feel upon seeing Jesus again? After all, to the greatest extent, they abandoned Him at the time when He needed them most. If the disciples were not scared, they had every right to be that way.

Yet, Jesus’ first words to His disciples were “Peace be with you!” Though this was a traditional greeting, Jesus has always used this in a slightly different manner. No longer a simple greeting, it becomes a means of speaking about the salvation that Christ’s redemptive work will achieve for the disciples – total well being and inner rest of the spirit, in fellowship with God. When Jesus greeted his disciples, he sought to calm their fears and tell them that there was a true peace.

But, as the Gospel reading tells us, Thomas (the Twin, as the Greek word Didymus tell us), wasn’t there. And despite the joy that must have been in the voices of those who spoke to him, Thomas wasn’t buying it. Now, for us today, just as it is easy for understand the fears of the disciples on seeing Jesus appear without warning, it is just as easy to understand Thomas’ reaction to his friends’ exclamation of joy. Don’t we want to see things before we too believe?

Several years ago, the junior bowling program that I directed held its awards program. Earlier that year, the manager of the bowling center had hosted a dinner for his two grandsons’ basketball team. At that dinner, he had given the coach a plaque in appreciation for the work that he had done that year.

Now, as we were gathering for our awards ceremony, I saw that he had brought a box about the size of an appreciation plaque. As we ended the evening, I challenged Claude to give me the plaque that I was certain he had brought with him.

To make the story short, Claude pulled a fast one on me and gave me the empty box. That, of course, deflated me, for I was certain that he had a plaque to give me. Of course, after playing the joke, he did give me the plaque to honor me for the work I had done that year. How many times do we think we are getting something, only to come up short? And how many times do we get something when we least expect it?

My commentary noted that hardheaded skepticism could hardly go father than Thomas’ response that day. But Jesus response to Thomas is a response to all of us who feel the necessity to see the resurrection in order to believe, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

If we do not believe in the empty tomb, then Jesus’ task on earth was in vain. It is interesting to note that action of the Pharisees when they were told that the tomb was empty. Remember that they had put a guard on the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body

“The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (Matthew 27: 62 –65)

After the Resurrection, the Pharisees circulated the story that the tomb had been robbed.

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling the, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. (Matthew 28: 11 – 15a)

As is the case in many things, it is easy to understand why the Pharisees would feel this way. After all, they did not believe in what Jesus said to them. As Jesus pointed out, “the blind cannot lead the blind.” If you do not believe, then you cannot understand.

There are those today who do not believe that the tomb was empty that Sunday morning one week ago. They look around and see the wars, the poverty, and the crime and ask where is God in this world. If God so loved us, why does this all occur? I cannot answer the question of why God allows bad things to happen other than to say that the answer to the question lies in what we do after we come to Christ.

But I do know that we have to come to Christ; that we have to believe that Christ died for our sins. For the hardest part of being a Christian is not what we do in our lives but simply believing. When Christ came to this world, salvation was seen in terms of following the rules, of obeying the laws. What makes Christianity stand out from all the religions in the world is that replaces one’ behavior with one’s belief and it replaces rulekeeping and rituals with the single, all-embracing motive of love.

Christ’s presence in the world changes how we view the world. It is interesting to note that the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus reported that their hearts were burning when they talked to Him. Did not John Wesley report the same burning feeling in his heart when he came to realize that Christ died for his sins?

As Peter spoke to the people, he quoted David

“’I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope,

Because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

Peter continued,

“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.

We know that Christ died to save us from sin. We do not need to see the tomb to know that it is empty. For we know in our heart that it is so. When Jesus came from the tomb, even His disciples did not recognize Him. When He came into the room, they did not recognize Him. But when the Spirit guided them, the disciples recognized him. It is the same for us today.

Like Wesley at Aldersgate, we must come to know that Christ died for us. And we know that by a simple act of faith, our lives will change. What did Peter write in his letter?

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even thought refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him know, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of you faith, the salvation of your souls.

Our lives change because Christ died for us. We do not need to see the empty tomb to know that Christ is alive for we know he is alive in our hearts.


The Next Move


As we enter this season of Easter, my home church is beginning to work on some areas identified by the Natural Church Development process.  (For those not familiar with Natural Church Development, you can go here).

We will be considering the following statement over the next few weeks, “Passionate Spirituality is developing a loving and trusting relationship with God that empowers and gives us the confidence to carry the spirit out of the Sanctuary and into the world.”

One thought we might consider is that between Easter and Pentecost the church began to develop its identity.  I am going to be using the above statement in conjunction with the lectionary for each week to develop the ideas that I will be writing about.  For those that are interested, I will also be preaching at Dover UMC on April 6th and May 4th.

So, having “said” all that, here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Easter. The Scriptures for this week are Acts 2: 14, 22 -33, 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9, and John 20: 19 – 31.

I have always been fascinated by time. I suppose that comes from a video that I showed several years ago about how time, or rather the keeping and marking of time, was developed. In that video, the narrator quoted Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13 (“to everything there is a season”).

During the course of any twelve months, we marked the passage of time by the seasons. And that is especially true with regards to the church calendar. We are, once again, in the season of Easter. It is that particular passage of time from Easter Sunday to Pentecost, when the new church begins to take on its own identity and prepares to move from a local and limited regional movement to one that will eventually span the entire globe.

And while we are doing that we are also preparing for our General Conference, that peculiar four-year passage of time in the business of the United Methodist Church. We are also at a point in our country’s history where, as someone put it and I cannot remember who it was, the focus of our politics is not on a war fought some thirty years ago but on religion. We are beginning to ask ourselves, as we often should, “what is our religion and what is it that we truly believe?”

The answers to these questions and the outcome of General Conference will speak volumes as to what the future will become.

John Meunier, in his post “Is it the business model not the theology”, asked whether it was theology or a business model that was driving modern church development. There was a discussion, brief in ways of the blogging community, about what was meant by “the church”. Is the church the bride of Christ or is it some institution that mankind has created? It seems to me, as it apparently did to several others, that the church is an institution. I would add to this that we often see institutionalized churches in terms of the building it is in or the people who are there, not the message that is given inside the walls. And if that is the case, then the church has changed or is no longer what we speak of each week when we recite “The Apostle’s Creed” or any of the creeds that are in our hymnal.

There are those today outside the church that have the skepticism of Thomas but have chosen not to seek the evidence. And, because they do not seek the evidence as Thomas did, they will reject the Resurrection and, ultimately, reject Christ.

I do not have the actual numbers but I would hypothesize that the number of people who have read the books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett equal the number of people who have read the books of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. We are a society that seeks simple answers to complicated questions and, as a society we are quite willing to allow others to dictate how we will answer those questions. Kevin Horrigan, in recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (“Obama Tests America’s cult of ignorance”) pointed out that society in general no longer wants the information that it needs in order to make informed decisions and quite willingly lets others dictate the depth and breadth of the information presented.

As this pertains to today and the discussion of the church, we need to be asking why it is that books by neo-atheists and books by fundamentalists so easily dominate our lives. For the neo-atheist, if one cannot logically prove there is a God, then there must not be a God. But this view rejects religious faith as a part of one’s life and replaces it with a new faith called scientism. Somewhere along the line, you have to develop an answer about the creation and existence of good and evil. Even if this is done with logic and reason, you must conclude that good and evil are inherent in mankind or, as mankind had believed throughout the ages, that there is some sort of god. If you choose the former, then you have several interesting ethical questions to answer. If you choose the latter, then you are faced with the dilemma of mankind about whom or what is a god? In the end, rejecting faith as a belief system and not replacing it with something ultimately fails. There was an interesting article in Christian Century (“Amateur Atheists”) that explores the problems of today’s neo-atheists when their views are contrasted to the classical atheists of history; the conclusion was that you cannot lead a life without some sort of belief system.

For fundamentalists, the only solution to the many problems of the world is found in the destruction of the world, where all true believers are taken away in the moments before that occurs. But if we stand around and wait for the destruction of the world, what are we to do with the sick, the homeless, the naked, and the oppressed? Did Jesus not remind us that those who proclaim themselves as righteous but ignore those in need will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven? How can we stand by and not work for a better world?

For these believers, science must be explained in terms of faith. Logic and reason must be subverted and questioning the basic tenets of faith cannot be allowed.

But we do not live in a world where you can live by logic and reason alone, nor do we live in a world of faith alone.

In these two extreme views, there is a challenge. The challenge is not to find a path that balances the two extreme positions but rather to develop a new path, one that involves a new way of thinking.

The words that Peter and the other disciples spoke to the crowds at the beginning of the church, “We have seen the Christ and we know that He has risen from the dead,” echo throughout the passage of time.

In that meeting in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago, Jesus empowered the disciples to take the Gospel message out into the world. And each succeeding generation has been empowered by the generation before it to do the same. Each one of us knows someone whose life illuminated Christ in such a way that we could find Jesus for ourselves.

Perhaps it was an act of simple kindness or the invitation to share a cup of coffee; whatever it was, it was an expression of the love that Christ had for us and it was something that transformed our lives. It is that which we must do for the next generation as well.

It takes more than insisting that our children attend Sunday School; it will take more than a single invitation to a person to get them to come. It will take people quietly living their lives as an example of Christ. And it will take the people inside a church’s walls reaching out to the neighbors on the other side of the walls.

It will take churches as institutions and as people saying to those neighbors that we are here with you and that we are not going to leave (it will also take church organizations to say the same thing).

Society often demands that we walk several paths at one time. Society places demands on us that we often cannot meet. Becoming a Christian does not remove the demands of society from our lives; it simply places them in the proper perspective.

Becoming a Christian requires that one make a decision, a decision to walk a different path rather than the path that society would have you to walk. When we chose to walk the new path of a life in Christ, we say to the world that we will not allow society to dominate and imprison us or the people we come into contact with. Rather, we will show the world a better life, a life of loving and caring, a live of inclusion and support.

Throughout the ages, from David writing his Psalms to Peter and disciples going out into the world, it has been the same. The message of the Gospel changes lives. It is our responsibility to show those changes so that others will see and know. Some will be like Thomas, asking for more evidence. And the evidence will be each one of us.

If the future is to be a promising one, it will be because we have offered a vision that is promising. It is a vision of Christ in the world through us.

How we move into the future is up to us. What is your next move?