A Sermon by Gil Waldkoenig, Professor at theLutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

Seminary Church of the Abiding Presence,April 10, 2013


The Second Sunday in Easter in Year C

John 20: 19-31;

Rev 1: 4-8;

Acts 5:27-32                       


Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot aboutunbelief. The kind of unbelief that makes the news quite often has to do withclimate change, also called global warming.


Almost half of the American population doesnot believe that the recent spike in global warming results from humanactivity, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Somedisbelieve very aggressively. They say global warming is a hoax. Somedisbelieve more cautiously, saying we need to wait for more information or tosee how things turn out. And then some people disbelieve in a way that is justplain lazy: they just hope it will all go away.


The disbelievers either don’t know, or don’tcare to know, that the carbon that is clogging our atmosphere has gone up whileoxygen has gone down in direct proportion. That indicates burning. And thecarbon is a particular kind of carbon: carbon 12. Carbon 12 comes from plantslong dead. It is not carbon 13 which could come from recently living plants(because carbon 13 becomes radioactive and dissipates).  Nor is it carbon 11 which comes from themolten geologic core of the earth when it releases through volcanoes. If thecarbon is from burning, and it is not from volcanoes and not from recent plants,but is from plants long dead, then it can only be from fossil fuels. Last Ichecked no monkeys were burning fossil fuels. So I’m going to “believe” it hasbeen some of the 7 billion humans on earth who have put over 380 parts permillion of carbon into the atmosphere, which is drastically altering climate. ]Informationin this paragraph is from Earth: TheOperator’s Manual DVD by Richard Alley (PBS, 2011)]


Then there are some religious people who say,“Well, the planet is going to end anyway, when God blows it up or burns itup”—or whatever apocalyptic narrative you choose. The bad signs, the evidenceof global warming and the troubles it will cause are warnings, and we mustappease, they indicate, an obviously angry God before it is too late. If it getsto be too late for everyone else, at least a few who are on the right side ofGod could escape like Lot and Abram running away from Sodom.


So we have a set of disbelievers who don’tlike the bad signs and deny them. And then we have another set of people whoseem to relish the bad signs as a curse or judgment of doom that can inflametheir religion of propitiation or appeasement.


In the closing chapters of the gospel ofJohn, the disciples are being reassembled from here and there, drawn into goodnews, good signs, that Christ is risen, and that Christ abides with them, andthey can respond to God’s world with love.


Thomas missed an earlier meeting where thedisciples saw the wounded but resurrected Christ in person. The others arewaiting for Thomas to join them, but Thomas is holding out for his own signs.Unless I see and touch to verify, I will not believe, Thomas says.


To me, it is interesting that even thoughThomas gets to see and touch, and consequently expresses belief, he also in thesame moment says “help my unbelief.” And then Jesus blesses all those who wouldnot get the same signs that Thomas got, and yet would believe. I can’t help butimagine a kind smile on the face of Jesus when he says to Thomas, “Have youbelieved because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yethave come to believe.”


A couple of things are going on in John’sGospel here. It is a message of comfort to all those believers who wouldencounter Jesus through the written gospel, and the preached gospel and theacted gospel, rather than hearing and seeing Jesus in exactly the same manneras the first disciples did. And it is part of an ending to the gospel that isvery consistent with the rest of the book–a book that had so much attention tosigns, from water jars at Canaan to post-resurrection appearances. The blessingis for those who will NOT be eye-witnesses to the signs narrated in the gospelof John, but who WILL see and touch other signs in the days and yearsafterwards. Those signs would include bread and wine, words of good newsspoken, baptismal waters splashed, and acts of compassion and justice.


The signs can change. The array of signs inJohn makes John a great piece of literature: from jars of water to bread andvines and sheep and gates and light and dark and descent and ascension andauthority and subversion of authority and more. The signs are many. But Christ is one, and grace is one.


It is hard to imagine the narrative in John20 going any other way, but try this as an exercise. Thomas sees Jesus andtouches his wounds. Then Thomas says, well, I need a bit more evidence. Pleaseeat a fish right here in front of me.


Eating fish is a different sign, by acampfire, on the lakeshore, in chapter 21. Nobody falls on their knees saying“my Lord and my God” when they see Jesus eating fish—maybe because they werestuffing their faces with fish. But that sign is another physical sign, liketouching and seeing for Thomas, that showed Jesus is bodily resurrected andabiding close by within creation.


If Thomas had asked for a fish [comp. Luke24:41-42], it would have changed his experience but it would not have changedthe cross. Not one bit. His belief and yours and mine do not make the cross ofChrist more or less of what it is, the once and central triumph of God’s graceover all that would oppress it—and the resurrection is its twin sign of God’sgood intent and faithfulness to Christ and to creation forevermore. Thomas andthe disciples find that Christ is still one, even after the cross tore him andthem apart, and grace is one in the resurrection forevermore. That’s why theblessing of all those who don’t see belongsin the narrative with the really fine Jesus-sighting that Thomas received.


In our time, when the climate is warming,many signs are not good. The bad signs ought to be evidence for us that we mustcare for our planet and our neighbors in new and better ways. Some of thedenial and disbelief ring suspiciously similar to our old human unwillingnessto change because it is going to cost something to care for neighbor andplanet.


But all who gather around the signs of gracehave an orientation and centeredness to face the bad signs in their starkreality, without denial and without avoidance. The church is already learningto change and respond in new ways, because from the source of grace we canrespond beyond denial and fear, with love – love just like the gospel of Johnfeatures from beginning to end! In other words, go ahead and ask for a fish orany other signs—the work of our time still lays before us. The cross and theresurrection are still what they are, and from that orientation, we’re going tobe able to move and respond.


When the floods come, and hurricanes andwinds and storms—or when the drought cracks the land and the people and animalsand plants perish—we humankind willindeed lament our deeds which have brought these conditions upon us and uponour home, planet earth. The disbelief and denial is but the first whimperingbefore the real wailing (Rev 1:7). But the church of Jesus Christ, abiding inhis presence and the cross accomplished, stands with the sign of resurrectionat the center of all other signs. The cross flowers into the renewed tree oflife on the last page of the Bible (Rev 22::2; cf. Acts 5:30), after apocalypticwaves pass, and wailing gives way to hymns of grace and courage, hope and joy. [Thanksto Dr. Matthew Sleeth for attention to the tree on the past page of the Bible,as an object of focus by God. Sermon, Sunday, March 10, 2013, WashingtonNational Cathedral (http://tinyurl.com/cz2w762]. In the meantime, the church can and willbe a community of resilience with open doors to which the flooded and parchedalike may come, to hear not a word of curse but a word of redemption and grace.Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

[Thanks to Mary Minette, ELCA Director ofEnvironmental Education and Advocacy, for the term “communities of resilience”that she suggested to me in conversation about the widening attention tosustainability/greening in congregations, synods and church wide that isfostered by Lutherans Restoring Creation (www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org)& GreenFaith (www.greenfaith.org).]