We are warmed by your sun, encircled by your love, blessed by your presence, sustained by your Spirit. You gather us into this sacred circle of life and give us a song in our hearts, laughter on our lips and kindness on our touch. With praise and thanksgiving, we offer you our dreams and our deeds and this sacred time of worship. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

HYMN                                                                                       “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee”

Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my heart,
But sweeter far thy face to see, and in thy presence rest.
Jesus, our only joy be thou, as thou our prize will be,
Jesus, be thou our glory now, and through eternity.

Gracious heavenly Father, you have made known to us the ways of life. Yet, too often, we put other things above you and turn away from the way of life and toward the ways of death. Forgive us and guide us back into your presence, that we may know the fullness of joy. Amen.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is our refuge and will not abandon us. In Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God. That is a promise of peace and joy; share that peace with one another. Amen.

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” I say of the holy People who are in the land, “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.” Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.

I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods or take up their names on my lips Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side.

The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”

But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!” Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

                                                                                             “SEEING IS BELIEVING – MAYBE …”
                                                                                                    Psalm 16 – John 20:19-31
Was JFK assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald or was it a conspiracy? Did people actually land on the moon or was this all staged in a Hollywood back lot? Did Elvis fake his death in order to get some privacy? Was Paul McCartney actually replaced by a look-alike when he allegedly died in 1966? Was 9/11 staged by the U.S. government? Are all these questions crazy?

Americans love a good conspiracy theory, and our weakness for paranoid fantasies is actually embedded in our history from the very beginning. For example, some historians speculate that the Founding Fathers were moved to write the Declaration of Independence because they believed that Britain was about to enslave American colonists and had nothing to do with taxes, among other things. The idea that there is some shadowy group pulling strings behind the scenes in our history has been a constant theme for theorists who believe things are not as they appear. Whether it’s “black helicopters,” “Pan Am Flight 103” or “Roswell,” many people are willing to believe that there’s something rotten in Denmark … or Des Moines, or Dallas or wherever.

The 21st century has seen a rise in conspiratorial thinking with the internet being an unfiltered clearinghouse for theorists. “Truthers” continually look for new information to explain what really happened. The conspiracy theories usually gel around events of historical significance or the deaths of famous people. When someone famous (or infamous) dies, the thinking goes, there has to be a reason behind the reason. But sometimes there’s a bit more to the story that takes it out of the realm of wild speculation and into the potential of eyebrow-raising intrigue.

The recent death of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein is a classic example. Epstein was arrested on charges of sex trafficking and committed suicide in prison. But he was also politically connected and may have had significant “dirt” on public officials that could have had a wide-ranging impact on the U.S. government.

Conspiracy theorists believe that Epstein didn’t actually commit suicide but was murdered, or at least had help killing himself. It was all done to keep him quiet. A suspicious, public death raises such questions. Conspiracy theorists have a reputation for being a little nuts, but the truth is that we always need people who are looking for the truth. When it comes to the most famous death in history, the death of Jesus Christ, conspiracy theories abound, but in the center of the story we see someone who is really trying to get at the truth. And this figure is no outsider but one of Jesus’ own disciples: Thomas, the original “truther.” Notice that I didn’t say doubter but rather truther.

The death and resurrection of Jesus have long been the target of conspiracy theorists trying to explain it away. The general theme of these theories is that the disciples acted together to claim that Jesus was alive when he really wasn’t; that he died and the disciples “helped” him become “alive” again. Why they would do this, however, seems to be a more elusive question.

Some theorists, for example, speculate that Jesus didn’t actually die but just “swooned” on the cross and eventually staggered out of the tomb. There are just a few problems with that theory — namely that the Romans were pretty good at the industrial application of death, and John tells us that Jesus was speared in the side (19:31-37). That would have been a heck of a swoon, and Jesus must have been in really great shape to survive all that — more Superman than Savior!

Others suggest that the disciples took the body of Jesus and hid it (a genuine concern of the chief priests, according to Matthew 28:62-66), and then claimed that he was alive. Some speculate that the disciples had a mass hallucination of Jesus after his death caused by grief, or that they actually saw a ghost.

Despite 2,100 years of conspiracy theories, however, disproving the rumor of the resurrection has proven elusive. Indeed, it seems as though the gospels themselves embed an answer to the conspiracy theorists in the text, and one of the places we see this most clearly is in the apostle John’s account.

After the death of Jesus, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors in fear of the Jewish leaders. They have just heard from Mary Magdalene that morning that she had “seen the Lord,” but they could have easily dismissed her words as fake news (v. 18). Women were not considered reliable witnesses in a court of law in the first century, thus they may have chalked up her claim to hysteria.

But then, suddenly, Jesus appeared among them with the greeting, “Peace be with you” (v. 19). And then he shows them the evidence of the wounds in his hands and side. It’s a strange combination: Jesus is risen in a physical body and yet can also appear through locked doors. It’s clear that this is a different kind of body, but a body nonetheless. The disciples “rejoiced” after seeing the evidence (v. 20). Mary’s testimony had been vindicated.

All of this happens without the disciple Thomas being there. When the others tell him, “We have seen the Lord” (the same words used by Mary Magdalene), Thomas is rightly skeptical (v. 25). He’s not taking their wild speculation for gospel truth just yet. “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” (v. 25). After all, they had the benefit of seeing the nail marks. Why shouldn’t Thomas?

Thomas may have thought his friends were engaging in their own collective conspiracy theory, and he was out to bust it. We know Thomas was a thinker, a questioner. In 14:5, he pressed Jesus on his statement about where he was going. It wasn’t that Thomas was afraid — after all, in chapter 11, he was prepared to go with Jesus to a dangerous place, even if it meant his own death (11:16). It’s just that he wasn’t going to buy into any kind of fake news. He wouldn’t sell his own life cheaply based on false information or wild speculation.

We often call Thomas a “doubter,” but the truth is that we all need a Thomas in our community, someone who is willing to push back on what, at times, seems to be craziness. Thomas isn’t a doubter so much as a legitimate “truther.” He simply wants the truth, which is something all of us are seeking. Thomas doesn’t reject the idea of resurrection outright; he simply wants more evidence — the same evidence the other disciples had apparently received. He wants to experience the risen Christ for himself. And then, suddenly, he has the opportunity. The pattern repeats: a locked door, an appearance by Jesus. Jesus seems to know that Thomas had expressed some skepticism and offers the evidence that Thomas was looking for. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (v. 27). Jesus never refers to Thomas as a doubter. First, keep in mind that the other disciples had the benefit of evidence which they saw with their own eyes — evidence that was not available to Thomas. Second, Thomas’ doubts are not about the resurrection of Jesus, but about the reports of the resurrection of Jesus. When he saw Jesus, he had no doubt that Jesus was alive. He was quite skeptical, however, about the veracity of what he was hearing. Third, although Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” he is not saying that Thomas has a problem with belief. He’s really saying, “Thomas, it’s me, in the flesh. Don’t doubt. Believe. It’s okay.” And finally, what Jesus says to Thomas in verse 29 applied equally to all of the disciples, not just Thomas. He said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” All of the disciples believed that Jesus was alive only because they saw Jesus in the flesh. Like Thomas, they did not believe the reports of Jesus’ resurrection either.

Thomas responds to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). It’s a confession of faith. Note that John doesn’t tell us that Thomas takes Jesus up on his offer and actually touches his wounds. It seems that the presence of Jesus is finally enough for Thomas. And what John implies, powerfully, is that the presence of Jesus should be enough for us, too. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” says Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29). John is speaking to his audience and to future generations like us about the truth of the gospel.

Charles Colson, who was special counsel and “hatchet man” for President Richard Nixon, was indicted in the Watergate scandal (an actual conspiracy) and went to prison for seven months. While in prison, Colson became a Christian and remarked that it was his own criminal conviction that proved the resurrection to him. He put it like this: “I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world — and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.” Believing isn’t always simply a matter of seeing something. And seeing isn’t always believing. Of course, once in a while, seeing IS believing.

Police in Fort Smith, Arkansas, were pretty sure they had the man they were looking for in the robbery of a convenience store: James Newsome, age 37. They had Newsome on the store’s surveillance videotape. Plus, the coat worn by the robber was found in Newsome’s car. Also, Newsome’s wife said the family car had a radiator leak, and a puddle of antifreeze was found right where the robber had parked. Also, the robber wore a hard hat with “James Newsome” written on the front.

God cares whether we are faithful and therefore joyful. Happiness is largely a matter of outward circumstance. We are told that we must possess certain things to be happy: health, money, security, success, and power. None of these things are required for happiness. True happiness lies in knowing that we are saved by God. It is by grace alone through his gift of faith alone. This knowledge brings the peace that surpasses all mere human happiness. We can have this joy and peace no matter how grim our circumstances - even amidst poverty, COVID-19 and ill health, despite failure and weakness, and no matter how sinful we are.

The fields were parched and brown from lack of rain, and the crops lay wilting from thirst. People were anxious and irritable as they searched the sky for any sign of relief. Days turned into arid weeks. No rain came. The ministers of the local churches called for an hour of prayer on the town square the following Saturday. They requested that everyone bring an object of faith for inspiration.

At high noon on the appointed Saturday the townspeople turned out en masse, filling the square with anxious faces and hopeful hearts. The ministers were touched to see the variety of objects clutched in prayerful hands - holy books, crosses, rosaries. When the hour ended, as if on magical command, a soft rain began to fall. Cheers swept the crowd as they held their treasured objects high in gratitude and praise.

From the middle of the crowd one faith symbol seemed to overshadow all the others. A small 9-year-old child had brought an umbrella.

When Hudson Taylor, the famous missionary, first went to China, it was in a sailing vessel. Very close to the shore of the Cannibal Islands the ship was caught in a calm, and it was slowly drifting toward the shore. The captain came to Mr. Taylor and sought him to pray for the help of God. “I will,” said Taylor, “provided you set your sails to catch the breeze.” The Captain declined to make himself a laughing stock by unfurling the sails in a dead calm. Taylor said, “I will not undertake to pray for the vessel unless you will prepare the sails.”

There is a story about a monastery in Europe perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery was to be suspended in a basket which was pulled to the top by several monks who pulled and tugged with all their strength. Obviously the ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed. With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, “Whenever it breaks.” Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.

Many people will say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” but the problem is we’d like to see some proof, you know, seeing is believing. For example:

When we’re laid off at work.
When our application is rejected.
When we’re faced with a debilitating illness.
When we struggle with family problems.
When we’re burdened with the sheer boredom of life.
When we’re caught in a financial crisis.
When our spiritual well has run dry.
When we have no emotional strength, nothing left to give.
Just something ... anything.

One flash of light comes from 1 Peter. There he writes that God “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). The good news here is that our hope is not stuck in an ancient, dusty past; our hope is, instead, a living, breathing, 21st-century hope that is with us now, and is pointing to the future.

We have been born anew to “an inheritance,” he says, to some riches that are yet to come, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (v. 4). Come along with me, he seems to be saying, the best is yet to be. Seeing is believing except in our present time.
We can’t see it.
We can’t feel it.
We can’t hear it.
We can’t touch it.
And yet, we are isolated in our homes for fear of the viral invader we call COVID-19. This invisible “force” is changing the world, changing the way we do life, changing people. But not necessarily all for the worse.

This past week Saturday Night Live put on a show that was completely virtual. So did Jimmy Fallon. Filmed from their homes, hosts and guests played music, interviewed, did skits, and bantered with each other, even about COVID-19. Far from getting us down, COVID-19 seems to be bringing out our best creativity, our innovative edge. And despite fears and deaths and dangers, the grief and the sadness of losing friends and family, those with a voice keep on singing, inspiring hope in others. This is the human spirit at its best and greatest.

In a sense, these comedians and television personalities are “apostles of hope.” They feel a mission to uplift, to entertain, to laugh in the face of danger, to encourage others isolated in their homes that we can still giggle, that we can still love, that despite anything that happens to us, we cannot be defeated. In fact, if anything, the challenges of loss and grief can unite us, can energize us to fight back with the best within us, can encourage us to reach out to others in unprecedented ways, can bring out in us that deeply embedded sense of what it means to be human and one global people.

This is what it means to be an “apostle.” And I imagine this same feeling of new energy, creativity, empowerment, and challenge must have also flowed through the veins of Jesus’ disciples in the aftermath of his death and it can flow through us as well. Amen.

Ever present and ever loving God, our prayer this day is a response to your ceaseless outpouring of love. When we awake to a new day, you are already there to greet us. When sleepless nights and anxious moments toss us, you are there to comfort us. When difficult choices confuse us, you are there to guide us. You have loved us before we even turn to you. You are here now and we are grateful.

Today we place before you our lives which are sometimes busy and tired. And in this day and age we are aware of the COVID-19 that surrounds us and it brings us anxious moments. Help us to know that through the knowledge you have given to those in the medical field a cure will be found and we will again be able to gather together as a family of faith to praise and worship you.

We place before you our church, it’s mission and ministry. May we continue to reach out into our community and beyond to share the Gospel message. We place before you our world which is yearning for justice and freedom. Be with the leaders of the world that they might work together to bring about peace and justice among all people.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. THE BLESSING May the love of God, the grace of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you and abide with you this day and forever. Amen.  

May the love of God, the grace of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you and abide with you this day and forever.  Amen.