By Pastor John Johnson

No Sympathy for the Preacher

April 19, 2020

Before I begin, I have some good news that points to an error I made in last Sunday’s prayer, when, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I was premature and exaggerating when I said that Linda Ernst had gone to the Lord. That was bad information; she had gone to the hospital, and the live Linda will be in our prayers today.

Let me call us to this time of listening for what God might be saying to us as I read from our seldom used New Testament book know as “The Acts of the Apostles,” or more commonly, simply, “Acts.”

NJB Acts 2:14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed them in a loud voice: 'Men of Judaea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, make no mistake about this, but listen carefully to what I say.
NJB Acts 2:22 'Men of Israel, listen to what I am going to say: Jesus the Nazarene was a man commended to you by God by the miracles and portents and signs that God worked through him when he was among you, as you know. 23 This man, who was put into your power by the deliberate intention and foreknowledge of God, you took and had crucified and killed by men outside the Law. 24 But God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades; for it was impossible for him to be held in its power since, 25 as David says of him: I kept the Lord before my sight always, for with him at my right hand nothing can shake me. 26 So my heart rejoiced my tongue delighted; my body, too, will rest secure, 27 for you will not abandon me to Hades or allow your holy one to see corruption. 28 You have taught me the way of life, you will fill me with joy in your presence. 29 'Brothers, no one can deny that the patriarch David himself is dead and buried: his tomb is still with us. 30 But since he was a prophet, and knew that God had sworn him an oath to make one of his descendants succeed him on the throne, 31 he spoke with foreknowledge about the resurrection of the Christ: he is the one who was not abandoned to Hades, and whose body did not see corruption. 32 God raised this man Jesus to life, and of that we are all witnesses.

and of that “raised this man Jesus to life” we read today’s Lectionary Gospel lesson from the Gospel according to John, the I hope familiar story of Thomas the Doubter.

As a brief comment before reading this, on Easter the editors of the Lectionary presented us with two options for our Gospel reading, that in the Gospel According to Matthew, which I used because Matthew is our Lectionary gospel version this year, and a passage from the Gospel according to John, which has this statement in the garden in which the tomb was located:

17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me” — some translations say, “Do not cling to me,” — because I have not yet ascended to the Father.
In other words, we encounter the suggestion that something was different about the form of Jesus following His resurrection, something that we will note if we listen to how Jesus suddenly appears in the room in which today’s reading takes place:

NRS John 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 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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." 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." 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." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 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." 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.
Words of the Gospel; thanks be to God!

With all that is going on in the world and, in several cases of which I am most aware, in your individual lives, I am quite aware that no one is going to feel sympathy for me on the Sundays of the period that begins with today: the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost, what are called, in the church calendar, the Sundays “after” or “of” Easter. Were we in regular worship in our churches, the color of the paraments, the cloth on the table and at the lectern or pulpit, would be white, changing to red for Pentecost, the eighth Sunday after Easter and the only time we use that color, which represents the red of the “flames” which is the way the Book of Acts describes the tongues of those present on that first Christian Pentecost, one of my favorite days of the Church year and the day that marks the birth of the Christian Church, at least for some.

And maybe by Pentecost we shall be back worshipping together, since this year Pentecost is the thirty-first of May.

But as to why you should feel sorry for me? In simplest terms, it is because the Revised Common Lectionary, the three year cycle of Scripture readings I use as a pastor and to which I turn weekly with Scriptural passages from which I seek inspiration for preaching, because during the seven Sundays after Easter, the three year cycle pattern is disrupted, and each year, the same Gospel passages are presented, such as today’s reading from the Gospel of John of the familiar, possibly overly familiar, even if perhaps too shallowly read, story from which we get the term, “Doubting Thomas,” and, moreover, during these seven Sundays, there is no Old Testament lesson from which to find inspiration.

Instead of a Scripture lesson from the Old Testament, or “Hebrew Bible,” which is really the preferred term now because that part of our Bible was written almost entirely in Hebrew and we do share it with Jews, though it would be a bit of a mistake to say it was the Bible with which Jesus was familiar, instead of a Scripture lesson from the Hebrew Bible, we have a reading today and several subsequent Sundays from what is known as “The Acts of the Apostles,” or more familiarly, “Acts.” Acts is actually an extension of the Gospel according to Luke, and begins with Jesus’ ascension from the earth, and then deals with the early church and extensively with the travels and travails of Paul.

My problem or complaint is that, between trying to find something new in Gospel passages I read every year and not having a Hebrew Bible reading as an alternative, it is a challenge to come up with something new in my messages during this seven-Sunday period, the season of Easter.

Easter. This past Easter Sunday, I assume, was as unusual for you it as it was for me. On Easter, I normally rise about 4:00 am, since the first of three Easter services I do is a 6:00 am sunrise service in the memorial garden in Florence. I am fairly exhausted after doing the third service, so Patricia and I usually go to a restaurant for dinner later in the afternoon.

Obviously, there were no three services last Sunday and no restaurants were open, so we “ordered out” for a later pickup, and, at my suggestion, sat down to watch a movie that seemed very appropriate for Easter, “The Robe.”

I suspect many of you remember “The Robe.” Based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, “The Robe” refers to the robe Jesus wore on his trek to the cross and on which the Roman soldiers rolled dice as Jesus died on the cross. Although I did not see the unabashedly sympathetic to Christianity movie when it first came out — it was the first movie made in what became the industry standard, “Cinemascope,” which basically used a 70mm film frame width rather than the previous standard of 35mm, and though released just in time to qualify for the 1953 Oscars hit most theaters in early 1954, — I eventually read the novel, I think it was during high school, and ultimately saw the movie. “The Robe” featured a very young Richard Burton as the Roman lieutenant who had supervised Jesus’ crucifixion, but eventually, and as the movie ends, becomes a follower of Jesus, and, though it was only after seeing her cry in one of my all-time favorite movies, “Spartacus,” that I noticed her, Jean Simmons plays his love interest. At the end of the film, they walk away knowing they will be executed for choosing worshipping Jesus over worshipping the emperor, Caligula.

There was also a third character played by Victor Mature, the lieutenant’s Greek slave named “Demetrius,” and I suppose it was the success of “The Robe” that led to the sequel movie, which I did indeed see when it was first released, “Demetrius and the Gladiators.”

Like “The Robe,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators” concerned the evolving but persecuted secretive Christian community in Rome, and in the movie Demetrius was arrested and forced to become a gladiator. I do not remember the movie well — I think I was ten when I saw it, — but I do remember the movie led me to associate early Christianity with sword fights and Roman soldiers.

. . . with sword fights and Roman soldiers, and so when a few years later I sought to read through the entire Bible and I came to the Book of Acts, I expected to encounter sword fights and Roman soldiers.

Well, I was disappointed. There are some Roman soldiers and there is some persecution of early Christians in Acts — I have spoken before of how the story of the martyrdom of Stephen has stuck with me since fourth grade, — but there are no sword fights or gladiators or any of the things I had expected. Acts is instead about the early spread of Christianity, the growth of Christ’s Church, at a time    when that simply was not easily accomplished. We read in Acts of the first Christian Pentecost, of the stoning to death of the eloquent Stephen, and then mostly of the travels and imprisonments of Paul, who wrote more of what we call “The New Testament” than did anyone else.

Acts is a story not of Roman soldiers and of swords, but of simple yet courageous people determined not to let what was going on in the world keep them from proclaiming and following their faith.

A story of simple yet courageous people determined not to let what was going on in the world keep them from proclaiming and following their faith in Jesus . . . two thousand years ago!

Two thousand years ago, and yet, it seems that their legacy should resonate with us very much in the year 2020, especially as we continue for the most part to stay in our homes and not congregate in our churches.

For as we do so, let us remember that Christ’s Church did not begin with basilicas and cathedrals, but with simple houses where handfuls of the faithful would gather to hear stories of Him, to hear what Paul had written in his letters, and to share in what we know as “The Lord’s Supper.” We know that through those letters, by the way.

Today, we risk nothing — other than shunning by some with closed minds — we risk nothing by proclaiming our faith in Christ above our faith in governments of humans; we are not going to be marched off to our deaths as were the characters Richard Burton and Jean Simmons portrayed; we are not going to be turned into gladiators by any twenty-first century Caligula; nor are we going to be stoned as was Stephen.

But maybe, maybe as we find ourselves more-or-less voluntarily constrained to our homes we might juxtapose ourselves with those Christians of two thousand years ago. As we do not gather to listen to what Paul had written in a letter, but sit at a computer to watch my sermons — and that more likely alone than with anyone else, — maybe we can try to call to mind those earliest Christians and their determination to carry their faith in Jesus to what definitely was not a “welcoming” world, but, indeed, often a hostile and dangerous, world.

Even in our isolation from one another and from most of those in the world outside our homes, let us declare to God that we shall seek to emulate those nameless Christians without whom the Book of Acts would have no subject by resolving that we are determined to spread faith in Jesus, and through faith in Him, understanding of the love of the Father determined to spread that faith to people who need to know that through all times, nothing can separate them nor us from the love of God made known through Jesus, a love we would never have known if those early Christians had not been determined to proclaim it.

Thanks be to God for them, including those who indeed suffered persecution so that they might bear witness of Him to a world that so badly needs what He promises, and needs it still, even today.  

And in His name. Amen.

In our prayers today, I want to ask that you keep in mind the sister and nephew of Florence member Barbara Newman, Linda Ernst, of the Florence congregation, and David Wuertz of the Community family who is battling cancer.

Let us pray:

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