Sermon
April 18, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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Sermon: Certificate of Authenticity
 
The other day I typed the term “certificate of authenticity” into the eBay search engine and found that there were over 103,617 matching items for sale. The highest priced item – at $100,000 - had this description:
The Item Offered is THE AUTHENTIC MIRRORED DISCO BALL from The John Travolta movie "SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER". This Mirrored Ball was issued to the set for use in the films dance sequences. From the moment Tony Manero (John Travolta) strutted his stuff in his trademark white suit the disco craze was born. Don't miss this Once in a Lifetime Chance! It comes with a Certificate of Authenticity from the Hollywood Prop House from which it was obtained.
 
When I added the word “autograph” to the search the highest priced item was baseball memorabilia that included the signatures of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggion, and Ted Williams. That currently sits at $7,000.
 
By the way, there is also a hand written letter by Roger Sherman up for auction today, currently priced at $300. Apparently it is more notable to hit home runs than to draft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. But that’s another issue for another day.
 
Today I wanted to raise a point about the certificate of authenticity, or C.O.A., is it is know in the trade. If you were investing a substantial sum of money into an authentic disco mirrored ball prop or a Ted Williams autograph or a letter written by Roger Sherman, you would want a trusted means to certify its authenticity – you’d want to know that you were getting the real deal. You would not want to be cheated and you’d have your reasonable doubts until proof was offered to you.
 
Imagine, then, the situation that Thomas found himself in after he heard reports that Jesus was no longer in the tomb but had been raised and had appeared to the women and some of the disciples. We don’t know exactly what Thomas had invested in following Jesus – we don’t know whether he was a fisherman or a farmer, a carpenter or a merchant. In fact, we don’t even know if Thomas was his name or his nickname, a nickname meaning “the twin.” In one book that didn’t make it into the final cut for our Western bible Thomas is identified as the twin of Jesus, a suggestion which has been held as true in some eastern church traditions.
 
What we do know about Thomas is that when Jesus was speaking to the disciples describing how in his father’s house there are many dwelling places and that he was going there to prepare a place for them – and they knew where he was going – it was Thomas who said: Lord we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?
 
And we know that after Jesus stood among the disciples and blessed them, when Thomas wasn’t there, it was Thomas who said: “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.”
 
For Thomas the certificate of authenticity that this was the risen Christ was the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. That was the proof Thomas required to believe – that was what would give him the trust to invest not just his money but his whole life in following Jesus.
 
Years ago I remember seeing a poster hanging in a church that read: If someone accused you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
 
In other words, what would be our C.C.O.A. – our Christian Certificate of Authenticity that might convince others (to say nothing of God) that we are the genuine article, the real deal, not a cheap knock off or a fake?
 
There was a time in the life of the church when this issue was pretty clearly spelled out. Your Certificate of Authenticity as a Christian was your birth certificate. If you were born into a Christian family in a Christian nation, you were a Christian – no doubt about it. Birth and baptism were linked as closely as night and day and there was such homogeneity between society and religion that the question of what faith you belonged to would never be raised. You might be a good Christian or you might be a bad Christian, but you were a Christian.
 
This was the environment that the founders of the Congregational Way confronted in the Church of England and found severely wanting. To be a Christian simply by virtue of your birth and baptism created complacency in the church and robbed it of its power and spirit. They felt that your birth certificate was no adequate proof of authenticity as a Christian – what was needed was an experience of conversion, a conscious and purposeful turning from sin and confession of faith and act of covenanting with others to be the church – that was the Christian C.O.A.
 
In some ways the psychology of this conversion was a preview of what today we call the 12 step movement. The first step was to confront the reality of one’s own sin – and to accomplish this, preachers gave sermons about sinners in the hands of an angry God. This was the step of contrition, when the heart was full of a spirit of burning.
 
The second step was to realize your complete powerlessness to overcome this sinful nature which you have now come to hate. This was the step of humiliation, when the heart was full of a spirit of bondage.
 
The third set was turning to the saving love of God, the step of conversion, when the heart is filled with a spirit of grace.
 
The fourth step was opening to the gifts of the Spirit; the step of sanctification, when the presence of the new heart created by God’s healing love became evident through the good works of the authentic Christian life.
 
The belief in this process, sort of a graduated licensing into the Christian life, had some drawbacks which began to emerge as the second and third generations were born into the Congregational Way, now exported to New England.
 
One was that people who were born and baptized into the church had to come before the ministers and deacons and describe their personal experiences of contrition, humiliation, and conversion. Without this presentation, the church would not allow anyone to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
 
You can imagine that the level of quality control over this process was quite varied from place to place and that it could be used as a powerful tool to invade someone privacy and provide gossip for the rumor mill of small town life. Many people never subjected themselves to this kind of examination.
 
So a growing portion of the Christian population was then baptized in the church but not full members allowed to receive communion. What happened when their children were born and brought to the church for baptism? When the Congregational Church was the only game in town they could afford to be strict about their certificate of authenticity standards and refuse to baptize these children, but when the Episcopalians and the Methodists and the Quakers began to establish churches in New England and were willing to take these families into their fold, the Congregationalists had to bend.
 
The Congregationalists created what they called the Half Way Covenant, which meant you might be authentic but were not quite sure about it – but we’ll baptize your children and take your taxes anyway.
 
It was not a happy solution and it actually caused this church in New Milford to split in two after the death of the first minister in 1744 and there were two Congregational churches here for over 60 years until the controversy died down.
 
But for some churches that still consider the conversion, or born again, experience critical to authentic Christianity, your COA comes not just from your confession of faith, but from the manifestations of the spirit which occur as a result – manifestations like speaking in tongues, emotional and spontaneous testimonies, healings, ecstatic songs and movement, even the handling of poisonous snakes. These churches, often called Pentecostal churches, define the terms of the Christian certificate of authenticity in terms of these verses from the Gospel of Mark:
Mark 16:16-18The one who believes and is baptized will be saved. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
 
So we’ve come a long way from Thomas wanting to touch the wounded hands, feet and side of Jesus in old Jerusalem to a country church in the hills of Appalachia which is rocking with the sounds of Gospel shouts and the handling of cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. Where does that leave us in understanding what constitutes a genuine Christian certificate of authenticity.
 
Paul actually confronted just this kind of diversity when he founded a church at the crossroads of the Roman Empire in the port city of Corinth. And he wrote to them because they were having disputes about the authentic marks of Christian life – were they the wounds of martyrdom or the fervor of faith or the babble of tongues or the generosity of good works? Here’s what he said in a most familiar passage: 1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
 
In this Paul echoed the words of Jesus to his disciples on the last night they were together: John 13:33-35
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. Where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
 
Love is the Christian certificate of authenticity. No one can find a more trustworthy sign that the spirit of Christ is in the heart of the believer or the life of a church than this – that we love one another as Christ has loved us. Without this love, no matter how many certificates are hanging on the wall, no matter how tall the steeple or how wonderful the music or how historic the pedigree of the pulpit, without this love its not the real deal and not worth the investment of $10 or 10 cents, let alone your life and eternal hope.
 
Always check for the Certificate of Authenticity

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