These Things Were Written

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 27, 2014
Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31 

These Things Were Written

The schedule of texts we use, called the lectionary, works on a three year cycle, which means that many texts we only hear every three years. Except on this, the Sunday after Easter, we always are assigned this particular story. I’ve preached on this text several times, at least twice here in this sanctuary. So we pray that God would show something new to us today, or God would reveal an old truth that we need to hear again. Listen to this:

20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
20:21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.
20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.
20:25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
20:27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."
20:28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
20:29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.
20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

~

A couple of years back, some articles were written about a scrap of papyrus that mentioned the possibility that Jesus had a wife. Since then, scholars have been trying to determine its authenticity. This scrap of a document just recently made the news again, as the Harvard Theological Review published some articles claiming that the document is authentic… though other scholars strongly doubt this.

Debates like this come up from time to time as new documents surface from the time after Jesus. Or a scholar may write a book that crosses over to the mainstream. Some people are surprised to learn that there are lots of gospels that did not make it into the Bible. But there were many, many gospels written in the centuries after Jesus. One of my favorites is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which this story appears:

This little child Jesus when he was five years old was playing at the ford of a brook: and he gathered together the waters that flowed there into pools, and made them straightway clean, and commanded them by his word alone. 2 And having made soft clay, he fashioned thereof twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things (or made them). And there were also many other little children playing with him.

3 And a certain Jew when he saw what Jesus did, playing upon the Sabbath day, departed straightway and told his father Joseph: Lo, thy child is at the brook, and he hath taken clay and fashioned twelve little birds, and hath polluted the Sabbath day. 4 And Joseph came to the place and saw: and cried out to him, saying: Wherefore doest thou these things on the Sabbath, which it is not lawful to do? But Jesus clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows and said to them: Go! and the sparrows took their flight and went away chirping. 5 And when the Jews saw it they were amazed, and departed and told their chief men that which they had seen Jesus do.

I love what five year old Jesus here: he makes a great spectacle, and by setting the clay sparrows free, he also gets rid of the evidence! That Jesus was a clever little guy. 

Once you realize that there were other documents written about Jesus, the next question is inevitable: why did the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John end up in the Bible and not others? Is it just that those four are better, or are there other reasons at play? Who made that decision and why? What was their agenda?

And for some people, these questions are enough to cast doubt on the whole enterprise. If some things are in and some things are out, then it seems like there’s too many human fingerprints on this text, how can it still be God’s word if it was put together by people with their own agendas and biases?

There are many ways to answer that question, and the topic is ripe for an adult education class. But it’s appropriate that one answer to those doubts comes in a story about a man we’ve come to call Doubting Thomas. Here are the verses that I’d never paid much attention to before:

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.
20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The question of what gospels made it in and which were not is an important academic question. It’s an interesting faith question. But it’s not the central question. 

*          *          *

Some years ago, a pastor friend of mine took a new call and his first Sunday at the church was Easter Sunday. As you can imagine, there was lots of pomp and pageantry, made even more grand because of the arrival of the new pastor, for which the church had been waiting a very long time. The next Sunday his sermon title was “Now What?” Which is rather cheeky, isn’t it? There is such a big build up to a new pastor, and of course Easter, and the Sunday afterward was time to look around at one another and say, “Now what?”

But that’s our question too, on this Sunday after Easter. And it’s the question Jesus’ friends faced. Who are we to be? What are we to do? If this story of Jesus’ resurrection is true—then what now? The whole reason these stories were written down and lovingly passed down to us, says John, is so that we would believe and live as Easter people, as people with hope. 

Peter Rollins is a theologian who has written a number of challenging books about Christian theology. Some time ago, he was speaking to a group when he received a challenging question:

At one point in the proceedings someone asked if my theoretical position led me to denying the Resurrection of Christ. This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think… 

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. 

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have no voice, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

What does it mean for us to affirm the resurrection? 

We affirm the resurrection when we come together once a month and put food into gallon-sized Ziploc bags for children in our community who do not have enough. There are so many other things we could be doing with our time, you see, and the problem of hunger is so big, where would we even start? And yet you come together and do what you can, because you believe that grace and new life are possible, in and through us.

We affirmed the resurrection this past week when we stood with Cecilia Brammer as she buried her husband Fred at Arlington Cemetery, when people from this congregation took time out of busy lives to be there out of friendship, but also out of faith in Christ who defeated death and gives us new life and hope. One of them said to me, “I will stay until the end of the reception, just to be helpful.”

And a family in our church will affirm the resurrection this week as they get on a plane for Ukraine and meet Dima, an orphan child whom, we hope and pray, will become their son in the coming months. This is a family, you know, that has been through the valley of the shadow of death, twice. And so they fill out paperwork and buy plane tickets and work through logistics and plot and dream… because they believe in resurrection, and because in the words of Frederick Buechner, Easter means that the worst thing is never the last thing.

These things are written for one purpose only so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

You all, in small and large and countless ways, embody what it means to be an Easter people.

 Here in closing are some words from poet Wendell Berry. If you need some inspiration for how to live as an Easter person, maybe these will inspire you. 

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
 

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 

 

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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.