Sunday, April 21, 2013
Who Are They – Whose Are They?
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 21, 2013
Suppose you are a great sports buff, one who follows every Mariner and Blazer game with the fierce intensity of a true and loyal fan. But imagine that you were to be called out of the country for the week of a final game, tending to business in, say, Thailand, where you couldn’t expect much coverage of American sports in the local newspapers even if you could read the local newspapers. But you are a real fan, so you had set your home TV system to record the upcoming game before you left.
And suppose, on your return, before you had a chance to watch the recorded game, one of your friends saw you in town and said to you, “Welcome home! Say, how about those Blazers!” in such a way that you thought maybe they had won the critical game. Now, as you watched the recorded game unfold, you would have a different level of anxiety after a bad call from a referee or when one of the front line players fouled out of the game, wouldn’t you? You could still get excited about the action, but in the end, you would think you knew who the final winner would be. It would be something like reading a detective novel backwards. Come tribulation and hardship, you would be secure in your knowledge. As they struggled to prevail on the screen, you would know that in reality, your team was already victorious.
That’s something like the purpose for reading Revelation in the church. If we take Revelation 7 seriously, we will know that come this or come that ordeal or setback, victory has already been declared in heaven, God’s salvation is already a fact, and the woes through which we go are the mopping-up operation of a battle that has already been won. So no matter what, from the testimony of John in Revelation we know that the salvation of God is victorious. Set in the middle of the strife that believers knew then, reminding us of the strife we may know today, John’s witness never lets up on the ultimate victory of God, the final security in which believers may rest.
And, like a pre-recorded Blazer game, John records a victory of God which is already accomplished, not just some reality that awaits us in the future. While many television preachers may be preoccupied with some calendar for God’s future intervention in the world, John gives us a vision of God’s triumph that has already broken in upon the human scene. In Revelation, the future is determining and creating the present.
But who are these saved ones in John’s vision? Who are those folks he saw gathered around the throne of God in heaven?
WHO ARE THEY?
One thing is certain. John looked into heaven, and the people he saw surrounding the throne of God outnumbered his personal circle of acquaintance. Who are the people that Jesus – the Lamb – has in mind for his church, as members of his flock, his sheep who will know his voice and follow him? Our friends and neighbors, certainly. But more than that, just as certainly.
In Genesis 15, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as countless as the stars in the heavens. In the new Israel, the Church, John’s vision in Revelation demonstrates that God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled. The multitude in the chorus in heaven — from every nation and language – is so large that no one could count them all!
So often, we are preoccupied with questions about who may and who may not be numbered among the elect, who may and who may not be the apple of Jesus’ eye just as much as we are. One of the worst tendencies of many church fellowships is this inclination to presume to know who belongs to the host of heaven. This scene from Revelation should startle us any time we are inclined toward that presumption. Apparently, the way to be numbered among the elect has little to do with knowing who else is saved, and everything to do with knowing the one doing the saving. The main thing is to know the Shepherd; we may never know the name and number of all his other sheep, all his other flocks.
This is hard news for those of us who can only find pleasure in having when others have not, in knowing when others are ignorant, in receiving love when we are certain others are loveless, in triumphing when others are defeated.
John’s admitted ignorance about the “ins and outs” of heaven ought to be a lesson for the community of faith. John, in looking upon the multitudes in heaven, when asked who they were, was struck not by their familiarity but their diversity. The fellowship of the saved is destined to be greater than we expect. Remember the final scene in John’s gospel, when Jesus told Peter that he would be imprisoned for his faith, and Peter saw John walking along behind and asked, “What about him?” Jesus said, “What is that to you? Follow me!”
This reminds me of a wonderful little poem I read once and which has stayed with me through the years:
I dreamt death came the other night,
And heaven’s gate swung wide.
An angel with a halo bright ushered me inside.
And there! to my astonishment
stood folks I’d judged and labeled:
As quite unfit, of little worth, and spiritually disabled.
Indignant words rose to my lips
but never were set free
For every face showed stunned surprise – no one expected me!
Who will we find in heaven? The only way we will know is by following Jesus. The task of the disciple is not to sort the sheep from the goats but to obey and follow the Shepherd...
WHOSE ARE THEY?
...which helps us know that the main issue in determining the population of heaven is not in finding out who they are, but whose they are. To whom do these folks belong?
When the day of the festival of Hanukkah came around and Jesus was in the temple, those who remembered the last big victory they had known – the victory still celebrated at Hanukkah, commemorating the time the Maccabee family drove the Syrians out of their homeland — they looked to Jesus and demanded a final answer from him. “Are you the Messiah?” Are you the one to whom we need to belong for a new victory?
If we’re honest about it, we all struggle with this “Who is Jesus?” question from time to time. Should I throw my lot in with him, or should I wait and get more information? Jesus seldom responds to his questioners just the way we wish, because he may not be just the Messiah for whom we wish. If we want to know who Jesus is, our best opportunity to know is in asking the ones who are following him. They are part of that uncountable multitude who have come out of great ordeals. To follow Jesus is to know him. “Those who stand back, arms folded, waiting to be convinced” will never receive the final proof concerning Jesus’ lordship. “Those who enter the flock are the ones who hear the Shepherd’s voice.” They are the ones over whom the Shepherd will watch eternally.
When we were very little, if we were blessed with a good home, one of our parents — very likely it was our mothers — spent a good deal of time watching over us, literally. As we lay sleeping in our cribs, we were observed 0and cherished. As we took our first steps, said our first words, celebrated our first birthdays, we were watched and treasured. I seldom hold an infant at the time of baptism when I don’t think of the eyes of the congregation as well as the eyes of God watching over, guiding that child. Young children don’t mind it when we watch over them. In fact, they often feel an immediate sense of panic and uncertainty if a familiar face is nowhere to be found in a crowded room.
But that comfort under the watchful gaze of others begins to give way, ultimately, to an adolescent desire for freedom from observation, for privacy. Children make a game of it initially, closing their eyes in an effort to make others disappear. As we mature, we want to control when we will be seen, and who will see us. And we want to hide many things from anyone’s observation. We may have come to believe that no one, not even God, watches over us any more. But it is not true. At the center of the very throne of heaven, the center of life itself is the Lamb, watching over us like a Shepherd, because we are his.
“Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” Some of these saints pictured in John’s vision have sacrificed everything, even their lives, for the sake of the gospel. Now, even acknowledging their sacrifice, they continue to recognize that salvation is a gift of God in every way. No amount of self-sacrificing will bring them their salvation, nor will any failure to measure up take it away. That is because of who we are and whose we are: We are the followers of the Shepherd and our lives mirror the salvation we have found in him. And we are his.
We are they who have come out of great ordeals;
we have washed our robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason we are before the throne of God
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne shelters us.
We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Posted by Rob Elder at 2:46 PM
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Keeping in Touch
© copyright 2013 Robert J. Elder
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Second Sunday of Easter: April 7, 2013
In 1899, Congressman William Vandiver coined a phrase when he said, “I come from a state that raises corn, cotton, cockleburs, and Democrats; and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.” The bit about frothiness didn’t stick, but that “I’m from Missouri ... show me” business sure did. People who require evidence have been saying, “I’m from Missouri” ever since. Probably Thomas was the one disciple who could be said, in Congressman Vandiver’s sense of it, to have been “from Missouri.”
“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.” Sermons are often based on this episode by focusing on the doubts which Thomas harbored. I have heard Thomas’ doubts compared to everything under the sun. Frederick Buechner once called doubts “the ants in the pants of faith,” because, he said, “they keep it alive and moving.” Talking of ants-in-the-pants leads me to think on the equally stimulating value of fleas. The chief character of Edward Noyes Westcott’s late 19th century novel, David Harum, declared, “A reasonable amount o’ fleas is good fer a dog – keeps him from broodin’ over being a dog.” Which goes well with the observation of Sir Francis Galon, the nineteenth century English scientist who said, “Well-washed and well-combed dogs grow dull; they miss the stimulus of fleas.” All this has reminded many preachers of a similarity between the stimulating effect of fleas on a dog and doubts in a person.
Today, though, I have found my eye returning to a different aspect of the story from John’s gospel. It has to do with Jesus’ wounds and his invitation to Thomas – to all of us – to touch them.
Every so often, it seems almost on a daily basis, we hear reports about a roadside bomb going off somewhere in the world, sometimes right here at home, killing and maiming X number of innocent bystanders. A couple of decades ago, we would have been shocked reading such reports. Now they seem as common as a morning cup of coffee. We have become awfully calloused to the suffering that human beings visit on one another. To the weary world, these must seem to be just more wounds on an already much-wounded planet.
I don’t know about you, but every time I read the story of Thomas, I am shocked at his desire to touch Jesus in his wounded places. Yet I am equally undone by the fact that this does not seem to bother the risen Jesus all that much. He invites Thomas’ probing fingers into his wounds, into the places where he was injured, battered, killed for the sake of the gospel. The week before, when Thomas wasn’t with them, Jesus invited all of the other disciples to see his hands and side. Jesus invited Thomas, as he invited all of them, as he invites us, to touch his wounds.
“Unless I touch your wounds, I will not believe.” If finding wounds to touch is the problem, then the solution is as near at hand as the latest disaster, the nearby suffering of innocents. Pictures coming across our TV screens on a daily basis remind us that wounds are near at hand indeed. I believe that we can touch Jesus’ wounds today. Indeed, I believe we must.
Remember in John’s gospel how the disciples reacted to the news of Jesus’ resurrection? They heard the report from Mary Magdalene, that she had met the risen Jesus. Did they suddenly sing out for joy, begin praising God in the streets, challenge the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees? No, John reports what they did: “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 out of fear...” The resurrection of Jesus did not embolden the disciples, nor did it grant them faith. It sent them scrambling to the safety of a retreat to the room where they had last eaten with him. Thomas is called the doubter, but looking around that chilly upper room, I don’t see anything passing for faith on the faces of those fear-filled disciples that Easter evening, do you? Thomas, when he found his voice, merely said what everyone else was thinking when they first heard that Jesus had risen. “How can I know Jesus is risen?” He sought some tangible assurance. Why is it that he thought of contact with Jesus’ wounds as the way to receive that assurance?
Thomas, always the practical one, thought he found the other disciples deep in the denial stage that some folks go through when they lose a loved-one to death. Practical Thomas, who tried to keep Jesus from traveling to Judea to be with the family of Lazarus – after all, the last time he was there they tried to stone him! – Thomas, who finally agreed to go along, but with his eyes open: “Let’s go, then, so we can all die with him,” he said.
When the end came, Thomas ducked for cover like the rest, but he was also the last to emerge from hiding. He was, as I said, the practical one. He found the others in denial. “We have seen the Lord!” they said. “Unless I ... put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The translators may be too tame, out of deference to our tender sensibilities. It’s a pity. The original word for “putting” his hand means to thrust or jab. “Unless I thrust (Gk.: Balo) my finger in the mark of the nails ... unless I jab my hand into his wounded side...” Ouch. Thomas seems to need to observe Jesus wince in pain to believe that what was human and very much dead had now become immortal. I am undone by this whole scene, but especially by the fact that Jesus responded to Thomas’ words by inviting his probing touch. It did not seem to bother the risen Jesus. He invited Thomas’ to jab at his wounds, the places of deadly injury, if that’s what he needed. Jesus invited Thomas, invites us, to touch him in his wounded places, just as for so many in Galilee Jesus had touched wounded places to make them well.
Somehow this moment, this knowing of Jesus’ wounds, transformed Thomas – and all of them – so that fear melted into joy. But this is more than an arrival at the condition we call faith. It is also a story about a commissioning:
“‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
Having invited them to participate in his own wounds, suffered for their sakes, Jesus commissioned them, the wounded, fear-filled disciples, to show their wounds to the world, to touch the world in its wounded places. The world says in reply to all our pontifications on faith and doctrine, about resurrection and the ministry of Christ, “Unless I thrust my hand into the church and find real wounds, no way I’ll ever believe.”
I am often asked about the decline of members in the Presbyterian church nationally. I am afraid I have no really good answers to the question. The sum of what I know about the church as a denomination is that if its individual churches fail to be faithful, no amount of conversation about faithfulness as a denomination will suffice. Ask any group of gathered Presbyterians to raise their hand if they have grown children who are not active in any church. Dozens of hands will go up. It is our own people we have lost, more than people who have left in a rage over some obscure point of doctrine. We don’t lose members due to strife over big issues of dogma. We lose our own children when they are bored with what the church isn’t doing. The world is broken and wants to touch our wounds to see if there can be healing. But when we dress up our wounds to hide them from the world, we do a disservice to the gospel.
I read once about a psychiatrist who said, “‘Good mothers tend to be a little bit messy. At least their grooming isn’t perfect.’ He knew that the touch of the small child, seeking assurance of safety and love, should not be hampered by warnings not to spoil makeup or displace carefully arranged hair. Jesus, our good Lord and our good friend, would pass [the] test for a loving, embracing presence.”
I think Jesus always moved, and still moves, toward the wounded ones. Like fire fighters weeping over children they cannot save, or physicians and nurses pausing solemnly in the ER over a patient they can’t manage to resuscitate, Jesus moves toward the wounded places on the earth, touches the wounds of those who suffer, and brings healing where there had been despair. When we touch the wounds of others to bring healing, we are touching the very body of Christ.
Posted by Rob Elder at 2:56 PM