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Sunday, April 19, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The Lord be with you, church, wherever you are today. I’m recording this sermon on Wednesday morning, having snuck into my office for the first time in over a month, since the governor’s remain-in-place order went into effect and we suspended worship and practically everything else here on the church campus to help combat the spread of COVID-19.
This is me on Wednesday, here, preaching to you on Sunday, there, as Pastor Shannon leads us all in worship from the living room of the church manse.
This is life now.
Sheltering in place, streaming Sunday worship online from your living room, yearning for the solid furniture of church life like pews and friendship pads in ways you don’t really understand. Yes, this is life now—for now. If you’re keeping count, it’s now been six weeks since we were last able to worship together in the sanctuary.
This is life now: face masks, grocery delivery, Zoom.
Weddings postponed, graduations—graduation!—canceled, the life of an entire city seemingly evaporated before our very eyes.
This life has me thinking of a line from a novel by Emily St. Jean Mandel that I read during my first week at home. Station Eleven is about a traveling symphony in northern Michigan about twenty years after a global pandemic. The symphony moves from town to town performing Shakespeare, with “THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY” lettered in white on both sides of their three caravans. “But the lead caravan carries an additional line of text,” something the protagonist thinks she remembers from an episode of Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.”
So much of how we are growing accustomed to living feels like that: insufficient.
And yet for many, not even survival is guaranteed. People are sick and dying. Short of physical illness and death, many of us are being stalked now by a stifling loneliness. Much of our work is suddenly gone. And a gripping fear animates almost every personal encounter outside our homes. This is not sufficient.
Yet this is life now.
So says the author of our gospel for this morning: this is life.
This story of the risen Jesus suddenly standing in the disciples’ living room, where they’re hunkered down in fear: it’s about life. Just like the part of the story that came before it, the part about the same Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the empty tomb—that’s about life, too.
The gospel is about life, from the Word that was life and the light of all people in the beginning to the words we just heard end our reading for today—“life in his name”—this is life.
Now, the gospel way of characterizing this life is to call it “eternal.” Eighteen times in John’s Gospel Jesus talks about “eternal life,” and it’s almost never about heaven and the afterlife.
No, the eternal life Jesus preaches is about quality more than quantity. It’s a good life of abiding in God, a full life of breaking the bread of life together, a deep life planted by still waters with roots that run all the way down.
That’s the life of the gospel—eternal life—and that’s the life we are all about.
Are we not? Now more than ever? After a month like none we’ve ever experienced and God knows what’s coming down the next several months, are you not yearning for an eternal kind of life, a life worth living, a life marked by the kind of rejoicing the disciples did when they saw Jesus in their room that first Easter day?
I know I am.
Our gospel story for today suggests that such a life starts with belief. Believing is the very thing the risen Jesus invites Thomas to do when he appears for a second time, after Thomas missed him the first time and refused to accept the disciples’ account of it: “Do not doubt but believe.”
It turns out that believing is something you have to do if you’re going to experience the eternal kind of life Jesus lived, died, and was raised to share with the world. The life that Jesus invites us into thrives on belief and not merely belief in those things we can see with our eyes. No, this life is “blessed” in Jesus’ telling because it has come to believe in what it has not seen.
Namely, it has come to believe in and to confirm the words of countless women and men who for two millennia have said, “We have seen the Lord.” From that locked room in Jerusalem to wherever you are saying it today: “We have seen the Lord.”
Today is Confirmation Sunday for Fourth Presbyterian Church, and though circumstances prevent us from presenting the twenty-two Confirmation students—and six Confirmation leaders—in person for the church’s recognition and reception as active members, we are still taking this day to celebrate their journey. We will receive them in person sometime in the fall.
Confirmation is how the church prepares young women and men—many of whom were baptized in our sanctuary as infants—to profess belief for themselves. We do that by studying the Apostles’ Creed with them to interrogate why we believe things like Jesus was “crucified, buried, and dead” and on the third day rose again. We invite them on weekend retreats and weekly Sunday morning groups—the last few this year on Zoom—to tease out the content of Christian belief, to strengthen their own grasp on it.
We trust Jesus’ word about the importance of belief, and we value our young people enough to ask them to join us in professing—and living—that belief. Confirmation is one way the church helps young people respond to Jesus’ invitation to not doubt but to believe, because believing is the beginning of the kind of life God desires for us.
Yet when those twenty-two Confirmation students stand before the church, we will not ask them what they believe. They will not recite the creed from memory or even read personal statements of belief. Instead, we will ask them (as the church asks all who join it) whom they trust, specifically “Do you trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord?”
This is the fundamental question of our belief: do we trust Jesus?
I remember vividly the first time the question was put to me, as a freshman in college, by the pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Sterling, Kansas. I’d been attending that church on Sunday mornings for weeks with my roommates, who were both Reformed Presbyterians from birth. Personally, I couldn’t spell “Presbyterian,” much less the Reformed variety, but I liked that that they liked me coming with them and I liked the tight-knit family feel of the congregation.
The first time my attendance proved in any way awkward was on a communion Sunday. I don’t know about all Reformed Presbyterian churches, but this one had a clear membership requirement to take communion, and I was nobody’s version of a member. My roommate Micah spotted this problem about an hour before worship and took me to speak with the pastor, a broad-shouldered Army veteran named Denny Prutow, whose stern gravitas from the pulpit was equally matched by his personal warmth in person.
“Can he take communion?” Micah asked. “He’s not a church member.”
Denny looked from Micah to me, then crossed his arms and looked down at the floor for two, maybe three breaths, before raising his head to attention to meet my awkward gaze directly and ask me simply, “Do you trust Christ?”
Not “Do you believe what we believe about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?” Not “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” Not even “Do you intend to become a member of this church?” Only, “Do you trust . . . Jesus?”
I had never considered whether or not I trusted Jesus, but Denny wanted an answer and I said I did. Now, twenty-six years later, I wonder if professing it didn’t help make it so and doesn’t continue to every single day. I don’t remember the communion from that morning. But I remember that question.
Do you trust Jesus?
Jesus doesn’t have to ask Thomas; he’s standing right there. And though Thomas has delineated the strict criteria that must be met in order for him to believe, with his risen friend and teacher standing before him none of that matters. “My Lord and my God,” Thomas gasps. It is the most profound confession of faith in Jesus made by anyone in the entire gospel; nobody else entrusts themselves so completely to Jesus to address him like the psalmist pleading to God “O Lord my God, in you I take refuge”; “O my God, in you I trust”; “you are my king and my God.” Nobody but “Doubting Thomas.”
“My Lord and my God”: four words that mark the first steps of an eternal kind of life.
But only the first steps. This life of discipleship is about more than us and our belief; the risen Jesus does not appear only to buttress the belief of his followers. He also commissions them. He sends them out to share this eternal kind of life with the world, confronting the powers of sin and evil and extending the forgiveness and reconciliation of Jesus everywhere.
Another one of the questions we will ask the Confirmation students who come professing faith is this: “Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” The church asks those professing belief that question not because they must promise to be perfect and not because the church is in search of superhero members. The church asks women and men who profess belief to renounce evil because you can’t forgive what you won’t renounce, and you can’t renounce what you won’t confront.
The church stands in constant confrontation with evil, and we say so. This trying time is shining a light on the pernicious evil of poverty and greed, racist inequality and craven dishonesty. These were there before, but they seem so much easier to spot now.
Before—it seems like so long before—back in February, our Confirmation students spent a Friday night working with the staff of the Chicago Lights Elam Davies Social Service Center at Fourth Church, learning raw data about homelessness in Chicago, particularly in the Gold Coast, before walking down and around Michigan Avenue handing out socks and hand warmers and underwear.
Then they rode a couple CTA trains to Deborah’s Place, a domestic violence shelter for women and children, where they spent the night on a hard gym floor to simulate an overnight shelter. In the morning they walked over a mile to Facing Forward to End Homelessness, an organization that provides long-term supportive housing to hundreds of people who have experienced chronic homelessness while living with a disability in Chicago.
It is a grueling experience for an eighth grader, and it creates a resolve to renounce a particular evil—homelessness—and its power over so many in our city. When we are able to have them with us to profess their belief, they will acknowledge not only that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried and was raised on the third day, but also that this same Jesus commissions them, with all disciples everywhere—with all of you!—to confront the evils of the world in Jesus’ name, extending his forgiveness and God’s power to heal.
For now that commission is asking our Confirmation youth and all of us to remain where we are and to not gather to profess our faith and share God’s love in person who those in need. It feels so . . . backwards. But this is how we share that eternal kind of life—for now: loving our neighbor and caring for the vulnerable by sheltering in place.
May it end quickly, but thoroughly. And may we all grow in belief until then, deepening our trust in Jesus and God’s claim on our lives—for now and always. Amen.