"Nothing Changes God’s Reality"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 19, 2009

Psalm 133; John 20:19-31

     Last Sunday one of the issues that surfaced in my message was the suggestion that John’s Gospel possessed a unique authenticity because of what appears to be an eye-witness account of events throughout Jesus’ ministry.  In this week’s lesson we find more details that reinforce this understanding. 

     Our passage begins with a resurrection appearance that provides readers with the time and day, i.e., “late on Sunday evening.”  We also learn that all the doors were locked because of the disciples’ fear of being captured by the Jewish authorities.  Into this safe, cloistered environment Jesus appeared to ten of the disciples.  This experience was as mystifying for them as it would be for us. 

     John reported that Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  There are several interesting aspects about John’s disclosure that deserve examination.  There were no rushing winds, tongues of fire or speaking in tongues that the disciples would later experience during Pentecost.  Since this blessing was very different from the Pentecostal experience, what is this passage describing? 

     What we may be looking at here is a complete shift in the consciousness of the disciples from believing to knowing.  The disciples were now in the presence of Jesus and having a conversation with him.  No one can have such an intense, personal experience like this and continue to hold on to the business as usual faith and belief patterns that most of us have. 

     Some years ago I had a professor at the University of Maryland come to see me about a stressful life-issue.  It involved the relationship he had with his mother. His mother was a staunch follower of Mary Baker Eddy who authored the book, Science and Health, and who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1866, the Christian Science religion and later The Christian Science Monitor in 1908 -- one of the most respected international newspapers in our country. 

     Don had gone to his mother during his mid-twenties and told her that he was going to leave their church to become a Methodist.  His mother was extremely disappointed. From that conversation Don realized that there had been a breach between mother and son that would last for decades.  When his mother died, Don found himself still obsessing about the fractured relationship.  There had been no closure and now the estrangement developed haunting qualities of guilt and remorse that could govern his mental health for the rest of his life. 

     I took a risk with Don and put my credibility with him on the line by suggesting that he engage in an activity that was beyond the realm of his understanding and logic.  I asked him to find a time when he was alone in his home and audibly call out his mother’s name and ask her to sit across from him in the couple’s living room.  I asked Don to look in the direction of that chair and tell his mother everything he needed to say.  I told him, “Don, she will come and she will hear you.”  Further, I told him to ask his mother to give him some sign that she understood his love for her. 

     When Don left my office, I felt extremely awkward as though I had confided that I been abducted by aliens.  Here sat this man with a Ph.D. listening to what no doubt sounded off-the-wall.  We both sat in silence.  He made no comment, thanked me for my time and left shortly thereafter.   

     Jesus had similar thoughts when he was with his disciples but his better judgment prevailed and he did not give them further information that they would not understand. Instead, he passed the responsibility off to the Holy Spirit.  He said, “I have much more to tell you, but now it would be too difficult for you to understand.  When the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, that Spirit will lead you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13) 

     I did not hear from Don for a considerable time.  Finally, he scheduled an appointment.  During those moments he confided that he had left our last visit with a mixture of emotions.  He had resisted doing what I suggested because he did not believe that communication was possible with someone who was deceased.  But his inability to cope with a part of his life that needed healing continued to torment him. 

     One night he gave in.  He called out his mother’s name and asked her sit in a chair across from him.  He told me that he looked toward the empty chair and spoke.  As words were being directed to his mother, he felt overwhelmed emotionally like a little boy begging his mother to forgive him.  He told his mother that he continued to love her even after she became visibly shaken by his decision.  He was crying while describing these moments to me. 

     He told me, “Just to get all of my thoughts and emotions out was so healing.  I certainly understand why you suggested this exercise.” Before he finished talking to her he said, “Mother, if you can find a way to let me know that you heard me, give me a sign.”           

     Three days later Don’s wife said, “Where did this letter from your mother come from?  I found it on the telephone stand.”  Don did not know.   He quickly opened the letter and found that it was one that he had received 20 years before.  He asked, “How did it suddenly surface on our telephone stand?  I am thoroughly convinced that my mother was there listening to me and she used this letter to let me know that all is well between us.”  Don was finally at peace.   

     When God’s reality spills over and connects to the reality that we humans are used to, we graduate to a different level of understanding.   Regardless of what other people believe or think they know, absolutely no one can take away from Don what he experienced.  If any of us had a conversation with Jesus who was clearly deceased, our entire orientation toward him, life and death would change instantly.              

      Thomas had been missing from the gathered disciples when Jesus appeared.  When he heard the news that Jesus was alive, he did not believe them.  Clearly there is a difference between believing and knowing.  The former orientation is based in hope, trust and faith while the latter is rooted in our personal experience.  What we experience first hand remains unshakable for the rest of our lives.  The resurrection experiences, for example, became the glue that anchored the disciples to their mission of going into the world and telling others what happened.           

     Some of you have told me about intimate encounters you have had with departed loved ones.  What God has established for every person on earth will remain beyond the grasp of even the brightest intellects and religious scholars. Humanity’s awareness of every aspect of the universe is constantly expanding.  The final frontier is not outer space but inner space.           

     Even at the poverty levels of our understanding, what we discern about God’s love can have a remarkable influence on how we perceive our world.  The more we step out and make visible what we do understand, the more we tap into the awesome power that comes from the reality we cannot see.   I want to repeat a story that I have told you some years ago that illustrates this point. 

     A dear friend of one of our church members experienced the death of her husband, leaving the young mother two boys to rear.  After a number of years, she remarried.  As the boys matured, the one son was studying to be an architect in a highly specialized architectural field.  He had one more year before graduation and the family had no means to pay the bill for the tuition as well as room and board.  Scholarship money was not available and the couple had already overextended their line of credit with their educational expenses of both boys.            

     The woman decided to do something that was so out of character.  What she did was very similar to Don’s experience.  She went into the backyard when no one was home and asked her deceased husband to join her there.  She audibly explained everything and how they were up against the proverbial financial wall.  Basically she said, “Honey, if there is anything you and God can do from the other side please help us!”           

     Within a week or so following her experience in the backyard, a letter came from her deceased husband’s parents.  The essence of the letter said this, “Over twenty-five years ago when you married our son, my wife and I invested in two mutual funds for educational purposes in the event you had children.  I had forgotten about them since we invested two lump-sums.   

     Just last week, Betty brought up the topic of those funds since she does our bookkeeping.  She said, ‘Our grandsons might need this money about now.  Let’s send it to them.’ Enclosed are the proceeds from those funds and from the looks on how much our humble investment has grown, you should not have any financial worries about paying for the boys’ education.” 

     Talk about a life-changing experience!  This was one of those moments that resembled the impact on the disciples from their encounter with Jesus.  Again, when God’s reality spills over and connects to the reality that we humans are used to, we graduate to a different level of understanding.   Is this what happened here or was this experience merely a coincidence? 

     These stories appear beyond the belief of most people, but that does not matter.  What affected the ten disciples and later Thomas was an experience that they could never explain to others that would inspire their knowing.  In fact, during an earlier time even the ten disciples did not believe the testimony of several women.  (Luke 24:11)  Like Thomas, they also doubted until they could experience a direct connection with Jesus themselves.     

     The testimonies of thousands of people seldom resonate with the skeptics who sit on the sidelines of life and doubt.   In my own experience, however, there have been several atheists and agnostics of my acquaintance that have experienced out-of-the-body episodes during surgical procedures that completely turned their prior belief systems upside-down and inside-out.  Their understanding about what constitutes reality was never the same after experiencing what even they could not explain.   

     We are infinite beings who are currently having very finite, limited experiences during our years on earth.  All we can do is nibble in bits and pieces at the gigantic, expansive creative process that will open up for us once we transition from our current solid life forms.  Everything God created has been in place since the beginning of time just waiting for our discovery. 

     We can participate in God’s created order through our openness and eagerness to explore further the realm of spirit, a realm that is filled with countless unknowns, or we can consider such a quest a waste of time pursued only by people who cannot cope with the confusing realities of this world. 

     The ten disciples had their moments of doubt.  Thomas even gained name recognition through the twenty centuries that have passed by being called doubting Thomas.  Most of us doubt to some extent until we have the horizons of our experience shattered by some drama that defies our logic and understanding.   Then our believing converts to knowing.  

     Faith and beliefs can only inspire us for so long, but seeing the risen Christ, talking to a deceased loved one and having results, or experiencing the white light during a surgical procedure when the functioning of our physical life paused for a moment – such experiences propel us to new levels of awareness, ones that remain unshakable.  It becomes the source of our confidence that nothing can change the reality God established for all of us in the very beginning of time.   

     The joy of living comes when we continue our quest for even more light, more understanding and a heightened awareness of God’s presence.  The Kingdom of God is all around us.  All we have to do is open our eyes and enjoy the ride.


     Loving God, thank you for the many ways we can perceive your guidance for living through very challenging moments in human history.   We know that sad and sensational stories are what sell newspapers.  Our reading such accounts often helps us feel better about our circumstances.  Yet, we are your creations whom you love.  When our choices make life complicated, you use consequences to guide us to discover how to make better decisions.  When our words betray the poverty of our spirits, you use such occasions as teachable moments.  When opportunities for change are greeted with indifference, you use hindsight as a mirror.  Enable us to recognize that these are your tools for guiding us.  Help us to use such insight to prompt us to act decisively so that we may shed the cocoons of yesterday’s responses and use the wings of understanding.   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 our house of prayer.  May more of us choose to use these moments well.  We could just as easily 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.   What we need is deliverance from ourselves when our spirits cease being anchored and nourished by your daily presence.  

     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 the latter portions of his life teaching, healing and sowing seeds that will one day produce Heaven in the minds and hearts of everyone.  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. Encourage us to personalize his words, "Just as God has 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 by communicating our sense of community as our team leaves for El Paso this morning.  Every bit of sunshine helps the world to become a brighter, more wholesome place for men and women to live.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .