The Church today is in the midst of great changes. At the heart of the changes are believers who live out their faith with a spirituality that is more passive and intellectual in a time when society is increasingly active and hands-on. Look around. Weekly we sit in passive rows, attending and consuming worship. Our faith may be lived out in other activities or ways, but we look for the church to offer programs to meet our Christian consumer needs.
But the world we live in is full of Thomas like disciples. You know Tom, the slightly hyper follower who doesn’t sit around passively and living a passive spiritual life contemplating what it all means. Tom wants to see and do, experiencing the divine, making faith and following Jesus a tangible part of daily life. Tom would feel comfortable today in post-modernity, where people don’t want to be told about faith to believe in God, they want a spirituality that experiences God by observing others, and seeing how they follow Jesus by putting faith into action. They are uncomfortable with the Christian experience of the modern era, the one most of us are most comfortable with.
We live in a time when people fill their lives with experiences and tangible things that bring them identity and meaning. You and I are no different. We spend much more time planning weekend activities, vacations, and shopping than we do following Jesus and loving our neighbors in need. Now I know I’m preaching to the proverbial choir here, notice the number of people here today, verses last week. Notice how many were in worship for just Palm and Easter Sundays, too busy or otherwise distracted, to walk together as community to the cross, participating in the most active worship experiences during the most holy of weeks.
Many are like those gathered behind locked doors where it was safe to see Jesus, and some are like Thomas who need to see and experience to believe and then follow. Follow Jesus. Even for the faithful among us, following is difficult. We come to church, we worship, we study God’s Word, go on retreat and religious events, or read countless books, employing our intellect to follow Jesus. Some see the connection and make the leap to live out and follow Jesus by seeing and experiencing, but most struggle to connect the faith of their heads to their hearts and hands.
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Following Jesus in a time when the world doesn’t share your belief is difficult. We mourn for our children who were raised in the church and are no longer connected. We mourn for a full Sunday School and full pews. We mourn for the many hands that made the work of faith communities easier. Thankfully the Body of Christ God gathers as church has been around for thousands of years and as resurrection people, we know that death has to happen, even in the church, before new life comes.
The end of religion has been wondered and worried about throughout history. During the second World War when the church in Germany rolled over for the Nazi regime, Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this in Letters and Papers from Prison:
We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different from “religious.” What does it mean for “Christianity”? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?
For me Bonhoeffer’s question rings true in a time when it seems that the religion we knew has fallen way out of fashion.
In her book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Religious Scholar Diana Butler Bass cites sociological trends and shares her research on the decline of Christianity in the U.S. She also tackles the Thomas question, “How Do I Believe?” Because for Thomas it was all about seeing and experience. Note the question is not the one organized religion and moderns have asked for the past one-hundred years, “What Do I/We Believe?”
I see Thomas as the post-modern guy in the room. For him and our post-modern world, the question about belief is how. Butler Bass frames it this way:
What is not the issue—the world of religion is full of what. Instead, they have asked how….how opens the question of belief anew. How do I believe? How do we believe? How does belief make a difference? How is the world transformed by believing? Belief will not entirely go away. Rather, “believing about” appears to be going away. Belief itself is being enfolded into a new spiritual awareness as belief questions morph from what to how, from seeking information about God to nurturing experience of the divine.
Post-modern people hunger for you and I to show them what it means to believe. They want to see and experience like Thomas, but we talk about it rather than share the experience of following Jesus. Faith communities across the country are facing a Thomas society shift to a time when following Jesus,
- Is more about doing something that means something, rather than consuming something passively,
- Is more about sharing belief by showing people what it looks like to follow and daily walk with Jesus,
- Is more about involving people in creating, doing and meaning something rather than just thinking and talking about it.
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As we gather together like the disciples after Easter…
- Who are you? A modern believer who resonates with Jesus words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and ?yet have come to believe” or a post-modern doubter who resonates with Thomas’ words, “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.”
- What does it look like to believe in God, to follow Jesus? What does that look and feel like for faith communities? What could it look and feel like?
- When have you seen and experienced the divine through religion?
- Where do you and people of faith walk in God?
These questions of how belief and following are experienced are important for the future of God’s Church in this time and place because these are the questions and hungers of our post-modern world and Christianity after religion as we know it.
The good news is that Jesus comes to us all: moderns and post-moderns, Mary’s and Thomas’, faithful and fearful, standing in the middle of our doubt and our changing world. Here in this place, we are all invited…
- To splash in the font of forgiveness where the Risen One gifts us with peace and we are equipped with the Holy Spirit.
- To hold out our hands to receive and touch the means of grace, the body of the Risen One.
- To walk together trying to follow the Risen One as a community gathered and blessed to see, experience and believe.
The reality of Christianity after religion can be found in Bonhoeffer’s startling words: “Jesus Christ exists as community” and not only “in community” because Jesus says he is wherever two or three are gathered in his name, the Body of Christ. Thomas and post-modern people may seek the Risen One spiritually singly, but all who seek and hunger to experience him are called to experience him as community. We gather as community to see and experience the divine, because that is who, what, when and where he is.