This is the third article in a series, using insights from Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief, by W. Paul Jones (Abingdon: Nashville, 1989) for preaching.
Separation from loved ones is one of the hardest things in life.
Whether the separation comes from death, or distance, or estrangement, it is something we all experience, sooner or later. Sometimes even faithful Christians feel separated from God. In any congregation, at any given time, there are people for whom separation, and the desire for re-union, is the defining issue in their lives.
They are living in what W. Paul Jones has called the theological world of "separation and reunion." Some are suffering through a literal separation -- a spouse has died, or a loved one is deployed to Iraq, or a son or daughter has just left for college. Recent immigrants often suffer a deep sense of loss for the people, the climate and the culture they have left behind. Still others struggle with a vague sense of being alone and isolated.
People whose lives are defined by separation yearn for a sense of belonging.
They wonder if they will ever have a place with God and other people.1 They live as orphans, aliens, exiles, or outcasts. The essential feel of their lives, according to Jones, is one of longing and the need to belong. Their need is for God to "tear the veil" of separation, and to reveal that a person does indeed belong -- to God and to a community of faith.
People in this theological world need an epiphany to show them that they belong to God. This is what Jesus can do for them, and this is what preaching from this theological world can do. For them, salvation means coming home, or being at home, being let into God's presence. It means being in harmony with God (or God's people, or God's creation) at long last.2
This world of separation and re-union is a great and powerful vantage point for preaching. There are many biblical texts that fairly beg to be preached from this angle.
Take for example Hebrews 11:13-14: "They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth... they are seeking a homeland." Or 1 Peter 2:9-10: "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people."
The hymn "Amazing Grace" strikes this theme too: "I once was lost, but now am found."3 The fact that this is the most popular hymn in modern times should clue us in to the universality of separation and reunion as life-defining.
A great opportunity for preaching a separation and reunion sermon comes up on the Second Sunday of Easter with John 20:19-31 when the risen Jesus appears to Thomas.
Before this text, death has separated the disciples from Jesus. Even after his resurrection, they remain separated from him by fear and perhaps unbelief. They are in a locked room when he comes to them. They are no longer orphans. His gift of peace restores them to fellowship with him and with each other.
But Thomas has a harder time. His separation is double. He believes that death has separated him from Jesus. And since he was not with the other disciples when Jesus came (John 20:24) he remains outside their joy.
When the disciples tell him that Jesus is risen, Thomas declares that he will not believe unless he can see the mark of the nails in Jesus' hand and side. Lack of faith is a huge void that separates Thomas from the other disciples, even though they are in the same room.
Jesus overcomes this double separation by appearing to Thomas (John 20:27). The text does not say whether Thomas' demands (placing his hands in the mark of the nails on Jesus hands and side) were ever met. Thomas lets go of his demands, and Jesus chooses the manner and the time in which he appears to Thomas.
Jesus asks, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (John 20:29). Faith is the gift of grace. Only grace, revealed in the risen Jesus, can overcome our separation from God and from one another.
No wonder the world's most beloved hymn includes the words, "and grace shall lead me home."
1The theological world of separation and reunion may intersect with the theological world of sin and forgiveness, for sin does indeed separate us from God and other people. But the struggle with separation can come about for other reasons. The root problem may not be guilt, but life situation or personal temperament.
2W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989) 41; see also p. 47.
3"Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound," verse 1, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #779.