"Replacing Questions With Peace"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 27, 2003

John 20:19-31

     The story of Jesus' resurrection appearance to the disciples featured in our lesson today is well known.  There are two elements of this drama that instantly stand out.  First, the author described how Jesus said, "Just as the Father sent me, so now I send you." Then he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" indicating that for these disciples, they did not have to wait for Pentecost to experience being filled with God's presence. 

     A second element is the one that makes this episode memorable. Thomas would not believe the testimony of his closest friends until he had seen Jesus for himself. However, his need for evidence did not stop at seeing; Thomas needed to touch Jesus' nail prints and place his hand in his side in order to be convinced.

     If we saw Jesus and listened to him speak to us would we also need to touch him in order to validate his identity?  A much larger question is what would we do following such an experience?  Would a personal encounter with Jesus be enough to change the way we order our lives?

     There is obviously something that seemingly compels people to attend worship services on Easter. Last Sunday Mother Nature provided us with a magnificent day. The worship services featured beautiful anthems by the choir.  Liturgical dancers presented a visual portrayal of  one of their selections.  We concluded with the congregation singing the "Hallelujah Chorus."  As is indicated in the bulletin, 858 people attended all three services.  Was the experience of those gathered enough to cause some of them to reorder their routines, habits, values and life-patterns?

     According to the Gospels, there were times when Jesus spoke to audiences of 5,000 and even 10,000.  During another time, so many listeners crowded Jesus that a number of individuals tore open the roof above where he was teaching just so they could lower a sick friend on a litter.

     Crowds of enthusiastic supporters can vanish almost as quickly as they form. We remember that from Palm Sunday.  For all that Jesus accomplished during his ministry, it was a crowd who gave Barabbas a prominent place in history when they shouted for his release from prison and for the crucifixion of Jesus.  What had happened to the crowds that had formerly supported Jesus? 

     We always have reasons to behave the way we do. Even though many of our beliefs remain unexamined, they nevertheless fuel how we present ourselves to the world.  Behavior always springs from our beliefs.  No matter how marvelous an experience is, whether it is touching nail prints in Jesus' hands, or a splendid Easter morning worship celebration, we still may not experience any desire to change the direction of our lives.  Can we change who we are, or are we frozen in patterns that reflect little growth?

     Jesus' teachings can make us doubt and question the substance of our lives.  Why is it that we cannot forgive? Why is it that we cannot be more generous with our money  and time? Why are we aloof from those whose beliefs are different from our own?  Why are we so attracted to comfort foods?  Why do we try to strengthen our identity by going shopping?  Why do we pursue intimate relationships one after the other? Jesus has this way of holding a mirror in front of us as he says, "Can you hear me now?"

     We often find fault with Thomas and have even nicknamed him "Doubting Thomas" because of his lack of trust and belief. Thomas was being honest.  "I will not believe," he said, "until I see and touch."   Again, what happens next?  What happens once we have seen and touched?  What happens after we have solid answers for all our theological questions?  Remember Jesus' words, "As the Father sent me, so now I send you." Are we equipped to make God's presence visible?

     There is a wonderful fable about a young orphaned boy.  He had no family and no one who truly loved him.  One day while he was walking alone in the woods, he found a butterfly caught in a thorn bush.  He noticed that the more the creature struggled, the more the thorns held fast its fragile body.  The boy carefully released the insect and it flew off.  Shortly thereafter an angel appeared.

     "Because you have reached out to one of the least of God's creatures," the angel said, "I will grant you anything you desire."  The boy was humbled by the angel's presence and surprised that one of God's servants would want to reward such a small act of kindness toward a butterfly.  The boy thought for a moment and then said, "If you will grant my heart's desire, I would like to be happy and peaceful for the rest of my life."  The angel said, "Very well, it shall be done."  The angel leaned over and whispered something in his ear and faded from the boy's presence.

     From that moment onward, he became the happiest person in the land.  When people asked him why he was so positive, creative, filled with energy, peace and joy, he would always tell them, "I listened to an angel when I was a little boy."  No matter what the circumstances were, he always seemed to know exactly what to do, knew the right words to say and possessed the ability to quiet people's fears. 

     Life slipped by as it does for all of us.  He had become an old man and was now on his death bed.  When word of his condition circulated in the community, neighbors and friends gathered by his side.  They were not there necessarily for support; they gathered out of self-interest.

     "Please tell us," they asked, "what did the angel whisper to you that has made you so happy and peaceful throughout your life?  Happiness is something we all seek.  Please do not take this secret with you. What did that angel tell you?"  The old man smiled with a peaceful confidence and said, "The angel told me that everyone, no matter how secure they appeared to be, no matter how old or young, how rich or poor, would always have need of me."

     No matter how many nail prints we touch, how many beautiful worship services we attend or how many prayers God answers, joy and happiness comes to us when we act on Jesus' words, "As the Father sent me, so now I send you."  Joy comes from our doing and not from our receiving.

     How many times have we heard "the Christian message" being presented with the opposite point of view?  We hear about all the things that Jesus is going to do for us.  We are admonished to lay our burdens at Jesus' feet. We are told that Jesus will take away our sins and cares. Jesus will bring us peace.  Sometimes the lists of what we get are very lengthy. 

     Such words sound absolutely wonderful.  The problem is that  Jesus never taught such a thing.  Study again those Seven Last Words that are frequently our focus during Good Friday services. He died giving. When Jesus rose from death, he was still giving instructions.  He asked us to follow and do the same.  He sent his followers forth to be givers of life.  

     There comes a time when we must stop expecting that God will always be doing things for us. The disciples had lulled themselves into this kind of false sense of security.  Jesus was always there to settle their arguments, to correct their thinking and to guide their decisions.  Because they were always looking to him, they were not equipped nor were they prepared when he was gone to radiate the love he had modeled for them.  They were hiding in fear of the authorities.       

     Once when Jesus was teaching the disciples he said, "Whomever wants to be first must place themselves last of all and be the servants of all." (Mark 9:35)  How much his words reflect those of the angel, "Everybody, no matter how secure they appear to be, no matter how old or young, how rich or poor, will always have need of you."  Can it be that giving as he did is what generates peace and joy within us?  

     When we look to Jesus to come to our rescue, or intervene in someone's life, we are handing over the responsibility for action to someone else. "Please, Lord, do something here! Only you have the power to make a difference." The Church would have never survived had the disciples not assumed the responsibility for taking Jesus' message into the world.

     Our lesson says, "As the Father sent me, so now I send you.  He breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" It is when we do for others that we find peace and joy.  The world's people will always need the support and the witness of others who understand this. There is no way of knowing that we have God's spirit until we give away God's timeless qualities.

     Paul provided his readers with a listing of the qualities of God's Spirit in his letter to the Galatians (5:22).  A number of us find comfort and guidance, however, from the way many of those qualities were given expression by Saint Francis of Assisi. 

 Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;  where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

     Like Jesus, Saint Francis understood that when the flow of our spiritual energy travels away from us, peace, joy and happiness fill us to overflowing.  We are not here to receive from God or to have our needs met by God; we are here to take care of one another. When we do, our wants and needs are met. This is clearly the legacy Jesus left our world. 

     We have been sent forth to build a sense of belonging that can be experienced by all people.  This is the meaning of community.  Every helpful deed, no matter how humble or seemingly insignificant, can move mountains in another person's life. Jesus said, "As the Father sent me, so now I send you."


    Loving God, how caring and merciful you have been to all humanity.  We thank you for your daily presence in our lives.  When we look at ourselves, so often we see only the results of our own neglect.  After our worst behavior, often you present us with a better way.  When our choices make life complicated, you use consequences to guide us.  When our words betray our poverty of spirit, you use the occasion as a teachable moment.  When opportunities are greeted with indifference, you often use hindsight as a mirror. Enable us to understand how you help us refine our lives. May we live among others as people who recognize that we have been forgiven.  Amen.


    Loving God, we thank you that we live in a period of history where we have time to dream, to write, to enjoy nature and to enter this house of prayer.  May more of us choose to use these moments well.  We also may use this same time to worry, to fret, to lament over the unfairness of life and to cast our eyes toward Heaven and ask for deliverance.   

    We thank you that you have given each of us the freedom to decide how we wish to spend the gift of our numbered days.  We are also grateful that Jesus came into our lives to help give substance, meaning and purpose to our journey here.  He spent his time in ministry teaching, healing and sowing seeds that will one day produce Heaven on earth.  Even when he lay dying, he was still teaching witnesses what love looks like even under the most trying of circumstances.  As if that were not enough, he returned from the grave to pursue his dream of continuing to give guidance to his followers. May we understand his words with our hearts, minds and souls, "Just as the Father sent me, so now I send you."

    Inspire us, Lord, to spend our days enriching the lives of other people.  Whether by using our talents during Christmas In April or radiating our sense of community in our work places, may we realize that every bit of sunshine helps the world to be a brighter place to live.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .