Blessed, to trust

Jesus’ words to Thomas are meant for us. Yes, they were first said to Thomas over two thousand years ago in the upper room in Jerusalem days after Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, they were intended to increase his faith in light of his doubting and fear. Yes, the early church and disciples heard these words for them, too.

When Thomas confesses his faith in the risen Lord, Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”[1]They are for us.

Let’s slow down and savour these words. Let’s look at three sections of this short sentence.

First, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

When do we not see? What are the times in life when God is unrecognizable?

In the face of great suffering or great love,

in the presence of death and dying,

and facing the difficult questions of living such as: Why do children suffer disease, poverty, persecution? Why do people who don’t deserve it, suffer? When the usual, easy answers don’t fit.

When we stand in the presence of a great mystery.

When everything points to everything except what is good.

When all words and ideologies fail.

Then, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

What are the qualities of these people who have ‘not seen’? These are people …

Who sometimes doubt.

Who are not certain.

Who don’t have all the facts.

Who can’t provide an easy explanation.

Who don’t have proof.

Who have done without.

Who have to trust someone else, and ask for help.

Who have to trust …

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Finally, what does it mean to believe? To believe and to trust, are very similar. The two words appear on the faith cube. You might wonder why the authors of this toy decided to keep the two words separate even though they might, to our minds, mean essentially the same thing.

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And yet, it is worthy to ponder the subtle distinction between the two. Martin Luther understood faith as meaning the addition of the two concepts: Belief + Trust, not as opposing realities but complementing in distinct ways.

Belief is a function mainly of the mind. When we discuss doctrines, creeds. When we debate interpretations of scriptures and statements of faith. To believe is to access the cognitive capacity of our brains. It is, in the lingo of psycho-babble, the left brain analytical side that relishes in rational thought. To believe, in short, is to think through it.

Trust, on the other hand (or, on the other side of the brain), is more intuitive. Trust does not require a full explanation. Trust does not need all the facts and arguments in favor or against. Trust is a function mainly of the heart. Trust lowers the center of intelligence down from the brain to the heart.

Trust is relational. Trust understands our need for the other, to be open to the other, to take risks for and with the other. Trust calls us out of ourselves, to get out of the isolation of all our mental activity – to reach out to the other.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Jesus affirms for Thomas and the disciples that to follow in the Way of Christ, especially to generations and people like us thousands of years after the fact, that we need to trust others, and trust ourselves. To believe in Jesus, is to believe the witness of generations of Christians before us, to trust their witness, and to walk in the way precisely when easy explanations and scientific proof fall short.

We don’t ‘trust blindly’. That is often the criticism of trust, when it feels like we would be making an irrational decision not based in fact or evidence.

But we are trusting the most capable and the truest part of ourselves when we let go of our cognitive compulsions and let go into the love that sustains the heart.

The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear. “Perfect love casts out fear,” we read from the author of the second reading today[2]. We need to confess that it is fear that keeps us stuck in our heads, and keeps us stuck on the ground. Major decisions in our lives, decisions that changed the course of our lives, decisions that were important to us – were they born out of fear or love? Were they more a movement of the heart or head? Or some combination of both?

A music analogy …

I have been learning a new musical instrument these last couple of years. Classical guitar. Which is different, a little bit, from the acoustic guitar that you often see in churches today, and listen to in popular music.

In comparison, the classical guitar uses nylon strings, which tend to produce a softer, delicate, more harp-like sound. The fingerboard is wider on the classical guitar, and the body – the bell – of the instrument is smaller. When you hold the classical guitar, the curve of the body, which is more pronounced, sits on your left knee (if you are right-handed). And rather than strum chords, you pluck separate notes on the classical guitar. It’s a beautiful-sounding instrument.

But as with learning to play any instrument, and staying with it, there is a progression that needs to happen from the head to the heart. Listen to what Barry Green, renowned double bass player, writes about when teaching another musician how to play vibrato on their instrument. Vibrato is rolling your finger back and forth over your string when playing a note.

“On my Pacific tour,” he writes, “I coached Edith, a bass player from the New Zealand Symphony. She had tried to use her vibrato in a number of different places in a slow, expressive sonata by Vivaldi and couldn’t decide where it ‘worked’ best. None of her experiments quite had the right feel to them.

“I wanted Edith to discover the best places for vibrato by herself, so I asked her to play the piece without making any effort to put in a vibrato. I asked her to imagine that her fingers, not her brain, would tell her what to do, and suggested that she only use vibrato when her fingers ‘screamed at her’ to do so.  Since she would not have decided in advance which notes needed the vibrato, I was confident that her hands would be free to supply it unconsciously.

“Her performance improved immediately: Both her sound and her vibrato were smoother and richer.”[3]

Obviously to gain this level of playing, Edith had to practice and practice and practice. She had to become technically proficient in playing the bass. But to begin to enjoy playing and hearing the sounds you are creating on your instrument, to discover the resiliency of performing and the joy of making music, the usual questions provided by the mind must be eclipsed by the heart.

In other words, the mind will give instructions, constantly critique, and fan the flames of fear and self-consciousness – all of which undermine the making of a beautiful sound. We need the mind’s work, to an extent. But we also need to be able to let go of what the mental activity can get rather compulsive about. We need to grow up, as people of faith.

Albert Einstein, the most eminent scientist of the twentieth century, you would think would defend the prominence of the mind over the heart, the rational over the intuitive. So, this quote from him might surprise you; he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Take his phrase, ‘intuitive mind’ to mean the ‘intelligence of the heart’.

Intuition relies on the capacity of trusting: Trusting the love, this capacity and capability within you, trusting the other who is willing to help, assuming the good intentions of others rather than immediately judging them – these are the attributes of one who has maturing faith. Especially, faith in God.

“Blessed are they who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”

 

[1]John 20:29

[2]1 John 4:18

[3]Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The classical guide to reaching a new level of musical performance,” (New York: Doubleday & Company /Pan Books, 1986), p.113.

Believe in God’s possibilities

Somewhat striking to me in Gospel text is the sense of urgency surrounding these miraculous, healing stories from Jesus’ ministry (Mark 5:21-43). At least three times in this text, we hear the word ‘immediately’. A frenetic pace describes Jesus’ work here. It’s important, and it happens right away. There’s no time to lose. No sitting back. It’s time for action. It’s finally time to do something.
I suspect the reason this jumped out at me, is that summer can be a tempting, dangerous time for people like me who depend on routines and regular disciplines to keep our lives balanced. Because the temptation may be to skip the healthy practice — whether it be prayer, physical exercise, healthy eating, or attending to friends and family.
This text comes to us at the beginning of the traditionally long summer slow-down in our country. It may be wise to guard against what the Christian desert fathers and mothers called the sin of acedia, sloth, laziness, or my favourite word to describe the problem — inertia. The challenge during seasons of comfort and repose is to keep the important disciplines of exercising mind, body and spirit — to hold the sense of urgency around those important things in life.
Because to have faith is to hold fast, to trust in God’s possibilities. And the time to do that is now. Not some ideal day in the future, and not some day in the golden years of our past. But now. To have faith. To believe in God’s possibilities in your life. In our life, together.
While both Jairus’ dying 12-year-old daughter and the woman haemorrhaging for 12 long suffering years come from very different socio-economic and social circles, what they have in common is that their faith had made them well. (In the case of Jairus’ daughter, it wasn’t her faith, but that of her father). 
It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter whether you can even express your faith in words. It doesn’t matter whether you are poor and marginalized in society — like the woman in the text. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy, comfortable and have status in society — like Jairus, the leader of the Jewish synagogue.
What is the healing in your life that you seek? Where can God touch the deepest need in your life? What is the discontent rocking your life now? Have you named it? Have you asked God for healing? God, we know, doesn’t cure every disease just because we ask for it. And yet, do you believe that God can do anything God wants, even bring healing? 
Last week after our two-day intensive training in Toronto, the Lutheran Ottawa Ministry Area Leadership Team was rushing to the airport to catch our flight back to Ottawa. We knew this usually half-full flight across the Province — a short 50 minute plane ride — is, these days, packed. The Women’s FIFA knock-out stage had games in Ottawa; and, the Pan-Am Games are soon beginning in Toronto. Our flight to Toronto the day before was also sold-out. 
And, with airlines normally over-booking, we heard of folks being delayed because they waited to get to the airport before getting their boarding passes. So, we were a little anxious, especially since someone on our Team had to get to work on returning to Ottawa.
I was fortunately able to get a seat, along with everyone else on the Team. As was the case with the flight to Toronto, I was assigned the middle of a three-seat row. Okay. I can put up with that for an hour. What I didn’t know was that the row I was in was the first one behind Business/First Class, which on each side of the centre isle has only two, larger seats across.
One thing on a short flight that I will enjoy doing is watching the real-time map on the screen in front of me — showing the variables of outside temperature, miles travelled, distance to destination, altitude and speed. On the screen you can watch the little icon of the plane travel slowly towards your destination. I enjoy watching that. Call me a nerd.
Because I don’t fly very often, I forgot that I probably had one of those video screens folded up and tucked away in my arm rest. But I didn’t think of that. I only reacted by feeling I got the short end of the stick. Ba-humbug! 
Both my row partners had screens on the back of the seats directly in front of thhem, but not me. 

Both of them fell asleep immediately upon take off. I concluded quickly they probably were not interested in using their screens. So I watched out of the corner of my eye until the guy on my right had his jaw hanging open and breathing heavily before I snuck my arm across to his screen to turn it on. But just as I was about to tap on “Map”, he twitched in his sleep and came half awake. I quickly withdrew, and waited until he again fell asleep before finally getting it turned on.

It dawned on me why I didn’t just ask him whether I could use his screen. I’m fairly confident he would probably have been okay with that, or at least reminded me of the screen I had in my arm rest. But I didn’t. I was bent on trying to sneak in my intention, or put off the actual engagement.
One aspect of the faith of Jairus and the woman, is that both in words and actions, they took the risk, made themselves vulnerable and even interrupted Jesus. They came out. They asked. Granted, they were desperate and at the end of their rope. Are you? Are we?
There are seasons in our lives when it may be difficult to believe in God’s possibilities for us. We get trapped in our heads. I know I do. We get stuck in our pain, and circle back over and over again trying to rationalize and self-justify not doing anything differently. We think too much about the hard realities facing us that we end up either rejecting our faith outright; or, we sit back in the lounge chair of summertime-like complacency. 
We may give up too quickly. We get discouraged so easily. We may even delude ourselves into thinking that “time will heal”. 
I suspect the biggest reason we hold back when opportunity for healing comes our way is because, as I did in the plane afraid to ask, I knew deep down in stepping out in faith to ask for something, my nicely constructed world however imperfect would have to change: Who knows? Maybe the fellow next to me would have wanted to talk with me, inquire what I did for a living and we would end up talking about God and faith and all his problems. It would require some work, then, right?
Asking for help and healing in prayer to God means things might get a bit messy, disruptive. Energy-draining. It’s a risk. Our asking for healing may very well shake us out of our comfortable way of doing things. God may very well be calling us into a sense of urgency as we go about ‘being Christian’. Do we even want that?
Do we believe in God’s possibilities? Do we hold the vision of God to heal, to restore and give new life, new beginnings to us, despite our present circumstances? Because opportunities will come our way. Will we seize the moment, as the woman did to interrupt Jesus? Carpe Diem! Will we want to acknowledge our dire, desperate circumstances giving rise to the courage to ask?
In the next year, our church will face an opportunity to begin a 5-, 10- or 15- year-long journey. An opportunity, I believe, will come across our bow to begin this journey in the next year. I mention this today, because it is the last time I’m preaching before my summer break. And I want to leave you with something to contemplate. I have a feeling we will, I hope over the next year, want to talk about this more.
When you go home today, I invite you to drive to the intersection of Woodroffe and Baseline. There is an open field there now, a strip of land between the transitway and Woodroffe, across the street from College Square. And as I speak, imagine the opportunity for Christian mission and ministry in this prime piece of land, the gateway to Nepean and very close to significant institutions of business, education, health care and culture at Centrepointe.
Then, imagine, what maintaining the status quo here will result in, some ten to fifteen years from now. If we just carry on business-as-usual and try to continue doing it on our own. We just need to tally the percentage of people in this room today over a certain age to answer that question rather decidedly. The trajectory is clear if we just ‘maintain’.
Then, again, imagine the possibility of healing that can come to the local Christian community overburdened and exhausted by a complacency and resignation to reality-as-is. Imagine the restoration, the new life, new beginning, and vigour of church ministry and mission in Jesus’ name that can happen when we share this work, as Lutherans, with other willing and effective partners in faith — other congregations — who are primed to do the same. Imagine what exciting work can be done together when we can combine our assets and resources — not ‘do it alone’ — and be a powerful, significant Christian voice and presence in West Ottawa. Imagine God’s possibilities! We’re not down and out; there’s a bright future! Together.
Jesus doesn’t ask Jairus, a Jewish synagogue leader, for proof of right belief. Faith is not saying the right doctrine or articulating a ‘correct’ denominational theology. Jesus doesn’t question the woman’s rather superstitious character of her faith before healing her. In fact the healing is virtually done before Jesus talks to her! Jesus doesn’t demand any rationally expressed pre-condition for granting his grace and healing power. To us, too.
In all truth, it’s his heart, his compassion, his unconditional love first and foremost that drives him to heal those who just have the courage to express an urgent, desperate desire for a new beginning, for health and wholeness. And take that first, small step in Jesus’ direction.

Imagine God’s possibilities!

Faith = Trust

Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t believe everything people say to you, especially if they are selling you something. Don’t trust politicians. If you want it done right, do it yourself ….

Reads like a charter for good living, eh?

Advice we give our children from a young age is meant to help us become street-wise, life-smart, common sense practicing members of society. We develop our sensibilities so that we can be safe and secure, survive and even flourish in a dog-eat-dog world of violence, competition, and rabid individualistic advancement and fortitude.

When I participated in the 5K event at Ottawa’s Race Weekend which attracted over 40,000 to the nation’s capital for Canada’s largest annual marathon event, thoughts of the Boston Marathon bombings a month ago came to mind. I couldn’t help but heed Federal Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews’ recent advice, for the public to remain ‘vigilant’ in a dangerous, scary world in which we live.

Remaining constantly vigilant sets the wise apart from the naive. And yet, I also can’t help but wonder about the damage we do to our lives of faith when we so readily consume the propaganda and messaging of the dominant culture of our day. I’m not saying that to be faithful is to be naive. But if we are a people of faith, then we need to re-discover a quality of faith suppressed by our culture.

Again, this time while teaching the Lutheran Course to a group of new members and other adults in our church community, I was asked: “Doesn’t faith mean ‘belief’?”

I wouldn’t doubt that belief is part of what it means to have faith — that is, to believe in a set of propositions about God: Jesus is the divine Son of God who came to save the world from the powers of the devil and sin, etc., etc.

But a quality of faith, picked up by Martin Luther and other teachers over the centuries, that is often overlooked is: trust. The expression of trust in our relationships — primarily, to trust God — demonstrates faith as much as, even more than, belief.

To trust another is a quality shown clearly by the God-fearing, Gentile centurion in the Gospel of Luke 7:1-10. It doesn’t right away jump out at me, after a first reading of this story about the healing of a slave. Underlying the interactions among the characters in this story, nevertheless, is the quality of faith. Jesus even concludes his dialogue by acclaiming the centurion’s faith (v.9).

A couple of plot points underscore the trust that is demonstrated in the story. First, never in Luke’s account does Jesus actually meet the centurion face-to-face. Moreover, never does Jesus actually touch the slave whom he heals. The principle characters in this story never meet!

Relationally, this is troubling, since I for one always value direct communication. I hesitate when ‘third parties’, middle management, or ‘a friend told me’ methods are used to get a message across. I ask myself: Why didn’t the centurion go directly to Jesus with his request? Let’s just say, I’m not very trusting of social triangles.

For starters, the centurion shows a pure, simple trust in others. He trusts the Jewish leaders to make a convincing argument to Jesus. He then trusts his good friends to advocate on his behalf. Trust imbues these relationships. The centurion’s faith is based precisely in trusting others, and not in depending solely on himself to ‘get the job done right’.

The centurion also, and significantly, trusts Jesus. But, more to the point, he trusts Jesus the person, not in any perceived magical abilities Jesus would have. In Jesus’ day, people believed direct contact with the person mediating the healing was necessary (see Luke 5:17, 6:19). There’s more here than someone seeking a magical, instantaneous snapping-of-fingers cure to a problem. This is not a mechanical spirituality being described.

What we witness is someone putting their trust in — literally — the word of Jesus. Jesus need only “speak the word” (v.7) from a distance. His power is beyond the limits of earthly perception. It is indeed super-natural, divine. The centurion trusts in what Jesus says.

This story reveals something two-handed. It’s a paradox. Very ‘Lutheran’, I might add! The centurion calls himself unworthy (v.6), even as he is hailed among the Jewish leaders as very much worthy to receive the help of Jesus (v.4). Which is it? Well, not either/or but both/and! Unworthy to earn favour with God by one’s own efforts to perfection. Unworthy to espouse individualistic self-righteousness as a deserving of God’s attention.

But very much worthy of God’s attention because another says so. Worthy because of who Jesus is. Worthy because Jesus makes it so, by God’s grace, mercy, and unconditional love.

So, in the end, Jesus trusts. Jesus trusts the Jewish leaders’ appeal. Jesus trusts the centurion’s friends’ advocacy. And, above all, Jesus trusts in the worthiness of the slave whom he hasn’t met during his visit to Capernaum by the Sea. Jesus heals someone ‘at a distance’, because the slave, too, is a beloved creation of God. Jesus has faith in the worthiness — the inherent value — of one who is, in the social structure of the day, not considered very worthy at all, someone at the lowest rung in society — a lowly slave.

The slave demonstrated faith. He or she did not recite a Creed nor prove their beliefs before getting healed. The slave was literally at the mercy of life and death. The slave, according to the New King James Version, was “ready to die” (v.2). The slave was ready to place their life in the hands of the Maker. The slave demonstrated a deep trust to let go and surrender, at the end. To the one who can let go into the arms of God who will never let us go, healing and wholeness comes.

God is faithful to us, even in death. God is faithful to us, even as we may not consider ourselves worthy of God’s love. Jesus healing power is available to us, even as we may feel distant from God. So, in bold faith, let us move forward and enter the door of God’s realm of mercy. For God is faithful.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Who’s giving church a 2nd chance?

In the Gospel of John, especially in the latter chapters, we can see how clearly the point is made that it is the very work of God and the Holy Spirit – the Advocate – to engender love and trust in the community of faith. Jesus prays that his disciples might be one – united (John 17). The story of the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31) is placed in contrast to this general theme of the Spirit’s work to create trust, unity and love among believers.

When I read again the assigned Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter about the “Doubting Thomas”, I wonder: Why wasn’t Thomas with the group of disciples when Jesus first appeared to them? You would think he could find comfort and strength in numbers; you would think he could find needed support and solace from his group of co-religionists – so to speak – especially after the death and burial of Jesus, after their hopes were dashed, and they were afraid for their lives.

Why wasn’t Thomas with them? Did he finally just throw in the towel with disgust over something someone said to him? Was there a “personality conflict” brewing? Was he offended by what someone did? Was Thomas harboring resentment and bitterness over something that happened in the group? And was just looking for the first excuse to jump ship? Whatever the case may be, he had already removed himself from the community of faith before Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time.

Then, when his cohorts share the news of Jesus’ resurrection with him, Thomas rejects their witness. He doesn’t believe them. Thomas rebuffs the very friends with whom he had shared a couple of wonderful, wild, inspiring years with Jesus. Is this his way of getting back at them?

It is important to note here that Thomas not only expresses disbelief in the claim or proposed idea of Jesus’ resurrection; he also rejects his community’s witness to that claim. That is important to distinguish. We’re not just talking about doctrine per se here – you know, whether you believe the resurrection or not as Thomas did and did not. We are also and just as importantly talking about believing in the words and witness of those making that claim.

Unfortunately, by his rejection of the witness of his faith community, Thomas undermines the community Jesus prayed for and tries to build. But I don’t want to join the ranks of Christians over the centuries who have interpreted Thomas exclusively in a bad light.

Because he went back. And he was blown away to see Jesus again. What do you think Thomas learned from his encounter with the risen Christ? From that point on, did Thomas start trusting the words and witness of his friends? I hope so. I hope his encounter with Jesus changed him so that he could come to trust again.

Thomas gave his community of faith a second chance. Can we? Can we give one another a chance? Can we give the Church a chance? After all, that is what Easter is about: a new beginning, a fresh start, a new chance at life in the Body of Christ – the Church.

We can take a helpful cue from this story. Perhaps we need to carefully consider how Thomas can reflect current realities and challenges in the Church.

What do you think about the radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief projected against the Church today – admittedly some for very good reason. And yet, I wonder if such detraction is not a general sign of the times. Don’t we live in a distrusting, suspicious society, to begin with? Aren’t we told, even by our fathers and mothers growing up, “not to trust anyone” as if this is a value – a life-skill – for successful living? How grievous.

Perhaps we can think of individuals who project a radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief about the world, the church, the government. Perhaps we think of individuals who will not trust others in the church, the disparager, the cynic, the one who refuses to believe. Perhaps we can think of those who look for any excuse to leave the Church and point accusatory fingers at believers who are as sinful and in need of God’s grace as the next person. Perhaps we can think of those who react to the slightest offense. We are Thomas, to be sure, each and every one of us.

Can we learn to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another, and our witness to God’s work in our lives and the world?

I paid particular attention a few years’ back listening and watching Justin Trudeau give the eulogy at his father’s funeral service. His father, the former Prime Minister of Canada, was a controversial figure in Canadian political history who had many enemies. And Justin remembered an incident when he was a very young boy, when his father taught him a very valuable lesson in how to relate to those with whom you differ: He said:

“As on previous visits this particular occasion included a lunch at the parliamentary restaurant which always seemed to be terribly important and full of serious people that I didn’t recognize.

“But …. I recognized one whom I knew to be one of my father’s chief rivals.

“Thinking of pleasing my father, I told a joke about him — a generic, silly little grade school thing.

“My father looked at me sternly …and said: `Justin, Never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.’

“Saying that, he stood up and took me by the hand and brought me over to introduce me to this man. He was a nice man who was eating there with his daughter ….

“He spoke to me in a friendly manner for a bit and it was at that point that I understood that having opinions that are different from those of another does not preclude one being deserving of respect as an individual.”

I have considered these words in light of Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be one. To experience this unity, do we not, as I said, have to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another? Because we are part of the body of the living Lord. The presence of God’s Spirit in Christ lives in us. What would it be like in the Church if every time we met we would try to see Christ in each other’s faces and lives. What difference could that make?

You might notice that in most of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, he is revealed among believers gathered together – rarely alone. The revelation of the living God in Jesus Christ is received in the community of faith, not apart from it.

When Thomas gives his disciple friends another chance, when he finds it in his heart finally to re-enter the community, to begin relating again with them, to face the music, to engage the sometimes messy and challenging relational realities there, to deal with his disappointments and frustrations of the community, and to come out of his isolation, that is when the risen Jesus breaks into their midst and is revealed in all truth and love to the doubting Thomas. The invitation is always open for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation within the Body of Christ.

God will not stop breaking into our midst – amid our fears and doubts and conflicts. The living Lord Jesus will continue to surprise us by his presence among us. He will be revealed in all truth, grace and love, and bring us peace – this is the promise of the Gospel today.

I believe God must be so happy when members of Christ’s Church on earth are reconciled to one another after being divided and conflicted. I believe God, our heavenly parent, must rejoice when brothers and sisters in Christ work towards greater unity amongst themselves.

After all, we are the children of God. God loves us. And God, our heavenly Father, wants us to live in unity, mutual respect and harmony.

God’s laugh at Easter

In his 1962 literary classic, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, Ray Bradbury writes about a carnival that comes to a small town. The novel describes the evil, carnival magicians who inflict the townsfolk with demonstrations of supernatural events that confirm the main characters’ worst fears: Their very lives are in danger. The dark fantasy climaxes with a confrontation between the Wicked Witch and Charles Halloway, the town’s librarian.

She finds him in the library among the book stacks and begins her evil design to kill him by stopping his heart. He is terrified, locked in the hypnotic power of her dark presence. Charles can only watch, transfixed, as she weaves the air with her scorpion fingers, slowing his heart, beat by beat …

He feels his heart squeeze. Nearing the moment of no return when darkness engulfs his vision, Charles last notices her spindly fingers tickling the air. And he giggles —

A giggle which then turns into a deep, rolling, belly laugh. He can only laugh at her performance.

The witch stops short. She renews her efforts with vigor, waving her hands all over the place. But her power is suddenly thwarted. Laughter turns the tide of evil. And the carnival leaves the town. Laughter, in the face of evil, saves the day.

Easter is God’s last laugh at the devil. When all seems lost and Jesus lies in the tomb, apparently defeated by the evil of humanity …. The morning sunlight bursts on the scene, the stone is rolled away, and the grave is found empty! Ha! Jesus is not dead. He is alive! Hallelujah! Ha! Happy Easter!

It is tradition at Easter time to tell jokes. Because laughter reflects the character of this season of joyous celebration. Here’s a joke about golfing – a true story, actually:

Four retired vets, even with the limitations of ageing, regularly golfed together. All of them, though, especially Jerry, had the reputation of cheating a bit to gain an advantage against his very competitive group of friends.

One time when the foursome was out on a warm Spring day, Jerry hit his ball from the fairway and made an awful mis-hit. His ball flew into the bush off to the right of the fairway. The ball was so far into the bush that when he finally found it his comrades could not see him from the fairway. All they could hear was the “swish-swish-swish-swish” from swinging his club at what must have been a terrible spot.

Finally after about seven “swishes” the ball popped out on the fairway. When he emerged from the bush one of his comrades asked, “So, how many strokes, Jerry?” And Jerry, thinking quickly, replied, “One.”

“One!” they all said together, “We heard you take at least seven swings!” Jerry immediately replied, “Darn snake and I got him too!”

On Easter, the tables have been turned. God did not “cheat” death; like breaking the rules of a game. Instead, God overcame death; there’s now a new game in town. Now, bad news is dwarfed by new life. It’s called: Resurrection. Life triumphs over death. Death and life did hang in the balance in the torturous, grievous days leading to this morning. But now, there is no question of who is victorious. The life of God in Jesus triumphs over death.

What does the new life – the resurrection – of Jesus mean for you? That’s a very good question that I hope you will reflect on in this season. One thing it means for me is, now I can believe in what without the resurrection of Jesus would at first seem impossible.

Just like when Charles Halloway laughed at the witch in the Ray Bradbury novel: After Charles shared his discovery with others in the town, they were able to believe something that didn’t seem remotely possible before. They were able to believe that they could expel the evil carnival from their town. Which they did. With the gift of laughter.

For many years athletes believed it was impossible for humans to run a 4-minute mile. In track events around the world, top milers ran a mile in just over 4 minutes.

Then, a British runner named Roger Bannister decided to determine what changes he could make in his running style and strategy to break the 4-minute barrier. He believed it was possible to run faster and put many months of effort into changing his running pattern to reach his goal. In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. His belief that he could succeed contributed to a changed outcome in his life.

What’s even more remarkable, I think, is once Bannister broke the record, the best milers from around the world also began to run the mile in under 4 minutes. But, unlike Bannister, these runners did not substantially change their running patterns and strategies. What had changed were their thoughts; they now believed it was possible to run this fast – and their behavior followed their thinking.

Of course, just knowing it’s possible to run fast does not mean everyone can do it. Thinking is not the same as doing. So how does the Easter story encourage our faith? How does the Easter story encourage our belief in a risen Lord, in a God that is not dead, but alive? How does believing in the risen Lord translate into life lived fully?

What did Jesus first do after he was raised from the dead? Remember, Jesus spent 33 years limited by his human form. Even though he was fully divine, he chose for that amount of time to give up his place in the divine realm, take human form, become a servant, and die a human death (Philippians 2).

What do you think Jesus would want to do when back in his divine form? From a human perspective, you’d think the divine part of Jesus would be thrilled to be finally freed from the burdensome, messy, violent, cruel, painful trappings of his humanity, right?

You’d think the resurrected Jesus would want nothing more to do with the human world. You’d think he’d just want to get outa there and shoot away into the divine realm, where he would be reunited with his Father, right?

But the Gospels are all clear on this: We read that Jesus – in his divine form – appeared to Mary and some other disciples on that first Easter day, right after he is resurrected from the dead. The Gospel stories we read over the next several weeks are about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples — the famous walk to Emmaus, breakfast by the sea, meeting the doubting Thomas. When Jesus first emerged from the dark tomb, the Bible doesn’t say he spent time with the heavenly beings, united with his Father God. But his human friends, on earth!

Now, let’s for a moment consider why on earth Jesus would do this – that is, meet with his earthly friends right away? He obviously wanted to connect with them — to assure them, encourage them, empower them, love them. He was, after all, their friend — forever.

Incredible! Not only did Jesus express an incredible love to us in his death; he also, in his divinity, shows unbelievable love – to reach out to us, today – AFTER his resurrection.

What is the nature of the divine Jesus, the risen Lord, we worship today? He comes to us. He is with us – Emmanuel. As the Psalmist so wonderfully expresses – there is no place on earth we can go now that he is not there! (Psalm 139). Anywhere, everywhere we go, Jesus is there, too.

What the Easter story so profoundly teaches us is that Jesus Christ has not given up on us. He remains committed to us even after his resurrection. Just as he went first to his disciples after being raised from the dead and showed to them his faithfulness, so too Jesus continues to come to us, to show us his faithfulness. He is, as one scholar described, “the hound of heaven” – he will never give up on us.

The living Jesus will keep on waiting for us to answer his gentle, loving knock on the door of our hearts. He waits for us to respond in faith, in believing. He continues to come to us in love and mercy, waiting for us to respond in faith and believe in things we cannot yet see. And the more we believe something is possible, the more likely we are to attempt it, and maybe even realize it.

What if it is possible? Easter invites us to believe in something that is beyond the present circumstance. Easter invites us to believe in someone that is beyond rational explanation and sensate knowing. Easter awakens in each one of us the God-given gifts of faith, hope, and love. Just like laughter does; it opens our hearts.

So, laugh a little today. And imagine what could happen if we all believed in these impossible possibilities!