Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2020
Just recently I read aloud Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” to our daughter. A small book with big themes. The unexpected hero, the dire circumstance, and the desperate hope run all throughout “The Hobbit” and into The Lord of the Rings. One of Frodo’s lines especially, early on in the “Fellowship of the Ring,” stands out to me. Burdened with the great weight of the world, with the powers of evil conspiring against him, he confesses a failure of nerve. “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo. 'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'"
We all wish this would not have happened in our time. No one wishes to live during a pandemic. No one wishes to lose their jobs. No one wishes to live in the midst of such upheaval. No one wishes to live in such a time as this. And yet here we are. It is not for us to decide the circumstances around us, but only for us to “decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”
We can imagine that the early disciples of Jesus wish they had lived in different times, too. They did not wish to live under the boot of the Roman Empire. They did not wish to live in a time in which their nation, their people, their culture were under existential threat. They did not wish to live in a time of insurrection and rebellion and warfare. And now as we read from the Gospel of John, Jesus has stirred up enough controversy through his teaching, and preaching, and ministry that Jesus has become a marked man. So the disciples did not wish to see Jesus return to Judea, where even now the leaders are ready to kill him. Jesus, his disciples, did not wish to see their friend, Lazarus, die. But the circumstances of their life is not their decision. Rather, they can only choose what to do with the time that is given to them.
And so Thomas, faithful Thomas, makes a decision of what to do with the terrible hand he has been dealt. When Jesus says that he is prepared to return to Judea, to return to the place where even now they are ready to kill him, Thomas decides, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
In the crisis, in the moment of decision, when the whole world is falling apart around him, Thomas decides to follow Jesus.
And so the question is turned to us, in this time that we wish would pass from us. What are we going to do? We cannot wish it away, we cannot bury our head in the sand until it passes. No, there is something that we, as disciples must do, and that is to follow him. Even in the direst of circumstances, even when all hope seems to be lost. We, as Christians, must proclaim life in the midst of death. We must cling to hope in the time of despair. We must love in a time of hate.
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that we should disregard the health and safety of the community. I’m not saying that we should go out in the world, and do what we had been doing, even if we get sick, because that would be following Jesus. I’m not saying that we should be ignorant. What I am saying is this - every situation, every circumstance, requires a faithful response. And the faithful response in this present moment, the faithful way to love our neighbor, the faithful way to follow Jesus, is to be apart.
Look, we know that it is good to be with one another, to worship with one another. We know that Christians have gathered on Sundays for two thousand years because by gathering, we are united in love. By gathering in person, we have felt the power of the Spirit. Even the word “church” in Greek, means “the assembly” or “those assembled.” But now, in this present moment, to follow Jesus means to be disassembled.
Because there is one truth in Christianity that goes deeper than meeting together on Sundays. The one truth that goes straight to heart of God - we are always willing to sacrifice ourselves for the other. Thomas ends up dying for his faith. Jesus Christ gives himself away on the hard wood of the cross. And now we the Church, sacrifice what we hold dear for the life of the world. We treasure our time together, we draw strength from passing the peace and communion and being together in person. But now is not the time for that, though we do miss it. So do not think of this present hour as the Church hiding from the problems of the world. Rather, this is the Church, sacrificing itself, for the sake of the world.
No, these are not the times that we would wish to live in, but these are the times that we do live in. And though we are not together, we are united in a solitary purpose. To stand firm against this pernicious virus. To stand firm against this evil that is waging warfare against humanity. When you are tired, frustrated, worried; when your mind starts racing and wishing that you could be somewhere, anywhere else; remember that you are a living sacrifice. Giving up yourself so that others may live. And in that moment, you will be making the faithful choice with Thomas. The choice to sacrifice ourselves for the world that Jesus has already sacrificed himself for.
I know, it’s a paradox, to say that by staying home from church we are helping the world. That by doing nothing we are doing something. But Christianity is built on paradox. Sacrifice leads to grace. The cross leads to an empty tomb. Death is changed into life. My friends, I wish to encourage you this morning. To give you a word of strength. To help you stand fast. To give you patience. To give you hope. And at the end of our days, when they look back on this time, I pray they look at the example of the Church. A Church who was willing to sacrifice itself for the greater good. I pray they look at us and they hear the words of Thomas, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”