Tuesday, May 01, 2012

After We Believe

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Associate’s Message
May 2012

After We Believe

Every year the gospel lesson appointed for the Second Sunday of Easter is John 20:19-31. In this passage from the Fourth Gospel we hear the story of the Risen Christ appearing to his disciples in the locked room. He greets his frightened and bewildered friends by saying, “Peace be with you” and showing them his wounded hands and side. As the disciples are filled with joy at meeting the Risen Lord, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins. But, one of the disciples was absent for this dramatic appearance: our old friend the doubting Apostle Thomas.

Thomas is famously skeptical when the other disciples share with him the amazing news of the Resurrection, saying, “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.” Thomas, of course, is very much a stand-in for all of us who do not see Jesus in the flesh and yet are called to have faith – to trust that God reaches out to the world in a unique and ultimate way in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that our lives are a mix of doubt and faith. Sometimes we’re like Thomas when he doesn’t believe a word that the other disciples say and demands to see proof with his own eyes – and to feel proof with his own hands. And other times we’re like Thomas when he meets the Risen Christ, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”

In my sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter I quoted Ruth Burrows, an English Carmelite nun and spiritual writer: “Many people think they have no faith because they feel they haven’t. They do not realize that they must make a choice to believe, to take the risk of believing, of committing themselves and setting themselves to live out the commitment. Never mind that they continue to feel that they do not believe. Under cover of being ‘authentic’ we can spend our lives waiting for the kind of certainty we cannot have.” We cannot have certainty, yet, we choose to believe every time we pray, every time we come to church, and every time we reach out our hands and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

And then, what? What happens after, despite our doubts, we persist in believing? What happens after we put our trust in the Risen Christ?

I recently read a book by N.T. Wright, noted biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham in England, called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. In his book Wright argues that for historical reasons Protestant Christianity has been heavily focused on conversion, the actual process or event that leads to faith in Christ, while downplaying the works that we might do after we believe. Wright is clear that we are not saved by our good works, yet it is essential that we continue to develop our Christian character. Wright suggests that we develop our Christian character through the fruit of the Spirit which St. Paul names as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) All of these are gifts from God, but like seeds planted in a garden they require careful attention and nurturing by us otherwise they can wither and die.

Fortunately, here at Grace Church there are so many opportunities to further develop our Christian character by nurturing the fruit of the Spirit.

There are all the year-round opportunities such as serving as an acolyte, a worship leader, or as choir member. We have the privilege of serving at the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown or simply dropping an item into the Food for Friends barrel. There’s the experience of volunteering with the Recycling Ministry. One of the youth confirmands said that she “met the Risen Christ” when she spent the day with one of her friends and Kit Cone delivering furniture and other household items to people in need.

Then there are some once-a-year opportunities to nurture the fruit of the Spirit. As I write this volunteers are hard at work accepting and arranging donations for our annual rummage sale. As you know the sale provides may of us with the opportunity to clear away clutter, offers affordable items to those in need, and raises money for outreach. In the fall, the same thing will happen all over again at the clothing sale.

In August a group of us will be spending a week in West Virginia working with Habitat for Humanity. Next month, some of our men and older boys will be involved in our second mission retreat, fanning out around the area for two days offering service at places like Apostles House (which provides social services to people in Newark) and Haven of Hope (which offers a get-away home in the summer to families of children with serious illnesses).

Like the Apostle Thomas, we have our doubts, but also like Thomas, we persist in our faith. We believe - placing our trust in the Risen Christ. And, after we believe, we are blessed here at Grace Church with so many exciting and rewarding opportunities to further develop our Christian character by nurturing the fruit of the Spirit. The challenge – and the gift – is to take advantage of these opportunities and grow!