Preacher — Jeff Davidson
Scripture Readings — Psalm 133, John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2
How many of you watched the live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last Sunday night? I didn’t see it live, but I have seen a lot of the clips on YouTube and the whole show is on NBC.com and I’m planning to watch it there. A lot of critics said that Jesus Christ Superstar was the best of the live musicals that NBC has produced in the last five years or so, and based on what I’ve seen I agree.
I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out why. It’s not because of the star. Yes, John Legend is a popular singer, but some of the earlier live shows have had popular singers like Carrie Underwood or bigger stars like Christopher Walken or Matthew Broderick. Yes, Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic show, but so was The Sound of Music, and Peter Pan. Hairspray was a Broadway hit not long ago, and A Christmas Story is one of the most popular holiday movies of all time, and they weren’t nearly as good.
I think the reason is that Jesus Christ Superstar is the first of the NBC live theatrical productions to be produced in a theater and in front of a live audience. The others were all live, but they were on a sound stage, like a regular TV show, and there was no audience to laugh or cheer or boo or cry.
Superstar had an audience, and that’s a big thing. Actors learn how to play to their audience, how to coax a response. The audience provides feedback that they actors respond to. The audience provides energy that the actors feed off of. For an actor, the audience can be a colleague almost as much as their fellow actors on stage with them. Other people being there make a huge difference in the energy and in the life of a performance. Hold on to that thought for a few minutes.
I have many friends who don’t go to church very often, or who don’t even go at all. It’s not necessarily about whether they are Christians or not, but a number of them have expressed a similar thought to me. A lot of my friends who don’t go to church say that they believe that they can worship God just as well when they are out in the woods, surrounded by the beauty of nature. They say they can worship God just as well when they are alone in the midst of silence in their home or apartment. They say that they can worship God on the golf course, and you know what? Maybe they can. A golf course is a beautiful place. There are trees and hills and manicured grasses. It’s often quiet, with only birdsong to accompany you.
I do wonder sometimes how many people are worshiping God when they’re out on the golf course, or when they’re alone in their apartment, or when they’re camping or hiking amidst the beauty of creation. I’m not there, I can’t judge, and if they tell me they’re worshiping God then I have no reason not to believe them. Now hold on to that thought for a moment as well.
The theme of our scripture readings today is obvious. All of them deal with community. All of them deal with believers in relationship with other believers. Our Psalm, which we used as our Call to Worship, starts out “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” The passage from Acts is specifically about how the early Christians were so close that they shared all of their goods, all of their income, and each received from the common purse as they needed. A lot of people believe that the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was written by Karl Marx. It definitely wasn’t Marx – that phrase had been around for a long time before he was born. The idea behind the phrase is exactly how the early church lived. It’s not Marxism – it’s Christianity.
1 John 1:3 talks about what it is that will make John’s joy complete: the fellowship of believers along with God and Jesus. 1 John is believed to be written by the John the Evangelist, who is also believed to have written the Gospel of John.
And in the Gospel of John we read the story of doubting Thomas. In doing research for this sermon I ran across an idea that was new to me. It was on a blog called “Left Behind and Loving It” and the blogger is a Greek scholar named D. Mark Davis. Let me just say before I go on that I didn’t study Greek in seminary. Davis talks about the use of the aorist tense and the imperfect tense in the original Greek, and each of those tenses imply different meanings for words when they are used.. I don’t have much of a gift for languages, and so I can’t evaluate the pros and cons of what Davis suggests, but I think it’s interesting and worth thinking about.
We’re all familiar with the good ole doubting Thomas, who wasn’t there for some reason when Jesus appeared to the disciples and so didn’t believe them when they told him that Jesus had appeared to them. His words are famous: “”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And later on, when Thomas did happen to be with the other disciples, Jesus did appear and Thomas did believe.
Verse 24 says, “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” Davis says that the choice of words in the original language suggests something different than we usually think it does. We usually think that verse 24 says that Thomas wasn’t there for a moment. Maybe he had stepped out to get food. Maybe he had gone to visit someone. Maybe he was taking a nap. For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there at that particular moment.
Let me quote what Davis suggests as an alternate reading.
Just to be clear, Mary had already told the disciples “I have seen the Lord” but they are overjoyed when they see the hands and side. In this story, the disciples say “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas cannot accept it until he, too, sees the hands and side. To me, the point of this story is not that Thomas is the disbelieving holdout because he needs to see evidence before he believes. I think there is more to Thomas’ “doubt” than a lack of evidence.
…John may be saying that Thomas was no longer with them when Jesus came the first time, as if he had given up on following Christ with them after the crucifixion. Likewise, if they had only said to Thomas, “While you were out getting bagels one day, Jesus came,” the aorist tense would suffice. But, the imperfect (tense)… implies ongoing past action. Perhaps they were trying over and over to convince Thomas to return. Finally, Thomas threw down the gauntlet, “I’ll come back, but unless I see and touch, etc., I won’t believe it.” I guess I’m seeing the possibility that this was an extended conversation about Thomas’ participation in the community, and not just that Thomas happened to miss out on the first visit. (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.ca/)
I don’t know about you, but that’s a much different way than I have thought about Thomas before. Because he had cut himself off from the community, he was not able, at first, to see Jesus. Because Thomas was not part of the body, he was not able to truly and fully believe.
I truly don’t doubt the sincerity of people who tell me that they can worship God just as well on their own as they can in church. But I think they are cutting themselves off from the full blessings of the body of Christ. They are cutting themselves off from support. They are cutting themselves off from care. They are cutting themselves off from accountability.
They are cutting themselves off from a community of friendships based on their faith, based on the thing that is truly the most essential thing in any Christian’s life. We have friends because of our jobs or our schools or our geographic communities or our ethnic communities or any number of other things. None of those are a replacement for friendships that are grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ. None of those are a replacement for friends who are a part of the body of Christ, the church.
Those folks are also cutting themselves off from the energy that you get when you experience something with other people. I could sing hymns and songs on my own if I wanted to. But I hardly ever want to. Why? Because it’s more fun to me to sing them with someone else. It’s more fun for me to be part of a group that is singing, whether it’s a choir or here in church or in a play or whatever.
Which do you think would be more exciting – to watch Jesus Christ Superstar alone at home on your television or to watch it in person with hundreds of other people? For most folks, not everyone, but for the vast majority it would be more exciting to watch it live and in person. It would be better to draw energy from the crowd around you and reflect that energy up to the performers on stage and let them bathe their performances in that energy than to watch it alone at home.
And even if you were at home alone watching, or watching clips on a computer like I was, that energy comes through the screen. The difference in energy between a live performance with an audience and a live performance without one is something that you can feel when you watch it at home.
The Spirit’s presence in each of our lives as individuals is magnified when we gather as a group. Our worship of God is magnified as well, because there are more ways we can worship and more ways we can minister to and with one another than when we are by ourselves in the woods or in our apartment or in our car. This is the church. This is the body of Christ in the world today. When we cut ourselves off from the church, as Thomas may have, we cut ourselves off from God’s presence in so many ways. It doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from God’s presence completely; we all have an individual relationship with Christ. But we limit the possibilities to experience that presence in all of its fullness. We minimize the opportunities to learn, to grow, to be encouraged, to be held accountable, to minister, and to be ministered to.
Almost every time I begin a worship service during the Welcome and Announcements I say that I am glad to see you here this morning. That’s true. I am glad to see you here this morning. I’m glad because you’re here, and I’m glad because the fact that I can see you means that I’m here as well. I am glad to be a part of the body of Christ in this place. I am glad to be able to worship, and sing, and pray, and minister with each of you. With the Psalmist, I find that it is good and it is pleasant when brothers and sisters can dwell together in unity. I hope that you do too, and that you will invite others to learn and share and grow and minister with us in the days to come. Amen.