2nd Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 20:19-31;
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9
EASTER MEANS SAVING RELIGION, TOO (PART 2)
Last Sunday we began with a story from Pastor Wayne Reece, about an Easter Sunday when he rewrote his entire sermon late the night before. He found himself stranded, out-of-gas, and wandering into a nearby Texas roadhouse. He played some pool with a biker gang and ended up telling the Easter story to them in their language.
This morning I’d like to share my own story of a time when I rewrote my sermon for the first Sunday after Easter. It’s still one of the most powerful experiences in my life. I had my sermon all written and ready for the next day. It tried to tackle the issue of doubt with our modern concerns in mind — in other words, assuming that Thomas doubted how someone could be raised from the dead — like we would. In this age of science, we have our doubts about how God would transgress the laws of nature to raise Jesus. Now, plenty of people of faith don’t have doubts about this. But many people today, churched and unchurched, do have their doubts about the Resurrection, and twelve years ago I had a sermon already to address those doubts.
But something dramatic happened during the night. For one of the few times in my life, God came to me, I believe, in my dreams. I had a bizarre nightmare where I was chaplain to several prisoners on death row. It had dreamlike aspects, such as these prisoners were being held in my basement, so I went about the rest of my life and simply went to my basement to visit them and support them. The nightmare part came when they were to be executed. I was shocked to learn that it was going to be by guillotine. And I had a decision to make. As their chaplain, I should be with them. But the thought of being guillotined repulsed me so much that I ran out of the room as it was about to happen. I heard the sound, and I awoke in my bed in a sweat, with my heart beating rapidly.
It was the middle of the night. My heart was racing. I wasn’t going to be able to calm down quickly and simply fall back asleep. I started thinking about the story of Thomas, and suddenly it became linked to my dream. Thomas specifies seeing the wounds of Jesus crucifixion. Were his doubts not about the how of God raising Jesus from the dead but why. I won’t go into all the gory details, but crucifixion was every bit as repulsive a means of execution as guillotine. Perhaps more so.
Combine this, too, with our lectionary journey. It was only three weeks ago that John Brown dramatized the role of doubting Thomas in the story of raising Lazarus. Thomas had just witnessed Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. So why would he have doubts about the how of the Resurrection. If Jesus could raise Lazarus, God the Creator could certainly raise Jesus.
No, Thomas was having doubts about why God would raise Jesus. He had believed Jesus to be the Messiah, the one God was sending to oust the Romans from their land. As the Messiah, you don’t get arrested, tortured, and humiliated; you arrest, torture, and humiliate others. You don’t get crucified; you crucify. Thomas’ belief in Jesus as the Messiah had been shattered by the cross. He wasn’t doubting whether God could raise Jesus. He was doubting why God would raise Jesus. The cross shattered the dream. What was the point? Thomas wanted to see the marks of execution, if he was going to start believing again. He was going to need to understand why God would raise an executed Messiah from the dead.
That’s what came to me in the middle of the night twelve years ago, as I lay there trying to calm down after a nightmare. An hour or so later, I got up to rewrite my sermon.
Twelve years later we have another important task to weave in. We need to finish last week’s Easter sermon. We noticed that the first task for Peter and the apostles was to see that Easter is made to reach out to people of other religions. In 1960, Pastor Wayne was encountering more people like the biker Roy, who were nonreligious, who grew up with no religion. Today our task is even more challenging, in that increasing numbers of people are even anti-religious. They see religion as part of the problem of keeping human being divided, and can’t see it as part of the solution. How do we shape the Easter message to speak to modern anti-religious people?
I think we begin with Thomas’ doubts. Not the modern doubts about resurrection that we might read into it, that Thomas doubted that a dead person could come back to life. He had just seen it happen with Lazarus. But we would need to understand the nature of Thomas’ doubts about why God would raise an executed person.
To be honest, I’m not sure we Christians have fully understood this yet. The first task of Thomas, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples was to figure out how the Easter message even speaks to people of other religions. There was no such person in their day who was either nonreligious or anti-religious. Everybody was religious in some fashion. As we study cultures in other times and places, we’ve always found some sort of religion — and stiff penalties for those who went against their religion.
Which brings us to a startling proposal about Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was declared to be anti-religious by both major religions of his time and place. By his own people, Jesus was declared a Blasphemer, someone who is against God, against Torah, against their very religion and way of life. And Roman religion was focused around the emperor, Caesar, who they worshiped as the chief representative of the gods. If you are against Caesar, you are against their gods, against their religion. They reserved the cross for those who rebelled against Caesar and the religion at the heart of their civilization. Pontius Pilate made this very clear by posting the problem above Jesus on the cross: “King of the Jews.” If you pretend to have authority outside of Caesar, then you are rebelling against their way of life.
In fact, this continued to be the case for the early followers of Jesus. We have many writings of Roman politicians and citizens from the early centuries of the church which call Christians atheists — anti-God and anti-religion. The first reactions of disciples like Thomas was to doubt precisely because they were still among the religious. Jesus was duly tried and executed as being anti-religious. Thomas doubted why God would raise an anti-religious person from the dead.
Brothers and Sisters, I believe that those who are anti-religious in our day give us the opportunity to finally bring into focus the full depth and breadth of the Easter message as looking anti-religious to the normal human perspective, but as truly being about the redemption of religion.
Facing that challenge can help us to fully understand that right from the beginning of our species we became religious creatures. Religion did save us from killing each other in our own tribes. But from the beginning our religions saved us on the basis of dividing us from other groups of people. It gave us identities over against others. So it saved us to be able to live in peace within our families and tribes and nations. But religion as it formed in our infancy as a species was not going to be able to help us live in peace with other tribes and nations and religions.
This has been our history, right? And so we can meet the challenge of today’s antireligious person by starting out … in agreement. If our goal in the global village is for all peoples to live in peace, then, yes, religion as it formed in the infancy of our species will always be part of the problem and not the solution. But here’s the thing. We are religious beings. We are made to justify and found our ways of life in something of higher authority than just ourselves. So even today’s atheists will have a religion of sorts, something they believe in that’s higher than just themselves. It may be scientific knowledge. It may be love of their country. It may be their economic freedom. But, as religious beings, sooner or later we will be willing to kill others in the name of gods.
Unless. Unless we begin to understand what Jesus came to give us. It looks like anti-religion at first, because it flips upside-down and inside-out our usual religious alliances. But in the end, it isn’t anti-religion; it’s the redemption of religion. It’s giving us a new start as a species with a religion that worships the true Creator God of this world and of all its peoples. This faith in the crucified Messiah doesn’t even require that we convert to a different religion, as long as the religion we practice is redeemed to worship the God who can truly unify us in love. We are finding this to be true, too, right? Gandhi was able to be a practicing Hindu who also followed Jesus in God’s way of peace. Many Native Americans are able to practice their tribal religions in ways that go along with Jesus’ way of peace. It’s not about converting from one religious practice to another religious practice. It’s about having all our religions — including Christianity, including American patriotism — it’s about having all our religions converted to worshiping the true God whose love gives us life and is the true way to peace among all peoples.
You and I are anti-religious to the extent that we are against any religion that plays the old games of division. But we are spiritual people to the extent that we believe that Jesus gives us the Spirit of the living God who can unify us in love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 27, 2014