Being the Visible Body of Christ

This sermon was preached at Cairn Christian Church, an Open & Affirming Congregation in Lafayette, CO, on April 27, 2014.

Lectionary Gospel for the Day: John 20:19-31, the Story of Doubting Thomas.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.” (John 20:30,31)

Today’s Gospel reading from the lectionary is the story of doubting Thomas. You’ve heard the story before, it’s a famous Sunday School story, but let’s not forget the details, and let’s take a close look.

The story we have in front of us today starts on the evening of Easter day. Before today’s reading, in the first half of this chapter from John, is the story of Easter morning when Mary discovers the empty tomb and Jesus appears to her, the first appearance of the risen Lord.

In today’s reading, Jesus for the first time appears to the rest of the disciples that Easter evening.

Unlike Mary, who bravely sought out the tomb early that morning, the disciples were scared, locked in a room, hiding. When Jesus appears to them, his first words to them are “Peace be with you.” He then shows them his wounded hands and side, and only then did the disciples know that they were encountering the risen Jesus.

Jesus then breathes on them and tells the disciples to “receive the Holy Spirit.” This breath reflects the breath of God into Adam at the start of Genesis. This is an important part of this story that we often miss. Here Jesus imparts new life to the disciples and to us. But it’s understandable that we forget how important this part of the story is, because, as we read the rest of today’s lesson, it’s clear that the disciples didn’t get it right away either, didn’t understand that they are becoming the resurrected community, the church, the body of Christ.

They still have a lot to learn, but we should go easy on them. We all still have plenty to learn about being the body of Christ too.

Then the story turns to Thomas who wasn’t present that Easter evening. A week later – which is today, the first Sunday after Easter, the disciples are again together – but again in a room with the doors closed, apparently still hiding, apparently not quite ready to be that resurrected community and body of Christ.

Next comes the part of the story we always remember, where Jesus invites Thomas to see his wounded hands and side. Thomas, seeing, believes. Jesus then tells Thomas that those who don’t see and yet believe are blessed.

Finally, today’s reading from the Gospel of John ends with the writer saying that Jesus did many signs and that this book, the Gospel of John, has been written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

Let me tell you, I think Thomas gets a bum deal in this story. After all, when we skip to the middle of the story in Sunday School, we forget that Jesus showed himself to the other disciples gathered that first Easter night, and only after they saw did they believe. Thomas had no more doubt than they did. He doubted the disciples when they told him the story, and why shouldn’t he? They were still hiding and cowering in fear. There wasn’t much there to see, there wasn’t much to believe in.

After Thomas sees and believes, Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I think Thomas gets a bum deal when we read into the story what isn’t there. We humans are very prone to filling in the blanks. It’s often a useful skill, but we have to be careful to notice when we’re doing it. What isn’t said here? Jesus does not say that those who see and believe are not blessed! In the next two verses, in fact, John writes that Jesus did many signs and John wrote these down so that we – you and I – might see and believe.

Without signs, without proof, without something to hold on to, would any of us have faith? And I don’t say this to disparage our faith! Let me ask this way: without something to hold on to, what would be the value of our Christian faith? Why would we bother following Jesus if we didn’t see love for God and neighbor in our Christian sisters and brothers? Why would we stay if we didn’t see ourselves growing in our love for God and neighbor?

When we focus on Thomas and his doubt, we forget that Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus breathes into them the resurrected Spirit of God and begins their transformation into the resurrected body of Christ, the church, a people growing in their ability to love God and neighbor, their ability to bring justice into the world, their ability to feed the hungry.

This transformation is what the world needs to see in order to believe. This transformation is what the church needs, else it has nothing of value to offer, else it has nothing worth believing in.

The point I want to work with today is this: It was Jesus’ presence and his acts, his visibility, that was the source of belief for the disciples. Today it is the resurrected body of Christ, the church, it is our presence, our acts, our visibility, that bring us and our neighbors to faith today. It is our task to be the body of Christ in today’s world so that the world might see and believe.

And just as the disciples still had a lot to learn about being the body of Christ, so do we today. The world has a great need for what Christ has to offer: the love of God, the fellowship of the church, the joy of salvation. But the world is not going to believe without seeing.

What is all too common in our world today are the many people who haven’t seen, not because they aren’t looking, but because the church hasn’t been the visible, present body of Christ. Worse yet, there are many people who have been damaged when the church doesn’t preach the love and compassion of Jesus.

As a gay man, I have many friends who can’t understand my involvement in a church that is mostly visible as it oppresses LGBT people. In my years working as a psychologist, I have worked with many whose lives have not been filled with love and joy because the church hasn’t been the body of Christ for them.

I have many friends who have been damaged because many churches, often the most vocal and visible ones, teach that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is a sin.

I have worked with many gay people struggling with addictions, traps they were caught in when they tried to soothe the pain of being told that God couldn’t possibly love them. Many of my friends have worked hard to overcome those addictions.

I have seen transgender people who abused their body with overeating or substance abuse, hating their bodies, not knowing that they are beloved children of God.

I have worked with youth who were kicked out of their family home as young teenagers because their parents’ church told them that accepting their gay teenagers was a sin.

I have listened to the stories of young adults who were traumatized by bullying, bullying usually fueled by the visible church’s hateful teachings on LGBT people.

And I am well aware that I did not have the privilege of sitting with and hearing the stories of the most traumatized of all, those whose addictions or suicides took their lives because they could find nothing to soothe the pain of the rejection and hatred they experienced.

These stories are why it is so important that the church be visible as the loving, affirming, welcoming body of Christ.

John told the story that Jesus appeared, was seen, and brought belief to the disciples. John reflected that pattern when he wrote these things down so that we might read, see and believe.

Let’s take a close at this pattern to discern how we are called to follow today.

First I would suggest that Jesus and John were secure in their faith. Jesus knew his call and his mission, and John knew his faith and his purpose.

Are we secure in our faith? Do we know our our mission and purpose? Have you spent time learning to see the love that Christ has for you? Have you spent time appreciating the community you have here in Lafayette? Have you spent time grounding yourself in the biblical witness for love and affirmation of all of God’s children in a Bible study, a book group, or a Sunday School series on welcome and affirmation? How about anti-racism? Or about the concerns of the poor, the undocumented, the abused? Our first step, actually not a step but better a habit, something we need to do continuously, is to be and become the loving body of Christ in this time and place.

The second element of this pattern is being seen. The acts of Jesus were visible. John wrote that others may know these acts.

How do we follow this example today? The church, which is the body of the risen Christ on earth today, has the responsibility to act and be visible, to be present to a hurting world, to bear witness to the love of God to those outside. To be feeding the poor, welcoming the marginalized, the LGBT, the undocumented, to be caring for the sick.

The third step in this example is the belief that comes from seeing. I’d like to tell you that I can preach that sermon, but I can’t. I can only say that I trust in God to turn seeing into believing, and I trust that my task is to spread the Gospel of Christ’s love in a visible manner. God will take care of the rest.

As you know, I am the Executive Director of the Open & Affirming Ministry Program of the Gay, Lesbian, and Affirming Disciples Alliance. That’s a long title, but there’s one word in there that has become especially important to me lately. “Open.”

And that word is what I’m talking about this morning: the visibility of our welcome and affirmation.

Open. The world hungers for the love and welcome, the affirmation and acceptance, that a church like Cairn has to share, and this welcome must be openly visible for the world to believe, for our neighbors to believe, even for our own children to believe.

I know Cairn provides an invaluable witness here in Colorado, a part of this country where there are some loud voices that don’t preach an affirming, accepting, loving Christ. Yet, I’m going to prod you to take a look at your witness and your visibility and ask yourselves how can you step out just a little more this week, a little more next month, and continue that journey in the years to come.

Are you visible? Where can you increase your visibility? I do mean a sign on the outside of your church and statements and logos on your website. I also ask, where can you be more present in the community? Do your gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors know that you are here? Are you here for them in ways that they need you to be here? And not just your LGBT neighbors, but all your neighbors? Those struggling with finances, the hungry, the addicted, the undocumented? Are you visible in ways that your neighbors can see? Do your neighbors need to see you advocating for the rights of the poor? Do your neighbors need to see you show up at a gay pride festival or a demonstration for the rights of undocumented workers? Do your neighbors need to see you assist with child care at a homeless shelter? Working to reduce bullying in schools?

I also ask if you’re working to increase the welcome of all in other congregations in your Central Rocky Mountain Regional Church? Are you working with them to increase the welcome of the body of Christ?

I trust that in many ways I’m preaching to the choir this morning, to those who already hear the call to be visible, to be open, in sharing the love that we have found in Christ and to be Christ in the world today. And I hope that I have challenged you to take one more step to open yourselves to that love and to take one more step to share that love in your community through action, advocacy and example.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.