Monday, April 16, 2018

Sermon - You Have Heard It Said


“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. - Matthew 5:38-48



          This is a sermon about enemies. Real enemies. Not those who cut us off in traffic or don’t return their shopping basket to the corral.  I want to talk about the true bad guys, the ones who beyond all doubt are guilty of doing their best intentionally and directly to injure us, our friends, our communities, and our families. Thieves and innocent-sounding swindlers who take advantage of your kind-heartedness. Theater bombers and school shooters. People who lie to your face and don’t give it, or you, a second thought.
        As you can already tell, I am not speaking today of figurative or inanimate enemies like disease and poverty and natural disaster. I am talking about enemies the way Jesus is talking about them in the Sermon on the Mount – I am talking about people. And trying to use synonyms – referring to them as “adversariesor nemesesor foesor antagonists” – just does not fill the bill.  Today, I stand before you to talk about enemies. I will use that word a lot today.
        Sometimes, enemies are not intentionally injuring us.  Sometimes, we imagine enemies. We are conditioned to see others as enemies. Too often, whether it be at political conventions or on social media, we do not respectfully discuss issues with those of different views, and we are not loyally countering the opposition.  No, we defend against – and frequently assault – enemies.  And make no mistake: we don’t just want to win; we want to vanquish. We plot our strategy and revel in the confrontation, almost as if it were a football game or a King of the Mountain contest.  When I was a kid, after baseball games, we were supposed to give a tribute to the other team we had just played.  We were supposed to say “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?” And then we would yell the other team’s name.  Seven-year-olds being seven-year-olds, we would alter the rhyme when we had won the game.  We would yell out “2-4-6-8, who did we annihilate?”  Today, we are commonly no better than seven-year-old Pee Wee baseball players. We want the other side to lose badly, to crawl back into their holes, to leave us alone and take their friends with them, but only after acknowledging that we are right and they are wrong, that we are good and they are bad, that we are winners and they are losers.
In that world in which we find ourselves, I know that preaching on “loving your enemies” that draws out some immediate responses.
        For many longtime churchgoers, this is comfort food.  You have heard the Sermon on the Mount preached many times, and you are familiar with Jesus’s words about turning a cheek, and you rest easy with the words, if not with the meaning.
        For many others, including many other longtime churchgoers, these are almost fighting words. You hear “enemies” and think about concentration camps and terrorism, about Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and threats of world domination, and you cannot believe that anyone would try to take Jesus literally, certainly not at any level beyond being nice to someone who is rude to you in the line at the DMV. Talking about loving enemies somehow seems to you weak, naïve, dangerously simple-minded.
        For still others, this verse has never been taken seriously at all. These are pretty words for sanctified poetry and church services, but they have no application in the real world. Professor Karoline Lewis writes that “[w]e might be tempted to interpret such a plea as dated… as one of those Bible verses that cannot stand the test of time because the distance between Jesus’s world and our world is an expanse not worth our time to traverse.” [https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3158]
        In planning for today, I read numerous sermons and articles on this topic, and I must tell you that I find most of them to be way too simple and unsatisfying.  I am not persuaded by those who write as if loving our enemies were easy, and I do not believe that every time we act lovingly, rapscallions immediately turn into model citizens as if by magic.  On the other hand, I do know this – responding to enemies with hatred does nothing to slow them down.
        Not everything I read in preparation was disappointing. In a great sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Birmingham in November of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that to love our enemies, we first have to recognize our own failings – the log in our own eyes.  We all struggle with right and wrong; as Dr. King says, “There is something of a civil war going on in all our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul.[King sermon http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/document sentry/doc_loving_your_enemies.1.html] Plato described our personality as a charioteer trying to control two strong horses, each heading in opposite directions. When we admit that truth about our own internal struggle, then Dr. King believed that we can begin to find something worth loving in our enemies.
Love for enemies grows out of hope, that knowledge that our life and future have been changed because of what Jesus has done for us and therefore the only way for us to change the world is through love.  It was Abraham Lincoln who was reported to say, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Philosophy professor and pastor Thomas Christianson says it this way:
[I]f these actions are the work of monsters and demons, I am powerless to stop them. I can only shake my head and feel sad that such beings cannot be stopped. But if I’m dealing with humans, I can have hope. Hope that messages of love and acceptance and peace can be heard. Hope that God can redeem even the worst of sinners. Hope that God can redeem my deep, dark sins, too. [RELEVANT Magazine, 8/10/15]
        Love is not easy, and it does not work automatically to convert all the villains of the world, but there is no other option. It is neither naïve nor simple.
        Those who gather on the mountain to hear Jesus deliver this sermon know about enemies. They are occupied. The utter destruction of the Temple and indeed all of Jerusalem by Roman armies is coming soon, and Jesus knows it. 
        We also know what enemies are. They are in our midst. They can be in your own family, in your workplace, your school, your community, your social network.
        Enemies.
     I want you to play along with me.  To help guide you through the rest of this sermon, I want you to close your eyes right now and think of one personal enemy.  I’d rather you not think about someone far away.  Don’t – just for a moment, humor me – don’t focus on Kim Jong-un or the other political party’s standard bearer or some talking head on cable tv or that Facebook sparring partner who lives in another state or someone who was mean to you twenty years ago or that one despicable person you met one time.  Focus on someone with whom you deal regularly, maybe even every day. If you can’t think of one, then good for you, and this sermon is probably pretty irrelevant to you; but in my heart of hearts I think that you are either not thinking hard enough or you must never leave your house, for enemies surround us. 
        I am serious about closing your eyes.  Nobody will laugh at you or look at you funny, I promise. If you don’t want to close your eyes, then focus your mind’s eye on that person.  It may be a longtime enemy, a rival from way back.  Or it may be someone whom you would have called a friend last week.  It may even be a spouse, who at least for the present is an enemy.  It may be a co-worker. Your enemy may well not be evil, not really.  Your enemy may have just, for a season, lost control of the wrong horse.
        Have you got your enemy in mind?  You can open your eyes now.
        You have heard it said, “Love your friends but hate your enemies.”
        And, you have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
        Exodus records: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” [Exodus 21:23-35].  Now, to be sure, this command was a description for early community justice in response to crimes so as to maintain order, and it was meant to be meted out where appropriate by judges appointed by God… but “an eye for an eye” was not just a random maxim handed down by simpletons who did not know better, and we do those who follow the idea literally a disservice if we misunderstand its source.  It came from Yahweh.
        So, when Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount, he is taking on what these good followers of Jehovah had been taught in their version of Sunday School for generations.
         And He takes on what many of us grew up believing.  You do not have to listen to the radio very long to hear that exact phrase – “an eye for an eye” – coming from musicians and commentators alike.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle use it at the drop of a hat when it suits them.
       In preaching on loving our enemies, I am not offering political or military strategy. I recognize the complications of foreign policy, and I do not suggest that running a nation is the same as running our personal lives.
        Evil and terror and crime and international intrigue are real and must be faced. To suggest that complicated geopolitical and sociological solutions can be reached with a simple sentence ignores too much.  “Love your enemies” is a word that can come into conflict with other directives, that can clash with other things that we know Jesus wants us to do, things like protecting our loved ones and making the world a safer and more peaceful place. In this one sentence, Jesus was not negating all of God’s words about violent crime and invading armies. Pacifism and just war doctrine and survival in a world of terrorism and fascism and lunacy are complex ideas for a political science classroom, the halls of Congress, the Oval Office, the great palace courts, and parliamentary chambers across the world. Paul tells us, so far as it depends on us, to live at peace with all. [Romans 12:18] Sometimes peace is not left up to us, and radical action is required. I get that.  I am not qualified to answer all those questions, and this sacred desk is not the place to promote any political agenda. 
        I am, on the other hand, unashamedly standing before you to discuss what Jesus tells us about how we should treat each other.  This text is not a parable subject to interpretation. This is not a symbol.  This is not obscure vocabulary or highbrow language that requires an advanced degree to understand.
        Jesus speaks as clearly as possible: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’  But I say to you ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
        Nothing subtle about that.  You do not need the spiritual gift of discernment to figure out what Jesus is getting at. 
        Do not cheapen these words of Jesus by concluding that he really just means loving your neighbor, loving your brother.  Those things are of course important, Biblical teachings of Jesus.  But they are not His subject matter here, where Jesus takes it to another level.  “You have heard it said to love your neighbor…. But I say love your enemies.”  Jesus is now augmenting the Levitical law Jim read earlier requiring love of neighbor. Jesus is saying that that Old Testament word is not the end of the message. The voice of Jesus – God incarnate – booms across this sanctuary and this world as He stands on the mountainside:
Once, when God spoke out of bushes and donkeys and prophets, we taught you about loving your neighbor.  Now, the kingdom of God is here.  The Father and I are one.  Everything there is of God stands before you in the flesh. What you learned before was right… but I am telling you something more.  Now I am telling you to love your enemies.

        So, if enemies are real and Jesus tells us to love them, how do we follow that command in the real world?  In the land of Facebook and cable news, what does it mean to love our enemies?
        The same thing it meant when Jesus said it the first time.
        The same thing it has meant throughout the centuries since then.

1.  Loving our enemies means obeying the Golden Rule.
        I believe that loving our enemies means wanting the best for them… but it is so much more than what we want. It is no accident that the Golden Rule shows up in this Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us to do to others – all others, any others - whatever we wish that they would do to us.
        To do.” That is a statement of action.  He does not mention emotion. He does not tell us we have to have warm fuzzy feelings towards the enemy.  He sure does not tell us to wait until the hurt goes away before we love.  He does not tell us to find a way to relate to our enemies before we love them.  He does not tell us to wait until it feels good, until they approach us, until they recognize the evil of their ways.
        He tells us to act.  To do. To do whatever we wish they would do to and for us. Too often our watchword seems to be to do to others as they have done to us or before they do to us. That is not the way of Jesus.
        Love is not a feeling.  Love is action. Jesus’s word for “love” here is “agapate,” the verb form of agape, which in turn is the love defined for us by Paul in the 1 Corinthians 13 passage we read responsively.  Agape keeps no record of wrongs.  Agape bears all things.  Agape endures all things.
        Loving your enemies means seeking their best over your own, whether they deserve it or not.  Better said, loving your enemies means actively seeking their best when they most assuredly do not deserve it.  After all, it is easy to love the deserving.  Even the hypocrites do that.
        What can you do for your enemies? 
        To be more specific, focus now on that enemy you pictured when I asked you to close your eyes… What can you do for him?  How can you treat her in the way that you wish she would treat you?  Are you keeping record of his wrongs?  Are you bearing and enduring everything she does?
        Do you love her, every day?  Are you loving him?
       
2.  Loving your enemies means praying for them.
        We have all been there: the prayer meeting or youth group or community group, when it comes time for prayer requests.  If enemies are mentioned at all, it is usually in a backhanded, snarky shot.  “Please pray for Bill, who needs to understand that what he is doing is so harmful.”  “Please pray for Jane, who just does not realize how mean she is being to me.”  “Please pray for my father, so he can stop gambling and drinking all of my college fund away.”
        Now, there is some good in praying for those who have problems. But that is not what Jesus is talking about when He teaches us to pray for our enemies. 
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was Sunday, September 16, 2001.  Five days had passed since we all saw the planes hit the buildings.  The twin towers had fallen.  The Pentagon had a hole in it.  United Flight 93 was down in the fields of Pennsylvania. American flags dotted the landscape wherever you turned – in yards and on storefronts and, suddenly, on every politician’s lapel.  There was no question who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.  I did not question it then, and I do not question it now.
I walked into the Joshua Class, the Sunday School class I taught at First Baptist Church in Nashville, a room full of individuals who were just like folks across the nation – shell-shocked, angry, hurt, fearful, confused, ready to fight. 
I remember how I bookended my lesson.  To begin the class, I asked several people to pray.  I asked for prayer for the NYPD and the Fire Department and the many brave first responders and their families.  I asked someone else to pray for President Bush and Mayor Giuliani and for the leaders across the nation and around the world who would need guidance over the coming days and weeks and months as the reactions and responses were calculated.  I asked someone else to pray for the injured and the families of the deceased and the wounded.  I asked yet another to lead us in prayer for those many people of faith and goodwill who were already responding with money and food and blankets and their presence at Ground Zero.
I tried to teach a Sunday School lesson, and then I turned to Tim.  Not the Tim in the church with whom I spent a great deal of time, this Tim was far from the person I knew best, but I recognized a level of spirituality and maturity in Tim that made it clear to me that he was the one to choose for the hardest task I had to delegate.  I had called Tim the night before and asked him to be prepared to close our time by leading us in prayer for our enemies.
I knew it was not an easy task, and it was certainly an unpopular assignment. Most of us were talking about destroying our enemies. 
        What Tim showed us that morning was difficult and wonderful and terrible and powerful.  He showed us that when we approach the throne of grace with the name of an enemy, it changes us. Especially when we don’t want it to.  Especially when even thinking about that enemy, much less entertaining the idea of praying for him or her, makes our skin crawl.
        The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, as implemented at the Betty Ford clinic, teaches those in recovery to pray for their enemy by name every day for two weeks. To free yourself of resentment, you are to pray for the person you resent, asking for his health, prosperity, and happiness. Even when you don't really want it for him, and your prayers are only words and you don't mean it, AA teaches you to go ahead and do it anyway. [http://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/twelve-steps-of-aa-teach-people-to-live-without-resentment] Do it every day for two weeks and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for him, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate understanding and love. [http://www.12steps.nz/12-steps-programme/step-4/resentment/]
        Jesus does not tell us what to pray for our enemies… but it is safe to say He is not suggesting that we pray that they be struck with a plague.  He is teaching us to lift our enemies up to our heavenly Father – by name, with their face and their personality and their enemy status particularly in mind.  He does not tell us to pray about our enemies – “O God, tell me how to deal with so-and-so” –  No, he tells us to pray for our enemies.  To put their interests and their welfare into the hands of the Father.
        To pray for those who persecute you and spitefully use you can be described as nothing else than an act of love.  When Jesus prayed for those who were in the process of crucifying Him, He exhibited an understanding of their mindset and their predicament, and He asked God to forgive them.  That is love. 
        Focus again on your enemy you have pictured.  What can you pray for?  Your enemy’s health?  Salvation? Happiness?

3.  Loving our enemies means forgiving them.
        I know that “forgiveness” is one of those church words that, when we hear it from the pulpit, is likely to send us to Snoozeville.  Oh, there goes the preacher again.
        For many of us who have grown up in the church, we have sat through retreats and Sunday School units and multiple sermons on forgiveness, and we have decided that we know what it means.  Unfortunately, many of us reached those conclusions when we were too young really to know what enemies were, and when we were immature and looking for religious-sounding ways to justify our desires and selfishness.
        So, we have settled for a vague notion that forgiveness is getting over the worst of our anger – at least outwardly - coupled with the explanation that forgiveness does not mean forgetting and that just because we forgive someone does not mean that we have to put our neck back on the chopping block.  Of course that’s true.  Of course forgiving does not require us to leave ourselves unprotected or to be stupid or to subject ourselves knowingly to further unnecessary injury.
        And yet … and yet … there is more to forgiveness. Jesus teaches to turn our left cheek to the enemy while our right cheek still bears the red marks of the stinging blow.  There is a difference between self-defense and revenge, and it is the latter that Jesus is discussing here.  The first step of forgiving our enemies is choosing not to seek to destroy them in a fit of retaliation and vengeance.
        But we cannot stop there.  Jesus tells us to forgive, not seven times but seventy-seven or seventy times seven times. [Matthew 18:22] Jesus’s idea of forgiving an enemy is healing the very soldier who is in the process of slapping the cuffs on Him.  Jesus’s idea of forgiveness is not to shun demoniacs but to cast out their demons, not to ignore betrayers but to look them in the eye and speak with compassion, not to punish deniers but to welcome them with new mission without ever mentioning the stinging failures of the past.
        Not once have I said that your enemy deserves to be forgiven.  Of course she does not.  She deserves an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Concepts of karma and compensation will easily justify your staying far away and armoring yourself against further interaction while you wait for her to get hers.  And, truth be told, she may well get hers. Still … children of God are never completely happy about that.  It never feels like you think it is going to feel.  There is no real joy in karma.
        Dr. King referred to this forgiveness this way:

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time when you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual.
[Dexter Ave. Baptist Church sermon]

        If you decline to forgive your enemy – if you continue the punishment and resentment and leave up the barriers between your soul and his – you not only make it absolutely certain he remains your enemy, but you also burden yourself.  It is just so hard to continue to fight those battles.
       
4.  Loving our enemies means reflecting the love of God.
        We love because we are new creatures. We love because God first loved us. 
        While we were sinners – hellbent rebels ignoring our Father’s plan and running as far from home as possible, winding up in a pigsty of our own making – our Father watched and waited and, while we were still a long way off, came running to meet us.
       Like Cain, God’s enemy, we were murderers, and He gave us a mark of protection.
      Like David, condemned by the prophet Nathan, we were adulterers, and He called us people after His own heart.
       Like the rebellious nation of Israel, we were exiles, and He brought us home.
     Like Saul, called by some a Pharisaical terrorist, we did everything we could to hamper the word of God, and he came to us and changed us and gave us a new name and sent us out on mission.
        We were blind, and He made us see.
        We were enemies, and He loved us.
        You have heard it said to love your friends and hate your enemies.  But I say, love your enemies.  Very rarely, there is a good man who is willing to lay down his life for a righteous person, and this is love. [John 15:13] But God commended His love to us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ gave His life for us. [Romans 5:8]
        God loves His enemies. 
        And that love is not some namby-pamby feeling, not mere affection.  The love of God for His enemies is one that leaves Him no option but to spread out His arms and die for them.
        And I am convinced … with Paul I say that I am convinced… that neither height nor depth nor death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come can separate God’s love from His enemies.  Nothing. Not the Resistance.  Not a wall.  Not distress or famine or danger or sword.  Not suicide bombers. Not Syrian chemical weapons or North Korean nukes.  Not even my miserable failings, my immaturity, my selfishness, my barb-throwing unkindness.  Nothing.
        And if that is how God loves His enemies, then how should we love ours?  We are not God, but He lives within us, and we are called to love as He loves.  And He loved us when we were His enemies, when we are His enemies.
        And if we reflect that love of God with our enemies, then what about the myriad others around us who are not enemies?  There are lots of folks we have trouble loving who cannot reasonably be called enemies.  Some of you have real trouble loving your next-door neighbors if they are Democrats … or Republicans, take your pick. Some of us find it difficult to love the homeless.  Some of us have trouble loving those whom we find on the opposite side of today’s culture wars. I did not say we have trouble understanding them or affirming them – those are different questions.  We have trouble loving them, welcoming them, offering them a cup of cold water.
        Let me make that point again.  Understanding is different from loving.  Affirming is different from loving. To say that I love someone does not mean that I understand them, and it does not mean that I affirm their choices. Oftentimes, the most loving thing I can do is to stand by my convictions and refuse to affirm behavior that I know to be wrong. But being strong in my convictions must never interfere with my loving the person with whom I disagree. I recently found out that some of my friends have a child who is transgender.  I do not understand the psychology that leads to that situation, and I am in no position to judge them or their child; but I will say this: if they or their child walked into this service, I pray and hope that we would love them – all three of them – as God loves them and as Christ loved us. If we can love our enemies, then surely we can love those who vote differently, or look different, or act different, or believe differently, or live in circumstances that we will never understand.
        Picture that enemy again. Are you patient with him or her?  Are you kind?  Or are you arrogant and rude?  Do you insist on your own way? Are you irritable and resentful?  Do you take joy at wrongs or with the truth?  Do you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things? 
        Does your love for him or her ever fail?
        Remember when you were God’s enemy, lost in your sin. Thank God that He ran after you with love and beg His forgiveness when we do not do the same toward our own enemies.
        Being asked to pray for the masterminds of the worst terrorist attack on our soil in history may seem beyond the pale to you.  You have heard it said that such an attempted prayer is meaningless. I don’t think it is.
        Being asked to love that person, that enemy, you thought about earlier in the sermon may seem beyond what you can muster.  You have heard it said that it cannot be done. I think it can.
        If you can conceive of love for your enemy at all, you may think that all you can do is offer lip service, perhaps think nice thoughts and steel yourself against actively seeking to injure your enemy.  You have heard it said that is all you can do. I don’t think it is.
        You have heard it said that some people do not deserve your love. That is wrong. There is no one beyond love.
        Because we are not to love on our own.  We love as Jesus loves. We love with Jesus’s love. And nothing can separate enemies from that love.  Nothing.

          Corrie Ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place, writes in another of her books about her experience in the prison camp.  She says, “… When my former guard from the concentration camp asked me to forgive him, that moment I felt great bitterness swelling in my heart. I remembered the sufferings of my dying sister.  But I knew that unforgiveness would do more harm to me than the guard’s whip…. The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.  Thank you, Lord, that your love in me can do that which I cannot do.  I could not do it.  I was not able.  Jesus in me was able to do it.  You see, you never touch so much the ocean of God’s love as when you love your enemies.”
        You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  But Jesus says “Do not resist…. Turn the other cheek…. Go the extra mile.”
        You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor, and hate your enemies.”  But Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”
        In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.




Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter Sermon - Call Me Thomas


Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” - John 20:20-24


My name is Judas Thomas.  Some call me Didymus, because I am a twin. You can call me Thomas.
I know some people call me “Doubting Thomas,” but I never really understood why, and it kind of bothers me.  I am not a doubter. I am just careful, maybe a little pessimistic at times. I am a questioner, and I need things to make sense. For three years, I was trying to use a little common sense to deal with some very uncommon knowledge. If being slow to accept things on blind faith makes me a doubter, then so be it.  But I don’t really think I doubt any more than the next guy.
        But today, something has happened.  Something incredible. Something that makes the idea that I ever doubted, ever questioned, ever needed more proof seem far away and hard to believe.  You see, today, I …
        Well, let me start at the beginning.
        I am not unusual. I am Jewish. I was born in Galilee and grew up in the hills of Palestine outside Capernaum. I have always wanted to travel. I hope to go east soon, but for the first few decades of my life, I was a homebody.  Nobody had any money to travel, and with the Romans watching every step, there was really nowhere to go anyway. If you stepped out of line or stood out from the crowd, you were likely to get shanghaied into carrying a soldier’s pack for a mile, and then you had to walk back.  Better to lie low and stay off the radar.
        I worked with my hands. I did some fishing, but I was not a pro like Simon and Andrew.  I did some carpentry, but I was not in the league of a true craftsman like Joseph.  I did odd jobs, sometimes working as a cook.  I worked hard and honestly, and I made a life for myself.
        But I was not special. I just worked hard.
        I took matters of religion seriously. I studied the Torah, went to Temple at all the feasts, and prayed as best I could. I did not really understand the intricacies of what the rabbis taught, but I tried. I asked questions, and I fasted when I was supposed to. I tried to put the pieces together, but somehow, they never really fit for me.
        That was before I met Him.
        But I am getting ahead of myself again.
        As I said, I never stood out. I worked hard, but not harder than many around me. I was content to listen, to work things out, to study. So why did He pick me?
He had started gathering a following, and word was spreading. When He was down at the river with his cousin John, something amazing happened.  There was thunder … and a dove.  I wasn’t there, but I heard about it. I had questions.
        Then, I was sharing a meal with my friend Nathanael one day when he told me about this man, this Nazarene, this Yeshua.  I realized that I knew whom he meant, that he was talking about this young man from Joseph’s house. But Nathanael did not talk about Him as though He were a common carpenter. He spoke of Him with a reverence that bordered on … well, the only word for it was worship.  My friend was so taken with this man that I had to see more.  I had more questions.
        I heard that this Yeshua was healing.  Now, in my time in my part of the world, so-called healers are a dime a dozen. Would-be messiahs and fame-grabbing sideshows dot the horizon where people are desperate to escape Rome. I really did not believe that anyone actually healed; these were just shows, just magic acts. So, it was not so much the healing stories that aroused my curiosity as it was the accounts of what He had to say.  I heard that He was going to be speaking out on the hillside one day, and I took off from work to hear Him.
        It was remarkable. He was like no preacher or healer I had ever seen.  It was immediately clear that He was not cut from the same cloth as the charlatans I had disregarded so quickly. When He spoke, I wanted to hear more. Oh, I had questions.  I always had questions. But He captivated me.  I heard Him say that I was blessed. He looked out over a crowd of people who were trying to be as faithful as we knew how to be and saw the meek and the pure, the persecuted and the mourning, the merciful and those who can only be categorized as poor in spirit, and He told us we were all blessed. He called us the salt of the earth. He spoke not of obvious sins like murder and adultery but looked into our hearts at our anger, our lust, our lack of reconciliation.
        He said words about love that I could not understand at the time. Oh, I think I am getting closer now, but back then, I could not wrap my head around the idea. I was used to giving to the needy, but He told us to do that in secret. He said not to let anyone know when we fasted and not to worry about our treasures here on earth. My questions mounted, but I could not turn away.
        And then He said it… the first sentence that I heard Him say that I can still quote verbatim. It is as fresh now as it was then, three years ago. After talking about what we all do – worrying about our clothes and our money and what’s for dinner – he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” [Matthew 6:33]
        I was hooked. Astonished, but hooked.
        I started following.
        And oh, what I saw. I saw healings, real healings – the blind, the lame, the deaf and the sick. The fakes and frauds could not touch this. I saw storms calmed and mentally disturbed people cured and demons shooed away like stray cats. This was no magic act.
        And, then, one day it happened. I still don’t know why, but He turned and looked at me.  Directly at me.  As I had followed on the fringes, I had seen his four friends – Andrew and Simon, John and James – who were clearly His inner circle. Then, just a couple of days before, I noticed that a tax collector of all people – his name was Matthew – was now a part of the group.  But on this day, He looked at me. He called me by name. He invited me to do the impossible. He told me that I could follow Him and join their circle, that He would give me authority over unclear spirits and diseases!
        As it turns out, He said the same thing to six others, including Nathanael, and the seven of us joined those first four, plus Matthew.  We became known as The Twelve. Who would have thought that country fishermen would join up with a tax collector, a political radical zealot like Simon, and city boys like Philip and Thaddeus? What in the world was I doing in a collection like this?
        Yes, I had more questions.
        He would send us on jobs to do, two by two, into towns and villages. I usually went with Nathanael, but sometimes he paired me up with John. Then we would gather back together, compare notes and share stories. But, the truth is, none of us really understood. We passed time until He began speaking, began sharing with us. It never really felt like teaching – it was more intimate than that. Yeshua – I know, you call Him Jesus, but I am Jewish, and I slip back into the local dialect.  I will try to use the name that you know. – When Jesus spoke to us, it was a friend – no, that is not exactly right – it was a big brother… no, that is not it either.  The word that comes to mind seemed silly then, but after what I have seen today, the only word that makes since is Lord.
        You see why I had questions. I cannot even get it straight in my own head. Hearing Jesus speak was like nothing you can imagine. It was important and simple at the same time. It was like food for the soul. You heard things that you knew you could build your life on, and at the same time, I had more and more questions.  Things that I would never have dreamed about doing – picking grain on the Sabbath, questioning Pharisees – were suddenly second nature when Jesus was there.
        But there was something else. A sense of doom and dread. Jesus would occasionally talk about bad things on the horizon, how He would be taken and beaten and killed. Most of us did not take Him seriously, but I always gave it a little more thought. I guess that is my nature.
        Just a few weeks ago, He was teaching, He called Himself the Good Shepherd, and He started speaking in terms that no one before Him had dared use.  He said that He and the Father were one, that He could give eternal life. Some of the hangers-on around us picked up rocks and started to throw them at Him, and at us. Se we crossed the River Jordan and kept away from town.

While we were out there, we got word that our friend Lazarus was sick.  Jesus pondered this for a couple of days and then announced that we were going to Bethany, in Judaea, into the heart of His enemies. We were surprised, and not a little scared.  We remembered those rocks.  Jesus answered that we should walk in the light, and then He said that Lazarus had fallen asleep and He was going to wake him up. When some of us did not get it, Jesus spoke more plainly: “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.” [John 11:14-15]
Something inside me clicked. Usually in the background, I rarely spoke up.  I left that to Simon, who was now known as Peter.  But this time, it seemed to be my turn, and I took it. I said to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [John 11:16]
I did not realize it at the time, but what I said confused some of my friends. They thought I meant that we should go die with Lazarus, that all of us friends of Jesus were doomed, or maybe even that I wanted the thrill of being raised from the dead just like Lazarus. But they had it wrong. When I said “that we may die with him,” I meant that we may die with Jesus. Like I said, something inside me clicked. I knew, or at least I had an inkling of, what Jesus was walking into, and I thought we owed it to Him to promise to stand by Him, to walk with Him, even into death.
If only I could have kept that resolve over the next couple of weeks.
And let me tell you… Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead! I wish you could have seen it.  With authority I have never before witnessed, Jesus called this dead man to walk out of the tomb, and he did! He came out with his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, with a cloth around his face. Jesus smiled as He said, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” [John 11:44]
What kind of man is this? Who has this kind of power over death itself? I was learning… but not fast enough. Still, it was that word again. “Lord.” Nothing else seemed to make sense to me.
Sure enough, the furor against Jesus reached a fever pitch in the aftermath of His raising Lazarus. The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin, and Caiaphas put a price on Jesus’s head. After that, we had to move around much more carefully. At least, until Sunday two weeks ago.
Then, everything changed. Jesus once again was in public, and the crowd went wild. Songs and praises like you have never heard before. But Jesus began telling us that He would die, that the cheering would not last as He would be handed over to those very same chief priests.
Soon, it was Thursday night. We gathered in the upper room, and Jesus got up after dinner and started washing our feet.  Can you imagine that? It did not feel like a servant, though. It felt like a friend.  It felt like the Lord.  He told us, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” [John 13:13-15]
Then, the evening took a darker turn, as Jesus told us he would be with us only a little longer. He mentioned betrayal and denial. I don’t think any of us understood.  Or maybe we just chose to look away.
But then, He spoke again, and again His words were burned into my mind. I will never forget them: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God.  Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many mansions.  If it were not so, I would have told you. I go there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, that where I am, you may be also. You know the way to the place I am going.” [John 14:1-4]
Silence.
Awestruck, dumbfounded, gobsmacked silence.
And for the second time, I was the one who spoke up. I can’t tell you why. All I can tell you is that I was moved and excited and mystified by these words. They seemed to be full of promise and hope, but they were tinged with despair.  I did not want Him to go.
Lord,” I said.  We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” [John 14:5]
And Jesus looked at me, without a pause, and smiled. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6]
Jesus said a lot more that night, but you will have to ask John for the details. I was lost in this idea of Jesus going away and coming back, of His leading the way and being the way all at the same time.
There was no word for Him but Lord.
And then, everything changed again.
We headed to Gethsemane, a little garden with olive trees and a small brook. It was out of the way, which made it quiet, usually, and Jesus liked it there. He took us, as it turns out, to pray with Him. But we were tired, and speaking for myself, my mind was so tossed by all that He had said that I was weary. I could not keep my eyes open.
And then…
And then… Well it starts to run together in my mind. All I can say is that it was awful.
Soldiers and police and priests and I-don’t-know-who-all showed up. It was nothing short of a mob.  Judas seemed to be leading the group … but that couldn’t be right, could it? I saw him go up to Jesus, and then I saw soldiers approaching Jesus. Matthew raised a sword, and Jesus said something sharp – I was too far away to hear – and then, and then, He was gone.
As quickly as it had started, it was over. I was still in the garden, and so were some of my friends.  I saw James and Nathanael, and I think I remember Philip still being there. Most of the others had either run away or slunk into the shadows.
I can’t tell you what I did next.  I can tell you I did not follow – I was too scared. I know that Peter went in the direction they led Jesus, and I think John headed that way too. But me? I just wandered the streets.  I ended up back in the upper room, and sooner or later, the others showed up as well. By Friday night, everyone was back. John was in tears.  Peter looked sick.
We all heard what happened. The news was all over town. There had been the quickest trial in the history of Jerusalem, and Jesus had been taken out to the Skull-hill and crucified with a couple of common criminals. We knew what that meant. You may not really understand crucifixion, but we knew that it was humiliating and final. It was deadly. There was no appeal, no pardon. The soldiers would see to that. When you were crucified, you died while everyone watched.
And Jesus did. John told us so. So did a few others who came by in the night. Joanna and Salome had both seen it. News from others who had seen Him die came trickling in. John told us that blood and water had come out of his side; you don’t have to be a nurse to know that means death. We even heard some Roman soldiers talking about it through the window.
When the Arimathean offered to bury Jesus in his tomb, he and Nicodemus took the body. They did not know it, but some of us were watching. John and Andrew and I were hiding in the bushes. I saw the lifeless body, wrapped head to toe, put into the tomb. I saw the stone rolled in front. Then I saw Roman soldiers come and put an unbreakable seal around the stone – I had never heard of that being done before.

Soon enough, I was back in the upper room, and I was as sad as I have ever been. As the sun rose on Saturday, some started thinking about preparation for Sabbath, and, as often happens in the light of morning, some dared speak hopeful thoughts. Hadn’t he said something about rising, about a third day? But they were quickly shouted down. Why raise hopes, talking fairy tales?
I must admit that I was one of the loudest shouters. I wanted to try to remember the good times, the words He had said.  Seek first the kingdom.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
The fact is, I was haunted by my own words about dying with Him. When were they coming for us… for me? My Sabbath day was spent in fear and dismay.
Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Peter and John got up and left. I asked where they were going, and they said that they were going to the tomb. They had to see it for themselves.

Not me. I had already seen enough. I could not take these ghost stories anymore. I got up and left, and I started walking. I cannot tell you where I went. I walked all morning, but by noon I was just getting started. I got outside the city and started wandering in the hills. I was not thinking. I was just … frantic?  Is that the right word? Or was I simply despondent? I don’t know. You tell me.  All I know is that I was gone all day. This was last Sunday, one week ago.
When I got back to the room, the entire atmosphere had changed. The other ten – Judas never returned – were ecstatic, and I had no idea why.  They told me … wait for it … they actually told me that they had seen Jesus!  All I could think was, “More ghost stories.” John sat me down and, in no uncertain terms, told me that Jesus had come and stood among them. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Then Jesus had said “Peace be with you!” [John 20:21] I think John told me that He said something about the Holy Spirit, but I had lost focus.

I could not understand. Remember, I am the common-sense guy, and this preposterous tale made no sense. John told me about Jesus supposedly showing them His hands and side, so I said something I thought was pretty smart: “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hands into His side, I will not believe.” [John 20:25]
This was not doubt. This was outright disbelief. I simply could not comprehend or accept what my friends were saying. It was easy to say that I was just looking for some concrete, logical proof. Sure, if I could actually touch His wounds, that would convince me that He was back.
Fat chance. I knew better. I was certain.
But I also could not miss what had happened to them. All their sadness was gone … except for Peter. He continued to look sad, not grieving like before, but deeply sad, as though he had let down his best friend, as though he had gone through the worst personal failure of his life.  Little did I know.
But everyone else was almost giddy. They really did not try to convince me of anything. Oh, they kept telling me the same story.  Mary Magdalene and a couple of her friends had a similar report.  Cleopas came back from Emmaus raving about his walk with Jesus. But when I tried to cross-examine any of them, they just looked at me with a gleam in their eye and said, “you’ll see.” It was as if they knew He was going to show up again, as if they knew that I would have an experience like they had had. They did not have to try to persuade me. They just waited hopefully.
I was bumfuzzled. These were my friends, and I did not know them to be easily misled or duped. I would have been as pleased as the rest of them if it were true… but I had seen the body. I knew what crucifixion was. Peter and John and Mary and a few dozen more had seen Him die. You can’t just wish that away.
So, that brings us to today. I didn’t go for any walks today. All eleven of us were back in the upper room, with the doors locked. Yes, we were still frightened of the Romans, no matter what stories some were telling.
Nobody unlocked the doors, but suddenly … I know, it seems crazy … but suddenly, Jesus was standing with us!
Really. Jesus was standing there. Just like John had told me before, Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” [John 20:26]
And then, it happened. Jesus looked straight at me. Just like last time, I had no idea why He picked me. I was really not ready for what came next. It was as if He knew exactly where my heart was. He somehow knew what I had said, what was holding me back. He knew me. I am Mr. Common Sense, and Jesus knew it, and He said something –  as He held out His hands, His wounded, not-yet-scabbed-over hands – words that made shivers run down my spine: “Put your finger here.  See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe!” [John 20:27]
OK. Maybe I was a doubter after all.
He spoke with power that I had never heard before, even from Him. He smiled with a love that reached deep into my soul. He was presenting me with exactly what I thought I needed, meeting me where I was, giving me the chance to touch divinity. He was not so much commanding me as He was inviting me.
This was it. The chance to answer my questions, to prove to my common sense that what I had been told was real. The chance to touch His wounds.
And you know what?  I did not have to touch Him. Oh, I thought I would have to. I thought I would never believe anything until all my questions were answered, until I had been provided a logical discourse, complete with scientific explanations and geometric proofs. I thought I knew what I needed.
As it turns out, I had no idea what I needed.
I did not need to touch anything or see any math problems or hear any theories explained. He was there to be touched if I still wanted to touch Him, but what I needed was to see Jesus.
I saw the Master, the Lord. I fell down on my knees, in front of everyone, and cried out with tears and laughter, in an awestruck whisper, “My Lord and my God!” [John 20:28]
I’ve just seen Jesus.
When I saw Jesus, my other questions paled. I did not understand all the details, but I did not care. Seeing Jesus, I did not have to know how He defeated death; I just know that He did.  Seeing Jesus, I did not know how He walked out of the tomb; I just know that He is no longer there.
Now I understand why my friends were not trying to persuade me this last week. Once they saw the risen Jesus, coming up with fancy arguments was not nearly so important as helping me see Jesus. They knew He would show up, and they made sure I was there – no more long walks by myself.
My goal now is to help other people see Jesus. I still will not be able to answer all their questions. I have not suddenly become a theological expert. But I am a witness. I have my own experience with the living Jesus, and I can share that with others. I can tell them what happened to me, what I saw, and I can help them see the risen Lord.
That is what happened to me today. I saw Jesus. I saw the risen Jesus. I saw my Lord who had died, and He is not dead anymore. I still cannot explain it all, and some of my so-called doubts will surely still seek some answers, but they don’t hold me back any longer.
I think back on those two earlier times when I spoke up, when I rose up out of the crowd, and I see such importance in those two events.
The idea of going to die with Jesus is now a note of triumph, for those who die with Jesus are raised to walk with Him in new life.
The idea of asking Jesus where He is going, and how can we know the way, is now a key point of what my life means, for He has become the way, and the truth, and the life. There is no need to seek any other way to the Father, for Jesus is it. He has conquered death. The tomb could not hold Him.
I’ve just seen Jesus, and I’ll never be the same again.