Sunday, April 12th, 2015 – The Low Sunday of the Easter Festival
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: John 20:19-31, I John 1:1-2:2
Hymns: “These Thousand Hills”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, “Here O My Lord, I See Thee”, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God”, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, “Eat This Bread”, “Mighty to Save”, “He Lives!”
“Where Do We Go From Here?”
On Friday, Missy was working on cleaning out the unused office in the education wing for today’s book sale and fair. She pulled a plastic tub out of there and was looking through it, and came across a picture that she thought I should see.
This was a very, very old photograph. On the back, it indicated that it was printed on Kodak Velox V3 paper, which according to my research, was discontinued in 1947. Of course, I didn’t need to know that to know just how old the photograph was.
The picture was taken seventy-nine years, three months, and two weeks ago. I know that it was specifically taken on that date, even though it long pre-dated date stamps, because December 29th, 1935, was the day that the original building of Gower Christian Church burned to the ground, as was so very clearly seen in this photograph.
I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for the congregation back then. I especially can’t imagine what must’ve gone through the head of Rev. Albert Martin, the pastor at the time. He’d been here for seven years at that point, and I’m guessing there was at least a moment or two when he figured that seven years would be the end of his tenure in Gower – whether because he wasn’t sure if he could continue as the pastor of the church after it burned, or if he wasn’t sure if the church itself would continue.
Obviously, it did, with this sanctuary being dedicated in 1937, and Rev. Martin sticking around until 1948. But at some point, he, along with the rest of the congregation, had to have asked themselves, “What’s going to happen? What do we do now? Where do we go from here?”
It’s a question that gets asked time and time again in the church. It’s a question that I’m sure more than a few of you asked yourselves when Bob Elliott announced his plans to retire. And it’s a question that’s been getting asked basically since about five minutes after Jesus stepped out of the tomb.
In today’s New Testament reading, from the first epistle of John, we get a series of “if… then” statements regarding our nature as it applies to sin and righteous living. The author, believed to be the same as the author of the Gospel of John, is also believed to have been writing to the church at Ephesus. We know from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that this was a church that had had some issues since its founding, especially with regard to the idea of Christian unity. In fact, Paul’s response to division within that church gave us one of the more famous statements on Christian unity that is still used today, in Ephesians 4:4-6 – “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
So, the Ephesians had issues with unity. It’s not surprising, then, that John would be writing to them regarding sin and fellowship. This letter was written in response to a group of believers who had pulled away from the church, thinking that they had a better handle on Jesus. Having apparently taken a page from Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 song “Spirit in the Sky”, they had claimed that they “weren’t sinners, they’d never sinned, but they had a friend in Jesus”.
That, to John, was as far from the case as they could get. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The fact of the matter is that we’re sinful. Each and every one of us. Saying that we aren’t is just lying to ourselves. So we have to do something to acknowledge our sinful nature and move forward.
It’s a little bit like things must have been back around New Year’s Day, 1936. This property would’ve been nothing but a smoldering ruin at that point. The original sanctuary was all wood, and from the pictures, the fire would’ve been intense enough to fully destroy it. It’s an extreme comparison, to be sure, but had the congregation thought that they could just rebuild on top of what was left of the old sanctuary, it would’ve been a disaster.
Matters got worse, though. The old building had, in 1935, been appraised at $15,000, but for some reason, it was only insured for $5,000. No doubt that that, coupled with the charred rubble that sat on the side of Third Street, left a good part of the membership of this church in some degree of despair. To say that nothing was wrong would’ve been the belief of a fool.
But to say that things could be fixed – well, that was a different story. And there must have been somebody in the church who believed that things could be turned around. Somebody who knew that if the earth was cleared, the ruins removed, the grounds cleaned, new construction could take place. Somebody must have pushed this congregation to rebuild, and fairly quickly too, because in 1937, the sanctuary we’re in today was dedicated and has been worshiped in almost weekly for nearly eight decades.
That’s what John is asking the church at Ephesus – and by extension, all Christians – to do. He wants them to admit that they’re sinful, clear the rubble of their sinful lives away, and build from the ground up a new life. He knows that there will be hitches along the way, problems, and indeed, sins. However, even the best building needs an update, a refresh, a renovation from time to time – after, say, thirty-seven years, fifty-eight years, and seventy years. To continue to live in the light, we have to admit that sometimes we wander into the darkness, and allow the one who is the Word to restore us to His light.
And the point here, the point that John is trying to make, is that even the greatest among us fall victim to our sinful, disbelieving nature, no matter our best effort. Take the example we see in today’s gospel reading, from the twentieth chapter of John’s gospel. Thomas was one of the chosen twelve, one of the apostles. He refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the tomb, saying that he’d only believe it if he saw Jesus in the flesh, up to and including the wounds in his hands, feet, and side.
Now, Thomas was hardly the first of the apostles to do something that probably had Jesus sighing and rolling his eyes. Before him, you had James and John asking to be seated at Jesus’ left and right hands. You had Peter doing a whole host of less-than-intelligent things, the most recent of which had been denying Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. And of course, you had Judas Iscariot pulling the ultimate boneheaded move in his betrayal of Christ. So Thomas doubting that Jesus had stepped out of the tomb without seeing Him himself was hardly the end of the world.
Nonetheless, in the process of being human, Thomas got himself saddled with the nickname “Doubting Thomas” for all time to come. It’s a nickname frequently used as a perjorative for people who lack faith in one thing or another. But let’s be real – if there is one person in all of the stories in the Gospels who is the closest thing to an “everyman” who we can realistically identify with, it is certainly Thomas. We doubt, we refuse to believe, and while I have not been able to find in our historical records any record of somebody suggesting that this church be disbanded following the fire, there had to have been somebody who felt that we’d be better off closing up shop and letting the congregation go to other churches.
But the thing about being “doubting Thomases” is that we have to recognize it in ourselves. Trying to convince ourselves – and one another – that we don’t doubt, that we haven’t messed up and fallen in one way or another, is in and of itself sinful. And so John exhorts the Ephesians and, through his letter, all Christians everywhere to confess their sins so that God will forgive us through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
That’s where we go from here. Every person, no matter where they are in life, needs to take a moment and look at themselves. You could be at a crossroads of some sort, you could be at rock bottom, you could be at what you believe to be the highest high, but each of us needs to remember to stop and take a moment. Traveling the road of life means that we need to pay attention to where we’re going, we need to pay attention to where we’ve been, and we need to pay attention to where we are right now. And the sins that we find need to be confessed so that they may be forgiven, and then we will be able to travel on down the road ahead of us.
Where do we go from here? God only knows, so let’s make sure that we’re living in the fellowship that God desires.