Sermon on John 20

Mark Smith and Chris Bailey, Interns
Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church
April 27, 2014 10am

Psalm 16
John 20:19-31
Sermon Audio: Click Here

MARK: It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. Well, a crazy couple of years really, but the last few weeks have been crazier than most.

I’ve been with The Boss from the early days. I was one of the twelve that he started with. And I’ll be honest – I’ve always been pretty fired up for this new thing. This whole idea about the meek inheriting God’s Kingdom, about faith in God, about faith in Jesus. It’s all good.

Just a couple weeks ago, before Passover, we heard that Lazarus had died. Lazarus had been pretty good to us in the past. But still this was a scary thing – the people tried to stone Jesus the last time we were there. We barely made it out with our skins. And now Lazarus was dead. The Boss even told us that Lazarus was dead – he always knew things that we just didn’t know. He could be pretty confusing. But when The Boss said that we were going back to wake him up, I was all for it. I told The Boss that I was ready to go back to Jerusalem and die. And I was. But then, I had him with me. And he was the Messiah, he could protect me, right? So back we went, and he really did it! Four days dead and Lazarus came out all zombie-like with the wrappings still on him! Boy did I believe in The Boss that day!

CHRIS: When dealing with the loss of a loved one, we often try to look back and remember the things we loved most about them, and the time we spent together. After my own father passed away, I found a great deal of comfort in remembering the shared love of the outdoors that he first sparked within me during the time we spent together in Boy Scouts. In the same way, I remembered when I was even younger, and we would watch reruns of Batman featuring Adam West while I sat upon his shoulders. By taking the time to look back at the time my dad and I spent together, I was able to secure into memory the things that made my dad into a person I both loved and respected.

I imagine that Thomas and the other disciples did something similar after the death of Jesus. After all, a person they both loved and respected died dramatically in front of their very eyes. In order to relieve some of the shock they must have felt, it would have only been natural to try and remember the things about Jesus Christ that had caused the disciples to follow him in the first place…

MARK: This last time, before we lost him, he started saying weird things. He started talking about going where we can’t follow, and gave us new commandments. To love God – OK, that’s alright. We were already doing that. To love one another too – this was a little strange. Did he mean just us disciples? The twelve? Or did he mean everybody? That’s kind of hard, loving everybody.

And then he washed our feet. Him, the Messiah, did for us what a common servant would usually do. We should have been doing it for him! And then he told us about a place that he was getting ready for us, but didn’t tell us where. I asked him about it, but he got all mystical again: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And knowing the Father and stuff like that.

He spoke for a while, telling us what he wanted us to know. And then we went to the garden. They came to arrest him. I thought for sure this was where the Big Battle was going to start – where our Messiah would release us from this bondage to the Romans, to the corrupt Jewish leaders. But he rebuked Peter for using his sword. And then he was led away. And it got worse after that. He was flogged, forced to carry his cross through the streets, and ultimately killed on the Cross. What kind of Messiah would lose? What kind of Messiah would die? We saw him die up there on the cross. And we were scared out of our wits. Were we next?

The Boss, the guy who had raised Lazarus from the dead was gone. Dead himself. He didn’t save himself. He didn’t stop his arrest, or even let us fight. I used to believe, but how can you believe that he’s the Son of God if he could lose like this? How can you have faith when something so bad happens?

CHRIS: For the disciples, it was the compassion that Jesus showed to the poor and marginalized that drew them toward Jesus. As the messiah, Christ had healed the blind and disabled. They had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. In doing so, Jesus turned social structures upside down, and drew those who had been pushed to the margins toward the center of the community. The disciples were drawn the Christ as an individual who pushed boundaries of what it meant, and what it looked like to be faithful toward God. Yet, it was also this overt concern for the poor and the questioning of the status quo of faith that eventually lead to Jesus’ death. Through his life and work, Jesus had pushed this Romanized Hebrew community to examine itself. AnddDisliking what it saw in itself, the community pushed back upon Jesus, and took his life. Jesus offered a drastically new worldview, and it was rejected. The very thing that had initially drawn the disciples toward Jesus ultimately became the thing that took Jesus from them.

MARK: So about a week ago, the other disciples got so excited. They said they saw Jesus again. They told me that they were meeting in the upper room with the door locked, just like we’ve had to do since The Boss was killed. They said that there were holes in his hands and feet, and a big one in his side where the soldier had speared him. They said he breathed on them, and they felt the Holy Spirit.

I wasn’t there. I was off taking care of business for the rest of the group. And I gotta be honest. I’m not really sure what happened. Were they drunk? Were they so tired of being afraid, so tired of being cooped up that they saw what they wanted to see?

The old Jesus, the one who raised Lazarus, the one who healed and knew things and walked on water – THAT Jesus I could see coming back. That’s the Jesus that I knew before, the Jesus that I decided to follow, that I was willing to die for.

But the Jesus who was killed on the cross? The one who decided not to fight. The one who meekly went off to be killed. How could he come back? How could he let us down like that? How could he change the way the world works, make it better, if he couldn’t even save himself?

I’m not even sure what I would need to see in order to believe this. I might have to see the holes myself. To touch them, and to know that there isn’t a trick.

CHRIS: Honestly, I don’t know that we can really blame Thomas for disbelieving the other disciples. The experience of watching Jesus upon the cross must have been traumatic, and the images of which would have been painfully seared into Thomas’ memory. For Thomas, the Jesus that he saw hung upon the cross would have been drastically different than the image of Jesus that he had built from the experiences they had shared together. Placed in the same situation, I am sure that I would have doubted just the same as Thomas. Even having seen Jesus heal Lazarus, the death that Christ suffered was exceptionally brutal. In this story, Thomas is often portrayed as a bit of a fool, but if we were to be truly honest with ourselves, I think we would find ourselves to be more like Thomas than the blessed one who believes without having seen. To a certain extent, I believe doubt is an integral part of faith. Asking questions and doubting, at the very least, suggests that we are willing to engage and examine our own faith. Through his life, Jesus pushed those around him to examine their faith. By caring about the poor and marginalized, Christ pushed the religious community to ask how their current faith allowed them to overlook those who had been pushed to the margins. In this sense, it becomes important to remember that when we approach God with our questions and doubts we are still approaching God, and God remains present with us even in our doubting. We should not feel foolish in reaching out to God with our doubt. When our doubt becomes so strong that we feel unable to approach, we should take comfort in the fact that God is still present and willing to reach out to us.

MARK: Wow! A week has gone by, and everything is different!

He really did come back! He appeared in the middle of a locked house! And though I hadn’t even told the other disciples, he knew that I had trouble believing. He reached out to me, and told me to feel his hands and his side!

He knew that I had lost my faith, and he helped me get it back! He knows, of course he knows, that believing is the only way to the Father, and so he was willing to reach out to me specifically to help my unbelief.

I get it now. I really didn’t before. But now I see. It’s like he had to die and come back, or the whole thing wouldn’t have made any sense. It’s like he knew that from the beginning. And now I know, at least as well as I can. And now the hard part comes – explaining it to people who didn’t see it. Helping them to believe too.


Sermon – Where is the Church? Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2013

February 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

Sermon preached by Mark Smith at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ

Audio: Mark Smith Sermon 2013-02-10 Luke 9 Transfiguration Sunday

Psalm 99
Luke 9:28-43

It was a really unusual experience for Peter, John and James.  It started simply enough – Jesus took them off onto a mountain to pray.  And that wasn’t all that unusual – Jesus was known for praying in isolated places and had gone to a mountain to pray before.  He had prayed with his disciples before as well.

While he was praying, things started to happen.  Jesus’s face changed.  His clothes became a glowing white – in Greek it says that his clothes were so bright that they flashed like lightning.  Maybe these disciples knew their Jewish scriptures well enough to remember that Moses’s face had shone when Moses spoke to God.  Maybe they remembered how the sky flashed with lightning when Ezekiel saw his vision of God, or when Daniel saw the figure in his vision that was clothed in fine linen and who had a face like lightning.

And then they were joined by two figures, Moses and Elijah.  I imagine that this looked a little bit like the end Star Wars, where the deceased Jedi appeared to Luke Skywalker.  Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus and told him of his departure – of his future death and resurrection at Jerusalem.  Peter and the others saw all of this even though they were sleepy – they saw Jesus’s glory, and the return of the man who received the Law from God, and the Prophet of God.  This was a holy moment.

And then Moses and Elijah left.  Peter asked Jesus if they should build three tents – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  Peter recognized them as three holy figures, heavenly figures, and wanted to create a special home for them here on earth.  The word in Greek in the scripture that I read, that read as “dwelling,” can also mean “Tabernacle.”  And the famous Tabernacle was the tent that God instructed Moses to construct to hold the Ark of the Covenant – God’s home on earth among the Israelites from the time of their wandering in the wilderness.  That Tabernacle was used until God commanded Solomon to build The Temple in Jerusalem to be God’s place.  Peter wanted to create a single place to commemorate the holy moment for these three great holy men, as if holy things happened in one place.  The text says that Peter did not know what he was saying – he reacted reflexively, mirroring what had been done before.

Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, very much like the way that a cloud covered Mount Sinai when Moses spoke to God.  God spoke from the cloud.  “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him!”  And this is a lot like the words that we heard at Jesus’s baptism.  God says that Jesus is God’s son.  And this time we are told to listen to him.

In the time of the Old Testament, from Moses until Jesus, there was one place that they might have called the church back then, and that was the Tabernacle that was carried around from place to place in Moses’s time.  In the psalm that I read it talks about God sitting enthroned on the cherubim – and that’s what the top of the Ark looked like.  If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark it looks exactly like it’s described in the Bible, and there are the two winged cherubim with their wings pointing towards the center, and that’s where the priests made their sacrifices to God, to fulfill God’s covenant with the Israelites.  Later the place of this church settled in the Temple in Jerusalem.    The church was in a building, at least a temporary building.  God’s main way of interacting with God’s people was in one place.

A day after all of these things happened on the mountain Jesus and the disciples came down, and a man came to them because his son needed healing, and Jesus healed his son.  The man didn’t need to go to The Temple in Jerusalem.  He  didn’t need to go to the top of the mountain where Moses and Elijah had appeared.  He met Jesus where the man was – at the bottom of the mountain.  He met Jesus in the world, not inside of a church building.

Jesus did most of his work in the world, rather than in a building.  He did appear in the Temple, and he appeared in the synagogue a few times, but most of his work was done outside, among the people.  He worked with people as he traveled.  He worked with people as he preached outdoors, on a hillside or a lake.  He worked with people in their homes.  He talked to and ate with and healed and helped people who couldn’t come into the Temple – those who could not walk, those who were ritually unclean, and those who worked in professions that made them less acceptable in the Temple.  Jesus did more of his ministry among those who were on the edges of society, than those who were on the inside.  He did his work in the world, rather than in a building.

Here at Watchung Avenue, we do a lot of good work inside our building.  We meet every week to praise God, to hear the scripture read, and to hear a message.  We are a community that is learning and growing and building each other up.  We do a lot of good for others in this building as well.  We serve meals to those who need them.  We collect and distribute groceries.  We offer space to Headstart and WIC and the Y.  And we share our worship space with Christo mi Rey.  We invite others in to learn and grow, as we did with the Love Free or Die movie, with diversity training, and as we will in March with the upcoming Trigger documentary on gun violence.  We do a lot of good inside our building when someone is here.  The church is where we are.

We also do a lot of good outside of our building.  Together we walked in October to raise money to fight hunger.  We have been networking with others on hurricane relief and how we might best participate.  Our youth and our adults have gone to Stony Point and other places to do mission work.  Cameron has been working outside of our building on hunger and disaster relief.  We also do a lot of good outside of our building.  The church is where we are.

And our lives are God’s work as well.  Each of us brings our Christian faith with us … to home, to work, to volunteer.  The way that we live is a reflection of Christ within us.  I worked in the corporate world for a while before starting seminary, and many times I found myself asking is this thing that I’m doing … this decision or this action … a good idea?  Is this software that I’m writing to support an advertising campaign helping people to buy things that they want, or is it just finding new ways to take money from people?  Is this report that I’m writing being used to support integrity in the business, or is it just being written to make somebody else in the company look bad?  There was simply no way to act in the world without my faith coloring my thoughts and decisions.  Sometimes I was able to push back when my faith told me that an action was not the right thing to do.  Sometimes I wasn’t able to push back, and then it hurt.  So I wonder if you’ve ever faced that – a situation at work where your values conflicted with what you’ve asked to do?  How did you handle it?  I brought my faith to my work every day.  But it’s not just me.  We create common everyday miracles of faith when we act with God in mind.  When Bob helps someone plan their financial life, Bob is reflecting his Christian faith.  His actions and decisions are colored by his faith and he brings the church with him to work.  When Pat works with residents in senior housing, she brings her faith with her, and the image of God within her shines through in the help that she gives.  She brings the church with her as well.  When Virginia goes to the Senior club, she brings her faith along, and brings the church with her in all that she does.  When Cori cares for her niece, when Andrew cares for his grandson, they bring their faith into their families and the church comes with them.  When Ryan participates in the Boy Scouts, he brings his faith and the church.  When Shelby and Chris create their art and music, they use their God-given talents to create beauty in God’s creation.  They are inspired in part by their relationship with Christ, and the church comes with them.  There are so many other examples in this congregation and everywhere, and if I tried to include all of them we’d be here for a while.  What’s important is that the church is where we are, in this building or someplace else.

So what is common to all of this?  Is it the building?  No, it’s the people.  We bring our talents, our time and our energy to the work that all of us do.  We bring the image of God that is within each of us to our service to others and our faith and our values ride along with us in everything that we do.  Is the church a building?  The church is people.  Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”  When we are in the world interacting with others, there are at least two gathered and wherever we are, Christ is.  And we bring our community with us as well.  We can draw on the resources of the church, on our fellow churchgoers, in everything that we do to help others.  We can talk through issues with our church friends – whether that’s a question about what to do at work or where to go to get people the help that they need.  And we can always show our faith to others, in the hope that our faith may help them, and perhaps may become their faith.  The church exists where we are, doing our common everyday miracles.

I’m going to ask you all a question.  This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’m actually looking for an answer.

Where is the church?

“Where we are! … Where we are…we are… where we are!”

OK, not bad.  That was a little ragged.  (laughter)  Let’s try it one more time.  Where is the church?

“Where we are!”

OK, and one more time …. Where is the church?

“Where we are!”

And that is a wonderful thing.