Coming-to-faith via Grace
2nd Sunday of Easter – April 16, 2023
Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
Thomas’ story (John 20:19-31) is one of coming-to-faith. Here is a disciple of Jesus, one who would later be given the title, Apostle, who followed and accompanied the Teacher for a good part of Jesus’ ministry. This is Thomas who found it difficult to believe in the Resurrection, that Jesus was raised from the dead to New Life. It required his own experience for him to come-to-faith. Let’s keep that in mind as we share reflections today, that is, the part that direct experience plays in one’s faith.
Jean and I celebrated last week the wedding of our niece, Emma with her new husband, Tim. Emma is the youngest daughter of my sister, Mary. She is also the youngest granddaughter of my parents, Harry and Peg. Over the course of the weekend and in the days since, I have thought about my parents’ grandchildren, all 28 of them. If you count my parents as the first generation and proceed to their great-grandchildren that totals 4 generations of the clan Doyle-Ryan. Near as I can figure there are well over 100 people (including spouses) in these 4 generations.
Back to the grandchildren. They make up quite a cohort all by themselves – a veritable sociologist’s dream, or so I imagine. There is almost a 30 year span in that group alone. The oldest grandchild, Sean, is approaching 60 and Emma, the youngest will be 30 next year. My oldest brother, Tom, and his wife, Joyce, were in a completely different parenting universe than my sister, youngest sibling, and her husband, Ed. When it comes to life issues of their children it feels like a light year of distance between them.
Let’s just pick two for example: religious faith and gender identity. The first grandchildren were raised at a time when the Roman Church was “in charge,” an actual center-stage reality and influence. And the last grandchildren were raised in the time of, to put it kindly, the church’s diminishment, an off-stage role at best. The first grandchildren had been provided a standard, traditional view of society’s enclosure on gender identity. Not so, the youngest ones. The 30 year span truly has a feel of two different universes about it. In fact they just about span two generations among themselves.
Now, I’m about to engage in gross oversimplification. It is necessary to do this, I think, given two narrow confines, the first being the brevity required to present this homily within our worship service, and the second for the need to make my point.
What is a coming-to-faith story of generations coming up? It seems to me that the older grandchildren in my family had pretty familiar and more-or-less straightforward experiences of a Roman Church still central and in control of messaging and operation. The younger grandchildren find themselves dealing with life in a context of the collapse of that same church which these days shows itself incapable of stemming the tide of disaffection, of alienation, and of general irrelevance.
What does coming-to-faith look like today? How does it even happen for these latest generations? I confess, I don’t know. I have thoughts, suspicions even, that I would like to offer, but I truly do not know. Finding myself steeped in ignorance, I consulted my fount of all knowledge – the Google. I was fascinated by what I found which is that others don’t know either. One article (a Sage publication) addressed the question of how Gen Z, also referred to as iGen, may become mature in faith. It was well written, well referenced, and appeared to be thorough. But, the author didn’t know either.
The author, who approached the question from the evangelical viewpoint, suggested that maturity in faith (I would say, coming-to-faith) is the result of becoming deeply saturated in quotes from the bible. Really? It seems clear to me that rampant indifference and legitimate suspicion of institutional religion marks this generation as thoroughly removed from the bible.
The Roman Church has no more credibility on this issue of aligning with young persons coming-to-faith. On a quest to understand synodality I read the report of the American Bishops concerning the synodal process that has been underway for several years. I ran across the statement which intends to answer the question of bringing back the disaffected, the alienated, and the generally indifferent; it included addressing Gen Z. The statement said something to the effect that the church needs to do a better job of refining and teaching its Message. Really?
Is there any wonder that Gen Z has yet to experience what coming-to-faith looks like when they’re told to memorize bible quotes and/or listen to a massaged Message?
I refuse to believe this is the end of the line for faith. So, I listened to the members of Gen Z and the Millennials speaking themselves. It was the toasts at the wedding dinner that the 2 Best Men and the 2 Best Women gave. That’s right – a total of 4 toasts, perhaps a sign of inclusion in the face of not wanting to select only one “toaster” each for bride and groom. In any event, Emma and Tim got an earful of loving toasts.
The “Bests” regaled us with stories of childhoods shared, of games played, of families joined, of friendship’s growth, of best friends who had each other’s backs, of sharing activities whose principal purpose was just to be together. These toasts also reflected on these two persons who just happened to come into each other’s lives, on how one’s individual likes, interests, and loves were, in fact, the same for the other. Emma loves critters, a love that grew through her childhood despite her mother’s severe pet allergies which greatly reduced the numbers of family companions of the critter world. One of the more memorable trips to Chicago for Jean and me was when we took Seamus, our first Irish Setter and former member of this community, to the parking lot of the Field Museum so that Emma and he could meet. Emma was on a school trip with her parents to Chicago from Ohio and this seemed the perfect opportunity for this meeting in person after so many pictures of Seamus had been sent her way.
Well, Emma the critter lover meets Tim, the veterinarian whose special interest is exotic animals – and the rest, let’s just say, is the making of nuptial history.
As I listened to the toasts coming from the “4 Bests” one word that came to me was grace, the unearned, unmerited gift which surprises, deepens, and rounds out the human spirit. I thought, here are life experiences that are not obstructed by bible verses nor burdened by a more finely honed message. It could be that the gift of grace is how, like the Apostle Thomas in today’s gospel, one comes to faith. It could also be Gen Z’s pathway to acknowledging the spirit of grace which is neither random nor tainted. Grace is pure gift from a Creator whose love looks and feels the same as how lovers feel on the day they gift themselves to each other for life.
A Prayer (JR)
Raise us to life, Teacher, All Holy One, through faith in Resurrection. We live our lives
believing in this Way of Life. Now, in this time of celebration and renewal we rejoice
— that You are with us. As we gather in prayer strengthen our confidence, deepen
our love and connections, and give comfort to the suffering and dying with your
assurance of New Life
This is Easter for us this year. May our collective human effort and your grace restore
us, renew us, and bring health, justice, peace, and happiness. We pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen. Alleluia.