Graduation From Church
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When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” —John 20:19–31
A little boy I know was horribly bored on a family vacation. He wanted nothing to do with the short boat ride his family was on, and told his dad it was all stupid.
Why would we want to see this stupid ocean?
Why did we have to come on this stupid boat?
He was 8 or 9 years old and he was in the kind of 8 or 9-year-old funk that a parent can basically do nothing about. But his dad tried. “Let’s go feed the seagulls,” his dad suggested.
“That’s stupid,” the boy protested. But, soon enough, the chips the dad was throwing off the boat toward the seagulls had caught the gull’s attention, and the boy’s.
So, with the tenderness of a dad hoping-beyond-hope to get his son out of this funk, the dad placed a chip in the boy’s hand, and like lightning, a gull swooped down and took the chip right out of the boy’s hand.
Now, the reason I love this story isn’t because this hasty seagull pulled the boy out of his funk, though it did. I love this story because after they had thoroughly enjoyed feeding the gulls together, the dad said to his son, “Now, you don’t want anyone to know you actually had fun on this stupid boat ride, do you? You probably shouldn’t tell anyone about the way that seagull took that chip right out of your hand.”
And so, the boy held the story in. He held it in when they went back to sit with his brother. He held it in when his mom came back and sat next to him. He held it in as they got off the boat. With all his might, he held that story in, but the dad could tell that every part of that boy’s being wanted to share the story of that seagull.
As they got to where they were going to eat lunch, and the boy went to make his order, instead of saying, “I’d like a cheeseburger” he immediately and without delay blurted out the whole story to the woman at the counter: “you wouldn’t believe it, we were on this boat, and a seagull came up, and it took the chip directly from my hand, it was so cool, you should have seen it, it was so amazing.”
He couldn’t hold the story in. I can only imagine that on Easter evening, the disciples were like that little boy. They’d seen something so unexpected, so unimagined, so beyond what they thought was possible, that as soon as their friend, Thomas, came back from wherever he’d been, they had to tell him.
Maybe they were shocked that he didn’t share their excitement. Maybe they were too excited to care how Thomas reacted. Something had happened, and it was the kind of story they couldn’t hold in.
Maybe you’ve had stories like that: stories that you couldn’t hold in. I know it happens to me every time I come home from a Mission Trip. So much has happened, and so much of it has been remarkable, world changing or intense or amazing, that it’s hard to hold the story in.
But it doesn’t always have to be so remarkable, or so worldly, either. Elizabeth Baley suddenly found herself bedridden because of an infection that the doctors said was quite rare. And, so, instead of being able to take long walks in the woods by her house, she was confined to one room, and one bed, where friends and family came by to take care of her.
One day, a friend came by, and brought her an african violet. And, in the soil, at the base of that african violet, was a snail.
Elizabeth Baley, not able to get out of bed, or do much else, woke up that next morning to the sound of that snail eating one of the leaves of that african violet. And she spent the whole day, watching the snail climb ever so slowly across the soil.
And before long, she had spent day after day, watching the snail, wondering about the snail, intimately learning the life of this small creature, so that, the life of this small snail that most of us would never notice became the story she could not hold onto—and I only know about this snail because she wrote a book, a whole book, about this snail, which I came across a few years ago, called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.
Her experience was so profound, so compelling, so deeply moving to her, that she could not hold it in. So, in that way, it’s not too difficult to identify with the disciples—this was an encounter, a story, that they could not help but tell.
Their Easter evening encounter with Jesus has become so commonplace, so told and retold, that maybe it doesn’t feel so surprising or unimaginable anymore, that Jesus would appear to them, offer them his deepest peace, give them instruction on what to do next.
But to Thomas, who wasn’t there, it elicited doubt. Thomas did not respond with delight or joy or amazement. In hearing the disciple’s stories, Thomas did not receive, by proxy, the peace that Jesus offered. He needed to see for himself. He needed to experience this on his own terms. He needed to be there. So, we can equally empathize with Thomas. Thomas’ reaction to faith is fairly common, in fact.
Every year, it seems, some or many of our confirmands ask Thomas’ question themselves. One student asked it this way: “How can you believe in something so powerful without ever physically seeing it?” It’s as if the words came straight out of Thomas’ mouth 2,000 years ago.
Yet, it’s a twenty-first century question, too—it’s our question—a question that emerges, maybe, again and again, across every generation of Christians who have encountered the Gospel story. It’s hardly a question that needs more explanation, we each know it so intimately. “How can you believe in something so powerful without ever physically seeing it?”
Some days, we live on either side of that question. In the Boundary Waters on our Wilderness Confirmation Trip this year, my team traveled north from Wood Lake, through Hula Lake, into Indiana Lake and up toward Basswood Lake. That first day, somewhere along our journey, we saw an eagle. It was a gift and a surprise: seeing a majestic creature like that, so unexpectedly.
The next day, as we paddled around a bend, we saw another eagle. The next day, another eagle flew overhead. The next day, the same. Every day of our whole trip, an eagle flew overhead. I’d never experienced anything like it.
There was something comforting about those eagle encounters, and we began to see them as a sign that God was traveling with us on our journey. Eagles showed up in many of my team’s faith statements. And if you know any of the women from my group, it’s possible you’ve heard about the eagles too.
We read Isaiah 40:31 several times that week, which says,
those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.
Paddling into the wind, or hiking one more portage trail, we knew we could gather our strength to paddle on, because those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
For the Thomas-people out there, you might say, “well, I’d have to see it to believe it.” And, you’d wait and wait until an eagle passed you by, as if that might prove that God were present. But for those of us who were there, in that small community of fellow travelers, we knew it was true in a deeper way—a way that brought peace and comfort and guidance—and we couldn’t wait to tell the story.
Now, some of you might have noticed that my sermon title is “graduation from church” but it’s crossed out. If you google “graduation from church” you’ll find photographs of confirmation Sunday celebrations. Young men and women, standing up to confirm their faith, and then either their parents or, in some cases, even their pastors, posting photos under the name “graduation from church.”
Maybe, in some ways, that’s what confirmation has become: “graduation from church.” Implying that you have come to the end of something, that it is a completion. And yes, there are ways that might be true. These confirmands have been asked to participate in a renewed way in the worship and community life at Kenilworth Union Church this year.
And today is a day of ritual, a rite of passage, a holy completion of particular sacred work, marking a holy promise to God and by God.
But, I’m pretty convinced that confirmation is not “graduation from church.” Sometimes, I’ve heard of parents negotiating with their sons and daughters—“complete confirmation and I’ll never bother you about church again,” so it’s possible some of you have been told that—regardless of if you’re going through confirmation today or went through confirmation 20 or 40 years ago.
So, it’s easy to hear that and think, “I’m done, I’ve graduated from this whole church thing, and now I can go back to sleeping in on Sunday mornings.”
The more hopeful way to interpret that parental message is to think: “Now, I’m an adult member of this church, and it’s my responsibility to go to church, and mine alone, not my parents’ responsibility.”
But, still, even under the best interpretation of that phrase, I’m convinced that confirmation is not “graduation from church.” We resonate with Thomas, the one who doubts. We doubt too. But we never find out why Thomas wasn’t there in the first place. Had he graduated from Church? Did Jesus’ death mean he was finished with all of this? Or, was he busy? Was there too much traffic? Was there not enough time for him to be able to do what he needed to do that day?
Was he over-programmed, too many tests to study for, rehearsals and practices scheduled?
Too many commitments? Was he off partying with his other friends? Was he lingering a little longer with someone he loved?
Was he off by himself, in prayer, in grief, baffled by all that had happened? We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there, why he wasn’t with his friends when they had this profound Easter evening experience.
But he missed it—and if confirmation is “graduation from church” and you stop coming here, there will be ways in which you miss out. In general, you might miss the power of God’s love sweeping over this community,
More specifically, you will miss Mission Trips and volunteer opportunities, you will miss worship services where something might stir within us, and God’s presence is made known, you will miss the friends your own age who have grown up alongside you, and the endearing relationships with grandparents and little children and people who have had completely different life experiences than you: you will miss the ways that God is at work in this place.
Thomas doesn’t miss out the second time around—eight days later, he’s there, with his friends, when Jesus comes. And, Jesus responds to the absurdity of Thomas’ request—that he see the wounds on Jesus’ body and even that he touches those tender places where nails had once been. Jesus answers Thomas’ impossible question, honors Thomas’ doubt, hears Thomas, and responds.
One of my favorite preschool chapel songs is the song We Love. It is so simple, childlike, and yet deeply true for any of us, no matter how old we are. Maybe you remember it, I think it was written by someone here at this church.
We Love, because God first loved us,
We love, because God first loved us,
We love, we love, we love,
Because God first, loved us.
Thomas welcomed Jesus that day because Jesus first welcomed him. As one of the scholars on Doubting Thomas noted: God’s recognition of us is the prerequisite of our recognition of God.
And that is at the core of this passage, and at the core of our faith lives, at the core of what we are doing here at Kenilworth Union Church: We meet God, because God meets us. We find Christ, because Christ finds us. In other words, we love, because God first loved us.
 Most, Glen W., Doubting Thomas, p. 52.