Summit Presbyterian Church
April 11, 2010 (Second Sunday of Easter)
John 20: 19-31; Revelation 1: 1-8
The Other Signs
This is the second Sunday of Eastertide, the eight weeks when we celebrate the raising of Jesus from the dead. You could make a convincing argument that believing in the resurrection is harder in this time and place than it's ever been. We're an educated, scientifically minded people who believe in the rules of nature. We may not know or understand them very well ourselves, and scientists are always revising their theories, but we trust the natural world can be explained, and are skeptical of miracles whether reported in the Bible or elsewhere. We're also more aware then ever that people around the world have different beliefs about God and life. We may wonder: why should we believe that Christ rose from the dead rather than that God spoke through Mohammed? (To give one example). And it's not just people in different countries or cultures who have different beliefs. 100 years ago, even 50 years ago, most people in Mt. Airy who weren't Jewish were Christian. Believing in the resurrection - or at least claiming to - was mainstream. Today, being a Christian is still respectable - we're not marginalized or considered a cult - but we're more likely than our parents or grandparents to face questions from friends and neighbors about our beliefs. It's no longer the "default" option. Most importantly, the resurrection was supposed to signal the victory of good over evil, life over death --- yet evil and death still have a firm grip on the world. There's beauty, love and goodness too, and in many ways humans have made progress -- but between countless genocides, nuclear warheads, environmental destruction, poverty, and brokenness of all kinds -- in our world and in our lives - it's hard to argue from the evidence that love and justice won a decisive victory 2000 years ago. It's no wonder, nor is it a crime, that we have doubts.
But we aren't the only ones who have found it hard to believe in the resurrection. The writers of the scriptures this morning might argue that theirs was the hardest time in which to believe. It's true they didn't have to face the challenge of an enlightened scientific mindset. Ancient peoples believed that gods and spirits, good ones and bad ones, controlled the world - but it didn't follow they believed someone could rise from the dead. It was just as incredible for them. We might also imagine that since they lived closer to first-hand witnesses it might have been easier for people to believe - but 50 years after the death of Christ, those witnesses were gone. And our multicultural community is not unique: the world they knew was geographically smaller, but no less diverse: different peoples who believed all kinds of different things were neighbors. Christianity had lots of competition; and it wasn't yet a respectable option, but rather a cult or a Jewish heresy. And they had no New Testament, no institutional Church to give "legitimacy" to their claim -- the Christian communities were still young and often, it seems, fighting. Finally, the world they saw looked a lot like the world 50 years before when Jesus was killed. Rome still ruled, hunger, suffering and death still abounded. If anything things were worse, with the Roman - Jewish war and destruction of the temple. It's no wonder Thomas had doubts, and many others like him.
But the writers of our scriptures believed it a matter of life and death that people believe in the resurrection, that Christians hold fast to their faith. So they wrote, for those they knew and for those, like us, who would come after, who could no longer see, hear or touch Jesus. In his gospel, John writes of the many signs Jesus did, before and after his death, hoping that as we hear them we'll also experience them.* Signs in which Jesus relates to and touches those he loves. One of those signs was to come to Thomas, who needed to see the wounded Jesus, just as his friends had seen him. Jesus comes to him, with no condemnation, so he may not doubt but believe; just as Jesus will also come to Peter and other disciples on the beach for a picnic. John also writes of the times Jesus showed his glory when he changed water to wine and healed the blind man or told the woman at the well everything she had ever done. John knows it will still be hard for us to believe; Jesus says, "blessed are those, also, who have not seen and yet have come to believe." It's John's hope that through the signs written in his book, all may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.
The writer of Revelation addresses a different kind of doubt. His vision answers the question of why the world is just as evil as it's always been, and why the Christians of his time were suffering so. The answer is straightforward: it's not over yet. Christ will come back to finish what he begun: Look! says, John, "he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him." Evil still appears to rule, but that's an illusion: the Lamb of God will return and put everything under its feet. John's vision of what will happen when Christ returns is full of so much violence and suffering that it may sow more doubt that belief in us today. But his vision gave hope to those early, persecuted Christians. It helped them believe in the Risen Christ in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. And we don't have to believe John's vision will literally come true to trust in the proclamation that Jesus Christ is the true ruler of the kings (and presidents and tyrants) of the earth, that the Lord God is the Beginning and the End, and that one day we will see that this good and just God has triumphed over evil, suffering and death.
So we have these testimonies, these writings, to bring us to belief in Jesus Christ. But we know they don't work magic, or everyone who read them would become a Christian. They don't automatically answer our questions or resolve our doubts. They don't "prove" that Christ rose from the dead, and they couldn't. But if we listen to scripture we open a pathway for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who gives us the gift of faith. The gift of faith in the risen Christ that opens our eyes to the other signs of Christ's presence in the world; to the other signs not written in John's book because they're happening now, in our time. One of those signs, I believe, is the signing of a nuclear treaty with Russia and the President's Nuclear Posture Review that came out this week. It's not everything we might hope for: it doesn't renounce all uses of nuclear weapons. But for the first time, we promise not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers, and we say they are "fundamentally" if not solely for self defense. It's the beginning of repentance, a first step in turning from the insanity of nuclear weapons towards a safer world. The outpouring of donations to Haiti in the days after the earthquake, and the good work of so many people there - Haitians and foreigners - is a sign, even though the continued suffering and injustice in that country could lead us to doubt the Risen Christ. And the signs need not be so grand in scale. Maybe you have seen one of those other signs in the mending of a relationship, in the physical or emotional healing of a loved one; in a sense of peace that has come when anxiety or depression threatened to overwhelm you. Perhaps you've seen one of the other signs in days of sobriety, in the beauty of these days. Or perhaps you've heard Christ speak to you, have felt his presence, and have known his peace. All signs that Christ has risen.
And when we have trouble believing in those signs, when we doubt that Christ has risen because of the mess we see in the world or in our owns lives, we can remember the story is not finished, we are not finished, the world is not finished. That the resurrection is a promise we can trust in those other signs, those other signs of God's love, forgiveness, and justice, that one day we will see in all their fullness.
*See Sandra Schneiders, "That You May Believe,"