Listen for the Voice

The fourth Sunday of the Easter season is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, though we don’t always observe it as such. On this Sunday we review two key texts – first, the 23rd Psalm, then the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

In our last two sessions we’ve talked about seeing and touching Jesus. The focus today is on hearing Jesus, listening to his voice, and most importantly, obeying, following him.

Let’s begin with Psalm 23. It is King David’s landmark statement of faith in God. It is one of the most beloved passages in scripture. Jews and Christians have revered it for more than 3,000 years. Muslims admire it as well because they also consider the Lord as their shepherd.

Remember, too, that Jesus would have learned this psalm as a boy. To him it would have been a prayer to his Heavenly Father. Every time he recited it would remind him of his vocation to shepherd God’s people as God’s personal representative to Israel and to the world.

To set it in our minds, let’s recite it together. We’ll do that not in the usual King James Version, but in an eclectic version that reflects the insights of several modern translations. So if parts of this sound jarringly unfamiliar, that’s quite intentional. Sometimes the overly familiar becomes just pleasant background noise rather than something in the foreground of our minds, guiding our thoughts and our actions.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.

He lets me rest in grassy meadows. He leads me to restful waters. He renews my life.

He leads me in the right way so I won’t dishonor his name.

Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil. My cup is so full it runs over.

Surely goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When we say, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” we are not saying, of course, that we will spend the rest of our days living in this or any other church building. The “house of the Lord” is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. It’s a state of existence, a way of being. It is membership in a great family, a network of relationships centered on God.

The people of Israel were herders before they were farmers, so they naturally thought of their relationship with God as one of sheep and shepherd. “Know that the Lord is God,” says Psalm 100:3. “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

The human leaders of Israel were supposed to shepherd their flock in God’s name and rule justly and righteously. They rarely did so, however. The prophets dreamed of a day when God would shepherd Israel personally. On that day, Isaiah said, God “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40:11).

It’s natural, then, for Jesus to think of himself as Israel’s shepherd. When he sees crowds of people flocking to him, he has compassion on them, Matthew 9:36 says, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Some herd animals, like cattle, have to be driven, but sheep prefer to follow. They want to be led. The difference is significant. Following is a relationship. Followers must trust their leader.

So in John chapter 10, in one of his famous “I AM” statements, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd.” I’m not just a shepherd, he says. I’m the good shepherd. I’m the model shepherd. You want to know what shepherding looks like, model yourself on me.

I’m going to show you one of the earliest known artistic representations of Jesus. It was done perhaps 300 years after Jesus’ death. It was created not long after the Roman Emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Milan in 313 giving Christianity legal status. Before this time you might get into deep trouble making something like this.

It’s a statue about 39 inches tall. It depicts a young Christ, who might well be mistaken for the young shepherd David. His dress and pose are common in Greek art of the time. Notice the intimacy implied in the way the shepherd carries the lamb, and the way their faces are turned toward each other.

For an interesting contrast, here is an advertisement I found not long ago for Loro Piana, an Italian company that specializes in woolen goods. The shepherd has an intense look, perhaps conveying concern, and the lamb appears quite fragile. This is a shepherd who gathers his lambs in his arms, as Isaiah foresaw and Jesus modeled.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep” (John 10:11-15).

There’s a big difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand. The shepherd knows his sheep, and they know him. A special relationship is involved. When the wolf appears, the hired hand heads for the hills. He’s not willing to risk his skin for the sheep. But the shepherd is ready to give his life to protect his sheep.

The sheep recognize the voices of both the good shepherd and the hired hand, but it’s the shepherd’s voice they want to hear because they trust him. They’ll follow that other guy if they have to, because they have to follow someone. But they want to follow the shepherd they trust.

“My sheep listen to my voice,” Jesus says. “I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

I don’t know this personally, but I’ve been told that if you walk up to some sheep and say, “Hey, hey, I’m the new shepherd, and we are going to go to some fun places today,” they’ll either ignore you or look at you funny. But all the shepherd has to do is say, “Heads up,” and he’s got their attention. The sheep know him, and they trust him. They listen for his voice, and they’ll follow him almost anywhere.

In this series of messages on Living the Resurrection, we’ve talked about learning to see and touch the risen Jesus. Today we are concerned with listening for his voice, hearing and obeying.

Hearing and listening aren’t the same, you know. You’re probably familiar with this one-sided dialogue involving a parent and child.

Have you been listening?

Have you heard a word that I said?

Were you paying attention at all?

Are you going to do what I asked you to do?

Hearing is about perceiving a noise. Listening means paying attention to what the noise might be trying to convey. I know there are times when Linda is speaking and I am hearing but only half listening. I’m sure it works the other way, too. My point is that we are called not to hear but to listen – not only when others are speaking but especially when God is speaking.

We likely don’t hear a rumble like thunder, of course. God tends to speak more softly, the way God speaks to the prophet Elijah that day on the mountain. You remember the story. Elijah needs to hear a word from the Lord. A wind comes up so powerful that it shatters rocks, but the Lord is not in the wind. An earthquake shakes the mountain, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake comes fire, but the Lord is not in the fire. After the fire comes the sound of silence, and then perhaps a gentle whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Sometimes it takes a lot of listening to hear the voice of the shepherd. Most often we turn to scripture, and in the words of the Bible we often hear God speaking to us. Sometimes scripture only primes us for other revelations – for a timely word from a friend; for an answer that appears like a quiet breeze while we’re walking in the woods; for a truth that stands out from all the distracting noise around us.

We need to pay attention. Today it’s often called being mindful. It’s being open to hear and to recognize the voice of the shepherd. First, hearing: We have to keep our ears open, so we will know what’s going on around us. If we keep our heads down in the grass, like grazing sheep, we can easily follow our noses into trouble.

Second, recognizing the voice of the shepherd: How do we learn to do that? It happens through training and experience, sometimes painful experience. We don’t want to accidentally follow the wrong voice, the voice of the hired hand or the voice of the bad shepherd who has sold out to the wolves. Some days it’s not easy being a sheep.

Besides being Good Shepherd Sunday, today is also widely observed as the Festival of God’s Creation. It’s always near Earth Day, which this year was April 22, last Thursday.

There’s a vital link between creation care and good shepherding. The shepherd leads his flock to good grass and plentiful water. He doesn’t overgraze or pollute. He’s careful about his work. Being made in the shepherd’s image, we also are called to be careful, though we tend not to be.

It is past time to recognize poor creation care for the sin it is. Whether it’s illegal or allowed by law, devastating our environment is a sin against God. It’s a sin against our human brothers and sisters. It’s a sin against all animal and plant life as well. We think that as long as we get away with it, it won’t matter. It matters far more than we know. Everything we do in this life matters. Nothing doesn’t matter.

I don’t recall whether I’ve told you this or not, and if I’ve forgotten, probably you have, too. I was present at the creation of the original Earth Day 51 years ago. It began in March of 1970 with a national teach-in in Washington. I covered it as a student journalist. It had the ungainly but prophetic title “What’s the difference if we don’t wake up?”

We’re still half asleep, and we’re seeing some of the consequences of not being awake, of not hearing, of not listening, of not being sensitive to God’s call to us, however it comes to us.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. I don’t need anything but my Lord. But if I don’t listen to my shepherd, I’ll be one lost and forlorn sheep. To live in light of the Resurrection of Jesus, I have to learn to see and touch and listen!


This message was delivered April 25, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas..

Touch and see

The incident I’m about to relate took place more than 30 years ago, so it’s possible I don’t remember some details correctly. But as best I can reconstruct it, this is what happened.

It’s Sunday morning in the midst of a highly liturgical worship service. The scripture has been read, and the choir is singing a response, “Gloria Patri” or something similar. The pastor is standing at the pulpit, ready to begin his sermon.

While the choir finishes singing its response, the pastor leans down around the front of the pulpit, picks up a large ornamental cross that stands there, and hides the cross behind the pulpit.

He does this in plain sight. Everyone sees him do it. No one sees him do it.

Partway through his sermon, he asks people what happened to the cross. No one knows. It was just there a moment ago, wasn’t it? When the pastor explains what he did, and holds up the cross to prove it, there are titters and gasps from the congregation. Wow, you sure pulled one over on us.

I don’t remember what point he was trying to make. The problem with stunts like this is that people tend to remember the stunt and forget the point it was intended to make.

My point, in relating this story, is that sometimes we are incapable of seeing the obvious, we tend to see only what we expect to see, and we are often blind to the truth staring us in the face. Sometimes, in other words, we need to touch before we can see, and even touching may not be enough.

This is the third week of the Easter season. Throughout this season we’re exploring ways of Living the Resurrection in our daily lives. My point today, to telegraph it far ahead of actually making it, is that the Resurrection ought to change some of the ways we see ourselves, our world and our God.

We begin by returning, one more time, to the evening of the first Easter day. Last Sunday we heard the story as told in the gospel of John. Today we’ll hear it as told in the gospel of Luke. The accounts are similar, of course, but they emphasize different things.

Last week, the focus was on the disciple Thomas. He famously declared that “Unless I see and touch” the marks of crucifixion in Jesus’ body, he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead (John 20.25). Seeing was enough for him, though. He didn’t need to touch. Touch is more important in Luke’s version of events.

Both stories begin as a “locked room mystery,” or rather a “locked room encounter” with Jesus. Behind closed doors, the followers of Jesus are discussing what they know about his resurrection.

Luke chapter 24, verses 36-37: While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified. They thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Several of them have already seen the risen Jesus – Mary of Magdala, and Peter, and two who’d traveled to Emmaus and back after encountering him on the road. Yet they all are startled when he appears in their midst, without warning, apparently without even bothering to use the door. And they’re terrified. It must be a ghost, some are thinking.

So, have any of them actually seen a ghost before? Likely not. So why do they think he’s a ghost? How is a ghost story easier to believe than a resurrection story?

Verses 38-40: He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is me. Touch me and see. A ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

Touch me and see, he says. You can’t touch a ghost. He’s not a zombie either, unless they’re in a really bad movie. He doesn’t fit their wildest hallucination, or even wishful thinking. Who could imagine this? They certainly can’t.  He’s standing there in front of them. They can see him. They can touch him. They can feel his breath upon them. They probably can smell him if they get close enough. He has to be real. But how can he be real?

Verses 41-43: While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Well, that settles it. If he can eat leftovers, he must be real! And that’s his point entirely. He’s not a disembodied spirit, a wisp of fancy. He is a thoroughly embodied human being, just as they are. Sure, he appears to have capabilities far beyond the normal, but didn’t he always? He has flesh, he has bones. He’s real! Touch and see!

I love that phrasing: “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Too good to be true is the feeling here. Have you ever gotten a bit of good news – news so good that you can hardly believe it? It makes you so happy, and yet the sheer unexpectedness of it is enough to make you shake your head to clear it. You worry that if you blink, it will all go away and things will be back to the way they were. You want to savor the moment, but you’re afraid someone will come along and yank the rug out from under your hopes – and, wow, will you feel silly, not to mention hurt and very disillusioned.

So the disciples are joyous and yet cautious. They believe, yet they don’t believe. It’s too much for them for them to take in all at once. I imagine that they would have loved to have hugged him but are fearful that if they do, he’ll just fade away, the way Obi Wan Kenobi fades away in that “Star Wars” movie. Touch him and he’s gone for good!

Well, only when he’s ready to go. Verses 44-45: Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand what the scriptures said about him.

Notice that he’s already distancing himself from them. He speaks of the time “while I was still with you.” I’m here with you now, it’s true, but I’m not with you the way I was before, and soon I’ll be with you in another way entirely. This is a liminal moment, a threshold moment, a time between the times when everything has a shiny quality of hope and expectation. Who knows what lies ahead and what wondrous things may yet happen?

I wish we had a recording of the lesson he gives them. Our problem is that the testimony of scripture is both clear and murky. When you look from Jesus backward through scripture, it all appears so obvious. “Of course, this is what God had in mind all along!” But when you look forward through the pages of the Old Testament, it’s not so obvious that what you’re going to end up with is Jesus. It’s no wonder the disciples don’t get it right away, and it’s no wonder most Jews don’t get it, then or now.

That’s why Jesus has to “open their minds” to understand the scriptures. They have to learn to see the truth about him that’s embodied there. They have to learn to see Jesus in scripture the same way they’re seeing Jesus now, standing in front of them, defying their expectations. They need eyes of faith to see.

We often talk about “seeing is believing,” as if it were always true that we believe in something once we see it. But it’s not always so. Sometimes we see and we still don’t believe. Sometimes – maybe, in fact, most of the time – we have to believe something before we are capable of seeing it.

Scientists who study human cognition say that it’s quite possible for two people standing side by side to witness the same event but perceive it very differently. And haven’t you seen that in your own life, with your spouse or a good friend?

No two of us view things through the same life lens. Each of us is preconditioned through experience and training to see things a certain way, and that’s how we will see things until some important experience shatters our complacency and alters our vision.

Some people continue to believe that the pandemic is a hoax. It’s nothing but the flu, they say. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise. Some people continue to oppose the COVID-19 vaccine, if not all vaccines. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise. Some people continue to believe the cynical lie that Trump won the last election. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise.

Some people continue to believe that climate change is not real, no matter what the evidence shows. Some people continue to follow QAnon and other ridiculous conspiracy theories – and the list goes on.

As I said, last week, some people will believe almost anything, and their unwillingness to repent, their inability to change heart and mind, will mire them in confusion and doubt until some event jolts them into seeing the new reality that stands right in front of them, beckoning them to touch and see.

The Resurrection of Jesus can provide just such an experience. If it becomes the lens through which we view the world, things will never be the same again.

If we believe that God loves us so much that God became one of us in Jesus, and lived with us and among us, subject to all our trials and limitations and hopes and dreams, shouldn’t that shape how we view everything?

If we believe that Jesus stood with us against the powers and principalities that oppress us and make us believe lies about ourselves and others, and that the powers conspired against Jesus to silence him, doesn’t that bring a lot of other things into sharper focus?

If we believe that God would not let Jesus stay dead but brought him back to life on the third day to prove to us that God’s love for us just won’t quit, doesn’t that change how we see ourselves and others and God as well?

And if we believe that this message of forgiveness and reconciliation can heal the wounds of the world, and that God enlists us as ambassadors of healing to the world, how can we not see ourselves differently than before?

We need eyes of faith – Easter vision, if you will – to see the truth and live in light of that truth in ways that truly change the way we behave.

Sometimes we are incapable of seeing the obvious. Jesus can show us the truth.  Sometimes we see only what we expect to see. Jesus can widen our expectations. Sometimes we are blind to the truth staring us in the face. Jesus can heal our sight.

Sometimes, yes, we need to touch before we can see, and see before we can believe. Jesus invites us, yes, to reach out and touch him, and be transformed by the experience.

And you’ll notice that the cross that I used earlier to illustrate my opening story is still fully visible, and it’s still empty – because Jesus is alive and Jesus is real! Amen.

This message was delivered April 18, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.

‘Unless I see’

I don’t recall whether I’ve told you this before, but in my 25 or more years of pastoral ministry, I have sometimes suffered from what I call PED. That stands for Post-Easter Depression. It’s the malady that befalls pastors when on Sunday they preach excitedly about the Resurrection of Jesus and on Monday they realize that most of the world simply does not care.

We say, “Christ is risen!” The world says, “So what?”

It’s deflating. It’s depressing. And I suspect that pastors aren’t the only ones who suffer from it. So today we’re going to start addressing the “So what?” question in a series of messages titled Living the Resurrection. It’s about how we can live out some of the implications of the Resurrection in our daily lives.

I’ll follow a lectionary-based outline from Discipleship Ministries, which provided the nifty graphic you see here, but as you may guess, I’ll pursue several rabbit trails of my own choosing.

We begin today by returning to the Easter story on the evening of the first Easter day. It’s been a very busy day, so let’s review the story so far, as related in the gospels of Luke and John.

Early that morning, Mary of Magdala and some other female followers of Jesus go to his tomb to anoint his body.

They are startled to discover that his tomb is open. The stone blocking the entrance has been rolled away. Inside sits a young man in dazzling white who tells them, “He is not here. He is risen.”

Shaken and scared, they run away. When they tell the male disciples what they’ve seen, their report is dismissed as an idle tale, Luke tells us. But Simon Peter and another male disciple are concerned enough to run to the tomb to check. They find the graveclothes lying there, but no body, and no mysterious figure in white to explain what happened.

Mary returns to the tomb with them, and she remains after they leave. The risen Jesus appears to her. At first she mistakes him for a gardener, but when he says her name, she knows immediately who he is. She returns to where the disciples are hiding and tells them, “I have seen the Lord.” This time, they believe her.

As the day goes on, Jesus makes himself known to two followers who are walking the road to Emmaus, and also to Peter, who is trying to live down the shame of denying Jesus three times.

Now it is evening, and the disciples are huddled in their safe house, probably the same place where Jesus shared a Last Supper with his closest disciples only a few days before.

We pick up the story from the gospel of John, starting with chapter 20, verse 19, in the New Revised Standard version.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Stop right there. The doors are locked “for fear of the Jews”? Whatever can that mean? They’re all Jews. The gospel of John was written at a time when Christians and Jews are not on good terms – they’re both suffering from what we might call separation anxiety – and John is notorious for referring to Jesus’ enemies as “the Jews.”

This careless wording has helped fuel 20 centuries of anti-Semitism, blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. The Common English Bible correctly states that the doors are secured because the disciples are afraid of the Jewish authorities – not all Jews, certainly, just those who are their enemies.

So there they are, in the Upper Room, and Jesus suddenly is there, too – totally unannounced, not even let in because he stood at the door knocking. He delivers a standard greeting, “Peace be with you.”

Verses 20-21: After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says when he enters the room, but his followers are hardly at peace. Far from it, they are terrified – at least according to Luke’s version of the same story, to which we’ll return next week. For now let’s simply say that when they finally accept that it really is him, they rejoice.

Now Jesus commissions them to service. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The gospel of Matthew delays this commission until later, but John places it right here, on the evening of Easter.

Verse 22: When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Wait, doesn’t the book of Acts say that the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which is still 50 days in the future? Indeed, it does, but John seems sometimes to operate on his own chronology, totally independent of any other.

But think about the implications of Jesus breathing on them. On Friday evening, he was dead. He was not breathing at all. Now he’s alive, and he’s breathing his Spirit into them! Whoa!

Verse 23: Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In Jewish understanding at the time, this is called “binding and loosing.” It’s the ability to allow or forbid certain behaviors, to forgive or not forgive certain offenses. In Matthew, Jesus gave his disciples this authority back in chapter 18 (Matthew 18:18). Again, John has his own chronology.

Verse 24: But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

Whose twin was Thomas? We have no idea. We also don’t know where he was that evening. Some preachers like to scold him for being absent, for allegedly falling out of fellowship with the others. Maybe he had a perfectly good reason for being elsewhere –  as good a reason as Peter had for being alone when Jesus appeared to him. All we know for sure is that Thomas is not there at this moment. Anything beyond that is idle speculation.

Verse 25: So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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 takes a lot of garbage because of his “unless I see” attitude. Down through the ages, he has been stuck with the title of Doubting Thomas, and he’s still pilloried with that slander today. It’s nothing but trash talk from people who ought to be above such things. If you look at the several references to him in the gospels, Thomas is one of the most supportive and resolute of Jesus’ disciples.

In John chapter 11, Jesus is ready to go to Judea even after his disciples warn him it’s dangerous. It’s Thomas who tells the others, “Let’s go and die with him” (John 11:16).

In John chapter 14, Jesus tells them that he’s going away to prepare a place for them, and he says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Only Thomas has the guts to say, “No, we don’t know the way.” That sets Jesus up for his famous saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:2-6).

Thomas is a straight talking straight-up sort of guy. He is not wrong to doubt. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you doubt, too?

It is no sin to doubt. Those who tell you that it’s a sin to doubt do not want you to think at all. They want you to swallow any amount of hogwash they can fill you with, and they use this story as a pretext for brainwashing you.

If you can’t doubt something, why do you need faith at all? If you have total certainty about something, faith is not necessary. Truth is, you can’t have faith if you don’t have doubt. Doubt is the door to faith. If you never doubt, you can never have faith. Faith is born in doubt.

So I call him Faithful Thomas. And here’s why.

Verses 26-29: A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “‘Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas doesn’t have to touch Jesus to know that it’s him. Seeing is good enough for him. All he wanted all along was to have the same experience of the risen Jesus that the others had. Once he sees Jesus, he is thoroughly convinced. He is so convinced that he can see through his doubt to the deepest truth about Jesus’ identity.

He sees through the other titles – Teacher, Master, Messiah, Son of God – and he jumps to the greatest title of all when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus not only accepts the title of divinity. He even blesses the doubt that led Thomas to it. He tells him, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who believe even though they have not seen.”

That’s us, isn’t it? Blessed are those, like us, who have never seen the risen Lord in the flesh and yet believe. Blessed are those whose doubts can never be dispelled. Blessed are those who can see Jesus only through the eyes of faith.

Blessed are you when you doubt and you leap over that doubt in faith, for there are some things you will never see unless you have eyes of faith. Blessed are you when you believe despite your doubt, because we will always be blind if we remain in doubt.

There’s nothing wrong with a little doubt. If we’re not skeptical, we’ll fall for anything. We go wrong only when we remain entrenched in doubt and stubbornly refuse to accept evidence that contradicts it. We have to doubt because doubt is necessary to faith, but we can’t stay stuck there.

Everyone has doubts. There may be days when you say, “I can’t understand God.” I have those days, too. There may be days when you wonder, “How could God allow this terrible thing to happen?” I have those days, too. There may be days when you question, “How can Christ be raised from the dead?” I have those days, too.

But if you have the tiniest bit of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus says, then the Holy Spirit will take that little bit of faith you do have and work within you to move you past your doubt to a faith that is stronger than it was before.

I know because I have those dark hours, too. But I also know that beyond those dark hours there is a sunrise of faith. Doubt, if you must – and I say, you must doubt. But be like faithful Thomas. Stick around and wait. Wait for God to renew your faith. Then you will see. Then you will see and believe.

This message was delivered April 11, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas., from John 20:19-29.

All my Easter needs

A few years ago about this time of year, I was driving down the street, and I was startled by a sign outside one of the big chain pharmacies. The sign said: “We have all your Easter needs.”

Well, I had to check it out. Just think of the possibilities. One stop shopping at its finest. Why, I might even be able to skip church on Easter!

So I went inside the store, and there, indeed, were chocolate bunnies and chocolate eggs and jelly beans, several kinds of Peeps, many sizes and varieties of Easter baskets and stuffed animals of all description. Why they even had bags of Easter grass – you know, the dreaded shredded plastic stuff that clogs your sweeper and keeps turning up in the darndest places months later?

But I quickly learned that the sign out front was wrong. The store did not have all my Easter needs. First and foremost, it lacked any reference whatsoever to my most pressing need at Easter.

Because what I need at Easter, more than anything else, is not something you can find at any store. It’s not something that’s for sale, and it even resists our best efforts at clever packaging and marketing.

What I need at Easter, more than anything else, is a risen Savior. What I need at Easter, more than anything else, is a Jesus who is alive again and promises to raise a;; of us to new life as well.

This salvation that Jesus offers is not for sale, but it does come at a greEat price. It comes at the price of Jesus’ own life.

About nine on Friday morning, they nailed him to a cross to die. In unspeakable agony he hung for six hours, until the accumulated trauma of whipping and beating and other torture broke his great heart, and he breathed his last. Even then, his tormentors jabbed a spear into his chest, just to make sure. And when they were sure, they allowed him to be buried.

It had to be done quickly, because the Sabbath started at sunset. They wrapped the body in a linen shroud, carried it the body into the tomb and placed it on a stone slab.

Only one thing was left to be done. We aren’t specifically told that they did this, but it was a custom of the time, so it’s quite possible that they did. They unwrapped the shroud around his head and then placed a tiny feather, just a little bit of bird fluff, on his upper lip, right under his nostrils. Then they sat back and watched. If the feather moved in the slightest, there was hope that he was still alive.

In the cold silence of the tomb, they waited. Five minutes. Ten. The feather did not move. So they wrapped the shroud back over his head, and they rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and they went away.

On the morning after the Sabbath, bright and early, some of the women who had followed Jesus throughout his ministry return to the tomb. They hope to touch Jesus’ hands and face one last time, to anoint him with spices, to put his body, and their own spirits, at rest.

They discover that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the body is gone. Inside sits a young man dressed in white. He tells them: “Don’t be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He’s not here. He is risen.”

The women run away in terror, afraid at first to tell anyone what they’ve seen. But they can’t keep this to themselves very long.

Easter is the story of the love of God and the power of God revealed in a feather and a stone.

On Friday afternoon, the Son of God was powerless to move a feather. But on Sunday morning, the power of God rolls the stone away to show Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. On Friday, Jesus was dead. Incapable of the slightest movement. Incapable of moving a feather. But on Sunday morning, he is alive again.

He is alive again, and not merely resuscitated, but resurrected – raised from death in triumph and glory. He is raised in a body that is both similar to his old body and yet radically different – similar in that the marks of death are still there in his hands and his feet, and yet radically different in that he can appear to loved ones and be mistaken for someone else; similar in that he can eat and drink but radically different in that he can pass through locked doors; similar in that he is obviously human but radically different in that he is obviously more than human, at least as we usually understand being human.

The message of Easter is that God allowed Jesus to die on that cross out of love for us and God raised him from that tomb out of love for us – and out of God’s great power and great love, God promises to raise us as well, so that we may live eternally with Jesus in resurrection bodies similar to his.

The message of Easter is that God loves us so much that God became one of us in Christ so that we could encounter God face to face and see the quality of life he intends for us. We spat on him and abused him and killed him, but he refuses to take no for an answer.

The message of Easter is that Jesus died for us and was resurrected for us and lives today. That’s right. He’s still alive today. We do not serve a dead historical figure. We serve a risen Savior.

No tomb can hold him. Death can’t keep him down. He is alive today, and his live Spirit is loose in the world, and all we have to do is trust in his living presence, and we, too, can be transformed, remade in his image, born anew as the vital and loving human beings God created all of us to be.

Jesus calls us to rise with him. Jesus calls us to throw off our burial shrouds and rise from the tombs of sin and death where we are captive. Jesus calls us to throw off the illusions of this world and see reality clearly for the first time.

Jesus calls us to throw off our illusions of power and self reliance and self centeredness and see that the center of reality is the great loving heart of God, and all of creation beats in sync with that love, and all we have to do to live abundantly is get our hearts in sync with that beat.

Yet our hearts are entombed by sin. At the door of our hearts is a great stone that we are not strong enough to roll away. We’re dead, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When it comes to saving ourselves, we can’t move a feather.

But God can save us. God can roll away the stone that blocks the door of our hearts, and God can raise us to new life, to eternal life, life of such quality that it starts at this very moment and extends throughout all eternity. God can roll the stone away from our tombs and raise us, too, so that we, too, can be alive, truly alive. Just like Jesus.

That is our personal stake in the Easter story. The Resurrection is not simply a good yarn about something that happened a long time ago in a faraway place. It’s the story of what happens in us and to us today, as well. Simply stated, we participate in Jesus’ death, and because we participate in his death, we also participate in his Resurrection.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that when we are baptized into Christ, we also are baptized into his death. Therefore we are buried with him, and just as he is raised from the dead, so we also may walk with him in the newness of life (Romans 6:3-11).

The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise that death no longer has dominion over us. The Resurrection is God’s promise that, just as Jesus was resurrected, so we also will be.

God would not allow Jesus’ death to be the final answer, and God will not allow our deaths to be the final answer either. God will raise us, just as God raised Jesus, and all because of Jesus and because of God’s great love for us most fully revealed in Jesus.

Jesus himself tells us: “This is the will of my Father, that all who trust in the Son may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6.40).

The Resurrection is proof that God has the power to raise the dead to new life. It is proof that God has the power not only to raise Jesus from the dead but that God has the power to raise us from the dead as well. It is proof that God has the power not only to raise us to eternal life but to transform us from the living dead to the truly living.

The first change that God works is one of relation. On the cross, Jesus takes our sin upon himself. By bearing the pain of our sin, he removes all barriers to right relation between us and God.

This change in relation produces a change of condition. When we are put in right relation with God, we are raised from living death and empowered for new life – empowered for life eternal, for life that not only goes on forever but starts right now, at the very moment we accept it, and keeps getting better, as moment by moment we are transformed into the very image of Christ, into the very likeness of the one who lived and died and was raised for us.

That is the significance of the Resurrection. God became human in Christ to show us how to live. God died in Christ to make that life possible. God lives in Christ to make that life a reality for each of us.

It is Easter morning, and Jesus is alive. And we can live with him, in love and in peace and in wholeness, in right relation with God and neighbor, if we place our trust in him.

God rolled the stone away from the tomb to show us that God has rolled away all the barriers between us and abundant life. All we have to do is trust, and we, too, will be raised to new life, in this and the next.

That’s the message of Easter. That’s what we celebrate today.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah! Praise God!


A personal postscript: If my math and memory are correct, this is the 25th Easter morning on which I have preached about the Resurrection of Jesus. You don’t keep telling a story like this unless you not only believe it rationally but you also trust it existentially and experientially. Deep down inside, you know that it is true, and that truth and your trust in it changes everything. It is so with me, and I pray that it is so also with you.

This message was delivered April 4, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

Good Friday?

Good Friday? That seems like an odd name for such a day as this. Some say it’s actually an accident of language – the German for “God” or “holy” sounding like “good” in English. It wasn’t actually a good day, but God made good use of it.

Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a leg or foot cramp?

You react to the cramp by pushing against it, and that only makes it worse, so you try not to push against it but to push with it, thinking that will ease the cramp, and that, too, seems only to make it worse.

For 30 seconds or a minute or more, you try not to cry out in pain. You can’t do anything except feel that muscle cramping. It controls everything you do. You want to roll around and beat your fists against the bed and scream.

And that’s just one muscle cramping. Try to imagine, if you can, all of your muscles cramping like that at the same time – not only your calf and foot muscles but also the muscles in your thigh, in your hip, in your lower back, all the way up your back into your shoulders and your neck and the full length of both arms and hands and your fingers, too.

Imagine every muscle in your body cramping that way, but not stopping after 30 seconds or even after a minute; instead continuing for hours – sometimes relenting briefly because your muscles are exhausted, but then seizing up again, and the pain is even worse then because your muscles are so tired.

Imagine that continuing for six hours. Now consider what is causing your muscles to cramp. Big nails have driven into the base of your hands and into your feet. The nails in your hands go right through a major nerve center.

The pain sets your whole body on fire. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before, and then you’re elevated so that the weight of your body is hanging on those nails and the only way you can relieve the pain of that weight is to push up on the nails in your feet.

You roll and writhe in agony, and every movement makes it worse, but you can’t stop moving, and you can’t stop the pain. It goes on this way until finally your body just can’t take it anymore. Your chest muscles are so tight that you can no longer breathe. Slowly, you suffocate.

Jesus suffered this way for six hours on Good Friday. It was not all his suffering that day. But it’s the part we remember the most, the six hours he hung on a cross. For us.

There are many ways of explaining how his suffering and death save us. I think it’s enough to understand that God’s purpose in the cross is to bring us into right relationship with God and neighbor and to join us in a community of faith that testifies to God’s love.

Writing hundreds of years before the time of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a servant of God who suffers for us all. Isaiah 53 is deep and dark and mysterious, and it can’t help but remind us of Jesus. Hear how Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message.

Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God – a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look.

He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

But the fact is, it was our pains he carried – our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures.

But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him – our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we are healed.

We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence.

Justice miscarried, and he was led off – and did anyone really know what was happening? He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people. They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true.

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain. The plan was that he’d give himself as an offering for sin so that he’d see life come from it – life, life, and more life.

And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him. Out of that terrible travail of soul, he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it. Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant, will make many “righteous ones,” as he himself carries the burden of their sins.

Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly – the best of everything, the highest honors – because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest. He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many. He took up the cause of all the lost sheep.

An old spiritual asks, “Were you there?” Of course not. It happened a long time ago.

But Jesus was there. God-in-person was there. And that’s what counts. It still counts for you today.

A version of this message was delivered online to Edgerton United Methodist Church on April 2, 2021,    Good Friday.