Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'Doubting' Thomas gets a bad rap . . and other thoughts after Easter

Two days in a row, hopefully I am getting back into a rhythm with the blogging.  Today, I want to share the message I gave at Good Shepherd the Sunday after Easter.  It is an exploration of the question, 'What now?' after Easter, but more than that it is a look at the disciple we know as 'Doubting Thomas' and how he can actually serve as an example to us of how to respond to the truth of the resurrected Jesus.    

John 20:19-31 (NIV)
 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[a]), 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.

In many corners of the church this Sunday in our Christian calendar is called ‘low Sunday’.  The reason for this is that in many, if not most churches this is the lowest attended Sunday of the year. 
In fact many of my first opportunities to share the Word of God in worship were on one of the two ‘low Sunday’s’ of the year (the other being the Sunday after Christmas).  That is because it is fairly common, even for pastors, to take this Sunday off. 
In a way, I guess, this makes sense.  Lent is a busy time.  Holy Week, is in many places, including our church, a time of many opportunities for worship and study – opportunities that require extra time and commitment. 
But the idea of taking the Sunday after Easter ‘off’ really doesn’t make sense at all  - not we really understand what it was we were celebrating last week, and what we are called to proclaim this and every day. 
The ‘Low Sunday’ after Christmas, kind of makes sense.  Taking some time to rest and recuperate after we have had a baby is understandable; it takes a lot of out of the Body, but after a resurrection? It seems like that would be energizing, revolutionary, invigorating, and world changing. A lot of babies have been born, but no body has ever risen from the dead before. After declaring the resurrection, I would think the following Sunday would be packed.
This weeks Gospel reading seems to support the idea, that it is not a week to take off, but a time to get a lot done.  As we are hear living in the light of the resurrection, we ask the simple but all important question: What now?  Now that Jesus has risen, what now?  Now that death and sin have been conquered, what now?  Now that Jesus has given us freedom, live eternal and a full, whole life in the present, what now?
We will be trying to answer that question over the next two weeks.  And we will do that by looking at how those first disciples of Jesus answered the question.  This morning we will focus on Thomas
I have always felt sorry for Thomas, because I think he gets a bad rap.  For whatever reason, he wasn’t in the upper room when Jesus first appears to the disciples (He could have been anywhere – getting lunch for the group, gathering information, seeking out friends). 
Although ‘doubt’ is the word we most often associate with Thomas, maybe it should be another word, like ‘brave’.  After all, in chapter 11 of John’s gospel it is Thomas that urges the disciples to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, ‘so that we may die with him’; and he is the one that leaves the upper room, again for whatever reason, when the rest of the disciples are there, hiding from those that were responsible for killing Jesus.  
But, understandably maybe, Thomas says he wants to see the Body, see the wounds – which if we remember all of the other disciples have seen with their own eyes at this point. Jesus arrives and very graphically shows him the wounds, and in a very intimate gesture, invites him to place his finger and hand inside them. There can be no doubt that this is the Body of Jesus the Christ, very man, very God.
That Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead is the foundation of the Christian faith.
The living, breathing body of Christ is the proof Thomas and the other disciples needed to believe in all that Jesus had told them and to begin to live into that faith in a new way, with a new understanding.
This new understanding is seen in the confession that Thomas makes after seeing Jesus:
"My Lord and my God," essentially summarize the entire Gospel. One should capitalize, bold, or italicize the "and" in his statement. Jesus is Lord, our Lord, but Jesus is also God, the "I AM," the dwelling of God in the flesh. 
And notice the pronoun -- "my" Lord and "my" God, not "the" Lord and "the" God because this confession is not about intellectual assent to a certain understanding but a claim about relationship. A relationship that changes everything, a relationship that transformed who Thomas was and transforms who we are if we enter into it.
If we have been successful in getting ourselves unstuck from centuries of giving Thomas a bad rap, we now find ourselves behind closed doors.
Twice in this passage Jesus comes through locked doors to meet the disciples.  This is not an accident, and it recalls earlier moments from this gospel, in chapter 10 and 18, where Jesus tells his disciples that he is the door – the way, the truth and the life – and that they can only and will enter into life and relationship with God, through him.
Jesus as the door is a life giving image, providing pasture, protection, and provision. The provision that Jesus gives is fully realized in that locked room when Jesus breathes into them the Spirit. Thomas is not there for that first giving of the spirit.
The story of Thomas reminds us once again of the grace upon grace through Jesus. Jesus comes back for Thomas because as the parable Jesus tells in chapter 18 shows us, he will not lose a single one of those whom the Father gave him.
We tend to forget that the disciples who did happen to be in the room when Jesus became "the door" once again also needed to see for themselves. Jesus' first resurrection appearance is for Mary in the garden, to which she responds by going to the disciples and saying, "I have seen the Lord!"
Now, the disciples do not say "Great! That's amazing! We believe you!" There is no response to her announcement. Instead, Jesus finds them  huddled somewhere without Thomas – but full of fear. 
They have to have their own encounter with Jesus. He appears to them and they rejoice when they see the Lord (20:20). The disciples then say the same words of Mary to Thomas, "We have seen the Lord," but Thomas has to have his own encounter with the risen Christ.
Having to have your own encounter with Jesus is not a new development with the resurrection – we saw it a few weeks ago in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. With the towns people saying to her: "It is no longer what you said, but we have heard for ourselves."
This is not a slight against her but confirmation that believing in Jesus is not about believing in someone else's experience of Jesus, but having your own encounter with the Word made flesh.
On this first Sunday after Easter, these words are for us. You can believe in the resurrection all you want, but in the end that's not the point. The resurrection is not only just the resurrection, as incredible as that is, but that Jesus is the Resurrection and the life. Belief and life are synonyms in the Fourth Gospel, as promise for our future, and as grace in our present.
We are here, sitting in this place and worshipping our God because at some point in our lives each of us has encountered Jesus Christ. 
It could have been as a child, at a Christian camp, through the words of a friend or loved one in a time of need. 
But whenever it was and whatever it looked like.  We have had that experience, and it was for us a ‘resurrection appearance’ – a time when the body of Christ and the truth of the resurrection was real enough to see, to touch and to know.
The purpose of these resurrection appearances, like the ones that the disciples experienced is not so much to prove the resurrection as it is to send us as Jesus has been sent.
Easter is not just coming to a wonderful, inspiring worship service, it is being sent back into the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus.
But we know that there is no longer a body to be seen, felt or touched  – so how do we continue in faith and how do we begin to share that faith with others?
The answer is as simple as looking around this room – we are the body of Christ – the world will see, know , feel and be touched by the body of Christ – or not – because of us. 
Not only does God love us – but God trusts us with this all important task – showing the world the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of full, kingdom life that the living, breathing, walking, talking, serving body of Christ holds.

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