In her weekly blog, my friend Rev. Rachel Hackenberg wrote a little post-Easter exercise that I would I would like to share with you this morning. You don't have to write down your answers...although you are welcome to...and you don't have to answer verbally either. Also, don't over-think or over-analyze...just take the first thoughts that come to your mind. The quiz, if you will, has only three questions. Here is the first one:
What do you know to be true? Remember...first thought. What do you know without question to be true?
Next question: What do you know to be true about yourself? Again, take the very first thought that comes to your mind. What do you understand to be inherently true for you about yourself?
Now: How do those two truths show up for you? Where do you experience affirmation of these truths? What evidence do you witness that affirms what you believe?
You see, when we know something to be true, we also notice how it shows up in our lives. Conversely, when we repeatedly notice something in our lives, it is likely that we will begin to believe it to be truth. For example, if we believe that in general people are evil, we will naturally notice all the absolutely awful things that people in this world do. However, if we repeatedly witness the healing impact of a caring community supporting and encouraging one another, we will begin to believe the truth that love is powerfully redemptive.
I'm not sure if this phenomenon is "objective truth" or not, but it has been my experience. We see that which we believe to be true...and, at the same time, our beliefs are shaped by what we see. As I was digging into this theory earlier this week I discovered I'm not the only one who believes it. Lawyer, turned minister, turned comedian (now there's a career path for you), the Reverend Susan Sparks tells of how she experienced it on a trip she made with her family to Graceland. As they were waiting in line to start the guided tour, she casually asked the tour guide “how long did Elvis live here before he died?”
There was an audible gasp from the crowd standing around her, she recalls, and the tour guide looked at her with shock and whispered “We don’t use the past tense here.” The tour guide then pointed to her t-shirt, which read, “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”
Pastor Sparks writes: “It didn't matter that she had never actually seen Elvis or that technically Elvis stopped walking the earth over thirty-five years ago. It didn't matter. She didn't care. Elvis fans don't care. Without any proof, they believe he lives! Elvis lives, baby! The King lives! Given that kind of reverence, I believe that we as Jesus fans, have a lot to learn from Elvis fans. Especially in terms of faith....”
Susan is on to something. It will be 40 years this August since Elvis "supposedly" died, but Elvis fans know that their idol lives, and they see him everywhere. A quick Google search on Elvis sightings will yield more than a quarter of a million hits of videos and websites. One day he might be shopping at a Wal-Mart in Myrtle Beach and the next day he is eating at a Burger King in Kalamazoo. Some have seen him preaching the gospel, and January 15, 2017 brought a flood of reports that he was videotaped on the grounds of Graceland. Now you and I might be skeptical, but here's the thing...Elvis fans see Elvis...because they are always looking for Elvis.
In a way, Elvis fans present an interesting contrast to what’s going on in our gospel reading today...a story in which is seems as if no one was looking.
You see, for months prior to arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus had been making statements about what was about to happen once they got there. He had talked of his own death and his resurrection - granted sometimes cryptically. Yet, more than a week after his horrific death, none of the disciples seem to be looking for him. Actually, it's been a week since the women reported their own "Christ-sighting" to the disciples, and still no one is looking for him.
Why do you suppose that is? Why weren't they looking for him?
Did they not believe Mary? Was hers simply too wild a story for them to believe? Or, after hearing her story about encountering him in the garden, did they believe that Jesus was nowhere to be found…that he had already ascended to heaven? Even if they believed that might be a possibility, wouldn’t they have at least checked to see if he was still hanging around? Why were they not looking for him?
Well, according to John's version of the story, they weren't looking because they were locked up in fear...hiding in the house to avoid the Jewish leaders that had called for Jesus' death. Although, there is little evidence that the Jewish leaders were worried about anyone other than Jesus.
Besides, Peter and John had already left the house to go investigate the tomb…and if there was anywhere in Jerusalem that they might have expected to run into the Jewish leaders or Roman soldiers, it would have been outside Jesus’ tomb. When Peter and John went to the tomb that morning, it was because they thought there had been a grave robbery. They ran immediately at that prospect, but when Mary returns and tells them that Jesus has been resurrected, they went into hiding. I wonder why they were not out looking for him?
Honestly, I don't think it was it that they did not believe he was alive...but more so that, in the moment, they could not believe it...not without seeing it first-hand.
I mean...could it be that…having witnessed the brutality of Jesus’ death…that the disciples are unable to believe in the promises of a loving God? Could it be that the sheer pain and ugliness of having witnessed the death of Jesus has made them doubt that there is any power of good that can conquer the death and evil that was on display on Good Friday? Is that why they were not out looking for the resurrected Christ? Haven't many of us experienced that same double-mindedness...wanting to believe in God's power, but not immediately, in the moment, able to feel it? Surely I'm not the only flawed, weak believer, who has at one point or another - if only for a fleeting moment - doubted that which I say I believe? Seriously, just call me Thomas...cause I've been there!
But really, Thomas doesn't deserve the a bad rap we give him for doubting. In all honesty, his need for proof was not any different than the other disciples. He just had to ask for it.
In fact, when you think about it, I'm wondering, what does it say about Thomas that he was NOT in the house when the Risen Christ appeared? Has anyone ever considered the possibility that maybe HE was out looking for Jesus? Perhaps Thomas had heard the women's story about seeing Jesus alive and decided that he was going to go see for himself.
We have no idea where Thomas was or what he was doing at the time of the first visit, do we? John never explains. In fact, we can only be certain of two things...the others were in the house hiding...and Thomas was not. So, his statement about not believing the story that the others told him until he saw Jesus with his own eyes, and touched him with his own hands? Well, to me we should not be quick to criticize. He really wasn't asking for anything that the others had not already received. Maybe this request wasn't as much about real doubt, as it was about Thomas's faith and wanting his own encounter with the Jesus he loved.
Whatever was going on in the room - on the first visit and the second - Jesus knew that the disciples had lost sight of the truth about him and about the God who sent him. He understood they were fearful...and remorseful...and grieving. He was aware that they all needed to be reminded of the truth he had revealed to them over and over throughout their time in ministry together. They needed to re-hear the truth that is repeated throughout the scriptures...the truth that is at the heart of our faith story...the truth revealed in Jesus Christ...the truth of the gospel.
In the moment of crisis, the disciples were like the little critters in the story I read earlier. They may have needed to be reminded of many things...but mostly they needed to know that God's steadfast love endures forever...which Jesus communicates to them with these simple, but powerful words: Peace be with you.
Peace be with you. The fear...the worry...the angst...the belief...the disbelief... the trauma of the past weeks...and all those raging, unsettling feelings in the room? Peace be with you.
To the one with great shame for denying Jesus. Peace be with you.
For those who hid...who went silent...who did not believe the women's witness. Peace be with you.
To those who were dual-minded and conflicted...wanting to believe, yet not quite able to believe...Peace be with you.
To those who were looking for him and those who were not. Peace be with you.
To the one who needs to see for himself. Peace be with you.
The first thing Jesus wants the disciples to KNOW...to know to the core of their being...is that God's merciful, abundant, forgiving, gracious, empowering, redeeming love...the unconditional love that brings peace...is still and always, theirs.
No turmoil...no crisis...no hierarchy...no religious hierarchy...no sinister plan...no betrayal...no powers or principalities...no evil...not even death on a cross...is able to keep God's love from his people.
Peace be with you. It was the reassuring truth that the disciples needed then...and it captures the reassuring truth we still need to know, now.
The truth that through Christ and in our baptism, we belong to God.
The truth that God's Holy Spirit is with us always...in the midst of trial and tribulations...in our joys and our sorrows...comforting, guiding, empowering...even to the ends of the earth.
The truth that God is a life-giving God...death, and death-dealing ways, have no place in his kingdom.
The truth that the power of love is greater than the power of evil.
Jesus' appearance and his words, "peace be with you", reveals the truth of the story I read to the children this morning...the truth in the baptisms of Emmett and Sophia...the truth that God's love never fails us...never abandons us...never lets us go.
Friends...when disciples believe these truths about God, then we naturally witness proof, evidence, of them being lived out in our lives and in the world. And the more we witness, the stronger we abide in the truth of God's love.
So, if we say that we believe in the resurrection, then we must also notice and celebrate occasion of new and renewing life -- not only on Easter Sunday but every day. And...when we make a habit of recognizing this creating & recreating of life all around us...our faith in Easter's good news is strengthened.
We can't profess to believe the Easter story, and then live as though the world is completely devoid of resurrection. We can't say that Easter is true if we don't also see Easter in the world around us. We must become witnesses. Like good Elvis fans, we must always be on the lookout for proof that Christ is among us.
And you know what happens to witnesses? They are eventually called to the witness stand...in order to help others come to believe. We are called to see God's resurrecting love at work...AND to be a source of God's love so others can see it as well. Because, like the skeptics who watch the countless videos of Elvis sightings, eventually if people see God's loving goodness and kindness at work in their lives...they will come to believe it as truth.
Church...we are witness (as in the verb) to the kindness and goodness...to the wideness of God's mercy and the depth of his love. We see it when hurting hearts are healed...when empty lives are transformed and filled with purpose. We see it in the restoration of broken relationships. We see it when the poor are cared for, the hungry are fed, and when the stranger is welcomed. We see it when justice is served, diversity is celebrated, and community is built. We see it...because we believe it is true.
We are also the witness (as in the noun) for others. We are witnesses when we work to heal the hurting, when we offer purpose to the lost. We are witnesses for others when we seek reconciliation...when we welcome others...feed the hungry...care for the poor. We are witnesses when we share the truth we know...with our living, our serving and our telling.
So, folks, let me close with this final observation. Comedian Adam Sandler once asked if Jesus and Elvis might be the same person. His argument is this:
Jesus said: "Love your neighbor." and Elvis said: "Don't be cruel."
Jesus is part of the Trinity; Elvis' first band was a trio.
Jesus is the good shepherd; and Elvis dated Cybil Sheppard.
I will just say this...I watched several of those Elvis sighting videos...and I'm not sure whether Elvis is alive or not...but one look out at all your beautiful lives...one glimpse at the work this church does in the world...one drop of the waters of baptism on Emmett and Sophia, and this I know...we may not be able to touch his wounds, but friends, Jesus is alive and in this place.
Peace be with you.