Sunday, May 1, 2011

Looking for Proof

John 20:19-31

"Christianity has an image problem." That's the opening line from a book released in 2007 called unChristian. "Christianity has an image problem." The book discusses research that involved polling youth and young adults from inside and outside of the church to find out just what this segment of Americans thinks about Christians. That line sums up the author's feelings upon analyzing the research. "Christianity has an image problem."

I should probably say before going too much further that I disagree with a good number of the action points the author suggests, but the research he presents and shares is invaluable. Whether we want to hear it or not, it is good for us in the church to know that those who don't come through our doors, particularly young people, think we are hypocritical, salvation-oriented rather than relationship-oriented, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. Whew. What a report card!

But this is what people are saying about us. This is what people, particularly young people, think about who and what the church is. This is what people, who have heard a little about the Jesus we worship, Christ whose name we claim, think about those of us who call ourselves Christians, and it's something to which we need to pay attention. The good news in all of this is that even if they think we're doing a poor job of mimicking him, they seem to have the right idea about Jesus. If these are their complaints about the church than at least they see that Jesus is steadfast, loving, inclusive, and forgiving. At least they can see past the way the church messes up his image. Now we just need to work on bringing ourselves in line with that image.

People are watching us. People are wondering if what we say is true, and right now anyway, people are doubting that we are who we say we are, followers of the risen Christ. They are doubting and questioning and looking for proof that the resurrection is real and that the body of Christ really is here, on earth, now. There are a lot of Thomases out there.

Thomas wasn't in the house with the rest of the disciples when Jesus came in on the evening of the resurrection. He missed the big reunion, the showing of Jesus' hands and side, the breathing of the Holy Spirit on Jesus' disciples. Thomas wasn't in that room when the proof was made visible, when Jesus spoke to them and showed them the wounds on his hands and his side. He missed seeing it with his own eyes, experiencing it with his own life.

He's gotten a bad reputation over the years. Ordinarily people don't mean it as a compliment when they call him "Doubting Thomas," but his doubting seems to me to be perfectly normal. What he heard when he returned to the disciples from wherever he was just didn't make sense. The resurrection didn't make sense. Even if he had had some kind of hint that it was coming, it is pretty unbelievable. I'd say Thomas wasn't so much of a "Doubting Thomas," but a "Questioning Thomas," a "Just want to be sure Thomas," a "I need a little proof Thomas."

That's what the people around us need, too. A lot of them are doubting, but I think the doubting starts with questioning. They need to see a little proof that these followers of Jesus are serious, that we followers of Jesus are for real. They have heard about Jesus, one way or another. They seem to understand, one way or another, that his message and his life is about love, acceptance, and forgiveness. They just need to see something that lets them know that we are about what he was about. They just need to see a little proof that Jesus is alive, that the resurrection really does mean there is new life, that his body is really real, really here, really at work in the world.

There's a pithy little statement that goes around. I haven't really discovered it's origins. It's been attributed to some famous world religious leaders, but I can't find anything to back that up. However, it is still a telling and challenging statement to Christians. "I like Jesus; it's his followers I can stand." Is that not an important thing to hear? Does that not tell us volumes about how we are perceived, how we are reflecting on ourselves and our God? There are people out there watching, waiting, looking for proof, but we don't seem to be showing them the resurrection. We don't seem to be demonstrating new life in any way that looks like good news.

Eventually, a week after the resurrection, the disciples are back in the house together. Thomas is with them this time, and even though the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them. His response to Thomas' request from the week before is one of my favorite parts of the whole story. His response is NOT one of his "Ye of little faith" moments. Jesus doesn't berate the disciple who missed his first appearance. and needed to see for himself. He doesn't chastise the one who needed a little more proof, something to see and to touch to be able to believe the resurrection is true.

That apparently is what we in the church are perceived, among other things, as doing. The people who doubt the connection of the church to Jesus are used to a kind of Christianity that yells at people who don't believe. They are used to seeing a side of the church full of deceit and false prophets, judges and overly pious, but completely disengaged "believers" They are used to being told that their questions aren't going to get them into heaven, and "ye of little faith" are in eternal trouble.

But this is NOT what Jesus says to the one who questions him, the one who doubts that he is alive. This is NOT what Jesus says to Thomas who just wants a little more proof that what everyone is saying is true. Jesus says, "Peace." Jesus invites Thomas to touch what he needs to touch, to see what he needs to see to believe. Jesus shows up ready to give Thomas whatever he can in order that Thomas will believe what is true. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.

Earlier in this worship service, as we prepared to ordain and install new leaders in this congregation, we heard the witness of Scripture from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was a troubled church. There was bickering inside of it, debates about all sorts of things, including whose gifts for service were the best. Paul tries to impress upon the church that no one gift is more spiritual or more necessary than another.

He compares the church to a body, one body, with many different members. The foot is not any less a part of the body because it is not the hand. The ear is not less of the body because it is not an eye. The church is, Paul declares to us, the body of Christ and each of us are members of it. We are the body of Christ.

Later today we will hear New Spirit sing a song that asked "If we are the body?" The song talks about two people who come to worship who are left out for some reason or another. One is teased and mocked and she slips into a pew. Another person sinks into the back row beneath judgmental glances. "If we are the body," the song asks, "Why aren't His arms reaching, why aren't his hand healing, why aren't his words teaching?" "If we are the Body why aren't His feet going? Why is His love not showing them there is a way?"

The world, this town, even our neighborhood is full of Thomases, not who have rejected that Jesus is loving, compassionate, and forgiving, but who haven't seen proof that the church is his body. The world, this town, even our neighborhood doesn't need to hear from us or any other church that calls itself Christian, "Ye of little faith." Instead we need to show them with the works of our hands, with the walk of our feet, with the love of our hearts that Jesus is alive, that his life is our life, that his love is our love. The world, this town, even our neighborhood is waiting to see the body of Christ and the evidence of his welcoming love. Let's make it our goal to fix Christianity's image problem, even just here on our little spot on the globe, by walking with his feet, healing with his hands, reaching with his arms, and offering peace with his words and ours. Amen.

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