It's something that you do
Thumbnail picture: sleepyneko, free to use under license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
May 12, 2019—Easter 4C
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Here we are, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, having heard the great good news of the resurrection, having seen Jesus appear to his disciples after returning from the dead, having seen him accept their doubts, having seen him calm their fears and breathe his spirit into them, having seen him feed them broiled fish on the beach in the morning. He made them breakfast, y’all!
And yet still, here we are, after all of this beautiful, awe-inspiring stuff, here we are on Easter 4, and the folks who put the lectionary together are wise enough to know that we are already losing the thread. “No really,” we ask. “We want to be sure. Are you the Messiah or what?”
That’s the way it goes. It’s only human, really. As Debie Thomas puts it, “faith isn’t a clean ascent from confusion to clarity, doubt to trust. It’s a perpetual turning. A circle we trace from knowing to unknowing, from unbelief to belief.” So, “If something in you feels suspended, taut, impatient for Jesus to rise again one more time into the particulars of your comings and goings, your nights and days — then welcome to the way of authentic faith. This is how it works.”[i]
We are perpetual works in progress. Our faith, our baptism, our relationship with Jesus is a constant wrangling in our lives. If his being resurrected from the dead doesn’t end all questions (let alone his making me breakfast!), then no single answer of yes or no to this Messiah question will do it either. As Thomas asks, “What good would it have done if he'd stood up in the temple … and yelled, "Yes! Yes, in fact, I am the Christ!" Would anything have changed? Suddenly, would his parables, his countercultural teachings, and his strange miracles have coalesced into a neat package his listeners could tuck under their arms and carry home?” Unlikely. Which is why Jesus tells stories more than he makes declarations. He needs us to know that faith, belief and belonging are messier than that.[ii]
But our desire for simplicity pushes back, confusing us when Jesus says, “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” We hear that belonging part and are sure the emphasis is on the consequences for those who don’t belong: “Not Christian? Then you’re going to hell.” But for the community of John who wrote this gospel, the emphasis is really on the belonging, on the transformed life they have discovered in Christ. This is an invitation, not a threat.
And then, we hear about believing and we think that it’s the key; that belief comes first. Faith means believing in things without evidence, right? That’s what makes us “religious” people.
Well, not according to Jesus in this story. He says that belonging comes first: not that you don’t belong because you don’t believe, but that you are unable to believe because you do not choose to belong. If you were willing to live this life, in this community … if you were willing to walk with Jesus to meet the outcasts and the sick and the lame … if you were willing to talk with the lonely, to confront the powerful, to feed those who hunger … if you did these things, then you would KNOW you were in the presence of salvation.
Sometimes, you just have to DO. It’s like love in that way, I think. A truth that would come home to me powerfully when I was angry or frustrated or disappointed with Brian about something. And instead of sinking into whatever righteous satisfaction those feelings might have given me, I would occasionally be wise enough to do something nice for him. Rub his feet. Make him a cup of coffee. Rub his feet.
And that concrete action would often be enough to dissolve whatever negative feelings I had. Because it reminded me of my love. It reminded us both that we belonged to each other. That we chose to do the sometimes hard work of being together; which is, as it turns out, so much of the substance of love.
Just so, the relationship between belonging and belief. We do the work of belonging, and it builds our trust in each other. Not only that, it anchors us in belief, in the deep and strong truth of Jesus. Jesus, in turn, is what binds us together and makes us able to belong with each other. And belonging with each other, serving each other, makes us one with Jesus. Around and around. In John, it begins with washing each other’s feet. In Acts, the message is expanded.
This early Christian community pools their resources so that all needs are met. Their key leaders are those who serve at table and take food to the poor and vulnerable. And here in today’s story, we hear how they esteem the work of their members.
On the face of it, the story is about Peter, re-enacting one of Jesus’ miracles. He is called to the death-bed of Tabitha, in a story that closely parallels on in Mark in which Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus. In the original, Jesus sends everyone out of the room and commands the girl, “Talitha koum,” which means “little girl, arise!” (Mk 5:41). Here, Peter sends everyone out of the room and commands Tabitha to arise.
It’s a miracle, a sign. And the purpose of signs in the gospels is to draw people into belief. Which is to say, as we’ve noted, that the signs make people want to belong. And here we are given an even more powerful invitation to belong than occurred in the original miracle by Jesus. Because here, did you notice it? Clearly and deliberately, we are told the woman’s name!
And not only her name, but her story. A sense of who she was, what she did, and how important she was to the community. We are invited in, and shown the clothes that she made. We listen, and hear their admiration for the artistry she had, their appreciation for the labor she undertook. She did good works, we are told. She took care of the poor. She did good work. See these fine clothes she made!
It’s something that you do, as a member of the community. It’s everything that you do, as a member of the community. Your work, your connectedness, your generosity; your admiration and appreciation for each other. All of it part of belonging to a community that is working out the commandment to love Jesus by serving and loving each other.
It is by this kind of doing, this kind of belonging, that we will keep ourselves in the loop with belief and trust. This kind of doing and belonging that will keep us open to Christ rising again in the particulars of our life. And he will rise again, next week, or the month after that, and the month after that. Will rise again cosmically, will rise again in the broken parts of your life, and will rise again in this community.
And if you can’t feel it yet … if you just don’t believe it right now … well, that’s how faith is. You can still know that you belong here. Can live with us, worship with us, and serve/be served by those around you. And if you just keep doing that, as the great saint Arlo Guthrie famously promised us, it will come back around. May it be so, Amen.
[i] Debie Thomas, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2201-tell-us-plainly, posted May 5, 2019