Sunday, April 7, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

During worship today, members of our confirmation class will make their public professions of faith.  And the gospel reading will include a story about "doubting Thomas." Sounds about right.

Now I don't begin to know the minds of our confirmands, and I am very impressed with the confirmation process this congregation has developed. (It runs from beginning of the school year to now, includes adult "companions," and so on.) But I have to assume that there are more than a few doubts floating around. And there will likely be more. They are, after all, only in their early teens.

To some degree, confirmation has long been an expectation in Presbyterian churches. When children reach a certain age (that age varies from congregation to congregation), there is some sort of programed experience which leads to young people making professions of faith and so becoming full-fledged, adult members of the congregation. Some young people feel a great deal of pressure to take part. And after all, once complete, there are no other requirements. And indeed, quite a few graduates of confirmation class graduate from church altogether before long.

(There is an old joke about a group of pastors meeting for lunch, each of them offering helpful suggestions to the pastor whose church attic has become infested with bats. Seems that all the suggestions have already been tried without success. But then the Presbyterian pastor says that she had all the bats graduate from confirmation class, and she hasn't seen them since.)

The disciple Thomas has been through a lot more than a confirmation class. He has been taught by Jesus, been there for it all, including seeing him hauled off by the authorities and then executed.  But now he hears that others have seen the risen Jesus. First Mary had seen  him. Now some of the other disciples have, and they tell Thomas about it. But Thomas needs more. "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."

It's a bit of hyperbole. When Thomas does actually see Jesus, he passes on Jesus' offer to touch his wounds. But it raises the very legitimate question of what is needed for faith. Based on the number of confirmation class graduates who leave the church by early adulthood, I'd say that going through confirmation class isn't enough. Regardless of how sincere those young people are today when they promise to follow where Jesus leads and to fulfill their "calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ," if something does not make it real for them, there are far too many cultural forces pulling them in other directions.

The term "doubting Thomas" is often used pejoratively, but Thomas' statement upon seeing the risen Christ, "My Lord and my God!" is one of the faith highlights of John's gospel. And I suspect that a great deal of the church's malaise in our day is the result of too few Thomases in our ranks, not too many. Without wrestling with the issue Thomas raises, church easily becomes a social convention without much solidly behind it. Church as social convention only works when the society actively encourages it. But as that societal encouragement has disappeared, often replaced with societal pulls away from church, the habit of church is slowly disappearing.

What does it take for someone to say to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!" my master and the center of my life? It certainly would seem to require more than good information. Surely there has to be some sort of encounter, maybe not as impressive as the one Thomas had, but an encounter nonetheless.

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