At Seminary, we were told to avoid giving what’s known as the “3-point” sermon. That’s a sermon where the pastor makes three bulleted points that are supposed to tie to a common theme. It’s informative, logical, easy to follow….and easier to prepare. Well, considering it’s the week after Easter Sunday, I figured, let’s go with a 3-point sermon. That was a lot of church last week! Besides, you probably came here expecting a bit of a return to normal; after all, it’s hard to top Holy Week and Easter, since they are the high point of the church year.
And so, here are your three points from the text today:
Point #1: “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” The disciples, even though they heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, chose rather to lock themselves indoors even in the face of persecution from “the Jews,” or really, the Jewish religious leaders that had plotted to put Jesus to death.
Point #2: After Jesus breathed on them, he said to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” Something to understand here: “sin” in John’s gospel doesn’t mean immoral acts or wrong behavior. “Sin” in John’s gospel is understood as a broken relationship with God, or “unbelief.” In other words, the disciples weren’t so much ordered to go out and judge moral sin, but rather to be a community of people who witness to Christ in the world, for the sake of belief in him, so that they might have abundant life.
Point #3: “Doubting Thomas.” Actually, he’s not really doubting as much as he’s “unbelieving.” He’s unbelieving because he hasn’t yet seen what the women and the rest of the disciples have seen – the crucified, resurrected Jesus in the flesh. Jesus shows himself to Thomas so that he might believe – he cries out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus’ response “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” is the statement that visual proof isn’t the marker of faith, but belief in the risen Christ is.
Ok, let’s be honest here….who’s bored? Who’s checked out? Some of you might find this all interesting, but I have a suspicion some of you are thinking: “Where is he going with this?” You might be thinking, “I guess it’s back to one day a week worship, 10-15 minute sermons by the pastor…..Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday are over. Back to business as usual.”
I wonder how many of us simply expect the post-Easter letdown…..just 7 days ago, the pews were full, people were dressed up in their best clothes, we had special music…..and for a moment, everyone seemed to be “Christian” – Jesus mattered, worship mattered, church mattered. For just one day, people “got it.” I talked to another pastor this past week, and he remarked how at one of his Easter services, they filled the sanctuary to capacity. “Now if only if it was like this every week; if those people would keep coming,” he lamented. But so often, things return to “business as usual” in the church.
I think about that, and that bothers me, and maybe it bothers you too….and not because I’m frustrated with people who only come irregularly or only on Easter, or just don’t take church attendance seriously. It bothers me because….I don’t want to go back to business as usual church. I don’t want to be post-Easter letdown church, and I definitely don’t want to be part of the church of the 3-point sermon.
And I’m guessing……you don’t want to either.
Speaking of business as usual…..I should probably ditch the 3-point sermon thing. In fact, maybe it’s enough to just consider one thing this morning. I mean, we have enough stuff swimming around in our brains these days, with how busy our lives are!
I’m interested in the fact that just after the women told the disciples that Jesus was risen, they’d seen him alive, and that he’s waiting for them out in Galilee, the disciples lock themselves into a room out of fear. And I’m interested that Christ breaks through those locked doors, shows himself to the disciples, and breathes his Holy Spirit on them.
I started thinking about this, and I thought: this has to do with being church. It has to do with being a “welcoming” church. What does it mean to be a church that welcomes like Christ, going into those locked spaces, showing them his wounded hands and feet, and breathing his Holy Spirit on them? And as I thought about that, I realized that this text tells us that being a “welcoming church” isn’t about gathering and attracting people into a building and locking them into set of routines and beliefs.
What that means we have to move past a notion of welcome that’s simply being friendly or “nice.” It goes beyond simply giving people a welcome/house-warming gift and inviting them to come back next week. It goes beyond the pastor simply sending a letter, email or a phone call. And it goes beyond a welcome – welcome for the sole purpose that they’ll quickly become members at OUR church, so they’ll carry on OUR ways.
What a welcoming church recognizes is that those newcomers….they’re the very presence of the crucified and risen Christ among us, showing his wounds.
And maybe, we’d do well as a “welcoming” church to accept them, to see them not as a threat we need to be locked in from, not as people we need to make members quickly, not as people who will learn and carry on our ways….but rather as a gift….a gift of the Holy Spirit breathed on us. And as a gift of the Holy Spirit, they’ll challenge us, move us, and change us in ways we never thought possible. Their ideas, their doubts, their experiences of life, and their questions about this thing we call church….perhaps they’ll breathe life into a “business as usual” church. If only we’d open the door of our hearts and minds and lives to love, listen….and let them have ownership, or leadership, in this thing we call church.
Those are what I call the 3 “L’s” of a welcoming church – love, listen, and leadership -and they’re in this month’s newsletter. I invite you to read them to get a better sense of what I’m talking about (hey, a plug for the newsletter!). And over the course of the next 6 weeks of Easter, we’re going to explore further what it means to be a “welcoming” church – a church that lives into the Easter good news: Christ is risen, he lives! And because he lives….we can unlock those doors we’ve created. Fear and threat of change don’t have to grip us. Because he lives….we can open ourselves to the very presence of Christ among us, breathing his Holy Spirit into us, into this church. Amen.