So, now what? (Sermon)

As prepared for delivery at Second Baptist Church, Petersburg
April, 03, 2016
John 20: 24-31
Romans 12:1-2, 9-21

A week ago we were gathered and heard the good new about our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.  First, Mary came back and told us all that Jesus wasn’t where He was supposed to be, that someone must have moved Jesus’ body.  Not believing her, Peter and one of the others ran to the tomb and there they confirmed Mary story.  There they

“went into the tomb. He (Peter) saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus'[a] head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.” (John 20:6b-10)

They did not yet understand.

Then Mary, who stood weeping outside of the tomb after the others had left, had the strangest encounter.  When she came back she told us a story that boggled the mind.  She told us about she was standing there, weeping. And then she saw several men.  One asked her why she was weeping, and she told him.  But then another asked again, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Thinking that he might be the gardener, she asked him if he had carried off Jesus’ body.  At that moment the man called her name “MARY!” She suddenly realized, she told us later, at that moment that she was talking to Jesus.  After talking with Him a  little longer, she came running back to us to tell us what it was that she had seen, who it was she had seen, what and who it was that she experienced.

Let’s be honest, we were all still a little skeptical.  After all, who comes back from the dead, well besides Lazerus I guess.  But then, that night, as we were all gathered and hiding behind locked doors, Jesus came to us.  We got to see him.  We got to touch him.  He talked to us, and we got the experience that he really had Risen, just as Mary had told us that he had.

Well, all of us except Thomas.  Poor Thomas wasn’t in that room with us.  We don’t really know where Thomas was, only he didn’t get to experience Jesus.  And when we told him all about it, he just didn’t believe it.  He scoffed at us.  Told us we were idiots.  I don’t know if he thought that we were trying to pull one over on him or what, but he just didn’t understand what we did.  He didn’t get it.

You know, I think that history has been cruel to Thomas.  It has given him the unfortunate nickname “Doubting Thomas” when the text clearly tells us that his nickname was Thomas the Twin.  We have turned Thomas into a figure that we hold up as lacking, as wanting.  We tell this story about how Thomas was less than the others, as if the others hadn’t had the chance to see and interact with the risen Christ.

Remember what the text says about Peter and the others after they leaves the tomb: they did not yet understand.

They didn’t get it either.  After all, they had seen the empty tomb but not yet the Risen Christ.  How were they to get it.  Empty tombs are great, but we can only put it into context when we meet the guy that was supposed to be in tomb and he is up and walking around!

The others got that.  Thomas didn’t.  And then we have the audacity to speak ill of Thomas.  How many of us, if we are really honest, would believe it if someone came running into this sanctuary right now talking about a person we know to be dead and buried was up and walking around.  I doubt many of us would take that person very seriously.

Now what would happen if that person, who we knew to be dead, came walking in themselves and right up this aisle.  We might react a little differently, no?

I don’t blame Thomas.  Thomas is just like all the others.  And the ONE time he skips Sunday night prayer meeting EVERYTHING changes!

Now, how many of us, particularly those of us that came to faith as adults, when we were first told that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that Ressurection had happened, believed it?  Be honest!  I know I didn’t, and I doubt many of you did either.  See, what I needed to believe was an encounter.  I needed to meet the risen Jesus.

I’m not the only one either.  It’s what Saul needed on that dusty road to Damascus.  John Newton, the man who penned “Amazing Grace,” met Jesus for the first time on a storm tossed off the coast off the coast of Ireland.  This encounter began his conversion, which he himself admitted took many years.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, met Jesus in a Moravian prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street in London.  He later referred to the experience as having his heart “strangely warmed.”  For me, I met Jesus in a church auditorium, in a group of people who accepted me totally and without pretense.  And in that same auditorium, it was Jesus who broke my heart wide open, exposing, to me, the sin that lived there.  I’ll bet that most of you have a similar story of some kind.

Salvation is not about intellectual assent to a set of propositions.  We, as Baptists, have always known that.  This is why we talk about a “personal relationship” with God, through Jesus.  We know that it is the encounter with the risen Christ that changes everything.

It changed everything for Thomas, getting to meet Jesus again, for the first time.

It changes us, too.

What does this change look like? The Bible is always talking about making things new, and we are not the exception to that.  We must, Jesus tells us in John chapter 3, be born again.  And like Nicodemus we are left asking “how, what does it look like?”

It looks like transformation.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  Transformed.  Changed utterly.  Something new.  Born Again.

Last week, Joe [ed: the Senior Pastor of Second Baptist]  spoke of Jefferson and his “bible” where he literally cut and pasted the aspects of the Gospels that he wanted to ascent to.  Jefferson called this volume The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  In the Preface to a recent addition, Forrest Church, son of Senator Frank Church, describes his father giving him a copy of the Jefferson Bible when he was about 10 years old.  His father gave him a Jefferson quote to go along with the book, “It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read.”

Jefferson is an enigmatic figure.  One biography of him is even entitled The American Sphinx.  We all know the details, how Jefferson spoke out against slavery, even included condemnation of the slave trade in the first draft of the Declaration  In Note On the State of Virginia, Jefferson expressed his belief that slavery was damaging to both enslaved persons and slave owners.  And yet when he died, he owned a large number of enslaved persons, 130 of whom were actioned off to try and settle the estates grand debts.

I want to introduce you to another man of the founding generation, a man you may have never heard of, Robert Carter III, or RC3 as I affectionately call him.  Robert Carter III was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter and probably the wealthiest man in Virginia at the start of the Revolution.  At a time when most men in Virginia were in debt, one of the men they owed money too was Robert Carter.  Even the royal governor owed Carter money.  Carter had been on the Governors council, but as many did, even though he supported independence, we stepped away from politics as the war began.

It was during this time, and after a period of illness that almost cost him his life, Robert Carter began a period of religious seeking.  Eventually this seeking would lead him down into the waters of Totuskey Creek on the Northern Neck to be baptized into Morattico Baptist Church.

As Carter would later tell the story, on Sunday, sitting in service, he heard Christ ask him how the men and women he worshiped with on a weekly basis could, inside the meeting house, be his sisters and brothers in Christ, but outside of the meetinghouse he could own them.  Carter came to realize that he couldn’t justify it, and began a process that would result in the largest private manumission of enslaved persons prior to the Civil War.

What was the difference between these two men?  How could two men, of the same generation and social class, who both saw the evils inherent in slavery, have two very different reactions to it?

“Now in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid.  There they laid Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.”  That’s the end for Jefferson.  If you remember from last week, that’s how Jefferson ends his testament.  There is not empty tomb.  There is no encounter with the Risen Christ.

Robert Carter III had that.  He met Jesus.  He was transformed so utterly that he risked everything, social standing, wealth, his family, his property, everything to follow Jesus.

When we meet the risen Christ, we too need to be transformed utterly.  We need to leave the ways of the world behind us.  The world says win, and Jesus says die, as a living sacrifice.

Of course, it is not our works that grant us salvation.  Of course not, only God’s grace can do that.  But when we encounter that grace, when we see the Risen Christ and can see the scars he bore for us, there is only one reasonable response: to allow everything about ourselves be changed and shaped by him.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,[g] serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.[h] Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[i] to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21)

In a few minutes, we are going to come to the table.  When I was a child a had a pastor that would use the same words every time to invite God’s people to the table:

“All of you that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend” here he’d pause for a moment, “INTEND to live a new life, following the commandments of and walking henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith and take this table to your comfort.”

What an amazing reminder of the transformation we are called to.

I don’t often provide footnotes for my sermons, however, this time I do want to acknowledge sources.

Information  from the Jefferson Bible, including the anecdote from Frank Church, are found in The Jefferson Bible.

Information about Robert Carter III is from The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter.  I can not recommend this book highly enough.  If you have any interest in the founding of this country, American religious history, slavery, etc. this needs to be a must read for you.

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