Gospel reading: John 20:19-31
“19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then he 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
It is through believing that we have life in the name of Jesus.
But I have a question for you. We’re a non-creedal church, right? We in the UCC say that the creeds, those lists of things that some people say you must affirm, we say they are not to be used as a litmus test. We don’t approach them in the same way because we say they are “Testaments of faith,” not tests of faith. So when we read these scriptures about how it is through believing that we have life in the name of Jesus, maybe that piece is kind of optional for us in the UCC. What do you think?
Um, no, not exactly.
Let me take you back in time, to the qualifying rounds for the 2008 European Championship Cup in soccer. Scotland is hosting the tournament. In Europe, the Championship Cup can only be described as a phenomenon. Annual vacation plans are made based on the location of the games. Then the pilgrimage begins. Businesses close, streets and whole parts of the city resemble martial law. Your team is your blood. Friendships are made and lost over team loyalties, family ties, even marriages, can be strained to the breaking point.
The qualifying rounds. Scotland was on their home turf, Hampden Park, against Ukraine. The fans were out in droves. The stands were a sea of royal blue and white, the colors of the Scottish flag. A picture was taken during the game of five fans, arm in arm, with the words “We Believe” painted on their bare chests.
We Believe. Those fans were not referring to a body of teaching to be learned and accepted. They were not speaking of creeds. They may have had faith in their team’s ability to win over Ukraine that day, but even that is beside the point. The words “we believe” were there so that all who saw them would make no mistake- they were with Team Scotland down to the marrow in their bones. They would eat, drink and sleep the blue and white and nothing, nothing would sway their loyalty.
When Jesus asks for you to believe, he is asking for you to be counted on his team. He wants nothing less than the loyalty of a soccer fan. And this is not considered optional for those of us in the UCC. You’ve been recruited to Team Jesus and he’s asking for you to eat, drink, and sleep for the Team.
Let me take you back further in time, to the first hearing of these gospel words. To believe: Pisteuo in Greek. Same root as Pistis, the word for faith. It was a word that was very familiar to those who were hearing the Gospel for the first time. If you were living in the Roman Empire around the first century, pistis/faith was a foundational part of the religion of Caesar.
Because, of course, practically everyone in the Roman Empire recognized that Caesar was the Son of God. Caesar was the one who had brought peace and prosperity to the land- indeed, to the ends of the Earth. Wars had disappeared because his power and control was so complete– so much so that he was referred to as the “prince of peace.” What Caesar asked from his subjects was pistis, faith. The Latin counterpart of the term, fides, was often stamped on coins- fides, the root of our own word fidelity. And Caesar himself was lauded as the model of fidelity, or faithfulness– to the treaties signed with neighboring states, loyal to his own subjects, trustworthy, and upright.
Every man, woman and child in the Roman Empire could count on reaping the benefits of being a loyal subject—as long as you did not step out of line. Those who did challenge the divine authority of the Emperor were, of course, hung on a cross for everyone to see- this is what happens to you when you are not faithful to Caesar.
And so to the first hearers of the gospel message, “faith” and “believe” had a very concrete meaning. The question was not, “What is true?” The question was, “To what will you be true?” Will you be true to the Roman Empire? Or something else? And this was not a light question. This was literally a matter of life and death.
Now I’m going to bring you back home to Lakeview in 2016. And this same question is before us today. “To what will you be true?” Will you be true to the forces of life, to the teachings of Jesus, to the sanctity of all creation? These choices are just as concrete for us today as they were 2000 years ago. And they are still a matter of life and death. The people at ONE Northside know this to be true. Life and death choices are facing us every day.
Let’s take the story of Eugene, who helped organize the Moral Monday actions with ONE Northside and other organizations. And you can meet Eugene in person if you come along with us to the convention next Sunday.
Eugene is a first generation American. He worked hard in school and did well. He believed in the promise that if you work hard and do well, that you can have a good-paying job which offers you not only decent pay but a sense of meaning in life, a calling. But he worked in the human services sector, which took cut after cut after cut. He found himself working in retail for a large corporate chain and felt that he was nothing but a cog in a big profit making machine.
Some people in Eugene’s position might have just stopped trying. They might have felt that it was not worth it, because the promise of a good job did not come true. But for Eugene, the question was not “What is true?” It was, “To what will you be true?” And so he chose to stand up for a different vision. A vision where the system is not just grinding people down, but lifting them up. He joined ONE Northside and helped promote the Responsible Business Act, a real-life piece of legislation which will change the way the system works. This was part of the goals for the Moral Monday actions last summer, when our own Pastor Alli got arrested. Eugene is the one who led the chanting. And he has taught all of us that his life, and all our lives, have a value inherent to them. That is the vision which Eugene has helped bring to light.
Let me give you one more example- Robert, another leader at ONE Northside. Robert lived in a Single Room Occupancy Hotel, an SRO. He was forced to move out again and again as buildings converted to luxury housing. The simple truth is that the free market will not bear the kind of precious affordable housing which people need to live. But again, the question for Robert was not, “What is true?” It was, “To what will you be true?” Robert fought for his own home and his whole community. He helped pass the SRO Preservation Ordinance at the city level and he kept his home and he kept alive the vision of a city where no one is living in the streets.
Supporting these concrete actions, these life-and-death issues, is a modern way to answer Jesus’ ancient call for faithfulness, for fidelity, for the the kind of loyalty that a soccer fan knows and lives and breathes.
And it’s not the only way. There is not just one way to be true to the Word of Jesus. Wellington will send a team to the ONE Northside Convention next week and I hope it’s a big contingent because it really matters.
But let me tell you other things that matter too. Taking sabbath. Being present for our family and our loved ones. Following through with longstanding commitments. And deciding to live a life of balance. So when I’m telling you that you should live like a soccer fan, and you should eat, drink and sleep only for Team Jesus, that doesn’t mean that you should stop eating, drinking and sleeping!
Do not pursue an unbalanced life in the name of Jesus. That is not the way. The way of faithfulness will be known to you as you come to a balanced place and discern and make good choices. And in the end, we cannot fail.
Why do I say we cannot fail? Campaigns fail all the time. The SRO Preservation Ordinance passed, but other efforts, just as worthy, have gone down in flames. The signs of our failure to embody the Kingdom of God are all around us. So how can I say we cannot fail?
Because I’m not talking about “what is true.” I’m talking about “to what we are true.” We are true to God, and God is true to us. We can already imagine ourselves out in the stands, painted in our team’s colors, and screaming our heads off. Just imagine when we’re out on the field, playing our hearts out on that big soccer field of life. And God is in the stands, and she is wearing body paint, and she is screaming her head off for us.
Because God is in it with us, we can strip away the lies that say the truth of the matter is that we cannot figure out a way to have decent housing for each and every one of us. We do not have to believe that the truth of the matter is that workers are only worth what you pay them.
Because God is even with us down on the field, bending it like Beckham, we know that what really matters is human dignity, and that the Word of God is the way, and the truth, and the life. And that is the reason why we cannot fail.
Remember this: Thomas, the most famous of all doubters, winds up doing some pretty amazing things. He and the other disciples go on, against terrible odds, to spread the good news throughout the Roman Empire, that there is a real Son of God who is greater than Caesar, and there is a Prince of Peace who has no military. And whose fidelity is more valuable than all the coins in the treasury.
And that’s why you are the inheritor of the good news. You have heard the Gospel only because of the amazing things that God has done with the people on her team. And she is not done–she’s just getting started. So to what will you be true? Cast your lot with Team Jesus. As you already know, we cannot fail.