This sermon was preached at Ivyland Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 12 2015.
1 JOHN 1:1-2:2
1:1We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us —3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
2:1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN 20:19-31
19When 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.”20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
Easter Sunday was pretty wonderful, wasn’t it?
All the flowers, the cross in the front yard. If you were at the first service: there were babies everywhere!
If you were at the second service: the wonderful music that Sue, and the choir, and the bell choir, and the trumpet player shared.
All of it was just. So. Nice.
And now here we are.
Back to business as usual. It is hard to sustain the enthusiasm of Easter once that day is over. There are only so many peeps to eat and easter eggs to hide.
Nobody knew this better than John. Writing near the end of the first century, he addressed people who had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. Most of them had been born after Jesus died, so the stories they heard can second or third-hand. There were still a few eyewitnesses around, but they were getting on in years. A child who was six years old would have been close to seventy by the time this Gospel was put to paper.
The preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor observes that John’s problem, which is a continuing problem for the church, was how to encourage people in the faith when Jesus was no longer around to be seen and touched. The story of Thomas gave him a way to do that. By telling the story of Thomas’ struggle to believe, John takes the words out of our mouths and puts them in his, so that we can have the opportunity to think together about how we do, or do not, believe.
So if this story is for us, then what kind of story is it?
Let’s start with the facts. According to the gospel, when Jesus appears to the disciples, Thomas isn’t there. On the surface, that might seem an indictment of Thomas, but consider the fact that the disciples are hiding in a locked room, afraid that being seen might equal their deaths alongside Jesus. Thomas, apparently, is not. He is out and about in the world beyond the locked door, so he cannot be there to see Jesus when he first comes to his frightened flock and says, “Peace be with you.”
Thomas, you may remember, has always been one of the bolder disciples. When Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Bethany, where Lazarus has died—a place that also happens to be enemy territory for Jesus—Thomas is the disciple who responds, “let us go that we might die with him.” When Jesus sits at the table before his arrest and execution and tells his friends to not be afraid, because they will not understand where he is going, it is Thomas who says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas, in other words, falls under the general category of “good disciple.” All throughout the Gospel, he is listening to what his Lord and Savior has to say. He is paying attention to the Holy in his midst. And because he is paying attention, he has a better idea than the rest what it might mean to follow Jesus. When they hear that Lazarus is sick, for example, and Jesus says he wants to go back to Judea, most of the disciples try to talk him out of it. It is too close to Jerusalem, too close to the temple authorities, they say. Too risky for Jesus to be seen there. But not Thomas. Thomas is the only disciple who not only gets it, but is willing to go there too. He says to his friends, “let us go, that we may die with Him.” Thomas alone is willing to follow Jesus, to pick up the cross even if it means his death, and go where Jesus would have him lead. He had integrity, and courage, and he wasn’t afraid to risk his comfort for what was right, as long as he had convinced himself that something was the right thing.
So I wonder, why then have we in the church been so quick to throw him under the bus? This Sunday, the second in Easter, often is called “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” For many of us, this has been a story about how Thomas got it wrong. Failed to trust enough, believe enough, in the risen Jesus. Many of us hear an implicit judgment in Jesus voice when he says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.” Some of us assume that when Jesus says that believing without seeing is blessed, what he really means is better.
Perhaps, we tell ourselves, he should have just listened to the other ten disciples when they told him in perfect unison, “we have seen the Lord!” Perhaps, we tell ourselves, he should have exclaimed, “What good news! What do we do now?
But of course he doesn’t. When he returns to the fearful disciples, he listens to what they have to say and he responds, “Unless I see…I will not believe.” And can we blame him? Thomas puts to words the honest human desire to see something for ourselves before we decide whether or not it is true. I, for example, have heard all sorts of stories about ghosts in the manse, but until I see one for myself I remain a skeptic. I have heard some amazing stories about UFOs, out-of-body experiences and visions of heaven, but I have not experienced them for myself. For now, they remain hearsay. Unless I see, I will not believe.
It is an understandable attitude. What is altogether amazing to me, however, is the extent to which Jesus understands. Barely a week has passed by before Jesus, ever the generous one, indulges Thomas, and shows up to be seen and felt and touched and known. It is Jesus who holds out his broken hands and invites Thomas back into relationship with him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and touch my side. Do not be unbelieving but believe.”
And it turns out that the same Jesus who generously reaches out to Thomas blesses those of us who weren’t there to see or hear or taste or touch when he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Christians have been working out what that means ever since. These words were bread and wine for John’s community living long after Christ had ascended. To know that they, like Thomas, are blessed when they struggle to work out their faith in the time after Christ was the most generous gift. That word, blessed, or “markarios” in the greek, can also mean “close to the mark.” And for Jesus himself to tell us that what is blessed, what is close to God, is not a state of blissful belief, but rather our own process of struggle and discernment, our own daily walk with the Word of Life, is at least as generous and kind as Jesus’ presence to Thomas.
We cannot know for sure, but perhaps it was these words from John’s Gospel that gave the community of 1 John the courage to proclaim the good news of “the life revealed” that they have “seen with their eyes, what they have looked at and touched with their hands.”
And where did they hear, see, touch, taste the risen Lord?
In fellowship with one another. In the witness of the church, which at its best is Christ’s body, a broken and vulnerable and altogether holy accumulation of people bearing the image of God within them. It was there that the people living after Jesus came to see and touch and taste the Lord, in the collective experience of resurrection as hope for the hopeless and light in the darkness. In the difficult holy work of seeking unity with one another.
I recently heard an interview of Father Greg Boyle on the radio show “On Being” that was, for me, a reminder that the work of fellowship and community truly is the place where we encounter the Holy. For nearly 30 years, Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, has being experiencing the risen Christ in the ganglands of Los Angeles. As the founder of Homeboy Industries, Father Boyle has worked tirelessly with young, lost men and women, many of whom have grown up with no experience of hope in their lives. The goal? Resurrection.
In the interview, he told one story that was particularly moving. It was about a young “homey” he knows named Jose. Jose is in his late 20s, and recently when Jose was talking about the work that he and Father Greg do, he shared the following story:
I guess you could say that my mom and me we didn’t get along so good. I guess I was 6 when she said to me, “why don’t you just kill yourself, you are such a burden to me.”The audience gasped, and then Jose continued:“it sounds way worser in Spanish.” You know I guess I was 9 when my mom drove me to the deepest part of Baja CA and left me in an orphanage. I was there 90 days before my grandmother found out where I was and rescued me. My mom beat me every single day, and I had to wear 3 tshirts to school. I wore three tshirts well into my adult years because I was ashamed of my wounds. I didn’t want anyone to see them. But now my wounds are my friends. I love my wounds. I welcome my wounds. I run my fingers over my wounds. How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?
According to Father Boyle, in that moment, awe came upon everyone.
There are so many lessons in that story, what I find myself wondering in particular about the ways in which, for Thomas and Jose and even for Jesus, there was something healing in drawing close to the wounds. Rather than hiding their wounds, they found strength in bearing them, and in fact through relationship Thomas and Jose were transformed by their wounds–they are no longer defined by their wounds, but rather by their gifts for healing and compassion. Father Greg’s word for this ministry is “kinship,” a generous and spacious and compassionate community whose task is to heal the wounds by loving and walking alongside the wounded and discovering their innate gifts and worthiness as fellow travelers.
Kinship. Community. Unity. Christ is made present to we who cannot see every time we are generous, spacious, compassionate with one another. Every time we choose to see what unites rather than what would rent us asunder. Let us give thanks, for God is good, and our Generous God endures forever. Amen.