April 22, 2012 Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48
1st Reading: Acts 3:12-19 2nd Reading: 1 John 3:1-7
In 1999, Time magazine named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross one of the “100 most important thinkers” of the past century. Maybe you know her name because of this book, “On Death and Dying” published in 1969. Even if you don’t know her name, many of you are familiar with her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You might be familiar with them because they are a part of how we are beginning to understand grief in our culture. And you might be familiar with them from having lived through grief with the loss of a close family member.
One important thing about her stages of grief is that they aren’t considered to be linear. That is, one doesn’t necessarily follow the one before it, and once you’ve gone through one stage, it doesn’t mean that you won’t return to that stage again. People jump around between the stages and there is no right pattern to follow through the stages. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ book goes against the notion in our society that you should just get over it, that you grieve and then you’re done, that you should be over your grief in a month or two or year at most.
Today’s readings focus on the stages of faith. There are three stages of faith that I see here. There is the old life. There is the experience of Jesus. And there is the new life. Let’s go through them one by one.
We start with the old life. The old life is characterized by sin, and shame, and doubt, and fear. The Disciples are still in the old life in the Gospel reading for today, locked in the upper room together, fearing for their lives, confused about Jesus’ crucifixion, terrified for the future. They must have felt guilty for betraying him. They must have given up hope. They were afraid that those who crucified Jesus were coming back for them. They didn’t know where to turn. They were living the old life of brokenness and separation from God and from each other. This is the part of the Acts reading for this morning about how the people rejected God and killed the author of life. This is the part in the second reading about committing sin and being guilty of lawlessness.
Another stage is the experience of Jesus, or God, or resurrection. This is the Holy Spirit of God with the people, with creation. Some of us had this experience in baptism, or among the poor in some of our travels, or through some physical or psychological healing we experienced, or through another type of mystical experience where we felt the presence of God or saw it or heard it. The reading from 1 John talks about God being revealed to us, and that can happen in any number of ways. In the Gospel, Jesus stands among the disciples and shows them his body and eats with them.
And yet another stage of faith is new life. In the Gospel, Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures. He offers them forgiveness. He makes them witnesses. In the book of Acts, Peter invites the people to repent so that God can erase their sins. And in 1 John, new life means being a child of God.
Some in culture would say that this must be in order, that one stage necessarily follows the last. You have the old life, then you meet Jesus, and bam you have new life.
Martin Luther would say that we live all of these stages at the same time. We are experiencing God in every moment. God is present in all the people we meet, in every leaf of every tree, in every sound and taste and smell, in every heartbeat, whether we know it or not. He would say that all we can do is sin and be broken from one another and from God. And at the same time, God has sent us Jesus who is actively saving us and bringing us back into relationship with God. Even though we are always in sin, we are also being cleansed and loved and valued by God. Martin Luther takes these stages of faith and collapses them together.
In our readings for today the stages aren’t in order. 1 John starts with the experience of God, then talks about new life, then goes into the old life. The Reading from Acts starts with the old life, then how God used that situation to bring us new life. And in the Gospel they are all thrown in together in good Lutheran fashion. The disciples are having an experience of Jesus, hearing him, seeing his hands and side, and eating with him. I love this part, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” They got it and they didn’t get it all at the same time. Isn’t that how life works! It is seldom one or the other, but a whole big mess, mixed up together.
I point this out because sometimes we might doubt our own journey of faith and feel it isn’t good enough. Shouldn’t it be going directly from old life, to encountering Jesus, to new life? Wouldn’t it be nice if it was so predictable? But instead our lives of faith take twists and turns. Sometimes we feel closer to God. And other times we only experience God’s silence. Sometimes in the silence we are doing everything to be faithful. And times when we pray and read our devotions and practice acts of love for those in need, we think we ought to feel the presence of God, and sometimes we’re just going through the motions. Our faith isn’t neat and tidy. It isn’t linear, but we don’t need it to be and God doesn’t need it to be.
I also say this because some of us get concerned about the faith of our loved ones. We know they believe. We wonder why it isn’t showing in their worship attendance. We get defensive about why they aren’t here. Sometimes their lives don’t reflect it in other ways. Their faith journey will also take them through many twists and turns and it isn’t going to be neat and tidy, but we can trust that God is at work. And we are witnesses to God’s love not to abandon them, but to live our life in an authentic way so that they can see God in their journey, in the silences and hard times as well as the times of rejoicing.
Some of you may have noticed at Sterling’s baptism that only I made the vows as his parent, not my husband. It may have struck you as somewhat unusual. Yet it was authentic to where my husband is at in his faith journey. I wouldn’t want him to pretend. And yet I never doubt that he has God’s love within him. He has love for other people. He knows his Bible inside and out and is familiar with God’s promises. He has been baptized. Maybe his faith life isn’t in order, but none of us knows where it will go next and I can’t imagine that God would abandon him because of the order of his faith life. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, the Bible says.
In the time that 1 John was written, there was a controversy. People came to know Jesus and they figured it was all done for them, so they could party and sin as much as they liked and Jesus would take care of it for them. But the apostle John wanted the people to know that faith and new life wasn’t just something that Jesus gives us, but it is a way of living.
Today is Spiritual Gifts Sunday. We all have gifts and abilities to share. We can do that in an old life way. Sometimes we share our gifts out of fear that if we don’t no one else will and our church won’t be able to operate. Sometimes we share our gifts out of hope—we take a risk to learn something about ourselves, to enliven our community, and to see that downtrodden people know they are valued children of God, that a little more of the Kingdom of God will be able to break into our world. Usually our motivations are mixed. They don’t always go in the right order, and yet God is able to work through our faithful and faithless motivations to bring new life. We do hope our faith life will move more from faithlessness toward faithfulness, and with spiritual disciplines and a community of believers to help us, hopefully it will, not because God requires it, but because it means more life and less stress to us and those around us.
Just as God worked through the faithlessness of us who would kill the author of life to bring us new life, God works through our winding faith journeys to bring new life to us and to the world. God can use our gifts, no matter our motivations, to touch people’s lives and bring them hope.