April 7, 2013, Easter 2 – The Vision
To listen to this sermon, click here: The Vision
The second Sunday after Easter is traditionally Thomas Sunday; we read the story of Doubting Thomas, who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen until he experienced it for himself, until he saw and touched the physical body of Christ. But when he did finally see Jesus, face to face, and touch the marks on Jesus’s hands where the nails had pierced his flesh, and put his hand into the wound made by the soldier’s spear, then Thomas believed. And he didn’t just believe that Jesus was alive again – remember, Thomas had been with Jesus when Lazarus came out of his grave; Thomas had seen people brought back from the dead, and that would have been wonderful enough – but when he saw Jesus, Thomas knew that this was something more. He cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas was the first person in the Gospel of John to come right out and call Jesus “God”. Peter had called him “Messiah”, the one sent by God, and many people had called him “Master” and “Lord”, but Thomas suddenly knew that he was standing in the presence of God himself.
And John says that the reason he wrote this story down was for us, so that we also can believe, and believing, we can have life.
And actually, I’m not going to talk about Thomas this morning any more than I already have. But I do want to talk about life, our life in Christ: the life we share as a community of people who also believe that Jesus is God. Yesterday morning the Vestry met for a retreat, which means that we came to the church for the morning, and we prayed and talked about exactly that – how our life as a church is going, and where we see God leading us. And I want to share with you all this morning what I shared with the Vestry, a Vision for our life together that I believe God has given to me for St. Philip’s.
Back at the beginning of March, when I was praying about the future of the church, a Scripture came into my mind as I prayed. And at first I didn’t think of it as a message from God for the church, because it is a passage that I think of often. I’ve always thought of it as “my special Scripture”, one that has brought me comfort over and over again for many years. It was the passage from Matthew chapter 11, just two verses, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Over the years I have received those verses as a promise of comfort and hope for myself; comfort that God understood my weariness and offered me rest. And it gave me hope because it reminded me to seek the “one thing needful” that God was calling me to, and to be released from the heavy burden of the thousand and one things I had taken on myself.
But as I listened on that day, I realized that God was giving me this passage now, not just for myself, but for us as a whole community. He was calling me, and us, to go deeper into Jesus’s promise, so that as we have received his words of invitation and comfort, now we can also offer them to one another, and to the people around us. As a Vision for St. Philip’s, this verse calls us not just to believe in Christ, but to put on Christ –to become Christ in this community. Paul uses that expression, to “put on” Christ, and I love it, because it reminds me of a little child putting on his father’s shoes and trying to walk like him because he wants with all his heart to grow up to be exactly like his father. If we love Jesus, we want to do what he does.
And so that day, which happened to be March 7, I wrote these verses in the front of my prayer book, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” And I wrote that this is the Vision God is giving to us for our life as his children. It calls us to two things. The first is to offer comfort and rest and support to one another and to others, which we can broadly call hospitality. And the second thing is what makes it possible for us to do the first; we have to learn from him. And the word for that is discipleship; it means walking with Jesus day by day, listening to him, just like the disciples we read about in the gospels. We are his apprentices, learning with Jesus as we work by his side.
First, to offer hospitality, which is a much broader thing than merely welcoming visitors and having good coffee hours, though that is also part of it. At the heart of hospitality is our knowledge that as we show love and comfort and grace to any person, and especially to the poor, we are giving to the Lord. From the Old Testament on, God identifies so closely with the poor and the downtrodden that he takes it as a personal affront when his people do not care for them. The sin for which Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, for instance, was not violence or homosexuality as people often think; it was coldness toward the poor, as Ezekiel said, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
And in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus drew a picture of the final judgment, where the good guys, the sheep, were separated from the bad guys, who were the goats: and the King said to the sheep, “Welcome into the kingdom, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ And the sheep were as confused as sheep generally are, and they said, ‘Lord, whenever did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King answered them, ‘Truly, I say to you, anytime you were kind to one of the least of these my brothers, you were kind to me.’
So we are called to be a place of rest and kindness and peace, a community people can come into and feel safe, and a community that reaches out to offer kindness to others. St. Philip’s is already very much that kind of community; so our call is to keep on growing in the same way. And as we grow in giving and loving and showing kindness, remember that we are giving and loving and showing kindness to God himself.
But without the second part of the vision, without discipleship, we won’t get very far in our hospitality. If we try to give generously of ourselves and to open our church and welcome in more people, but we are not growing as disciples, learning to be like Christ by spending time with him in prayer and in his Word, we will burn ourselves out and we will not really be of help to anyone. If we throw ourselves into ministry without first being his disciples we might succeed in doing good to others, but we will find other areas of our life unraveling around the edges until we have to pull back, and we will find in the end that we have not really brought glory to God, or grace to those around us.
What I have always loved about this passage is who Jesus tells us he is. Learn from me, he tells us, not because I know every thing and I can show you how to do it right – though that is certainly true – and not because I am wise and all-powerful – though he is – Jesus says come and learn from me because I am gentle and humble of heart. He offers us rest, not a program of social action. So the wonderful good news is that in this vision for St. Philip’s we are invited into a life, not of busy-ness and action, but of peace and devotion to God. [Quote from Bp. Fanuel] Our communal worship, and our daily life of prayer, need to be at the center of anything and everything we choose to do, because it is out of our rest in God, it is out of our nearness to God that our ministry will flow, as each of us – every one of us, not just the Vestry, and not just a gifted few. There is not one person here who is not essential to the life of the church (and that is a topic for another whole sermon) – and together, as we grow closer to Jesus we will all be part of making the church more and more like Christ, as each learns to exercise the gifts which the Spirit has given us. And it is then that powerful things will happen; it is then that God’s grace and glory will really shine out in this community.
Michael Harris repaired the long-disused light on our signboard this week. I drove by one evening, and it was so exciting to see it all brightly lit. The Easter message that I put there was shining out for all to see. People have been driving by that old sign for years and years, and I am sure many, if not most people, don’t even see it anymore. And no matter what clever or holy words I put out there, they don’t do anyone any good if they are not read. I would hope and I expect that that new light will draw people’s eyes to the sign in a new way. And I believe that we are called to much the same thing in our life of discipleship. As we grow as disciples of Christ, if we really draw close to our Good Shepherd, the Spirit of Jesus Christ will begin to shine more brightly in each of you and in me, and in our community, and then the Body of Christ known as St. Philip’s Church will really be able to reach out to the world around us, saying “Come, all who are weary and heavy laden, and you will find rest.”