Second Sunday of Easter
Have you heard about the “nones”? No, not those nuns. I’m talking about the box that could be selected on the latest Pew Research poll on religion in America. Along with the expected categories like Buddhist, Protestant Christian, and Hindu, there was a choice titled “none.”
What the Pew researchers discovered is that the people who checked the “none” box are on a dramatic rise. In 1950 just two percent of respondents claimed no religious affiliation. In 2010 that number had jumped to 16%. By 2012 that number rose again, this time to around 20%. Based on these results around 46 million Americans claim no religious affiliation.
The greatest number of people who consider themselves “nones” are under 30. In fact, 1/3 of all men and women under the age of 30 claimed no religious preference. The number is even more dramatic if you focus on youth after high school. Around 70% of youth will leave the church after they graduate. A decade later, when they have their own children, only half of these young people will return.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re slowly morphing into a country of atheists and agnostics. While the 20% includes those with confused or no belief in God, it also comprises those who consider themselves spiritual but don’t adhere to or have left an institutional religion. These people say that they pray regularly, almost every day. But not only are they disconnected from religious community – a vast number aren’t even seeking it. They continue to call themselves Christians, but they don’t affiliate with a church body. They have been lost to church participation.
As you can imagine, this news has garnered a wide variety of responses. Some mourned over these statistics, calling this the death of Christianity in the West. They point their fingers at the increasingly secular culture, and the influence of video games, television, and music. Others just shrugged. So what? Who cares if people are dropping out of religious communities? As long as people are leading good, moral lives. Others rejoiced at this news. In these numbers they see the end of cultural Christianity, with a renewed hope that personal, invested faith will push out superstitious tradition.
For me this hit a little closer to home. As I went through the research again, reading through the articles, blogs, and statistics I thought about the young people in this congregation. I saw their faces. I thought about their questions, their honest doubts, their struggles with the Gospel. I thought about all the things that pull their hearts and heads in a hundred different directions. I thought about the world they are entering, the job market, the expectations placed on them, the fears they carry with them. And all of this brought me back to today’s Gospel lesson, to the story of Thomas.
Poor Thomas. It just so happened that he was the one who was gone when the risen Jesus finally showed up. Jesus appears, showing his hands and his feet and his side to the other disciples. The disciples tell Thomas all about it. But instead of believing the testimony of the others, Thomas has to see Jesus, too. So Jesus finally appears to him and after truculently lifting his shirt to show the wound in his side, Jesus rebukes Thomas, saying, “Stop doubting and believe.”
Isn’t that so often the story we have heard of Thomas? Some of us may hear in this story a rebuke of our inability to believe. Despite the Enlightenment, despite the scientific evidence, despite rationality, despite it all we are expected to believe that a body actually, really and truly came back to life. And we’re supposed to believe without questions, without doubts.
The research tells us that this is how so many of our young people experience church. The Barna Group recently published a book called You Lost Me that looks at the reasons youth are leaving the church. The number one cause they identify is that young people think we as the church are out of touch with the real world. The young people surveyed described the church as stifling, risk-averse, and fear-based. Another reason cited is the shallowness of worship, and the lack of connection felt to God during the service. Young people interviewed by Barna also said the church appeared to them as antagonistic towards science, simplistic and judgmental on sexual issues, and unfriendly towards those who doubt.
And perhaps in our traditional reading of the Thomas story that is what we hear. The judgment of doubt. The refusal to allow for questions. A disconnect from the reality. But if we read Thomas’ story this way we I think we have forgotten the character of the Jesus who stands before the disciples in the upper room. We have forgotten that this is the same Jesus who embraces those who are far off, the Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans. We have forgotten the Jesus who again and again patiently works through the rash, thoughtless comments of those closest to him.
It is this Jesus who encounters the Beloved Disciple, Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the disciples at the tomb and then in the upper room. If we remember the character of this Jesus perhaps we can greet the story of Thomas with new eyes. No, Thomas does not require any more than the other disciples. None were asked to believe on testimony alone. None were asked or expected to believe without seeing first. The Jesus who comes to Thomas does so full of grace. He gives to Thomas exactly what the other have been given, exactly what he needs – a real and personal encounter with his body.
So, for the Gospel of John, seeing Jesus is the first step towards a lived faith. As you look at how each person in the Gospel of John comes to believe Jesus has risen the one thing they have in common is that they saw something. John 20 and 21 a version of the word “to see” is used ten different times. The first person in the Gospel of John, the first person to get to the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene sees that Jesus has been removed. Next, the unnamed Disciple Whom Jesus Loved and the Apostle Peter both see the linen cloths. After these two run off Mary is left alone, weeping, that is until she sees the angels and then sees Jesus. Not long after the rest of the disciples also see Jesus, now in the flesh among them. Everyone has now seen Jesus, or evidence of Jesus’ resurrection at the empty tomb, everyone except Thomas.
Of course, the next part is written for us, for those of us who don’t have the physical Jesus in front of us, those of us who cannot put our hands in his wounds. “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now, technically you and I both have to fall within this category of blessedness that John describes. We’re living 2000 plus years after Jesus. Jesus has ascended to the Father. But if I am truthful, I will have to exempt myself from this group. Because I have seen Jesus. I wouldn’t be a Christian today if I had not, if I did not see Jesus on a regular basis.
I saw Jesus on Maundy Thursday in a picture in the NYTimes. This photo showed Pope Francis in a break with papal tradition, washing and kissing the feet of a Muslim woman at a juvenile detention center. I saw Jesus when a group of pastors from Durham begged on the median between traffic lanes. They were protesting an anti-panhandling ordinance approved by the City Council. I saw Jesus when people gathered around Noelani Puryear after we announced her surgery and people wept, and prayed, and held her. I saw Jesus on Easter morning when I looked into the faces of those who had lost loved ones this past year, and I said with them, for them, and to them, “for us, for us the lamb was slain.”
I have seen the risen Jesus. And I bet some of you see the risen Jesus, too. For some he is in the thick silence between our Taize chants. For some Jesus is present in laughter and conversation when we gathered over soup dinner at Advent. For some Christ is there at the breaking of bread in Communion. And for others you have met Christ in acts of service, or when you have received help at a most desperate hour.
There is a grace to this diversity, a grace we witness in today’s Scripture. Because we also find in the Gospel that Jesus meets each person in John 20 and 21 in the way they need to be met. There isn’t uniformity to this encounter. While each person sees Jesus, there is more to the story. Mary sees Jesus, but her belief doesn’t ignite until she hears him say her name. For the disciples Jesus must breathe the Holy Spirit upon them. And for Thomas the faith to journey with the risen Jesus, even though it will lead to death, this faith is found in touching Jesus’ wounds.
I wish I knew the answer to the question of the “nones.” And I don’t wish for these answers simply because my job depends on people showing up for church (although that is indeed the case). I want to know the answer because I don’t think that God destined us for the loneliness of spiritual individualism. I want to know because my encounters with the risen Jesus have changed me. You at Raleigh Moravian have changed me. I want to know the answer because I don’t think church is about showing up every once in a while on Sunday, but that it’s an adventure, that it’s about participating in changing the world into a place where justice, mercy, and grace abound.
I also want to know because creating a god in your own image isn’t going to bring life. For as much as Jesus meets Thomas with everything he needs Jesus also demands something of his apostle. He demands the response of a faithful life. “Here, you have what you need,” Jesus says. “Now that you have it do not doubt but believe.” And that is going to mean giving up on the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect church. As Lilian Daniel’s reminds us, “The church is something you enter at your own risk. Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.”
While I don’t have the answers on my own, I think that we can live into them together. I think we’ll find them in older people investing in younger people, in younger people sharing their needs and ideas with older people. We will find out by showing Jesus to one another, in the variety of ways that each of us needs to encounter the risen Lord. We don’t need to be afraid, to hole up in the bunker of religion, because we have seen that an encounter with Jesus is what changes people, what sets people free from loneliness, shame, and hate.
As we think about Thomas today, as we remember the Jesus who graciously, openly met each of his followers according to their own need, but also changed them, let us remember that that it will only be in one another that we now encounter the risen Lord. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic conveys this message of the body of Christ, the church, so beautifully. Today I want to close with her words as the hope and the challenge of Easter stretches out before us.
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.