St. John.jpg

Mighty Steeple

John 20:19-31

The Rev. Jon Roberts

1 May

2011

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Venice, FL

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” 24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The Second Coming of Christ stained glass window St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.[1]

With its mighty steeple reaching far into the sky above Charleston, South Carolina, St. Matthews German Evangelical Church contains some of the most beautiful stained glass renderings of the life of Christ. Being Lutheran, of course what type of church would it be if it did not have a stained glass depiction of the Reformer, Martin Luther? This church was built in the hay-day of the Confederacy. There was a great sense of prosperity within the city walls where this church was built on King St. An abundance of cotton, rice and slave labor could be found. In history this would be short lived as Christians of all sorts would meet and pray for God's wisdom in the face of fear. One cannot see Charleston without seeing the bloody, uncivil, war between two brothers, as the first shots were fired out in the bay on Ft. Sumter. The city of Charleston would, over time, learn to rebuild. For the Christians who worshipped at St. Matthews, it was not the fear of the war that gave them the greatest challenge. Instead it was the terrible fire of 1965.

Someone noticed smoke coming out around 6:50 am, as some of the paintings caught fire from an incandescent light bulb that got too hot. By 10:00 am they believed to have had it contained but a mighty wind came out of nowhere toppling the mighty steeple, weakened by the fire. The steeple made of pure and massive concrete, fell, turning upside down, point first, like an arrow. It drove eighteen feet into the ground next to the sanctuary. The force and the odds of it driving in like it did was hard to believe. It was a fearful sight. The purpose of the steeple was for people far away to know where to find the church. Now, who was it summoning, as it pointed not up, but down? When the fire was contained and the dust settled, many would go up to it, and touch it to see if it were real. It was like God's way of putting an exclamation mark on the end of a sentence.

The church had an important decision to make. With most of the paintings and pews and stained glass destroyed, some doubted whether or not they should stay there. Perhaps it was best to collect what insurance money they could, sell the property, pack up, and start over a little way, out of the city. This would be more affordable than trying to rebuild, some suggested. It would take years to rebuild it. How would they ever be able to remove the steeple from the church floor and reposition it once again on top of the building? So they prayed about it. It was agreed by this solemn assembly that all was not lost. In truth, they felt this was an opportunity. They committed to unity and rebuild. You see, they knew in their hearts that sometimes the Church has to teach the world what it means to be patient; what it means to act accordingly to God's will. They rebuilt that church. They restored the paintings. They restored the stained glass. They even left the original steeple, planted upside down where it fell, as a reminder of God's exclamation mark. One of their most treasured restorations is a stained glass window of the second coming of Christ. It shows Christ coming to the disciples on a cloud. He wears a cope and a stole, with a white gown. There are no shoes on his feet and he holds out his hands. Below his feet are grave sites with crosses on them. Think about how Christ comes into your life. Is it not for the sake of triumph? Is it not for the sake of building us up? When a life is used for prosperity, but all has been lost, does Christ not come in? When a life is used to be high and mighty, but lowered, does Christ not come in? When rubble and ash lay all around, and we wonder how we'll ever rebuild, does Christ not come in?

He comes in the moments when we need peace the most. He comes when our steeples have been overturned. There are many in the state of Alabama right now, wondering how they'll ever rebuild. Fear of loss has swept through by the acts of tornadoes. Lives have been lost. Is this not the time for Christ to come in? Much like the disciples of long ago, they huddle in despair, wondering where God is in all of this.[2] Some doubt whether God is big enough to resurrect their communities and to restore them. Perhaps they should collect what they can, sell what's left and move out, as some might suggest. What would it have been like, if Christ did not return to his disciples long ago? Would they have simply kept the memory of the miracles, but returned to be fishermen, a tax collector, or something other? God showed them by the return of Christ, by His glorious resurrection, that he walks upon the clouds, above the graves. He has dominion over the tornadoes and the fires that tear us down and topple us over. His disciples didn't get it through all of the other miracles, but they got it through this act. They could ponder the curing of the blind and the lame, the feeding of thousands, and the walking on water, but there was no way they could explain his return from the dead. Like the disciples we too must suffer various trials, in order that the genuineness of our faith will be seen by the world; a world that lives in fear.

Our faith is more precious than gold and will be tested by fire.[3] Let us teach the world that the only fear it should have, is what our life would be like without God. What would it be like if He had decided not to return. The world would be living in the ruins. It would continue to doubt His existence. It would see things like wars and death and destruction as the things in which to be fearful, the things which would dominate the landscape. But this is not the Christian understanding. Our thoughts, our hope, our faith is based on light coming into a dark room. They are based on restoration and resurrection. They are about our mighty steeple, our faith in God, and how sometimes we must build around that when at times it appears to have been toppled. If we are to fear anything in life, let us fear the Lord and what he asks of us. It is the beginning of all wisdom.

[1] Ps 111:10
[2] John 20:19-31
[3] 1 Peter 1:6-7

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