A meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, April 18, 2004, Easter I, dedicated to the musical artist, G. Dene Barnard, to the gifted gift-giver, Jane Werum, to the visual artists, Ellen Miret and Deb Anderson, and always to the glory of God!
Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
He was single-minded, dedicated to his art form, and focused by a determination which could often harden into obstinacy when he failed to get his way. The Church Councils with when he worked often found him contrary and difficult to abide by. Patience was certainly not among his chief virtues. He often had an unsatisfactory relationship with his choir members. He was known to rage when they did not come prepared or offer their very best in practice or in worship. And yet, those who were gifted enough to be taught individually by him seemed to have been devoted to him as both a teacher and a person. You know of whom I speak. His name rolls from your tongues with love and devotion. His name is Johann Sebastian Bach. (Malcolm Boyd, Bach, Oxford University Press, NY, pp. 230-233)
Although often portrayed as a deeply religious man, serving God and the church, he did not write many letters, comment at length about his religious life, or leave behind indication of his faithful devotion. History will remember his secular words upon the page - "for refreshment of the spirit" as well it recalls his signature closing for each religious piece - "to God Along the Glory." As a strong Lutheran and an immensely dedicated Protestant church musician of the early 18th Century, J.S. Bach focused his religious energy on the principle that worship should be led by "well-regulated church music." He went on to compose and present the most amazing "well-regulated church music" that Christendom has known. Truth be told, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the greatest sacred music of his time because he was a great and more skillful composer, not because he believed more deeply than his contemporaries. When this house of worship was filled to capacity on March 21st, Bach's 319th Birthday, it was a continuing testimony to the power and presence of Bach's creative artistry and energy that he should enjoy an immensely popular following until this day.
Today, we dedicate two glorious stained-glass windows to the glory of God alone -- Soli Deo Gloria. This pair of windows, knows as north and south lancets, are inspired by the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and G. Dene Barnard. While in seminary at Yale Divinity School, Dr. Roland Bainton, a well-known Martin Luther scholar, would present each December one of Luther's Christmas sermons. My professor of Liturgy and Worship, and our upcoming 2004 Gladden Lecturer, Bishop Jeffrey Rowthorn once remarked, "When I listen to Dr. Bainton present Luther's sermons it is as if I am listening to Luther himself. I find myself wondering whether there is indeed a line between Bainton and Luther - Luther or Bainton; Bainton or Luther - it feels like on in the same to me." I have felt similarly when listening to Barnard on Bach. Where does the line between one end and the other begin? With passion and precision, Mr. Barnard delivers Bach beautifully. Whether the Fugue and Fantasia, each in G Minor, or any other piece by Bach, Mr. Barnard has offered his best - to the glory of God alone - through a lifetime of performing and leading worship. And we have been blessed by over 1400 Sundays of musical worship leadership. He has graced us with gifts of music beyond measure in what has amounted to a lifetime body of work. Today, through the gift given by Jane Werum, through the art of Ellen Miret, and through the grace of God, we have been blessed again. Thanks be to God for G. Dene Barnard!
In the midst of this Easter celebration, Thomas the Apostle, meets us in this story from the Gospel of John. In John 20:19-31, we confront an interesting drama played out between the Gospel writers - Thomas (whose gospel has been "lost" until this generation) and John. While in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Thomas receives the power of the Risen Christ on the first day of the week, along with the eleven disciples (minus Judas), John's gospel has Thomas missing the meeting in which power was conferred by the Risen Christ.
In this passage, John portrays Thomas as a doubter and skeptic. Scholar, Gregory Riley suggests in his monograph, Resurrection Reconsidered, that John presents Thomas in a negative light for polemical and practical reasons. His reasons, Thomas, Christians and their teachings were a challenge to John. In this encounter, Thomas meets the Risen Savior and questions everyone's certainty about his risen revelation. In so doing, Thomas calls upon us to reconsider our convincing certainty. Through Thomas, John's account opens us to the possibilities of doubt related to the resurrection. No matter how these gospel writers struggle with one another, doubt is not a bad thing.
The great metaphysical poet, John Donne has written, "To come to a doubt and to a debatement of any religious duty, is the voice of God (speaking) in our conscience: `Would you know the truth? Doubt, and then you will inquire.'" (As quoted by Madeleine L'Engle, in Walking on Water, p. 134). Thomas' questions and doubts help us sort out our own. If our faith is true, it will stand up to all our questioning. There is no need to fear doubt. If our faith is not true and if it is humanity, or the Church imposing strictures on God (as did the Church in Galileo's day), then we need to pass over the falsehood of human strictures and be open to God - not to what people about God - but God Alone! In fact, I believe Thomas gifts us today. His projected doubts guide us to places in which we are able to open to new life, new birth, new light and new revelation.
In "Ultima Veritas," stanza 4, Washington Gladden writes:
In the darkest night of the year, When the stars have all gone out, That courage is better than fear, that faith is truer than doubt.
Doubt is not the enemy of faith. Rather, doubt is that which strengthens and convicts faith beyond fear. Give me doubt, any day, in this story of Easter revelation rather than the words from chapter 1 of the Koran which proclaim, "There is no doubt in this book." Doubt can be trusted more than so called `TRUE BELIEVERS' who have no doubt.
Today, as Thomas overcomes his struggle to confirm Christ's resurrection in John's gospel, we stand doubtless in adding these confirmations of faith to ages of belief: In the Music, with which G. Dene Barnard has gifted us, God has been Glorified. In the glass hewn creations by Ellen Miret, God is Glorified, still.
And thus, we add our voices to doubtless multitudes and proclaim - Soli Deo Gloria! - To God Alone the Glory. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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