Tuesday, June 6, 2017
Lying, Doubting and Sending
May 5, 2013
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
We come this morning to the last of our Easter stories that we’ve been reading together since Easter Sunday. What we’ve seen is that different communities have found similar, but different ways of telling the Easter story. We’ve read in John’s gospel how Jesus reconciles with a chastened Simon Peter, who has three opportunities to express his love for Jesus, even if the best he can do is to express friendship rather than deep God-like love. We’ve read in Luke’s gospel how the community moves from a mixture of terror and amazement to sheer joy as Christ commissions them to tell what they have seen and heard. We’ve read a curious ending that was added to Mark’s gospel – some years later, I would argue – that testifies how an early Christian community experienced the presence of the risen Christ as they continued the message and work of Jesus long after the resurrection. Today we’ve read Matthew’s gospel, which is the most popular Easter story for many churches, because it contains what has become known as “the Great Commission.” In each of these Easter stories, we’ve seen an alarming degree of frankness, of people struggling with their doubts and hoping against hope that the resurrection of Christ can empower their community after the death of Christ dealt such a devastating blow to them.
Some folks would be bothered by the fact that not all four gospels give the exact same details about the resurrection. Since it is the resurrection that gives meaning and hope to the devastating story of the cross, we – who are children of a very different way of telling stories – want all four gospels to say the exact same thing so that we can base our faith on something that we consider verifiable and certain. What this collection of Easter stories gives us is quite different. They tell the story in a way that invites us to peek back behind the text and to see some of the reality that the early Christian community was dealing with as they lived their faith under some very trying circumstances. We saw in Mark’s gospel how an early Christian community found itself strangely empowered as it dared to take up that same message of repentance and forgiveness that got John the Baptizer and Jesus killed. We saw in John’s community how those who had failed so miserably were reconciled and assured that Christ was still with them. We saw in Luke’s community how the Christian community remained in Jerusalem and from there it would spread out to the farthest reaches of the Empire in the book of Acts. These stories let us see Christ resurrected by letting us visit those communities that rose up with new life after the devastation of the cross. These communities, which had been dealt such a staggering blow with the execution of Christ, were not in hiding, they were not cowed, and they had no illusions of being perfect. They were fearful, devastated people who found new life and boldness through the continuing presence of Christ. To me, these various testimonies of different communities finding new life after the cross is exactly the resurrection story that gives the cross meaning.
So, today we read Matthew’s gospel and we see the kind of challenges that this early church community was facing. First, there were the rumors. We have seen, repeatedly, in El Salvador how the honest intentions and humble work of a people can be derailed by rumors. What begins as a lie – or, at least as someone’s very partial perspective that misrepresents the whole truth – becomes “true” only by virtue of the fact that ‘so and so’ heard ‘so and so’ say ‘such and such’ so many times over that eventually it is accepted as fact. And then, to try to correct the rumor seems only to give is some kind of legitimacy. The early church was not immune from the power of a lying tongue. They actually had to describe to people something as silly as, “No. We did not sneak to the tomb while the guards were asleep, roll a tremendous stone away from the mouth of the tomb, pick up a dead body, and carry it off quietly enough not to wake up these guards.” Rumors have a way of bringing us all to a ridiculous level, which is why James was certainly correct when he described the power of the tongue by saying, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” The early church lived with rumors that questioned their integrity and message.
Second, they lived with their own doubts. There is probably no more genuine expression of faith than Matthew’s resurrection story that says when they saw Jesus, they worshipped, and they doubted. Bible translators and commentators do all kinds of gymnastics to try to avoid the plain translation of this text, that they worshipped and they doubted. If we operate on the assumption that worship and doubt are incompatible, then I suppose we have to come up with a clever resolution to this problem. But, if we accept that this early community was both a worshipping community and a community that harbored questions along the way, this is not a problem. It is a candid expression of the life of faith, which is often dogged with unanswerable questions. I suspect that the church has long been comprised of two types of believers: Those whose trust in Jesus allows them to admit that they have doubts; and those who think faith means that they cannot admit that they have doubts. What I don’t suspect has ever been true of the church is that it has been a community of folks who never harbor any doubt. That sounds almost sub-human and unworthy of the dignity of intellect that God has given humanity. The early church faced rumors; and their trust in Christ included the honesty of their doubts.
Finally, the mark of the church in Matthew’s community was that despite the rumors from without or the doubts from within they were a community with a mission. The language that is en vogue these days, which I think is wonderfully accurate, is that the church is a “missional community.” As Emil Brunner put it, “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.” It is our essential nature that we are here for a purpose and not simply to benefit ourselves. George Hunsberger has described it well by comparing the missional church to the “vendor” shape of many churches. The “vendor” church is a place where “members” expect “the church” to provide certain goods and services to them. The “vendor” church is divided into a small group of providers and a large group of consumer. The “missional” church, on the other hand, is not divided. We all gather alike as those who are sent into the world to bear the joy and justice of the gospel. The “missional” church worships the God who sent prophets, who sent Jesus Christ, and who sends us into the world in service. That is how Matthew’s gospel ends, with Matthew’s community giving witness that the church is the “missional” community, called together in worship and sent into the world to share the joy and justice of God’s reign.
When we read Matthew’s Easter story, we get a glimpse of an early Christian community’s experience of the risen Christ. But, as many of you have already perceived, it is not a history lesson of a community that is now dead and gone. It is a story of the church, of our church. I will admit that if we are deficient in any way compared to Matthew’s church, it’s this: We don’t have a lot of rumors that are attacking our character – that I know of. (I don’t know about you, but I feel no need whatsoever to ‘fix’ that part of our story.) But, we are a community that has questions and we do know what it means to worship and doubt all in the same moment. And we are, by all means, a “missional” community. Whether it is our collective missional work – when we prepare meals and serve at the shelter, or when we work together to enhance the life and community of our sisters and brothers in El Salvador – or, whether it is the missional work that one of us carries out in counseling bereaved persons and another carries out in fixing damaged cars, and another carries out in promoting healthy diets. We are a sent community and to be part of this community means to be part of the worship and work, celebrating and living out God’s reign here on earth. So, this morning, we gathered around a family and Adriana child, offering ourselves as partners in their journey together. We know that when we baptize a child, we make it our place to encounter every child as a “beloved child of God,” regardless of their nationality, their sexuality, or whether they are in our ‘tribe’ or not. When we break bread together, we are undertaking a mission to see that all are fed and not just we who happen to be here at this table. Everything we do as a community empowers and prepares us as we go to make disciples and to bring the joy and justice of God’s reign to our world.
Thanks be to God for the witness of Matthew’s community. Thanks be to God for the plethora of Easter stories. Thanks be to God that the risen Christ continues to live among us, calling us, empowering us, and sending us into the world with purpose and mission. Amen.