Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Last Sunday (and last sermon) at Teaching Parish

This past Sunday was the final one for Steve and I at our Teaching Parish site. We went out with a bit of a bang, because we were both preaching as well (Steve preached for two services, I preached for the other two). I have to say, although I will not miss the commute every weekend and the amount of time I spent at Teaching Parish, it is a bit of a sad parting. Grace Lutheran was a great learning site, and our mentors, Pastor Kevin and Pastor Martha, did a great job. Still, I'm on to new things, and Grace will probably be hosting a new Teaching Parish student in the fall.

My sermon is below; I thought it went all right, but not great—then again, it's the end of the semester and I'm burnt out, so I probably don't have a very positive outlook right now. There were at least a few people who said it really spoke to them, so I'll count that as a success. Plus, the children's sermon (in which I proved that Steve was not a ghost) went off without a hitch, so that was a big relief. The text in the lectionary was Luke 24:36b-48, but we read through to the end of the book (verse 53). Enjoy!

Once, there was a girl who was baptized as a child and brought up in the Christian faith. Her faith was strong throughout her teenage years and she was active in the church—singing in the choir, going on confirmation retreats, helping with service events. But when she went away to college, she stopped going to church and gradually, she lost her faith. For many years after that, she did not believe in God.
—Can faith be lost? Can it be found again?
There was a group of friends talking about faith. One of them had been a Christian his whole life; another had recently joined a church. They spoke about how wonderful faith was, and what a comfort it was for them. The third friend became uncomfortable. The other two asked what was wrong; he replied, “I don’t have faith.” The friends told him that it was easy, he just had to believe in Jesus and go to church. But their friend answered, “No, it’s not that simple. If I could believe, I would, but I just can’t.”
—Where does faith come from? Can we find it if we try hard enough?
There was a man who grew up without any faith; his family was not religious, and he never went to church or read the Bible. He had a powerful conversion experience—he was inspired to accept Jesus Christ as his savior. He felt born again. His wife suggested that he be baptized, and the man replied, “Baptism? What’s that? Is that something I should know about?”
—What counts for faith? How much do you have to know?
At first glance, faith seems like an easy thing to understand. It just means believing in something, right? We could say that to have faith means that you believe the words of the Creeds, for example. Or faith means accepting Jesus as your savior. But everyone here has probably experienced that faith is not quite that simple. There are days and weeks and even years when we struggle to believe, or we wonder what it is we’re supposed to believe in. Talking with other Christians, we find that different people have very different understandings of what constitutes faith. We wonder where faith comes from and whether it’s a matter of understanding or feeling, effort or grace. We learn with time that faith is not an all-or-nothing thing, that you either have or you don’t. It seems that the longer you are on the journey of faith, the more you realize that it is a lifelong endeavor.
In our gospel reading from Luke, these questions about faith are also present. Though Luke does not mention the word “faith” or “belief” in this passage, the faith of the disciples is clearly at stake. It is the day of the resurrection; in the morning the women were at the empty tomb, in the afternoon two disciples were on the road to Emmaus, where they saw the risen Jesus but did not recognize him until he broke the bread—and then he disappeared. They rush back to Jerusalem, to discover that Jesus has also appeared to Peter. At that very moment, Jesus stands in the room with them. These events have happened very quickly; the disciples do not yet understand what is happening. They are stricken with terror, not joy, at the sight of Jesus; they think he is a ghost. The disciples are facing a crisis of faith—Jesus, their Lord, was arrested and killed, and now they think they are being haunted by his ghost.
Yet by the end of our reading, they are worshipping Jesus as he ascends into heaven. Clearly, this resurrection appearance has a profound effect on the faith of the disciples. If we consider the different parts of this Gospel text, we can see several pieces that help us to understand the disciples’ faith, and think about our own faith today.
When Jesus appears to the disciples in this passage, they believe they are seeing a ghost. Jesus proves to them that he is no spirit—he is flesh and blood, he eats and walks on the ground. The proofs Jesus gives to the disciples point out one source of faith: a faith based on seeing, touching, directly experiencing the object of faith. The disciples could literally feel Jesus’ hands, see that his feet touched the ground. Jesus tells them, “Look at my hands and feet... Touch me and see.” It is this direct experience that convinces the disciples. Clearly, there is a connection between direct experience and faith. If you see and touch the risen Jesus, it is clear why you would believe in the resurrection. If you see Jesus ascend into heaven, it is clear why you would worship him. Likewise, all the people of Jesus’ time who saw the miracles—the healings, the miraculous feedings, Jesus’ power over nature—believed in him. The old saying is true: Seeing is believing.
But what of us today? We do not walk and talk and eat with Jesus of Nazareth—is this experiential faith of the disciples impossible for us? Can we have a direct experience of God? Today, people wonder if there are still miracles, examples of God’s action, in our everyday lives. When Captain Sullenberger landed flight 1549 in the Hudson River a few months ago, many people saw an example of God’s miraculous action. Others saw only the skills of an excellent pilot. It is difficult, in this scientific and technological age, to prove that something is a miracle, that there is no other possible explanation. So are we left high and dry, unable to experience God? Indeed not. While we may never know for sure whether that plane landing was a miracle or not, we experience God’s miraculous presence among us every week. We know that we meet God here at the table each Sunday, and meet God at the font when we baptize a child of God. God is here in this space right now, and we do experience God’s presence—in the water of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, and the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The disciples are convinced by direct proofs that Jesus must not be a ghost, but rather a living being; then there is a shift in the story. Jesus begins to explain the Scriptures, what we would call the Old Testament, to the disciples. When Jesus teaches the disciples about the Scriptures, we can see a second element of faith. Luke says that Jesus “opened their minds” and that Jesus explains the ultimate purpose of his mission: “That the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”. The Gospel of Luke is continued in the Book of Acts, which forms a second volume to this story. In the reading from Acts, we see this proclamation carried out—Peter proclaims this same repentance. Like Jesus, Peter also refers the people to the prophets, the Scriptures. Part of faith, for Christians and for Jews, is faith in the word of God. Jesus opens the minds of the disciples to the Scriptures so that they may believe in the words of Scripture; Peter does the same for the people to whom he preaches.
We, too, study the Bible not merely as an intellectual exercise or for our entertainment, but because we have faith in God’s word. That’s not to say that we have to agree with or believe every single verse of the Bible. But we understand the Scriptures as passing down core messages to us, and we believe in those core teachings. Jesus treats Scripture in the same way in the passage from Luke. When he explains the Scriptures, he does not go over every word; but he teaches the core message: “That the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”. These exact words do not appear anywhere in the Old Testament; but this is the core teaching Jesus wants to draw out of the whole of the Scriptures and pass on to his disciples.

After the proofs and the teaching, a third section of the story begins. Jesus leads his disciples out to Bethany, where he ascends into heaven. It is not until this point that we really see the results of what comes before. As an audience, we are left in suspense for a little while, waiting to see if the disciples will understand, if they will really have faith in the risen Jesus. Then, in verse 52, we find out the answer: “They worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy”. Worship is the response for those who believe that Jesus is the son of God; for the disciples to worship him here proves that they believe in him.
We, too, come to worship to express our faith, and we also worship to strengthen our faith. Worship binds us together as a community, reminding us that we are the body of Christ, the people of God; we are joined together by our faith and by our common worship. Like the disciples, our faith journeys lead us into worship, and like the disciples, they lead us out again into the world, from the worship service into service to the world.

Faith is not an easy thing. Sometimes it seems to come to us when we’re not even looking for it. Other times, it seems to disappear just when we need it most. Perhaps it is some comfort to know that faith has been a journey, a struggle, and an experience for all God’s people. The disciples in this passage in Luke are wrestling with faith just as we are in our lives today. Luke shows us that faith can be seen in many ways and from many sources: from direct experience, in the Scriptures, and through worship. This is only the tip of the iceberg of faith; but it’s a good start, wherever we are on our faith journeys.

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